PRINT April 1989


. . . JOSTLING AGAINST OTHERS at openings, or at receptions in artists’ studios—everywhere where the artistic life of New York is heard—one cannot escape the mounting sense of claustrophobia. Ah, it’s now become impossible to see the paintings past the sea of backs of an art-crazed public. We dash out to the streets for a breath of fresh air, but no relief: here, too, we are tossed like tiny pebbles on the waves of the bustling crowd. Stifling! . . .

Van Gogh, of course, fled from the “dwarfish infamies of M. Messonier” to Arles; Cézanne packed it in for Aix-en-Provence. Gauguin, finding no peace in Brittany, sailed to Tahiti. Still earlier, J.F. Millet, hemmed in by the conventional pieties of the salon, took himself thirty miles from Paris to the unspoiled hamlet of Barbizon, and there attracted his artist friends, inviting them to share in living out his artistic credo: “In art it is the human aspect which touches me most deeply.”

. . . Gasping a bit for breath in our Canal Street studio, overcrowded with guests, we escape, climbing up to the roof. Twilight. An incredible sunset flaring up to the West. A wildly yellow sky in which an immersed white sun begins to flush; red swelling, then fragmenting, into strips of violet and green. And there—just beyond Manhattan’s teeming streets, the buildings stabbing at the sky, the artists clambering over one another like bees in a hive, crazed to produce new honey for the philistines—beckoning beneath this glorious sunset: New Jersey. Yes!, there we will shed the dishonorable for the honorable, indifference for passion, the mercenary for the selfless, the banal for the original. And we are ready for our incredible journey, though we know it won’t be easy.

First one must be willing to suffer the anxiety of departure. One must steel oneself for the trial of the congested Holland Tunnel; one must stick stubbornly to the right in order to pick up the New Jersey Turnpike; one must find the stamina to press on, five, six—a full seven minutes!—before reaching Exit 14A. And one must be willing to pay the toll for all this (25 cents) before one passes over to reach the promised land: Bayonne.

At last, beauty assails our eyes from every vantage. The Bergen Point Brass Foundry, for example. For here, in this glass-enclosed relic of another fin de siècle, at the southernmost tip of noble Bayonne, just by the entrance ramp to the Bayonne Bridge (which would take you to Staten Island, were you even to consider returning to New York), the New Jersey workers vie with the sunset. While the slanting rays of the sun slice randomly through the lamplike building, the workers, clad in protective helmets, gloves, and aprons reaching down to the floor, move about the foundry fire as if in some ritual dance, pouring out the liquid sun and fashioning it for human needs: drainage faucets, pipes, sewer valves.

By day, we tread Bayonne’s gallery-free streets, reveling in their spare simplicity. No trendy clubs; instead the hearty, unpretentious fare of Hendrickson’s Restaurant, offering us “a bit of old Europe.” We stroll along, passing the ancient ruins: abandoned factories, junked cars, industrial dumps, the wretched refuse of a dying culture’s teeming shores, all as poignant in their decaying beauty as the crumbling Colosseum of Rome.

By night, taking a path behind the Avenue A side of the foundry, we cross the railroad tracks to climb the abandoned viaduct that once led to the Kill van Kull piers. From its peak, pressed into the backdrop of the sky, the factory appears enormous, with the openwork girders of the bridge lacing over it, and to the right, the vertical line of its smokestack joining the jagged Bayonne silhouette of factory chimneys and church spires. We are filled with love and affection for this tiny peninsula as the vesper church bells ring out this city’s refrain and leitmotif:


Here, we must agree with Jean Baudrillard that America is “the only remaining primitive society . . . of the future.” Spread out below us: the meadows of vacant lots, from which the elusive fragrance of wormwood rises up to mingle with the bouquet of chemical emissions.

Ah wormwood, eternal grass of industrial dumps! We ourselves loved you in our Moscow childhoods, rubbing your scraggly stalks between our small fingers, inhaling your bittersweet aroma. Now we can carry you back to our studio here in our new Barbizon, spreading you in handfuls across our windowsills, or, picking fresh shoots from your humble yellow stalks, immersing you thoroughly in a bottle of vodka to produce, in a few days, our fine liqueur, Komar & Melamid Absinthe. For it is said of you in the Revelation according to John:

The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the fountains of water. The name of the star is Wormwood.

And, according to the Bible, the falling wormwood star foretells the end of the world, or at least the end of the Christian world, the world that began with the very same star, the one—remember?—that decorates the Christmas tree:

When wise men had heard the King they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.

Sister and brother artists, you too who once saw the star in the East may now want to travel west to follow it. Perhaps our spiritual odyssey is not over yet. For here is the beginning and the end, where, after wending one’s way through the perfectly symmetrical paths of a Bayonne park, one comes to sit on a bench by the edge of Newark Bay. Here, as the sun sinks behind the neoclassical facade that bears just two words—women over one door, men over the other—everything can be seen darkening and disappearing: airport, turnpike, distant mountains.

Someday you too, kindred spirits, may gradually gather in New Jersey, may even visit our studio on Avenue A, next to the Bergen Point Brass Foundry. Here, at the beginning and end of our journey, we and a handful of our students from the New York Academy of Art have already come to study this city and portray its people.

The Bayonne School is born!

Komar & Melamid are artists who live and work in New York and New Jersey.

Translated from the Russian by Alexandar Mihailovic.