Friday, February 22, 2019

My Little Black Books

    How did I get interested in art?  I never got uninterested.  I drew pictures like all kids but I never gave it up and nothing more compelling appeared.

    I taught art for fifteen years. I loved my students but eventually realized that teaching, along with raising my children, left little time for Art. I couldn’t give up the children so I gave my notice and went back to the Art Students League.  My friend, Rosina Florio, the director of the school, arranged for me to receive a grant that paid tuition for one class and an allowance for supplies. She insisted I study with Leo Manso, an abstractionist.

     I resisted, thinking I wouldn’t get anything from a teacher whose aesthetic was so different from mine. I was mainly afraid that he’d be dismissive of my work. For a month I took a sculpture class. I was hiding out really, afraid to go to Manso. It was good to work in three dimensions, to use my hands and eyes in a different way but I knew I was going nowhere with sculpture. I gave in and went to Manso’s class.

     He was formidable; not tall but sturdily build, with flowing hair and a mustache.  He walked around the class quietly, the center of attention, looking at students’ work and commenting. When I showed him my drawings he said, “Well, I can see you’re a conscientious person…I see a lot of skill here…but nine to five isn’t art.”

     I felt my lower lip tremble.

     I’d worked so hard for that skill.  I’d been taught that the answer to success is diligence. Hard work. Stick-toitiveness.  All through school I was a day dreamer who finished nothing and now that I’d finally started working in a concentrated way, he said it wasn’t art.

I’m not sure why I didn’t zip up my portfolio and leave.  I stayed and got to work.

    I put away my pen and ink and bought a little blank book, six inches by nine, and wrote on the first page Leonardo DaVinci’s last words;

     “If I could make...If I...”

The most important thing about my little book was that nobody was allowed to see it.  I had thrown away for the moment everything I thought I'd achieved to try new stuff and I had to protect those raw new ideas.

I never thought of myself as a writer but that first book is full of words; some my own and many many quotes.

“You won’t lose yourself, you’ll find something in yourself you might not have known was there.”  
"Tired subjects redeemed by freshness of context."

"The dizzyness of too much possibility.

Manso said;“Art should be psychologically relevant, aesthetically pleasing and well crafted.”  That felt like something I could work toward.

"If it's not working, check the balance-size, shape...
repetition--is it subtle variations on a theme or just boring?"

"Don't be book-endish."

I kept coming back to diligence; "Diligence is the mother of good fortune".Then in my own thoughts, Diligence is driving me crazy.

Then, from my dear friend and wise counselor, Lenesa, "Keep talking and writing.  Use the words."

All that  year and for several years after I worked at those little books. I tore through magazines and newspapers, letting colors and images grab me, not making decisions or thinking hard, just taking things that appealed without wondering why.

    Page after page, some abstract, playing with form and color, making odd juxtapositions of images and textures.  I raced through the New York Times every morning and grabbed things--I was open to any kind of delight.  

    I thought about the artists who spoke to me, who had something I could use--or steal.  I loved Hans Holbein’s pencil drawing of Lady Cecily Heron, the daughter-in-law of Sir Thomas More, with her wonderful name and her sharp sideways glance.  Holbein put so much meaning and life into those few pencil lines. I made lots of xerox copies and played with her image.  Her she is gazing at a young Georgia O’Keeffe.

     I quit thinking of my work as a way to  please someone else. I was working just for me, looking for my own reality. It was liberating.

     Here’s a quote; “I feel so much at sea--feel enormous conflict, almost like isometric exercise a beast standing at the gate. This is fear of success because it’s competition with M...Also wonder if I’m working to please Manso What’s good and what’s not? When it works I really don’t know why. Not really interested in being Braque or even Stuart Davis. Little work this week but hugely upheaving and searching.”

     I was like a tempest, bringing up treasures from the bottom of the sea and casting them onto the beach for further use. I was having a great time, intensely involved in my work. 

    Mark Summers' portraits were great fun to play with.  Here's LBJ and a carousel horse.

     I finally showed my little books to Manso and he said, “This makes me think there’s hope for you,” and  then “This is a playground for you.” Then sometimes he’d say, “What have you got for me today, my friend?”

     At the end of that year I thanked him. “I know my work is different from your aesthetic but you really helped me.” He said, “I can tell when someone is serious.”

     Rosina was right. Manso had plenty to teach me.  there are elements of color, composition and form that transcend genres and we worked on those.

     But what he really gave me was a sense that it was safe to open up to possibilities, and if I say it’s interesting or worth while well then, dammit, it is.  I didn’t have to give up my hard earned diligence, so rooted in my family history; all I had to do was merge it with my sense of fun, of looking at things from a different angle. and recognizing that my odd angle was valid.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

It's my Valentine's Birthday

    Arthur and I met on May 11, 1973, the day after the New York Knicks won the NBA championship. Things haven’t gone well for the Knicks since then but Arthur and I are doing fine.

    I am often asked how I, coming from such a religious background, with a deep commitment to the Bible and Jesus, could marry a Jewish man?  Arthur doesn’t get it either.  When I tried to tell him about my relationship with Jesus he replied,

    “I don’t know, Barbara,  I felt a lot better about you when you talked this way about Elvis.”  Irreverent, yes, but his skepticism made me look at my faith from a different angle and I came away with a stronger, clearer commitment.

    When it was time to introduce Arthur to the family I made a date to meet my father at a steak house near Madison Square Garden.

    Arthur arrived first and called me.  Knowing Dad’s punctuality, I said, “My father’s there--go introduce yourself and I’ll get there soon.”

    “How will I know him?”

    “He looks like me and he wears glasses.”

     Mom later told me Dad’s account of that meeting;

    “I’m sitting at the bar thinking ‘I’ve gotta meet another artsy boyfriend, a theater directer, ah jeez.  Why couldn’t she pick someone like that young man over there--blue blazer, polo shirt, neatly trimmed mustache, looks like an athlete?’  And at that moment the athletic young man walks up to me and says, ‘Are you Barbara’s father?’ ”

    In the scramble to free their right hands for a shake red wine was spilled on Dad’s tie but that didn’t matter. By the time I got there they were deep in conversation about sports and the movies.
       I once said to my brother, Alan, “Don’t you think the secret of a long marriage is a high tolerance for irritation and  boredom?” and he said,

    “Yes, and inertia.”

    I do have one tip.  Arthur and I have had terrible fights, and we’ve gone to bed angry plenty of times, but we never let a fight interfere with our social life.  If we had plans we’d  put on happy faces for our friends. Eventually he’d say something funny or interesting, I’d remember what it was I liked about him and the fight would be over.

    He has brought wonderful gifts to our marriage, like standing up for your friends, abhorring gossip, being true to your word, honoring your work.  These weren’t new concepts to me but Arthur brought them into a new light.  Possibly the most important thing he's taught me is, “Let it go.”  Troubles just roll off him and they’re forgotten.  It’s hard for me to quit chewing over old resentments, but it’s helpful that Arthur never pours gasoline on fires and his humor never fails us.

    When my nephew was six he told me; “When I was little I saw Arthur in his bathing suit and I said, ‘Arthur, how come you have so much hair on your chest?’ and without looking up from his book he said, ‘Because, Danny, I used to be a bear.’ And for a long time I believed him.”

 I'm not the only one who finds Arthur irresistible,  Here he is with our nieces, Katie and Rachel.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Form Follows Function

In church last week the lesson was the first Psalm: it says that the righteous are "like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and its leaves do not wither."  One of the hymns we sang had a line about a whale roaming the seas and an eagle soaring the skies. You know how something just grabs you? those two images reminded me of this quote:

"Whether it be the soaring eagle in his flight,
or the open apple blossom, the toiling work horse,
the blithe swan,
the branching oak,the winding stream at its base,
the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, 
Form ever follows function
and that is the law.
Where function does not change, form does not change."

Who said that?   Louis Sullivan, 1856-1924, called the father of modern architecture.  He believed, and acted upon that belief, that a building must be solid, useful and beautiful, and designed from the inside out, with its purpose in mind.

You can see Sullivan's only New York City work at 65 Bleecker Street, the Bayard, now Bayard-Condict building. Paul Goldberger called it "a delicate poem, yet a strong one."and points to the structural expression evident in the graceful yet sturdy pillars. Sullivan found a beautiful balance between the structure and the embellishments.

Does form always follow function?  You might not think so to look at the French Poodle. I always thought this was a silly look with the chest all puffed out and the little pompoms around the ankles but then I learned that the look serves a purpose. The Poodle was bred as a hunting dog--to leap into cold water and retrieve dead ducks. The fluff around the chest protect and warm the lungs and heart, the hind legs are free for swimming, the pompoms warm the joints. Form Follows Function.

This guy's groomer may have carried it too far, but the basic design is functional.

Here's a blithe swan by my friend, Carol Way Wood, (

New York City's beautiful firehouses, like the one at the top of this post, are perfect examples of form following function and they're so appealing. I love their red doors, their orderly design and the polite way they nestle into a row of brownstones. Each one has a unique design and decoration. I find it deeply moving about my fellow humans that something so necessary and utilitarian is made to be so beautiful.

I was walking with Arthur past Engine Company 14, the one that starred in the movie, Ghostbusters, when a hook and ladder came home.  The firefighter at the wheel, who didn’t look old enough to drive, had to turn left but there was a car in his way.  He put his hand out the window with a lovely "after you" wave for the car to go ahead, then made his turn and easily pulled that huge truck into the narrow doorway.

“That was so graceful,” I said to Arthur.  He agreed.

When something works well, whether it's a building or a song or just a maneuver, it's a lovely thing. I try to keep open to the tiny delights life offers up.

Christmas in July

I've been feeling a little uninspired and overwhelmed by papers and stuff, torn by needing to clear the decks and get rid of everything ...