When Henri Matisse was struggling in his early years as a painter, he scraped together money to purchase a small painting of three bathers by Paul Cezanne. He bought it from the fledgling, soon-to-be-famous art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Later in life, Matisse wrote that the painting served not only as an inspiration, but as a moral guide in his work as an artist. The image compelled him to persevere in realizing his own vision, but it also challenged him to maintain integrity along the way, to respect his debt to tradition, to the masters.
I’ve been a bit lost in the basement lately. Bumping into things. Tripping over my knuckles. Painting pictures I think might hang together in some theoretical series that will be exhibited at a hypothetical gallery. Not painting enough, which might be good, because paint costs a lot of money and because I’m kinda chasing my tail.
On the commercial end, I purposely took a year off from exhibiting in order to just paint on my own schedule. Now, I’m finding it hard to reconnect. My favorite artists’ café in Greenwich Village is likely to close in June when its lease runs out, and it’s fixed for pictures to the end. My gallery in Maplewood—the one I defected to three years ago—now has a Continental Airlines flight attendant running shows as a part time job. I think she’s worked one too many flights to Orlando, frankly. We aren’t hittin’ it off. I have no regrets about defecting, however, because the original gallery I worked with across the street is closed. (It’s like I almost made the right move for a change!) I’m no longer willing to pay into a co-op gallery, and I can’t be bothered to trek things into the holiday show at the Arts Student League. My friend Andrey Tamarchenko who owned a gallery in Montclair bought a farm near Woodstock. His gallery is now an art shool for kids.
I need to meet new people, but I just don’t have the door-knocking enthusiasm I had when I was working in New York. I’m starting to spend actual money on real frames for paintings I would normally shop around. I’m molly-screwing them to the wall. That’s a very bad sign. But the real problem is that I’m not really painting as I had hoped to this year. I’m confused about what I’m doing.
Very late one night last week, I was wrapping presents in the basement. I decided to pop a tape into the VCR—a documentary on Chaim Soutine, the Russian-born expressionist who became a central figure in Paris between the wars. Some day there will be a movie made of Soutine, as there has been of his very good friend Amedeo Modigliani. Soutine’s life—born dirt poor in the Shtetl, catapulted from continued poverty in Paris by the famous Dr. Barnes of Philadelphia—rivals Van Gogh’s for cranky weirdness and high drama. I truly hope the movie is never made. For now, he is a painter’s painter, the guy who brought Rembrandt into the 20th century and became the touchstone for all subsequent expressionists, both representational and abstract.
I don’t have a Cezanne bathers. My standard, my moral mooring, is Soutine. It’s been a long time since I looked at his work or thought about where it came from, however. The documentary, which I bought at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan seven years ago when there was a big Soutine retrospective, is very good. It features interviews from the 1950s with Soutine’s contemporaries such as the painter Pinchus Kremegne and the collector Madeleine Castaing. There is a great chat with Soutine’s bizarre girlfriend, Mademoiselle Garde. I watched the images of his paintings float on and off the screen as I taped red and green paper around boxes. The thing I had noticed was missing when I perused an art book store just that afternoon came back to me. I remembered what I wanted to achieve in my year off from exhibiting, and I realized, with the year nearly passed, that I need to get started.
Today, I made it to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde. It is a wonderful exhibit (it closes in a week) of paintings that passed through the gallery of Vollard, whose support and acumen bolstered the careers of artists from ….Cezanne to Picasso. He had nothing much to do with Soutine, whose career was made by Barnes and the dealer Leopold Zborovski. Still, the exhibit picked up for me where watching the Soutine documentary left off. There was a Cezanne room, a Van Gogh room, a Gauguin room. And then, sharing a room with his old classmate, Matisse, there was Georges Rouault, perhaps my second God of the Basement. Another expressionist, Rouault’s work is charged with an almost savage Catholicism—the kind of heartfelt and intellectual Christianity of a much older France. It is beautiful, thickly-painted work that speaks to the hard business of living in the language of the cathedral window (Rouault was actually an apprentice stained glass window maker as a young man). A great example of his work, a book of etchings called La Réincarnation du père Ubu, was published by Vollard.
Rouault and Vollard had a rather interesting relationship. Vollard basically took everything Rouault did and put it in the basement, never exhibiting it. That was partly Rouault’s wish, as he would paint over pictures for decades before pronouncing them finished. In the end, Rouault sued to get hundreds of his paintings back form the dealer’s estate so that he could burn them.
Soutine is also famous for destroying early works. He would refuse to start a commission until the patron brought him two of his early works from local galleries so that he could take them out of circulation with a scissors and matches. I must admit that I have never been much for that kind of thing, though there may be some bonfires in my future. One of the messages I got this week is that I need to be a little less worried about messing up what Cezanne once called the “finish of imbeciles.” I need to destroy more in the act of creation. I had many other thoughts about painting and life as I sat in the Van Gogh room.
My most recent painting session resulted in a one-shot self portrait. I only meant to tidy up downstairs, but in a kind of frustrated rage I started painting. It felt great to finish something in a single session. The result is more in line with what I’m trying to achieve than anything I’ve done this year. That was a good sign. Another good sign is the cardboard box that arrived while I was gone today: A quart of titanium and six large tubes of Utrecht cadmium yellow hue (I use that stuff like butter). Ubu-like, I went after the box with scissors.
Photo: Soutine self portrait from the documentary Soutine the Obsessed