As a kid, I grew up in a privileged, beautiful, and bitter place. La Jolla is and was one of the wealthier towns in the world. It was made up of designer homes, coves with sleeping seals, beaches, cerulean skies, tennis courts, eucalyptus trees with their dusty-sticky smell, and earth crystals one could dig out of the hillsides. And it was populated by sophisticated and rich business people, models, housewives, and BMW’s. Alcohol and divorces flowed a little too freely, and the sun shined after the morning fog.
My grandparents were made up of a German adventurer and a free-spirited Canadian, and a Hollywood flapper and a cigarette executive; both sets lived in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. There are rumors of a touch of insanity in the family, something about the phantom uncle that died in an institution. Another story is that my German grandfather traveled from Argentina to Canada and courted my 18-year old grandmother, brought her down to Los Angeles and then married her. The same grandmother had the complete set of the Time-Life Library of Art books, the book on Delacroix was my favorite. I would spend hours looking at those books in their Mid-Wilshere bungalow with its streaming southern light casting rays of light highlighting tiny dust particles making them look like stars.
Everyone in my family played some tennis. My parents thought it was a good way for the five kids to keep busy, tired, and off the streets. I had a knack for it being quick and strategic. Lester Stoffen, 3-time Wimbledon doubles champion was the local tennis pro gave me lessons once every two weeks which my grandparents paid for. And I liked art. In sixth grade, another kid forgot his math book and the teacher, Mrs. Bowden, allowed him to do his art project instead. That day on the way home from school I threw my math book under a tree. The next day I told the teacher I lost my book. For weeks I did my art project instead of math. Sadly another kid found the book, brought it to class and Mrs. Bowden looked at me with a very puzzled expression. For the next decade, tennis and art were my daily projects.
I was too young (11-years old) to understand, and I will never know the causes when I locked myself in the bathroom for 3 hours, laid down on the tiled floor and pressed my hands to the sides of my head, hoping to quiet the voices in my head. There was an incessant inner voice repeatedly screaming “evil, evil, evil, evil is here.” I asked the voice where it was? Was it something inside or outside of me? What did I do wrong? Was I bad? I looked inside and couldn’t find anything deserving of such a horrible dark feeling. Another voice said, “no, you are not bad, you are a good.” Continuing to rack my brain for hours I came to the conclusion that whatever this dark matter was it was outside of me. I didn’t know if it was a person, a thing, or something in the atmosphere, but I was relieved to feel it certainly wasn’t me. In the future, I would be on the lookout for it, study it, and never let it get so close to me.
I loved my Canadian grandmother very much and once while walking with her down a sidewalk lined with shops we stopped at a bookstore’s window. Time stopped. There was a huge book with a painted portrait of a woman on the cover. The woman’s eyes were so gentle, thoughtful, with a quiet intensity almost if she were to cry. The shadows made out of space seemed to caress and move around her neck and delicately touch her earlobe. The cover of the book was a portal to a universe that opened up and pulled me inside. I lost my real life bearings, and all could feel was the energy of this beautiful person; it was like being in a dream of light currents. I shook my head and realized where I was and looked for grandmother? Looking over to my left I saw that she was two windows further and she glanced at me with an expression saying “you go on and keep looking dear.” Which is what I did until I had had my full.
I was turning 12-years old, and my grandmother gave me a heavy present when I tore off the wrapping it was that book! The Complete Works of Rembrandt.
From that moment on I studied that book every evening, and every evening I felt the same awe and wonder as when I first saw it. This was also when I became dedicated to drawing and painting. I remember drawing a complicated nighttime interior of our living room with couches, tables, lamps, and a huge dark window. In the window, I also drew the olive tree outside as well as my reflection drawing the scene — a fun paradox in art. (The drawing has been lost). I also copied da Vinci drawings, Rembrandt paintings, and drew from my imagination and from life.
Some of the people of La Jolla were Europeans, and they had a second sense and respect for art and always gave a thoughtful eye when looking at my drawings – this gave me a feeling of visibility. But there were others who were advising me to become an accountant or to become a tennis player. Often I would hear “an art career is a fantasy, you will find out that reality doesn’t work that way, you will fail and have to join the real world.” In a way these naysayers were right. Art was a different world from reality. I didn’t know it at the time but what I was to reject was their interpretation of reality. Art for me was more real than their reality, it offered me extasy, the other path was ominous.
My poor older brother by four years wasn’t quite right. Before school, he asked me if I wanted to go an amusement park after school. I was bursting with excitement all day for this unexpected treat. After I had got home, he told me we were going to be picked up by a friend on the other side the hill. As we were walking on the dirt road with a 40′ drop into a ravine, he pushed me over the edge! It wasn’t a cliff, but the incline was steep, and there was no way to stop. I managed to keep my feet out ahead of me and by the time I reached the bottom I was a bloody pulp. It easily could have been an accident ending with smashed skull or broken neck. I relived the day’s enthusiasm with the horrific result; another interesting paradox but with a deadly serious outcome.
Transmission of Knowledge
As a teenager, I would visit museums and aimlessly walk through them. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, and I wasn’t there to listen to the tour guides telling me what to appreciate. Suddenly I would see a painting that stopped me cold in my tracks. It would have something mysterious about it. The longer I looked, the more it told me about its color harmonies, something authentic about life and light. After I would look at the painting for awhile, I would go up to see who painted it. The paintings I stopped at were from artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Halls, Manet, Monet, and, of course, Rembrandt.
(Drawings and paintings of my pre-college years have been lost, they were in my family’s storage unit, it was not paid, and everything inside was repossessed).
It is subjective, but paintings speak to me, I hear them talking. When I see a bad painting, it will confide in me, “why did the artist run over me with a truck?” “Can’t they see that that color hurts me?” “Doesn’t my maker give a shit? Why do they thoughtlessly mark me up? “Don’t they understand they are taking me for granted?” I then empathize with the painting that had been so badly mistreated, we thank each other, and I move on. On the positive side, wonderful paintings also talk to me. It is another kind of discussion, they say: “Look at how wonderful that mark of color has weight and energy and how well it gives a blush to the ear simultaneously rounding it off perfectly!” “Don’t you feel you can go on forever through this landscape and don’t you feel that when you get further into it, there will be another stunning vista around the corner?” “I know I have a huge nose, isn’t it magnificent!” “Don’t just stand in the same spot looking at me, go to the back of the other room, and look at me from that great distance! Now, slowly, gently come towards me, no, not so fast, slower, ah that’s it. Did you notice how well I hold my shape from any distance?”
In my first year of college, I took a class with American modernist Edgar Ewing. He was at the age of retirement, yet he had mischievous and joyful eyes. And he was always one step ahead of me, he knew the answer before I asked the question. There were two great lessons, one technical the other about what it means to be an artist. He knew how to create space on a flat 2-diminsional surface. The first correction he made on my painting, a simple mark of paint, blew me away. Inside I was screaming, “he gets it!” Spatial depth is one key to Rembrandt’s magic. In my art history class, the professor talked of Rembrandt as a great painter of light, if not the greatest. What she didn’t mention was the insane amount of depth that he creates in his paintings; it is the thing that pulls you into his universe. Could Rembrandt’s use of spatial depth also be the key to the profound psychological depth we feel with his characters?
The second thing I learned from Professor Ewing was to love your art making and never allow it to be compromised. On the first day of class, I was seventeen, he said: “Art is like making love.” That hit me like a ton of bricks, so simple. Over time I have been drawn to many types and kinds of artists, but the things that distinguish the best are their dedication to art, their love, and their empathy for the best of humanity.
Living in Europe
I quit college after my 3rd year. One great teacher wasn’t enough to balance the mediocre ones. I was dissatisfied with the Los Angeles art scene; morons painting on surfboards as fine art should not be acknowledged. I was in Europe and decided to stay in Holland. I had a summer job there, and I could go to art school in the land of Rembrandt and Vermeer. It was a new world for me, new language, surprisingly strange and different culture. In general the Dutch were really selfless socialists, and thought everyone must conform; this was the in the 80’s. They had no sense of independence or rights as we understand them in America.
But I found solace in the Free Academy, they had no teachers just monitors, and they offered live models 6-days a week, 9-hours a day. I was in art study heaven. I spent two years there, drawing figures non-stop and then painting my own works after hours.
There I made a few friends that are still dear to me now. From the art school, one friend was exceptional a very passionate person that spent half his time sculpting and the other half practicing architectural design. He cared about freedom of spirit and organic paths through architectural spaces. He would say that “if you are in a restaurant and you need to pee, and the architect can’t make it clear from the design where the bathrooms are, he is punishing you instead of making it effortless.”
I had one moment of profound weakness. It was 2 A.M. hail was beating against the windows, the painting, Woman in Blue, was not going well, and I did not see the solution. I was only 22-23 years old, and if I wanted to, I could be touring in 2nd rate tennis tournaments in the French Riviera. Intuitively I ran through the “regret” test; if I were 85 years old which would I regret more playing tennis or pursuing art? It took me about five seconds to answer that. I would be heart broken if I didn’t give art everything I had. Woman in Blue turned out to be a passionately joyous painting.
While in Holland my sister Janet gave me Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to read; it was a metaphysical “pat on the back, ” and I blithely accepted there would be intense struggles, which don’t really matter, rather it is the goal, your talent, and making your creations that do.
New York City
From Hollan, I moved to New York City, lived in a building a hair’s breadth from being condemned. I was a lot of fun, I painted around the clock, but I also made friends with some amazing people. I got to the know the elites of the Objectivist world, I met artists, writers, and young entrepreneurs. One terrible disappointment was that no galleries would have me, but then if I judged them on the work they showed the world would be a better place if they never existed. After one day of going around the galleries showing my portfolio to the directors, I would feel so disgusted that I couldn’t paint for days.
Undeterred and filled with piss and vinegar I decided to produce my one-man exhibition in the NoHo Gallery. All my friends couldn’t support me enough with their help in promotions, mails, and introductions. And I filled it up with my Dutch paintings and recent works, such as Manhattan at Night and Promethia. The show had about 300 hundred people at the opening, one-third of the works sold. Friends came from Holland, California, and Boston to be there. After the opening had closed and we were all leaving for home, one friend, a writer, told me she had to have the Woman in Blue. She could make payments on it, and she told me that she was so moved by the event she had to honor me and everything the show meant.
And I got to live another year in Manhattan.
To be continued …