Man from Manhattan (Self-Portrait), oil on linen, 66 x 44 inches, private collection
Grandparents and Rothko
Before World War II, my maternal grandfather, George, moved from Switzerland (or Germany, accounts are a little fuzzy) to live in Argentina, then Canada, where he seduced 18-year-old Edna, who would later become my grandmother. . Then they drove south to Los Angeles and got married. He wore hats and suits, she did too, wide brimmed hats and silk stockings. He loved sports and opera and she loved the Renaissance and Romantic painters. Edna found a particular Time magazine cover story hilariously funny. On the cover was a Rothko painting, and she roared with laughter at her joke: “This is like the house painter painting large square patches and saying: “Hey lady, which color do you want?” She never had any doubts about absurdities.
My grandmother was sensitive to my attraction to a huge Rembrandt book in a storefront window and gave me that book for my twelfth birthday. We couldn’t have known then, but that act launched the artist in me. My grandfather treated us once to a real French restaurant, I only remember the Cherries Jubilee flambéed at the table with its roaring flames, and later its rich adult taste. His travels seemed exotic to me and very attractive. My older sister, Janet, also traveled, playing tennis across the United States from about the age of 13, and then as a late teen playing in Europe and in the Grand Slams in Australia, France, and England. Their travels fired my imagination. Indeed they inspired my dreams as a kid that I would find love and my calling in some faraway land.
New York and Romanticism
The art life is a bitch financially, but the huge plus is that there is no job to hold you anywhere. I can’t believe I have managed never to have had a full time job–the closest was working two days a week. During summer college breaks I played tennis in Europe, either traveling alone or with a tennis buddy. When I turned 20, I quit USC, took off for Europe and stayed. The driving force, aside from the excitement of living in Europe, was that I wanted to study art in the land of Rembrandt. And for a few years I divided my time between Manhattan and Holland.
In 1982 I had already read most of Ayn Rand and felt the similarity of the style, class, and attitude of her heroes with that of my grandparents. I was living in New York when I read her obituary. I had hoped to meet her after I matured as an artist. Having grown up with the sophistication of La Jolla, with smart and talented family members, and having experienced world travels, I didn’t give a shit about the famous ugly New York art scene, nor for the con artist aesthetics–when I lived in New York I adopted what I loved and discarded the rest. I was becoming a Romantic, and I had all the right ingredients to support the extremely fragile creative demands that it takes to be one.
An Artwork that Lasts Forever
I painted the Man from Manhattan straight through a few seasons, barely having time to be aware of the snow on the sidewalk, it was just summer I thought. A funny painting problem happened that I could laugh at once I finished the painting. Towards the finish his/my face was shadowed too darkly, making it incompatible with the light airiness of the background. It wasn’t right, so I painted out the entire face and replaced it with sky–making the hat float above a headless torso like some Magritte painting. Too bad I don’t have a photo of that. That change helped bring airy shadows in the face to give it a natural look. BTW, the lettering on the Greek tanker was me sneaking in one of my mantras: Ktema eis aei, which means, an artwork that lasts forever.
At this time I met in my studio an art critic from the Objectivist world. I was so excited that I accidentally spilled tomato juice on the painting, but managed to clean it up perfectly a few minutes before he arrived. Even at this young age I knew what I was doing in paint, and even now, 36 years later, when I see the painting, I think it is fucking beautiful. My guest didn’t have a clue, he didn’t convey respect, nor perceptive intelligence, and I disappointedly thought as I showed him the door, “What game is he playing?”
A few years later a friend bought the painting, I hand-delivered it to him in his beautiful modern home and stayed the night. The next morning he looked a little tired–he had stayed up the whole night studying the painting! What a great honor! Some years later, he brought his love interest to his home. She (who also loves hats) says, “I’m not saying I married him because of the Man from Manhattan, but it didn’t hurt.” A couple of adult kids later, they still love and cherish the painting. I couldn’t be happier.