n 1978, as I turned fifty and my mother no doubt felt her death approaching, she wanted a last trip to St. Maries, the town in northern Idaho where her family had emigrated from New York; where she'd grown up, and where I'd been born those fifty years before in the house her father had built.
Alienation from one's roots definitely leaves one not 'up-on-the-news'. For the first time in my life, I saw the house by the river where my mother had grown up before grampa built the new house. When I drove to see the place of my birth, the green meadows, the pond issuing forth, the stream in its glen, what I saw was it filled in and paved over into a street of small town slums. The land had been sold off and there were dead autos in yards, trailers, the whole bundle of twentieth-century garbage. The shock was palpable in my chest. I was afraid, especially, of the hostile teens, (more dangerous than New York, where crime is business and therefore predictably less dangerous) laying about the porch rails by a window of the room where I was born.. They and the trash, dead cars, trailers in otherwise vacant lots, seemed the personification of a century from which the future had been removed; the hope and promise of American freedom rendered as trash as the waste accumulates, radioactive garbage piles up, knowledge of its lethal consequences unaddressed by politicians, industry, science. The future has been taken away from our people. The are no rewards or consequences.
During the nineteen-fifties newspaper front page fear maps, doing new Atom Bomb Scare to follow that dead Communist Scare, I dream of being in a white Directoire temple of Venus with San Francisco laid out beyond the columns. It was the view of City Hall from my studio at the Wentley. There is a whoof! The city is melting from a moment of bright light, down the walls of the temple, a painting failing to cling to its support. This old dream is recalled when I dream in 1978 that I am in my grandmother's garden by the house grampa built. On a porch in my mind which has transported from later in my life, to St. Maries, in the place where we would sit by gramma's garden in the house's shade. On the porch's wide rail, before one of its corner columns, a carved black bird in the austere Egyptian style. (I had not yet found my life in the motherless sculptor-architects, Horus and Moses.) Though black all over, it had a 'nun's hood', like many birds do, which seemed to scintillate with turquoise light, as if punched with holes like IBM cards behind which the light moved. I later found braille in the design of the lights. "Couldn't you see!" an aunt said in another dream. My eye was drawn to the sky at my left where a black dirigible very slowly moved. Its readerboard lights were also blue, the deep turquoise of the bird's hood, and were in cuneiform that I could read and understand. A movement draws my eye back to the porch. Leaning on an elbow in the in the foreground, is a crow, in a Brechtian tuxedo, lit cigar in hand, broad smile. The movement that draws my attention is a really pronounced wink. Twenty years of research fruitless, only recently to awake from a geriatric TV nap to see my crow teaching Dumbo to fly on a TV screen.
Last October, mother's stroke and the family shenanigans around it drop me into another Depression. I am reading Yeats' Autobiography, and am grateful to find I'm not the only soul to have been burned out of the theatre. In later years, I heard from Joe Martin the story he doesn't tell in his book, of counting money in the box office, not another soul in the Abbey Theater, when it came to him to ask himself,
"What am I, a Poet, doing here, counting money?"
While reading in him, I heard my name called out, "Bob" At first it sounded like some supernatural voice, the voice of God. Then I heard the timbre of my father's voice in it. Later, I heard my own voice in some electronic accidental feedback and realized my voice has the timbre of my father's.
More and more frequently, since 1955, I had been doing scattered reading in Proust. In the summer of 1980, I started on the first page and read Recherche from cover to cover. While undergoing a nervous breakdown. Yet.
My continued stay out of New York in the West of America can be excused, I tell myself, by Tennessee's ten years, outside sanity, on the 'West Coast'. Never before had I fully realized the meaning of 'nervous breakdown' with no recourse but to enter therapy. Wanting to cry in the canned goods brought to mind Alan Brody's character on the edge of tears choosing a can of corn in his novel, Coming To. My counselor urges me to take the First and Bell studio. I do. I sleep on hard floor of the lofted platform under the ceiling until I get a mattress. But I have space to work! The ideal image I had of myself then was in an apron standing at a table leaning over a painting or a frame, evenly lit by wonderful daylight windows. And now, here they are, tall, wide and overlooking Elliott Bay and Puget Sound.
When I was at the wall and paint began to move beneath my hand, I was in another world than Northern Europe's Guilds. Robert no longer existed. Like a phoenix, an unnamed self arose from the paint, invisible and as diffuse as an aroma, out of this world, crystallized and concentrated like the diffuse universe into the elements and their pigments.
I am! Yet what I am who cares, or knows?
My friends forsake me like a memory lost.
I am the self-consumer of my woes;
They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost,
And yet I am--I live--though I am toss'd
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dream,
Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,
But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem
And all that's dear. Even those I loved the best
Are strange--nay, they are stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod--
For scenes where woman never smiled or wept--
there to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie,--
The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.
Written in Northhampton County Asylum
Having fallen asleep while lying on our new velvet sofa to study the bomb dream of 1935 that I'm working, I have a nightmare, obviously born of one of my New York muggings. Alone on a mile wide paved square, I see two armed baddies coming from the distance. There is no place to take refuge. In my paralysis, I unlock my fear-ridden chest with courage to cry out "Help?"....Louder perhaps?
"Help" Try again. "Hel..."
"Wake up Robert. You're dreaming" says my dear friend, Kevin. Ah, having a lover is having someone to wake me from nightmares.
My inclination is to think that the allure of parental love and mother, is to lure the infant into life, to eat and be a bigger animal, a bigger piece of food for the next higher species. And to look for eyes that look back so lovingly to find an Other to conspire in incarnation. In the case of man the animal, a strapping youth is able to work harder than a child. Or fight a war. An archival shot on TV last night of a bloodied skinny naked 18 year old (a big looking 15) on a stretcher in Vietnam. One sees who is the real fodder of war. No wonder the Tories don't like abortion.
Now, I'm well into painting every day by agreement with my shrink. It was here I discover that Pollock drew for his doctor because he was talk shy and the works he made and brought into his sessions made an opening to discuss matters working their way up into consciousness. It is called The Talking Cure.
In January, in New York review of books I encounter a review upon republication of a work by Ranier Maria-Rilke called Letters on Cezanne. The first letter describes a pomegranate and pear on his writing desk. The day the show of Rodin's Salome drawings opens, he has to get to it through rooms filled with Cezannes in that 1906 obituary retrospective. They were the first he had seen and he was so struck to discover of these paintings that he remained in Paris for the run of the show, visiting and writing of it in his daily letter home to his wife.
Rilke's most resonant passage to me was when the trees of a Paris street turned into a Cezanne painting he was walking through. From the first day's reading I was catapulted into blue to draw with it as I had thirty-five years earlier. Retro as these moments of discovery want to be and the unexpected places I was led by them, opened new insights into Cezanne. Seeing the surreal through him led me particularly to a new understanding of the small drawings from 1975 forward. I saw that the search into myself that had led me to understand that art is and has always been my mentor, showed me the influence there of Paul Cezanne, but not in the usual way. What I realized this decade later, is that the act of making a painting or drawing releases the surreal; that my earlier astonishment to see the powerful meaning in the negative spaces of my work and realize I was drawing things whose shapes surrounded a shape in the form of material my psyche wanted to come through in the work.
So. Also in Cezanne. I saw the great face of the sky mother overseeing the grand bathers; the Gauginesque idols in the quarry at Bibemus. I wasn't nuts. Dr. Reed, without comment, also saw them, if somewhat dismissively. Or is that couchside manner.
Can one trust these epiphanies? I remember the transport of those moments. Earthshaking. But then I recall an exhibition I painted in one year, definitely not enough time for this 'slow study' to make twenty paintings. Frequent ecstatic moments that proved to my later eye, to have led to a rather thin group of works. OK for perception, I guess, but not moments to work from. Yesterday. Today, they don't look so empty.
Yet, a matter of importance coming up in therapy would lead to intensely concise works made of common shapes with shared meanings. As when I got my first bicycle at twelve. Jerry Lieber knows,
"Is that all there is?"
Later that same year, I encountered Merleau-Ponty's beautiful essay, "Cezanne's Doubt". The first epiphany I had with that great philosopher, was to follow him through Madame Cezanne's account of her husband's pacing about the hillside for a long time before suddenly stopping and exclaiming,
"Aha. I've found my motif!"
Something about the presentation of the scene and its idea (or its translation into English) made clear the meaning of Motif as motive in its sense as motivation. We had come up in America with the idea of motif as a piece of subject matter and the elements of its shape convenient to make a design. Here in Merleau-Ponty, we are back to the root, the stimulation of the artist's imagination by what he sees before him and its power to motivate him, as it did Papa Cezanne, to undertake the labor, resonating between his inner reality and that thing outside himself that interests him today. But I had gotten to see apples in the folds of Mt. St. Victoire before I read in Cezanne that he was seeing them too.
Reading further in Merleau-Ponty, his concept of Embodiment brilliantly captures the elusive workings of the brain as it locates itself in space by lines extended from its body's fingers, feet, eyes, nose, every protuberance continued to infinity, thereby releasing us from the prison of meat where we live. We erect a geometry of Space within our minds where metaphor is born. Such is the sense of relief we experience to see a great space visible out a window into which we can release our 'lines', stretch them. A replication of that space or a distant one conceived and alive to the eye before a painting on a windowless wall does not replace that experience. Rather, the emitted light from a painting's color impacts the retinal edge of the brain in a reversal of the process, inward, as in meditation. A good painting is a spectacular view of color itself. Color's wavelengths operate as metaphors for distance based on penetration of layers in the cones of the retina. Hence, abstraction's power. A window on Mind.
Glass, as in spectacles is a barrier to this direct experience of art. A sheet of glass works differently. By reflecting the viewer, it confuses the two experiences, mirroring and exercise in space, with each other. I see my paintings best with spectacles (appliances new to my geriatry) off. It is color, the direct penetration of the vitreous humor by photons and the retinal excitement shivering up the optic nerve to the brain that reminds us of reality. The nameable content of the work can be absorbed in seconds, details as afterthought when measured against the blast of actual colors raying into me, unblocked by a physical, no matter how transparent, barrier.
Merleau-Ponty's assembly of Cezanne material, surprisingly new to me then, illuminated where it wasn't confirming, much of what I'd gone through as an artist, and especially, in relation to Cezanne, the little drawings of the seventies, and works done since the Rilke Letters. Rilke had reawakened Cezanne in my heart and Merleau-Ponty affirmed and embellished my understanding of the way Cezanne's influence worked its way through so many painter's works into later history, growing there, I now know, even into the twenty-first century.
I get a drawing lesson from William S. Burroughs.