The relinquishing of personal myth.
by Jerry Weiss | June 3, 2016
I am in South Florida this week to help with some heavy lifting, the emptying of my parents’ former home in the aftermath of my mother’s transition to assisted living. It is a tough business even without the emotional backwash. The night of my arrival here I stood in the deconstructed living room—books, paintings and drawings stacked amid the remaining furniture—and welcomed a wave of remorse. The trigger was memory. Each painting, whether good or bad, carries sensations associated with its making or its reception; collectively the effect was temporarily overwhelming. There’s an old painting I can’t stand, a landscape I committed on the edge of a Miami area golf course, that my father enjoyed in his last years. Nearby is a nude I painted as a demo for a workshop that evoked similarly disparate assessments from my father and myself. In a few days both works, and many more, will be consigned to charity or destruction, and are free to go without undue sentiment.
There are many works about which I’m less cavalier. Dozens of paintings and hundreds—maybe thousands—of drawings are earmarked for dispersal, the process of winnowing that accompanies major moves and death. I have no room for most of what remains, and less still in the back of a Subaru, the vessel of rescue for a handful of works. I can’t bring myself to go through the drawings, out of fear that something fine will present itself and summon further nostalgia and regret. My older sister, whose visit here overlaps my own, is free of any such ties; none of her personal history is overtly present, and after my father died two years ago and I briefly considered renting storage space nearby for the artwork, she was quick to encourage removal of the “junk” canvases that filled the garage. Most artists dread the thought that their life’s production will be annihilated; there’s a dark narrative humor provided by a sibling who’s blasé about deflating any delusions I may still cling to.
My parents, bless them, didn’t make this any easier. Their home was a repository for my early work, in addition to a broader array of art; they met at the Art Students League in 1940, when both were studying with George Bridgman, and my father became a successful cartoonist who amassed an important collection of American illustration. I can imagine my father’s reaction to the current dismantling of what remains. Then again, he was as practical as he was sentimental, so I believe he would understand.
In the mornings I’m trimming my beard in front of the same bathroom mirror my father used, in the evenings sleeping in my parents’ last shared bedroom, now empty but for a mattress, a TV, and a small cabinet. There is symbolism and maybe something sacramental to this process that I’m aware of but am loath to acknowledge. During the day I run errands and visit with my mother, whose new home is a fifteen-minute drive away. By week’s end the house should be all but empty, nothing but an air mattress and enough food in the refrigerator to last until my return home. Alone in the house, I leaf through unstretched canvases and find some awful paintings and a few keepers, which will lay flat in the back of the car, an easy fit. The larger paintings, the ones my father liked, sport ornate frames that will take up precious room; it would be nice to preserve some rear view vision for the trip.
Among the paintings I’m determined to squeeze into the car are two by my mother, done at the League at the same time I was studying there. They date from the early 80s, when my parents rented a summer house in Teaneck and my mother went into the city to attend Hughie Lee-Smith’s class. I didn’t know Mr. Lee-Smith, but he appeared to be a gentleman of quiet dignity; I think he was only the second African-American artist to be elected a member of the National Academy. He taught my mother to start a painting en grisaille, adding color through subtle glazes. She flourished in those summers, not that I noticed much, focused as I was on separating from family and establishing a career. This week I’m studying these two paintings with newfound respect, not only for their accomplished technique but for their inventive designs. I, too, used the League’s floating studio lights in my drawings and paintings, but never to the same humorous effect my mother so successfully employed. I remember the model for her other painting, a man who took pride in his powerful physique, and was able to hold a handstand for a full minute in the figure drawing class.
Mostly I’ll load up with paintings I made at the League and in the years just after leaving school. Stacked for possible inclusion is the last painting I perpetrated in Ted Jacobs’s class, which he critiqued with the sort of faint praise that accelerated my departure. Two paintings depict an older model who had posed some years earlier for Raphael Soyer: one was painted by natural light in the League’s mezzanine studio, and marked my first meeting with a fellow student who would become a lifelong friend, Dan Gheno. In the other the model wore a vivid red scarf; it was one of my father’s favorite paintings, but I need to scare up a screwdriver and remove an attached picture light if it’s to fit in the car. There’s a little oil sketch from Harvey Dinnerstein’s class at the National Academy that’s held up better than many more ambitious pieces. Also a good painting of my first girlfriend, a fellow artist who died many years ago. There are, in other words, paintings that meet both technical and emotional requirements.
There’s irony to the fact that earlier on the day I departed for Florida, I was approached by a colleague who assists artists in preserving their documents, in an effort to secure their historical legacies. It seems there is always conflict between our material and spiritual beings, and this is especially true at a moment when one is compelled to relinquish control. I’m not letting go without a fight—the ego is nothing if not resilient, and sneaky. But to what end, other than the appeasement of vanity?
Although I’ll bring a few paintings and assorted remembrances of my parents with me when I leave Florida next week, it’s clear that the lesson will be that of releasing the past. The next few days, alternating between visits to my mother and overseeing the evisceration of her last conjugal home, promise to be, shall we say, educational. In dispersing a chunk of my visual memoir, the casualty will be the last vestige of personal mythology. This is a profound humiliation, and a very good thing.
Brighter moments intervene. I’m informed by a dealer that a sale of two paintings is pending. It’s a reminder that artwork is preserved for pragmatic reasons, and if the sale goes through my trip here will be more than paid for. And there are moments that defy facile description: last night while we sat in front of the TV my sister bought for her new digs, I briefly explained to my mother the complexities of cleaning out the house. “What house?” she asked.