IT CAME UP over lunch one day sometime in 2005 while the artist Jack Levine and I were sitting in his favorite restaurant in Greenwich Village, NYC. As usual, our discussion was focused on art, and as we chatted, Emile Zola’s name came up and we began discussing his The Masterpiece, which is purported to be centered on the life of his friend, Paul Cezanne. I asked Jack if he knew of any similar book in America that had traced the evolution of an artist. He said that he had read books that had artists in them as ‘characters’ but never one that had traced the life and development of one.
Thinking about it on my way back home upstate, I reflected on my profiling of artists for local newspapers since the early ‘80s and then full-time when Cornelia and I founded ART TIMES in 1984 (including Jack Levine in our Nov. 1985 Issue) and how much I had absorbed about the struggle of being an artist from them as I spent hours in their studios over the years. As a matter of fact, during that time I was beginning to sympathize and even identify with my ever-growing list of artist friends. I had been writing since my ‘30s, got my MA while majoring in English Lit and Composition at SUNY, New Paltz, then taught grammar and composition at the junior, high school, and college levels. I had just been putting the finishing touches on my writing studio (my “man-cave”), and establishing myself as a published writer by (as I note above) writing profiles and art reviews for local newspapers. Both writing and painting loomed large in my life during those years.
During these early ‘80s (I was in my late ‘50s) I found my writing studio slowly morphing into an artist studio — irrevocably clinched when I bought a large, second-hand easel and set it up next to my (happily located) picture window on the north wall of my study. Although art always interested me — I could draw and reproduce in pencil what I saw while still a pre-schooler and even drew caricatures for my buddies while in the Army and created a comic strip for our Company ‘newspaper’ while stationed in the Arctic, but I had never painted nor received instruction in painting. Hearing the stories of professional artists fascinated me — whetting my appetite to just “try it!” I was even further encouraged to “try it” when almost every artist I respected advised me not to take lessons (and learn someone else’s ‘mistakes’) but to just go out and “play”. Gradually, I became conflicted — did I want to be a painter or a writer? I was still writing, but being pulled more and more to try my hand at painting. Because I am — and have been essentially a “hermit” and a lover of nature — I found that landscape painting was my biggest “draw” to “get out there and try it”. Living on a two-acre plot surrounded by woodland on an isolated dead-end road in a town called “High Woods”, if ideal for a writer, became equally tempting to a would-be painter.
Then, sometime in the late ‘80s, I was asked and commissioned by Director Rosina Florio to write a “history” of the Art Students League of New York. She wanted an “anecdotal” and not a “dry as dust history” and sent out the word to past and present students and teachers to aid me in the task. Consequently, many contacted me, both by letter and by person, and I soon had more than enough to construct an “anecdotal history.” Among the many I heard from or spoke to, was a family of father, mother and daughter who had all attended the League, namely Elijah Silverman, his wife Ruth, and his daughter Susan. We had decided to meet at the home of Elijah’s daughter, Susan Silverman Fink, since Elijah and Ruth lived in Brooklyn and Susan, upstate in Cornwall, NY — a convenient middle-ground for all of us. We spent several hours in Susan’s home and, while there chatting about the League, I noted the walls of the home were covered with paintings, most of them of Susan’s landscapes (with a few of her parents’ scattered around). I was taken by Susan’s plein aire paintings, and a few days after our interview I called Susan to ask her if I could accompany her sometimes when she went out to paint. “I’m not a teacher,” she said, and I replied, “Great!” — telling her about all the artists I appreciated that told me not to take lessons.
Soon, Susan became “Sue” and we could often be found in the mountain-surrounded fields and along the Hudson River banks of Orange (where she lived), Ulster (where I lived), and nearby Greene Counties, Julian easels planted side-by-side. She painted and I watched the magic of mixing oils and making marks on a flat surface…but the most important thing Sue taught me was how to look: to see colors hidden in shades of dark and light and, more importantly, the ultimate illusory quality of nature — so, dip into a blob of paint and schmear. I did and learned how to get out and “play” and follow my instincts. I never really learned how to use brushes very well and leaned heavily on wielding the knife. It allowed me less fussiness and more spontaneity and, since I was squeezing in my ‘painting days’ between writing assignments, made clean-up easy: just wipe the palette knives off with a paper towel, toss them into the handy drawer of my outdoor easel and get back to my writing. Generally, what was on my canvas remained as it was when I wiped my knives.
As Sue deepened and made into tangible reality the stories I was still hearing from my interviews with artists (almost exclusively in their studios because it sharpened my insights into the lives and habits of my Profile subjects — artist’s studios, by the way, ‘speak’ volumes!), the conflict intensified. Writer or Painter? Through which medium could I best express myself? Which ‘spoke” more clearly for me? So, when I was in my late ‘60s, I began putting my dilemma on paper by putting it into ‘story’ form. I titled it In the Beginning and in an attempt to clarify my predicament, first made my setting local and ‘split’ myself into two characters that ‘acted’ out the argument going on in my head— one, an ‘artwriter’ named “Geoff”, the other a budding painter, un-named. In short, I was vaguely rebounding from my conversation with Jack Levine the year before and trying to put the ‘evolution’ of an artist in the form of a fictional tale — my tale. Because the characters were, in essence, both me, the ‘fiction’ I was attempting to create tended to be more ‘biography’ than a simple, narrative tale. Although In the Beginning grew into considerable length, I was beginning to feel that it was becoming too much of a memoir rather than a ‘story’, so I put it aside and went on to other things, pretty much forgetting about it altogether.
I came across the mss. recently and, not even recognizing it (I’ve got several unpublished short stories and even a novel or two hidden away and out of mind in file drawers) began to skim it. After some way in, I began to realize that In the Beginning was actually the forerunner (or rough draft) of my full-length novel The Mountain, published in 2008. I do have two characters in the full-length novel, both having shared characteristics with me, but whose ‘lives’ are unrelated to the actual facts of my own life. “Jake Forscher”, the ‘main’ character — or protagonist — though his father echoes mine, as do shared incidents such as coming from Brooklyn and moving upstate, being a handy-man, working on the river — was ‘built’ out of a number of sources. Although I ‘personalized’ The Mountain it in no way depicts, portrays or traces the course of my life. “Jake” does not go to college and earn degrees, teach at the public school and college levels, co-found an arts journal — all significant high-points of my life.
First, the plot of The Mountain itself, though concocted out of the nascent conversation with Jack Levine, was created in accordance with my university training, to serve as a “bildungsroman” (the literary term for a ‘coming of age’ or character evolution type of novel). “Jake”, in addition to ‘growing out” of my own experiences (else how make it “believable’?), had his ‘conflict’ patterned after a novel I studied extensively — even writing a paper on it while working on my Master’s, which received considerable attention from my Professors — namely Moby Dick by Herman Melville. “Jake”, like “Captain Ahab”, is given an insurmountable task (both expressed symbolically in the respective novels): “Ahab’s” was to capture the whale; “Jake’s” to ‘capture’ (in paint) “Overlook Mountain”. “Jake”, like “Ahab”, fails in the purpose that both Melville and I symbolically present to our protagonists: namely, to discover the purpose and mystery of life. My novel The Mountain is meant to serve as the “why” Jake fails (Nature is constantly in flux, i.e. ‘un-capturable’ in paint or otherwise); Melville attempts the same in his Moby Dick; in the end, the ‘whale’ is still illusive and ‘blank’ (ie. ‘White’, ‘colorless’, ‘empty’). Consequently, I named my protagonist “Jacob (‘Jake’) because he struggles with the angel and “Forscher” Ger. because he is a delver, a seeker. In the unfolding of “Jake’s” life, I drew on the countless stories of the artists who shared their struggles with me — “Jake’s” life, in essence, embodies those similar but disparate struggles. As I note above, there is another character in the novel who ‘echoes’ me, “David Lehrer” (“Lehrer” Ger.) means “teacher”, but he does not “come into” the story ‘til late in the book), an art critic who befriends “Jake” and encourages him in his quest to become a painter — specifically, a landscape painter.
As the “push-pull” of my conflict developed, I was at the same time beginning to define my own concept of what “art” was. I had interviewed many of the early “Woodstock” cadres of traditionalists and, of course, found that although they may have all struggled in their quest for artistic expression, not all seemed to have the same goal in mind. This fact grew even more evident as I expanded my search for subjects beyond the Woodstock area, ranging first to “the City” (New York) and then to neighboring states — and even to countries abroad. I dealt with this ‘new’ dilemma in my novel by opening my protagonist’s story at the “Armory Show” in Manhattan at the groundbreaking “modernist show” and then by his bringing back his impressions to the somewhat closed parameters of the Woodstock Colony. The new European anti-traditional artforms and subjects were not exactly ‘foreign’ to all Woodstock artists, and as I demonstrate in my plot clashes between the “old and the new” were just one more part of Jake Forscher’s experience on the Woodstock scene.
A classicist — and conservative — myself, I began forming my own biases, and when we founded ART TIMES I made it clear to my readers that I intended to take the “long view” (not necessarily a “broad” view) in my editorial scope, leaving the ever-growing trends, “-isms” and “hot” fads to the other arts magazines on the present artscene. I felt — and continue to feel — that “art” has a purpose other than serving as an “investment” commodity, a theme that defines much of The Mountain’s “message” or “moral”. I was strengthened in my point of view as we noted many “what’s hot” publications drop out of business as Art Times continued to flourish. It was evident that what was considered “hot” this week became “old hat” the following week — so the promoters, like the fad, quickly went out of fashion, their “slicks” constantly disappearing from the shelves. My bias still runs strong and deep and I continue to avoid writing about so-called “modernist” artists and their exhibitions until this day. Incidentally, all artists of today, traditional or not, are “moderns” simply by virtue of being alive now. Just because the market changes does not necessarily mean that values must change as well. I tend to agree with Oscar Wilde in his assessment that many do not know the difference between ‘cost’ and ‘value’ and his opinion that “America went from primitivism to barbarism, without ever passing through civilization” not so far off the mark.
Although my bias that art had a greater purpose — that, as Bernard Berenson claimed, it ought to “enhance” life — led my art criticism to focus primarily on the classical tradition at the expense of disregarding much of “modernism”, on a deeper, more psychological level, I discovered that my question of which medium “spoke” more clearly for me — namely, writing or painting — had been somewhat off the mark. The fact is that a simple dichotomy of “writer vs. painter” did not fully encompass my life. Long before I turned to writing (or painting) I had spent a good deal of my life exploring various “spiritual” paths (beginning with Christianity, and then on through Buddhist, Hindu and Judaist ‘disciplines’), developing a habit of deep meditation that began in my ‘30s and continues until this day.
Interestingly, In the Beginning begins in “religion” with a detailed description of the Renaissance-like parochial church (the tallest building in Brooklyn in the ‘30s) I attended as a child and describes my early experience of being indoctrinated into Roman Catholicism. Never having taken art classes (not taught during my schooling) I often thought of where my interest in art came from and wondered if it originated in the surroundings of that renaissance-like church; might it have served as a possible ‘motive’ for the basis of my interest in art later in life? Whereas my writing depended on logic and rationality, my painting of landscape seemed to stem from inner inspirations and promptings. Consequently, I slowly began to realize that both mediums allowed me to express myself — but not in the manner I expected. My writing allowed me to articulate my rational being, while my image-making served as an outlet for my spiritual development. For me, painting landscape became just one more form of “meditation.”
The net result — not reflected in my novel The Mountain — was that I needed to find room in my life for both forms of expression — a state of affairs that continues to guide my life ‘til this day. It’s no longer “writer vs. painter” — I am pretty much resolved that I am first and foremost a writer, and I feel comfortable telling people that I am “a writer who paints.” Leaving aside my feeling of once being “conflicted”, to my surprise, painting in plein aire opened not only an entirely unforeseen means for me to express (and explore) myself, but also served to form my critical approach to the purpose of making or creating of art — definitively hardening my bias against ‘meaningless’ art since I was finding it personally useless and invalid. During this time, the word “inspiration” began to take on a serious quality for me, especially as I delved more deeply into the thinking of Renaissance artists and their use of the term “divine inspiration.” By itself, “inspiration” literally means “breathing into” — “divine” inspiration therefore meant to the Renaissance artist, “inspired by God.” Somehow, my own personal experience of painting from Nature seemed not only to clarify the Renaissance concept of “divine inspiration” but also to confirm it. To this day, although I’ve been painting landscapes for some years now — even participating in exhibitions — what “appears” on my canvas continues to be inexplicable, not something that “comes” from “in here” but from “out there”. Is it really my painting? I cannot say with certainty that it is I who is guiding my hand. I’m still trying to figure out what I am seeing when I “see” Nature. Viewers of my paintings tell me they see “beauty” or “peace” or serenity” and all I can answer is “well all I’m doing is copying what’s in front of me”. Where, then, does credit lie? Simply because a natural phenomenon — a tree, a vista, a mountain — is “inscrutable”, “ineffable”, ‘indefinable’, an ‘illusion’ to a human being, it does not necessarily follow that it is “untrue”. Few indeed, know what “truth” is — in fact, even what “art” is, as is evident in our inability to define it. One prominent art critic, Arthur Danto, even claimed that art was “dead!” Little wonder that bias and opinion reign, when there is nothing ‘scientific’ at hand to ‘prove’ one’s point on the subject.
Since my traveling had been sharply curtailed in recent years, Jack Levine (now deceased) and I never had the opportunity to discuss The Mountain since its publication. Whatever personal avenues of self-knowledge it has opened for me, it is my hope that it still measures up to our expectations that day over lunch.