“Standing Inside the Artist”

January 30, 2015

WHEN I WAS commissioned by Rosina Florio, former Director of The Art Students League of New York, to write a history of the school some 20+ years ago, she made it clear to me that she didn’t want a “‘dry-as-dust’ narrative”, but rather an “anecdotal collection that would characterize the spirit of the League”. To aid me in the making, she sent out a letter to all current and past students to contact me if they had a tale to tell. I had a surprising number of responses (some even from such celebrities as Charlton Heston, one-time model at the League*), but one that stood out in my mind was from Sudjana Kerton (an artist from Indonesia) who shared the following anecdote with me — most likely because it had stood out in his mind years later. A student of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, former instructor at the League (who, along with his wife, were Woodstock, NY, acquaintances of mine), Kerton vividly recalled an incident in which Kuniyoshi was ‘critiquing’ his work during class, saying to him (and the class in general), “There is something missing, something I don’t see, do any of you know what is missing?” Several fellow students mentioned color or composition, and such. At which point, Kuniyoshi took Kerton’s right hand and placed it over Kerton’s heart. “You,” he said. “I don’t see you in your painting.”** Kerton’s story stayed with me ever since and was forcibly thrust into my mind (and artistic biases, I might add) a few years ago when the Pastel Society of America asked me to do “a walk and talk” at one of their annual exhibitions. I’d never done such a thing (I find it difficult to put the language of images into a language of words — especially “on the spur of the moment” without my usual practice of letting the art gestate in my head for some time). Anyway, I had come to a large still life that was nearly technically perfect in its execution and all I could think of was “there’s no ‘you’ in there.” I couldn’t really explain to my listeners what I meant, but a few feet away was a smaller floral still life (not quite so perfect in its rendering) which featured a vase-full of fresh sunflowers — with one blossom hanging over the side, seemingly on “its last legs.” Why did the painter include that? Why ‘spoil’ a perfectly lovely floral? A whim? Merely an exact replication of the bouquet that was standing before her? She could have easily ignored the dying sunflower and simply made a pretty little floral. But she did include it and I think it had something to do with Kuniyoshi’s admonition to his student. She put something of herself in the painting and, whether willingly or not, became what the French call an artiste engage´. I tried to explain myself (probably badly) in my preference of the floral over the exquisite array of vases and dishes, each piece discrete and meticulously limned, laid out on a cloth-covered table in the large-scale painting a few feet away. The painter of the vase of flowers succeeded in “getting herself” into her painting…I saw her in the floral still life along with her meticulous (if not perfect) brushstrokes. Putting “oneself” into a work of art seems not always intended (or even understood) by the artist. In my discussions with artists many have told me that what I “see” had no conscious role in their artwork and, if present, it came unsolicited (often disregarded or even denied); many are reluctant to talk about this phenomenon — and certainly unwilling or embarrassed to speak of this unintended inclusion (as the Italian Renaissance artists once did) as a “divine inspiration.” More than a few have said outright that my “seeing” such things in their work was more a product of my personal predilections than their intentions. I do not know which is ‘correct’, but thanks (I think) to Kerton’s anecdote of Kuniyoshi’s teaching, I now find myself not only wanting to “stand in the artist’s shoes” but to “stand inside the artist” in an effort to “get” it all.

Raymond J. Steiner

* Other ‘celebrity artists’ who attended the League were: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; John & Lionel Barrymore; Claudette Colbert; Duke Ellington; Jane Fonda; Peter Falk; Arlene Francis; Gene Hackman; Kim Hunter; John Huston; Piper Laurie; Roger Miller; Zero Mostel; Walter Slezak; Esther Williams, Calvin Klein; William Paley; Kenneth Rexroth; Henry McBride; Clement Greenberg; and Madonna (as Heston, not a student but as a model.)

**Letter to the author dated July 20, 1992.