so many paintings, so little time

Arlette in Paris

In New Portraits at James Graham & Sons on January 13, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Went to the Louvre recently with Arlette, my concierge, to begin work on her portrait. She works in the building where my Paris studio is located. She became a concierge at the age of fifty two, and is now unquestionably the best concierge in the world. Arlette totally transformed the building.

Before Arlette, there were Robert and Sylvie. He was the type of Frenchman who starts his morning with a drink “pour tuer le ver,” (to kill the worm) then continues drinking all day. She was his young puppydog simpleminded wife. They ended up in the job when they lost their way back to the Zola novel where they belonged. Though not malevolent, they did nothing beyond wheeling the trash bins out to the street at the end of the day, yelling at each other across the courtyard (“RRRO-BEHHHHHHRR!” “CONNASSE!”–don’t ask), and scrounging for food to feed the zoo that was lodged in the loge with them at the entrance to the courtyard, the stink from which you recoiled when collecting your mail, which they couldn’t be bothered to distribute.

Oh and then there was their “work” for the small time thug, Monsieur Jules.  His construction business was located in one of the former stables across from my studio. Robert and Sylvie routinely neglected to enforce the rule against parking in the courtyard for Monsieur Jules. But one time I had enough, and stuck a little reminder on the windshield of his big truck blocking my window all day (he was too lazy to pull into his garage). Later that night, the lock to our apartment was crazy glued, and then a few days later, a lovely pile of dogshit appeared on the welcome mat in front of our door.

Monsieur Jules ruled the building, intimidating older tenants into paying for unneeded repairs, wrangling hugely overpriced contracts for building renovations with kickbacks to the management company, dispatching his Corsican to flash a revolver when trying to make a point more forcefully. After Robert and Sylvie retired, Arlette one morning motioned for me to accompany her outside the building to the street. She could barely contain her giggles. I said, “What?” She said, “Jules.” More giggles. Pained look of shame (Arlette is Catholic). Giggle. I repeated, “What?” “Jules… car crash. He’s dead!!” We both erupted in laughter.

What used to be a ragtag collection of crap six-story buildings arrayed around a grim courtyard with garages, former stables, and entrances to the various buildings, under the iron grip of Monsieur Jules, Arlette transformed singlehandedly into a garden of eden with plants and trees and obedient apartment dwellers no longer throwing cigarette butts and trash wherever they wanted. She even won the award for the best courtyard garden in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement, presented to her at city hall by our Socialist Mayor (at the time) Tony Dreyfus.

Twice a year she organizes building-wide potluck gatherings in the courtyard for all the residents, owners and renters alike. And contributes quiches and fruit tarts she makes in the loge, laid out on long tables that she and Sammy, her dear husband, set up.

I arranged to meet Arlette during her break from 12:30 to 5. She works from 7:30am to 12:30pm and then 5-7 Monday through Friday cleaning the six staircases and hallways in the building, taking out the trash, watering the plants, receiving packages and distributing the mail, and supervises building repairs when necessary. On her off hours she cleans apartments and takes in ironing. The woman works hard, and manages to be cheerful and personally interested in the lives of huge numbers of residents who care about her enormously.

I picked Arlette up at 3PM for our first ever outing beyond the confines of the building. We took the metro to the Louvre, a ten minute ride. I decided to head directly to the 18th c. French paintings, up several flights of stone stairs, through miles of galleries, to where the Chardins were hung.  Eunice (Lipton, my dearest) had suggested Chardin for Arlette to consider for his iconic depictions of domestic life. I mentioned to Arlette as we were winding our way through the galleries that the Louvre had agreed to let her take one of their paintings off the wall and bring it home, as a way of thanking her for taking the time to allow me to do her portrait. She seemed pleased at the idea. I knew that this act of generosity by the Louvre reflected the extraordinary support for their work that contemporary artists feel in French society. All that I asked of Arlette in return is that she decide which painting she was going to take with her, and tell me why.

We looked at all the Chardins. There must have been twenty or so. I asked if she found anything that might interest her; I was preparing to move to Plan B, when she paused in front of “Le Bénédicité” (“Saying Grace”).

We began to talk, videotape running. Arlette told me her life story in stark detail, prompted entirely by what she saw in the painting in front of us. There was another Chardin nearby, which came up in the discussion. In the space of an hour, Chardin and Arlette had given me everything I needed.

Arlette’s portrait will be one of nine or ten I’m going to show in March in New York: people well-known by millions, or by 20 or 30; artworld figures and others who could care less about art; young and old–imagine a great dinner party. But my portraits will not be recognizable visual representations of the “sitters.”

I’ll use what we’ve looked at as source material for a new painting on wood panel with an overlay of words developed out of what was said. Then Xing Li, ace sandblasting artisan at Time Art Glass Etching, will engrave that text onto thick glass that I bolt over the painted panel.

In other words I’ll be making a new kind of portrait. Instead of showing the person, my portraits describe how the sitter looks–at paintings. The excitement and challenge for me results from interacting with an individual across paintings from the past, discovering indirectly something essential about that person. The idea comes out of my conviction that a painting really only begins to mean anything when a viewer responds to it, and its meaning changes according to who’s looking.

Next: E. F. and the portrait that wasn’t to be.

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  1. Dying to read all about E. F.!

  2. This is a fantastic read! Have you ever thought about using words in your paintings? I think you might be onto something there… 😉

  3. Oh, the humanity.

  4. And the humility……Seriously, we need to hear more about the courtyard, and Jules. Enough paintings of nice people–how about those merde artistes like Jules, like certain landlords, the skeeves of the credit card world…….
    Well, you and the rest of the courtyard served your time so you desrve a bit of the Americain in Paris lifestyle and ambience. But tell your readers when and where is this March show in New York?
    And for those who’ve been following your oeuvre, have you not done some similar verre superimposees before? Inquiring minds want to know of the expansion of your vision this latest iteration may represent.
    Au revoir, notre brave!

    • Exhibition opens March 11, James Graham & Sons Gallery, NYC–details to come! Thanks, Peter, for asking…

  5. A wonderful story. great to see the photo of the courtyard! Can’t wait to see the painting.

  6. I would love to accompany you into a Chardin.

  7. Great idea! I’m looking forward to the new works!

  8. A lovely story–although not if you’re Jules–and the courtyard looks even more edenic than I recall. A warmhearted enterprise–this blog–and perhaps a way for an artist to solicit interaction and offer something in return. it makes me think of the what seemed the ultimate art selflessness: last week I received a large and elegant painting (Paris and the Pony) by Amy Bernays, Brit/LA painter, essentially as a gift dependent on the kindness of artists like her and the originality of the Fine Arts Adoption Network. This conceptualist, online operation facilitates the gift-giving of artists to collectors in training–or any other adopters of their choosing.

  9. As you know, I can relate to former & current concierge. Big smiles reading about Arlette and retirees before her. I try to be an attentive property mgr. I have never dumped dogshit on doorstep of a tenant. I’ve thought about it. You are lucky to have Arlette. Too many ‘supers’, bldg. mgrs. could care less about inhabitants of their buildings. It’s been awhile since I shared my cooking with fellow residents. Your blog & pic of Arlette’s dishes stimulate my desire to selectively distribute morsels.

  10. Very interesting, moving, very well observed. And how I wish I had a concierge like that. I can’t wait to see the exhibition – all of these various lives interpreted through the particular filter of Ken’s vision and style.

  11. Ken — have you read The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry? If not, go do it immediately. Hope to see the new work in March.

    Love, Linn

  12. What a great read! I needed something to take me away from my desk in Detroit. It is great to have a courtyard in Paris to virtualy wander through. The upcoming show sounds great too.

  13. This is a fantastic story, beautifully recounted, and segueing neatly into the next body of (your) work. congratulations!

  14. malgre l’heure tardive, j’ai beaucoup aimé ton récit, Ken, si sensible et humain, Arlette est lumineuse entre loge, cour, jardin et …. Chardin,

  15. How wonderful! A blog I actually want to read! Plus, it’s so nice to hear a bit of GOOD news these days!

  16. I just can’t wait for the next installment…gimme, gimme, gimme! Merci, Ed

  17. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Fantastique – I’m hooked – C

  19. “If you engage with a work, the object will change and the object will change you… Art becomes the co-producer of reality.”

    — Olaf Eliasson

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