so many paintings, so little time

Archive for the ‘New Portraits at James Graham & Sons’ Category

Nino Full of Life

In New Portraits at James Graham & Sons on January 31, 2010 at 5:44 pm

My father died the end of last summer. He was 94. He’d been living in a senior residence in Michigan where my mother and he moved eight years ago. I spent the last month with him. He was a dear man. Though his life had gotten more difficult in recent years, his appetite for new experiences, and his enthusiastic interest in what I was up to never flagged, right up to the end. He could even joke with me days before he died. He had lost as much weight as he possibly could without disappearing. His wardrobe at this point consisted of a t-shirt and Depends. As my sister Lucy and Donata, one of his angel caregivers, were standing on either side of him helping him sit up on the edge of his bed, I walked into the room. Hey, what’s going on? I said. Can’t you see, he said in a barely audible voice, we’re having a party. I said, what’s to drink? To which he replied, Vernor’s! with a what-are-you-joking? look.

Vernor’s Va-Va-Voom, Detroit’s Finest

I already knew I was going to be making portraits based on people’s responses to paintings for my next gallery exhibition. My parents had bought a print of a Bruegel for the first house they built in the late 1940s on Mark Twain in Detroit. My nephew Wren was flying in from Boston the next day, and brought it on the plane, his precious cargo wrapped in a blanket. Though my Dad was weak and could barely sit up, I was determined to videotape him talking about that actual framed print. I did.

After the funeral I went back to Paris, depleted and sad. I took a few months off. Time was slipping away, and I needed to get started on the paintings for my show. I decided I wanted to make a portrait of Nino–had to make a portrait of him. He has his whole wonderful life ahead of him.

Nino is the seven year-old son of dear friends in Paris, Ed Alcock and Muriel Boselli. I’ve known Nino since he was an hour or two old. He was born in the Hopital Lariboisiere near where Eunice (Lipton) and I live.

Hopital Lariboisiere, Paris 10th Arrondissement

Nino speaks French and English, like his parents. He’s the most adorable boy in Paris, perhaps in all of France. I was waiting for him to be old enough to have a conversation that would last more than a few minutes while looking at a painting in a museum. Eunice and I had taken him the year before to the Orangerie in the Tuileries Garden to see

Monet's waterlilies in the Orangerie, Paris

Monet’s waterlilies, and then to Giverny to see the real thing. He enjoyed running up and down the rows of plantings, examining and sniffing the blossoms, swatting the insect wildlife, but it was the strawberry ice cream cone afterwards that made the day. Now was a year later, and I was hoping I could get him talking about paintings so I could make his portrait.

It’s a ten minute trip on the Metro from Nino’s apartment in the 10th arrondissement to the Louvre. I pick him up and off we go. I lie to Nino, telling him that the Louvre will let him have a painting to take home, as a way of thanking him for helping me. He just needs to pick out one he wants. We climb endless stairs and arrive in a special gallery devoted to the donation of a particular collector.

Before we begin, I tell Nino that there are just too many damn paintings in the Louvre, and I would really appreciate it if he can pick one to get rid of, something he really doesn’t like.

Interestingly, both the paintings he chooses are in the same gallery! Now I’m faced with two dilemmas: how to get the Louvre to throw out the one and give away the other. Any ideas?

Nino at the Louvre

Nino considering

Nino vexed

Nino deciding

Nino's (and the Repainter's) Mission Accomplished

A Portrait and a Metamorphosis

In New Portraits at James Graham & Sons on January 31, 2010 at 9:41 am

In 2006 I made a date with Diane Middlebrook in London. She was battling a rare cancer, victoriously it seemed. Over the years Diane, the writer and literary critic at Stanford University, and her husband Carl Djerassi (the chemist, professor and playwright) had commissioned me to make several paintings for them. Now I was starting a portrait of Diane. I wanted to adapt my work as a repainter to the genre of portraiture, and I saw the opportunity to explore that with Diane, ever an elegant, encouraging and stimulating co-conspirator. My idea was to portray her not by painting how she looks, but by capturing her responses to paintings in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Bernini, Apollo & Daphne, Villa Borghese, Rome, photographs by Pino Giudolotti and Bruno Balestrini

My connection to Diane deepened considerably after she commissioned me to make two works related to the tale of Daphne and Apollo in Ovid’s Metamorphosis in 2001. She was working on a biography of the poet, about whom next to nothing is known. She needed inspiration and Bernini’s sculpture in Rome of the two gods thrilled her. She wanted me to take it on in a painting for her writing studio. I told her I didn’t do sculpture, that paintings are my thing. But she persisted, and I said I’d think about it.

Although Diane was in London at the time, and I in Paris, we figured out that our paths would soon cross in NY. We made a date for lunch at one of Diane’s favorite Italian restaurants on 57th Street. I order penne rigate with morels, she arugula with shaved parmesan, and we talk about Ovid. Diane tells me about her long attachment to his poetry, and the Apollo and Daphne story in particular. In between attacks on her arugula, she recites passages from the text by heart, ending on the climax to the tale, after Apollo has tried his best to persuade Daphne to give in to him, and she has refused:

…her limbs grew numb and heavy, her soft breasts
Were closed with delicate bark, her hair was leaves,
Her arms were branches, and her speedy feet
Rooted and held, and her head became a tree top,
Everything gone except her grace, her shining.

For Diane it is a tale of Daphne’s triumphant resistance. For me Daphne’s is a tragic decision to forego the pleasures of desire and wandering the woods, to end up a tree.

When the expresso arrives we’ve come around to Bernini. Diane is stubborn, she’s attached to this Bernini sculpture. Despite my mid-western easy-going demeanor, I’m stubborn too. For twenty five years I have focused almost exclusively on the history of painting in my work, using pictures of the past as source material for painted wood panels with glass sandblasted with text. These were not casual decisions for me. But I’m not stupid. This commission intrigues me. So, I consider my options: Try to convince Diane that sculpture just doesn’t suit me? Look for painting sources that will capture the narrative and her imagination, and lobby hard? Forget about the whole thing? Or, re-think my refusal to depict three-dimensional source material.

The fact is I do often include carved wood frames around old masterworks (even sometimes minus the paintings) in my pictures. And I’ve begun to paint drawings. Also, I find this Bernini sculpture riveting too. I hit on the perfect reason to proceed: Metamorphosis. Ovid’s tale carved into Bernini’s marble, transposed into a photograph (I needed images to work from—I wasn’t about to set up an easel in the Villa Borghese), and now transformed again into a painting with words.

There’s another reason for my not walking away, a lost love. Diane has no way of knowing that the artist she’s asked to bring Apollo and Daphne to the walls of her London writing studio set out to be a classicist. I was drawn to Latin by a wise high school teacher whose classes were a refuge from the racial turmoil in mid-sixties Detroit. Maybe we were fiddling around with classical literature while my home-town burned, but my teacher, Donald Riddering, brilliantly used the words of Ovid to illuminate those tumultuous days. Later at the University of Michigan, though, I was subjected to an insufferably starchy professor just hired from Princeton—and I walked away from Latin forever. Diane is giving me a chance to return.

Paul Cezanne, Le pont de Maincy, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Slipping painting back in, I decide to riff on the metamorphosis idea, taking two works by artists who transformed how we look at the world: Cezanne and Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie, 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, NY

For the text on my painting I condense Ovid’s narrative into cascading oppositional phrases. To match the arrogance of Apollo’s refusal to accept Daphne’s “No,” I arrogantly invent a Bernini drawing that doesn’t exist.

Bernini, Head of Apollo; Aptekar, Faux Bernini

I email a computer sketch to Diane. Mostly she loves it. But she hates one of the images. She never says, Change it. But I can’t make a work that Diane won’t like every day she sits at her desk. I find a replacement–magisterial trees pushing up into a brooding sky by my old master friend, Meindert Hobbema. He hands me Daphne’s victory.

Meindert Hobbema, The Watermill, (undated) Louvre, Paris

HER DESIRE, HIS PURSUIT, HER PLEASURES, HIS ARROGANCE

HIS POWER, HER INGENUITY, HIS LOSS, HER VICTORY

Four years after I finished this commission, I videotape Diane for her “portrait” in the National Portrait Gallery in London. We are upstairs in a long hall lined with marble busts.

Hall of Busts, National Portrait Gallery, London

It’s obvious that Diane thought about what she would wear for the videotaping. She takes great pleasure in sensual fabrics and fine clothing. We talk about the portraits around us. After a while, she comes back to Ovid. She quotes a line from him about his sense that he would never die, that he would live on in his writing forever. And she mentions that she really wants a bust of Pallas Athena in her studio.

But after the videotaping, we stall on the discussions of what images to use. I want historic paintings, she photographs of writers some of whom she knew. I put the project on hold. Then in 2007, Diane’s health declined suddenly. Time was short. I wanted her to be able to see how I envisioned making her portrait, but I hadn’t come up with a solution. I got to work. Fast.

My date with E. F.

In New Portraits at James Graham & Sons on January 21, 2010 at 4:00 am

Allan McCollum, Surrogates, installation at Museum of Modern Art, NY

There’s a fabulous private collection I’d really like to see. So I decide to contact the collector. I’m thinking maybe he’ll agree to be a subject for a portrait. I’d repaint a work from his collection and write a text that came out of our conversation while looking at it. My re-interpretation of  the historic work plus what he said sandblasted on glass and bolted over the painting could be a good angle for a portrait of an art collector.

I call a highly-placed relative who can help me get the collector’s email address, and send off my request. He’s interested! There’s another person who is commissioning a portrait near where he lives, so I write to say I’ll be back in touch soon with some dates. A week later I learn my other portrait subject will not be available for a while, so I immediately email the collector to arrange a date. Now he’s too busy, can’t meet for several months. I pull out the old French technique for getting what you want from people who don’t want to give it to you–just keep talking– and soon he consents. I make travel plans.

I pull up to the historic mansion where the collector lives, videocam in hand, and ring the bell. A woman’s voice comes over the intercom: “Someone will be with you shortly.”

Manderlay (miniature model) as seen in Alfred Hitchcock's film, Rebecca, 1940

After several minutes the door opens and the collector introduces himself. We enter a vast space filled with European objets d’art, 18th and 19th century. The whole place could be in Europe except for its spic ‘n span sparkle.

After a cursory tour of the ground floor rooms–“Apologies for the missing sculptures and decorative objects; we had to put them all away what with everyone coming for the Christmas party!”–we mount a grand staircase to get a look at the artworks lining the walls of the second floor corridors. The collector,  pointing proudly to one, announces, “There are only two by the artist in this country, and the other one is in the [famous museum].” Returning to the downstairs salon facing the ocean, we install ourselves in little upholstered armchairs facing each other, about twelve feet apart.

I begin asking questions to understand the passions that have driven this collector to amass well over a thousand works of a particular kind of fine art. A dedicated hunter of masterpieces, the collector says he isn’t interested in art history (“7% of my interest”). “Aesthetics” takes up the other 93%. When asked what he likes about, say, 18th century French art, or for that matter, what makes it “French,” he replies, “Life is happy, sin is acceptable, animals are friendly, women are sexy, men are dogs.” But then he goes on to insist that “art is not about the content. It’s actually about the form, the structure, the technique, about beautiful execution.”

I recall the diabetic President of Barton’s Bonbonniere, a candy company where I worked. After getting my MFA from Pratt Institute,

Photo from Architectural Forum August 1952. New York City. Architect, Victor Gruen. Graphics consultant Alvin Lustig.

I designed packaging for his products. Once he called me into his office to discuss wrapper ideas for a new line of candy bars. I was an artist, he felt good offering his thoughts for me to appreciate. While I sit listening and nodding, a parade of women in white uniforms passes by his desk, offering him new confections sent down from the test kitchen to taste. He picks one off the tray, swirls it around in his mouth for a while. Diabetes+sugar=bad news, so, he leans forward to a basket in front of him to spit it out, mid-sentence: “They’re for the children’s market. We need BRIGHT COLORS. I want them to say: ‘Mommy, buy me.’ ”

Why, I continue, was the collector interested in art from the period he collects? “It produced great work,” he says. Was there anything in his life history to which he could connect the art? “No,” he replies. Did he ever pull out works in storage to look at? “Yes,” he answers, “on weekends. Not for more than a few minutes–that would be like chewing on food too long.” How would he describe the difference between looking at an old master drawing and a painting? “Seeing a painting is like going to a nude revue in Las Vegas,” the collector explains. “A drawing is more like a lap dance.”

Now I really know I’m in trouble.

But I soldier on, videotape running. After two and a half hours, I call it quits. Before saying goodbye, I ask about the possibility of getting a digital file of a certain work we’ve discussed, should the need arise. “That won’t be a problem,” he assures me. He’ll have his curator take care of it. I walk out into the brisk wintry air and head back to my studio in New York.

I stall a few days before popping in the videotape. I review the footage hunting for a hook to hang my portrait on. I don’t want the portrait to reflect what I don’t like about the collector. After all, I’m hoping he will ultimately find the painting so irresistible he’ll want to own it. On the other hand, maybe I’ll decide to take what I don’t like about him–what the hell!–and use that to portray him! But then I risk bringing down upon me the wrath of the many museum curators and directors who have to suck up to him for loans and promises of donations.

I pore over the videotape to find another angle. I fail.

Maybe the inspiration of seeing a great work of art will help, I think to myself, remembering that whatever else I may think of the collector, he has the taste and refinement to surround himself with some damn good pictures. I email to ask for that digital image we had spoken of. He tells me to “look on the web for it, just too busy right now.” I’m startled by his indifference. I tell him how the only one I can find is an inch by an inch and a half, and lo-res. “[My curator] reminds me,” he says, “that the [famous museum] produced some unauthorized postcards of it–so you might find one there.” A postcard isn’t going to do it–too small, not enough information. I’m trying hard to keep this alive. “What about a scan of the image from one of the catalogues it was reproduced in? Maybe you can ask your private curator or your assistant?” I suggest.

Why is this guy making me jump through hoops? Doesn’t he know I have better things to do than chase after images of his masterpieces? Is this a test of the lengths to which I will go to make his portrait, how much I value him and his collection? I begin to loathe him. But then I remember I was the one who asked out of the blue if he would allow me to do his portrait. Repainter, relax! He’ll send you a scan.

“Can’t,” the collector emails. “Sorry.”

Huh? Now I’m a wabbit?

Next: Deadline portrait

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.