of Introduction, More about the words…
Almost from the beginning of my student years at Berkeley and at the
California School of Fine Arts, I had heard the names of things I painted
that no one else recognized, and heard also the music of the sentences
that told somehow the stories of the paintings as the paintings developed
(always the stories of how I lived or should my life). And almost
from the beginning also, these stories and names were not from the common
cultural stew around me—not the things that everyone knew. Not the
high falutin’ (T.S. Eliot or whomever) of the University crowd, nor the
low falutin’—is there such a thing?—of the newspapers and movies and radio
and then television we all read and heard and saw. The reason for
the difference, as I have explained before, was that early on I had been
infected by Romanticism and had read all that old stuff instead of the new
stuff I was supposed to read, that I had somehow wandered into
Taoist and Buddhist and Hindu philosophy instead of the logical positivism
that was the fashion of those days in Berkeley, and that rather than
Cezanne and Picasso and the School of Paris and then New York which was
taught us as the School of Now, I had absorbed the spiritualism of
Kandinsky and the transcendentalism of the early 19th Century
So, because my paintings
were about something—they were not just “interesting shapes”—I found that
I had to tell people what they were about. It took several years
after I graduated from Berkeley for this to become clear enough to me for
it to drive me over the barrier that “If you have to write on the painting, it
proves that the painting has failed to communicate… It’s not art, it’s
It has been a long time
now and still I am often not sure, but then sometime I think it was in
1957 it became clear that representations—pictures—of things recognizable
or not were not enough. Their names, their stories, their sounds in
my head (and all the other sounds too, the music, the poems and novels and
phrases from every and anywhere) were as important to me as their pictures
and so must be there with them in their pictures. Just as the drip and
smear had become “real art” when Cubism, Surrealism, and the
“Non-Objective Painting” of Kandinsky and Mondrian
had hit the facts of life of World War II and the Holocaust and drove
artists beyond any conventional form of representation, so for the me who
was the heir of all of that, the word—my words—could also become a part of
real (though perhaps not important) art.
…I was walking around in
the woods in Redwood Park. It was a weekday afternoon, and the
picnic tables were empty. I had been there a couple of days earlier
also, had seen the late afternoon through the trees, come home and painted
the sunsets I imagined… fairly smooth and smeary dull greenish oil impasto
with bits of red and orange between a few of the curving twisting strokes
on little bits of mat board cut out from mats at the Oakland Art Museum…
Now it was afternoon again, and I had brought with me a couple of my
German book pages, with the thought of painting some
watercolor things here on the spot at a picnic table in the woods… these
common little woods a mile or two from my house, woods I had been drawing
even when I was a Berkeley student. I began to paint not the trees
themselves, nor even the colors and smears of paint that I had used a few
days before as representations of them in the studio, began to paint
symbols on the page and also to see that I could write on it… that I could
use the page of the book—the picture plane, that tedious cliché of every
modernist critique—could use the picture plane as the plane of mind.
I didn’t think in those terms then, I only knew (and began to do it) that
this piece of paper before me could reflect to the extent of the range of
its materials and the paints and the skills in my hand, could
reflect all the things flowing in my mind… reflect them in their flow.
I still have that little bit of old German paper, saved more by accident
that for any important (or even sentimental) reason. It is not much
to look at, but for whatever I may have made since that might be more to
look at, it is the seed. That little old page with a symbol of a
couple of trees and the sun, and a picnic table on an afternoon in an
empty regional park, and the things I had made a few days before—all that
told me that my art must be more than just a picture of something, there
must be in my art all that can be fitted in... of soul.
And so I began in the next
few days to write and write on my paintings, and sometimes to make
paintings out of almost nothing else but writings (and all the luminous
mysterious stuff of ink and paint and paper—the material embodiment
without which the soul is only a passing dream).
Because I could not make
an important work of art—I
had a wife, children, a job and a house—I fell back on the unimportant:
the small, the immediate (I had only an hour or two each night in which to
work) and the sentimental… which I would raise to transcendent value by
means of the images I knew that somehow no one else seemed to, and the
words, the names of those images so long forgotten or else not yet
Someone asked in those days why I worked so small. I replied with a
joke I remembered: The traveling salesman was between towns and
night was falling. He knocked on a farmer’s door asking if the
farmer could put him up for the night. The farmers said there was no
room, no extra bed—except that the traveling salesman could sleep in the
farmer’s daughter’s bed, and the farmer would put the sheet between them.
The traveling salesman said sure, since it was that or sleep in a barn
somewhere. Next morning, the traveling salesman went on to the next
town, etc., etc. Some years later he was back in the same district
and dropped by to say hello to the farmer where he had stayed before.
There was an ugly, runty little kid running around. The traveling
salesman asked the kid, “How come you’re so small?” and the boy replied,
“You would be too, if you were strained through a sheet.” All that
to explain that my work in art had to be strained through the sheet of my
work of life--the very tight time constraints of family, house and job.
Because time was short and money the same, I had to have a medium that did
not require an elaborate setup. I had no time to stretch and prepare
canvas—by the time that would have been done, there would be no time left
for painting. And as for media, well, canvas is expensive and so is
oil paint. Paper is cheap and so by comparison are
watercolors—especially the homemade waterbased paint (“distemper”) that I
used as my primary painting medium. It took me five minutes to get
my materials ready to use, and at one time I calculated that I was making
as many as a hundred paintings a month
and spending less than $20 a month for supplies.
The sentimental… My
subjects came directly from the depths of my emotional life—as David Park
had told me back in the nighttimes of 1949, “If you aren’t painting for
yourself, why bother?” And like everyone else’s deep places (the
life, death, love, guilt, hope and despair places), my deep places looked
much like theirs, and were also as I expect theirs were for them, far more
powerful within me than any visual forms I could find to express them.
I had been taught at
Berkeley that when the emotion referred is more powerful than the form
that refers to it, when the subject pulls at the heart strings but the
visual form is limp and trite (look at any rack of commercial greeting
cards)—that the work is sentimental. I had only deep true things to
say to myself about the powers in my own life, only little bits of paper
and watercolor to say them with, and little bits of time to say them in.
The signifier “love” has
only four letters, but the signified love creates and destroys worlds.
I used the simple, old images with their simple, old names so that my
little pictures of even so old and trite a shape as the heart, might go
beyond the ordinariness of the signifier to tell the profound commitments
and transcendent destinies of the signified—my heart. And so to be
true to myself, I became (still am) sentimental in the eyes of the world.
Somehow in the midst of
the hundreds of little landscape panels of the dying city and ever more
powerfully after I finally quit them, the urge came to work on paper in
water based media—in the beginning it was the “texture” material you buy
in bags to mix with water and smear roughly on old walls to give them a
texture that will hide the holes and cracks of too many hard decades.
I had been patching up the
ruin that was our house on Harrison Street, papering it, repairing and
repainting the blistered ceilings and cracked walls in the colors and
images of my imaginary Venice. The colors were warm ochres and muted
Venetian reds except one ceiling I mottled like marble (now they call it
“faux finish”) in a pale blue deepening to lavenders and ultramarines as
the cove rolled down to meet the picture molding. The images were
sunbursts and Baroque/Rococo decorative motifs placed wherever I could fit
them in. Sure they were amateurish and clumsy, but I loved them.
There was an extreme decorator in those days—Tony Duquette—who had taken
it seemed to me the imagery from Eugene Berman
and made it real in people’s houses. I wanted Berman’s imagery too,
but we couldn’t afford Duquette and so I had to do it myself.
Along the way, I used a
lot of “texture.” And, although I was making the Harrison Street
house into my imagined Venice—and we had the etching I still have, the
title plate of Canaletto’s Vedute prominent in the Harrison Street
living room—in my paintings I had gone on to the ruined city of the
Western Addition in San Francisco. And the Western Addition had
enough cracks and holes quite to overwhelm my mind.
In those years, the late
1950’s, Jean was Curator of Collections at the California Historical
Society, and had to work the reception desk every Saturday. I drove
her over to San Francisco, and spent the day wandering the Western
drawing and painting the reflections I saw there of what I felt was the
truth of my own soul.
I made pencil drawings and oil paintings on the spot, and later from
memory in the studio at night, and also in the studio made watercolors
from memory. Because my memory was so flooded with sense
impressions, I tried to get the sensations into the texture of the
paintings themselves… and so began to use the texture material I had been
using on the walls and ceilings of Harrison Street on the surfaces of the
paintings about San Francisco. One of those is below, a failed
memory drawing of light raking across the old Western Addition facades,
and with old tissue paper pasted clumsily over the drawing, and with
texture smeared on the tissue to make the shape of the “Great Round
Window” that I imagined would be at the peak of the roof of one of those
ruined mansions, and with a vaguely bird-form crested at the top of the
for the "Great Round Window" pictures.
As always, one thing leads
to another. Smearing texture in the colors of Venice on the walls of
Harrison Street had led to smearing texture in the colors of dust on
drawings of old houses—and the drawings of old houses had to be on old
paper, and the old paper had to come from old books (where else?) and the
old books led to seeing in the oxidation and wear and foxing of their
pages some more permanent possibility for myself and my art than any I had
previously considered… “Permanent possibility”—and only a year or two
before I had been desperate to think of myself as an avant garde hero.
Now, it was only eternity I wanted, and the paper of the pages of hundred
year old discarded books ached with its touch. So I began to paint
on both single pages and also sometimes whole signatures torn from old
books—but other times on the pages of The Art Bulletin, as “and in the
evening and the noon…” and “I dwell in the blood…”
Click here for the "Art Bulletin"
One of the first on a
signature from an old book was “Dear Amy, art is for eternity…”
The full text reads:
Art is for eternity
It is not for you.
For the cry of the world
For the sob of the sky
It is not for you.
But Art is my home in Hesperus
For I am a fountain
A stream of ever jetting sperm.
It was a response to Amy—I
no longer remember her last name—who was doing art criticism and reviews
on KPFA. She came from and spoke in the language of the then
contemporary academic art criticism (there’ve been several new ones since)
and certainly she had a good 20th Century art historical
background ca. 1955. But I was establishing myself in opposition to
that. Abstract Expressionism was already losing its expressionism at
the hands of Clement Greenberg, commercial success and academics like most
of the Berkeley faculty; and one thing it no longer had (if in truth it
ever did) was the kind of content—the ruin of old houses and the despair
of a soul that sees its image in them, and also the flight from that
vision of ruin into a vision of the turning of light with the turning of
the year, and the search for salvation in the old forgotten symbols of
immortality… the fountains of the waters of life and the forests of
Hesperus where the fruit of immortality shines in the dusk. Anyway,
with such fears eating my soul, such images thronging my mind, my tongue
loaded with the language and phrasing from the late 19th
Century aesthetes I was reading in The Bibelot,
my hands filled with the paper from the pages of old books purchased at
Holmes Used Book Store (where I had been buying books since Jr. High
school), and the texture left over from the walls and ceilings of Harrison
Street, I made a lot of these.
Click here for the "Old
German Book Pages" pictures
And one more thing I had
in my hands—“distemper,” (ever since medieval days, that’s been the
technical name for paint made from hide glue plus pigment—and also the
name for a sickness of dogs). Distemper was the cheapest paint I
could use: dry pigment purchased from the paint store (this was before the
“universal tinting” colors of today with their mix with everything fluid
base) and hide glue (boiled down horses’ hoofs—not that quality artist’s
rabbit skin glue we use now if we use any sizing at all) stirred together
over a dirty electric hot plate (it often burned both the paint and the
tips of the brushes).
Earth pigments were
cheapest. I used them either in the distemper paint or mixed into
the texture, and glued the whole image together with more hide glue or
more distemper—ending up with a collage habit that has lasted now fifty
years. I quit using both the texture and the old book pages by 1959, but
kept on with the distemper until I began the Beulah Land book of
etchings with Kathan Brown in 1965. I left the texture because as
time passed it tended to become powdery and rub offand left the book pages
because as a regular thing they were too small (even for me).
continued to work on the pages from the German book. And I wanted to tell
the world what it was I was making and so the words were there to tell the
world what the image showed and to tell the world the musical phrases
going through my mind. On one I wrote around the outside a message so
people would know what was there: "Grandmother’s house, the grand plan of
which is at the base of the belly and crowns the aureole of the mind.”
Another one showed the map to Grandmother’s treasure and on each side
jutting out, the signs of the way: a fountain and a pyramid. The fountain
was a sign of maleness—that I wanted to live where the ever life giving
juices would be; but I didn’t know why the pyramid was there. I can see it
now, after the Carpenter Series of 1966-7, that it was my symbol of the
female, but in the late 1950’s it was not at all clear.
read a lot of late 19th century kinds of sayings, such as "What is
prepared in the deeps of dying skies? Is it the pale rose of dawn or the
red rose of even? Are those the fruits of Hesperus which blossom there?
Doth night draw there her veil upon paradise? Is it my own true home?”
been in a bookstore which carried pages of pictures torn and colored from
old books, mostly late 17th and early 18th century dictionaries of fruit
and flowers, and I got the idea for a kind of museum handbook of specimens
such as Roman coins which would stand for a permanence, an everness in the
material world. The idea that these coins would be Roman came from
Walter Pater’s description in his Marius the Epicurean of the
“religion of Numa”—some ancient near forgotten deep religion of nature and
the fertility of the land.
for "Roman Drawings".
began to tear out the meaningful parts of pictures, and put them alone on
9 x 12 in. sheets of heavy weight newsprint to make clear to myself what
they meant. Other times I put several that had little meaning
together to find new meaning in old nothing.
in these collages that I could talk about it, writing on them the truths,
"How I came to promise you that you should be safe in the turning year and
that you should be immortal... from sky to sky in an endlessness of life
in love." In that picture the fountain hieroglyph was at the center, and
above it was a circle of blue sky with a dab of blood and above that the
radiant, shining, ever setting sun, the sun of the West, the sun of
continued to work with the idea of the old houses of the Western Addition
and particularly the stained glass windows that had been popular in the
1890’s when the houses were built. I worked around and through themes of
the heart and the cross that I found in the windows, the heart with
arteries like stag’s horns. They were images that meant that I would
strive that my heart be as stalwart as a white stag.
Click here for the "White Stag" Pictures.
worked in mixed media, mixed words, plaster, water colors, a kind of cheap
watercolor paper that was like triple thick newsprint,
and the pages of the books. I found a kind of very thin rice paper on
which ink bled and I made bleeding pictures, pictures dealing with the
same themes of the heart and the horns, and also other themes like the red
cross and the blue fountain that I had found and picked up somewhere.
Click here for pictures on rice paper.
pursued the theme of the wings settling into the crest of the great round
window, dreamed in my work about the window and what lay in the attic
behind it, about the woman of the sun with her radiant turning arms. I
came to realize that the golden wings were a bird that could fly into that
great turning window of the sun. And
because I knew what the golden wings were, I also drew and colored their
Click here for the Golden Wings picture.
And so I began to write
and write on my paintings, and sometimes to make paintings out of almost
nothing else but writings (and all the luminous mysterious stuff of ink
and paint and paper—the material embodiment without which the soul is only
a passing dream)—and to collage together scraps of print from books: a
1900’s Baedeker guide to London all about streets I had heard of only in
novels and surely would never see… It was the music of their sounds, the
aura of their names and the memory of De Quincey on Oxford Street and the
young “girl of the streets” named Ann that mattered—it was all that stuff
went into my suddenly streaming little collages and into my last show at
the 6 Gallery.
The show would include
perhaps a hundred of the small paintings, the landscapes of the Western
Addition and everywhere else, some sculptures I had made when I ran out of
panels to paint on—I still had some scrap lumber from fixing the Harrison
Street house, and painted on it when there was nothing else—as
well as the earliest of the collages whose form would come to focus all my
energies for the next five-six years.
The announcement was very
important. A mimeographed postcard—no picture, how could I afford a
picture? Whereas in the paintings it would be the twist between the
words and the visual that makes the art,
the visual on the card would be the swirling sensations that were always
in my mind and the words on the card would be my challenge to the
important art of the time—
Click here to see the
The next show (1959?)—at
the Cellar, a jazz and poetry club in a basement on Green just off
Columbus—would be exclusively the collages,
followed by the first SFMOMA (then it was just SFMA) show with Sam
Francis, Wally Hedrick and Manuel Neri in 1959 which had I guess a few
landscapes but was really, as far as I was concerned, nothing but collage
messages from the ivory tower because the passage (disputed or not) was
to see the poster.
There was no announcement,
but an artist’s statement was requested. I struggled with it a lot,
finally making a manuscript… which the wife of the museum director bought
(it, with him and her, long since disappeared). I later made a copy
Click here for my copy of the statement.