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The End of What Foxy Knows
March 23, 1983

I have received a letter. It says:
“First: What are the best minds [of a generation]? Do we mean the most innovative, dedicated, intelligent and passionate artists? Then, perhaps, we can speculate a little on why and is it relevant [that painting failed].

“Perhaps: Painting may just be an obsolete means of expression competing with moving visual forms that can probe in time and psychological depth.

“Perhaps painting is too introverted for the demands of our present society. (This is part of what you suggest.)

“Wylie Sypher suggests that there is a hundred years between major stylistic changes in Western Art. We are approaching [the end of a hundred year period]. We may be just before a major change in art concepts due to innovative materials such as computers, lasers, etc.

“Has painting become a woman's art because it is relatively inexpensive compared to arts needing extensive machinery? (Of course, there are exceptions, but I am talking of trends.) If so, it will not be taken as seriously and as challengingly as a ‘man's’ art.

“We have moved too far from simplicity, and to paint and draw and train one’s eye and hand and hone one’s art on a two-dimensional level is too simple.”

The letter was in response to the question which prompted my last two columns, Why did painting fail to capture the best minds of a generation? The columns were transcribed and cleaned up from some notebook entries of last May, a time when the question seemed to me even more pressing than it is today. This column will be the last to be transcribed from that book of nearly a year ago, a time now as far gone as those sixties and seventies when the question of the failure of painting first hit the covers of the art magazines. Anyway, in many ways this is the end of what that painter knows who is not dumb like an ox but would rather be dumb like a fox. As in so many creative bursts, this one began with a question (Why did so many... ?), went on to a barrage of insights (the column two weeks ago) and ends now with a series of authoritative statements:

(1) Painting is not for making magnificent decorations for the homes of the rich, nor is it for making modest decorations for the middle class, nor is it for making paltry gauds for the homes of the poor. But Foxy knows, too, that painting can be magnificent, modest paltry—and decorative.

(2) Painting is not for political posters or murals in storefronts or civic palaces. But Foxy knows that painting can be a poster, a mural—it can even be a political act. It can be this latter because Foxy knows every act is a political act (our times have taught him that) just as every act is also an esthetic act (our times have tried to deny him that).

(3) Painting is not for money. The gift of the spirit, as Christ remarked, is not renderable unto Caesar. But Foxy knows, though painting is not for money, sometimes you can sell paintings. (And he likes that.)

(4) Painting is not for making empty tear bottles into which every Tom, Dick and Mary can pour the tears of their lives. No, Foxy knows that if his own tears aren't there first, full to overbrimming, no other tears (or laughter) will ever find their fit.

And Foxy knows that as long as tears and laughter, awe and disgust rip at his gut, his painting will come dripping from his fingers like pearls and blood, like sweat and dirt, like fruit and flowers, like mother's milk and father's sperm, like—like everything else in this world that comes from the bounty of God.

And Foxy knows that when the tearing in him stops and therefore the crying that is singing stops—oh, yes, when they stop—well, what else is dying for?

(5) All right, maybe Foxy knows all that. But what does Foxy say? Foxy says nothing. His dialog is not speech with critics, curators, dealers or collectors. His dialog is the calling and responding between his heart and the canvas. That's why Foxy is today, as he was twenty years ago, “dumb like a painter.”

Well, how do I know what Foxy knows? I know it because I've been describing the dreams of my painter friends of the early sixties, before their dreams were run over by the juggernaut of the Triumph of American Painting, a hit-and-run accident that squashed all the cubs in their burrows, stopped in their tracks all the young foxes that were already running and shot dead everyone who had begun the leap to freedom.

And what is all this that I have written but regret for the youth which every professional must leave behind—nostalgia for the dreams of youth before, in the sixties, those dreams became only the dream of making it before the age of twenty-five.

Come on Fred, get out of the closet. You’ve always been a painter; you always will be. Everything else is just your mask of the moment.