Archive for the Aging artists Category

“…Tell your wife you love her. This is what it’s all about. Otherwise, you’ll be painting and looking at pictures like this. Your days are numbered, clowns. This is the end of the line. The end of beauty. The end of hope. What is art anyway? Decorations for museums.”

–Chuck Connelly, in the extra features on the DVD for The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, A Film by Jeff Stimmel

I realized about halfway through Jeff Stimmel’s 2008 documentary about Chuck Connelly that I had met this person before, several times. I’d heard his rants before, I’d seen his behavior, I’d witnessed in person how he lived. Through my years as a writer on art, I interviewed and wrote about a number of aging artists — perhaps 6 or 7 in sum — who were very similar to the way Connelly portrays himself in the film. They were so much alike, in fact, that it seems there must be a personality type: The Delusional Shut-in Artist, perhaps, or maybe the Quixotic Quack Painter.

Here are some of the character features of these men (all the ones I’ve met are men):

They are painters, most often.
They have a heroic vision of themselves (as a Great Artist, a warrior fighting against the cultural tides, a man on a holy quest for beauty, truth, etc).
They are so focused on their art — their quest — that not much else matters to them.
As a rule, they don’t care much about their appearance, and they often let themselves go.
They live in a kind of contained squalor, most often surrounded by the messy trappings of their art practice and the accumulated junk piles of the congenital shut-in.
They tend to believe that they’ve been cheated, somehow, out of the rewards (fame, wealth, attention) they feel is rightfully theirs.
They are misogynistic, abusive to their loved ones, and generally fail at interpersonal relationships.
Evenso, they can be very charismatic, attracting a succession of short-term acolytes, supporters, and co-dependents who eventually end up fleeing in disgust from being used.
They tend toward substance abuse.
They are verbally brilliant, though they think and speak in non-linear, associative ways.
They exhibit flashes of brilliance and great command of their own self-directed learning, but they tend to be, at best, emotionally adolescent.

Loretta Bebeau, a Minneapolis-based artist, emailed her thoughts recently (quoted below) in response to my post on What Artists Are Thankful For and my paean to Grizzled Art Warriors. She started by explaining there’s a “story” waiting to be written about her friends Marge and Ed Bohlander.

Marge is one of the few women who did air brush in the 70s/80s/90s. Ed is/was a fantastic metalworker. We have a friendship that goes back to Hopkins and the early arts activism in that town. (In fact they called me and asked me to show.) It’s not the big, hot space like Flanders or T.Barry, but it is a friendship and they know their art. (They’re from the same era as T. Barry.)

Bohlanders went to NYC for awhile and returned to Hopkins, MN. After a successful stint there, they bought the building on 36th Ave. South. Here’s where we pick up their story. After a string of health problems they are now returning to their orginal career goals……….. this is what happens to artists as they go through life. Should we prepare the younger group?

…We ask “where are all of those art students after the age of 30?”

Additional topics:
Where do the older artists show when they want to develop new work? new audiences??
Why is it so awful to be showing from a studio? especially when “galleries are pulling back” due to budget problems. Who is creating “chatter” to build public awareness of visual arts? Who sees the artist as someone over 30?
Does the mature artist exist “out of” academia??? Why should we be proud of them???

Let’s compare visual art with the music world. The enthusiasm of Elvis cannot be recaptured, the Beatles represented the 1960s, and visual arts also represents a time period that cannot be regained. Therefore, earlier, older art still is valuable and continuous chatter about visual art creates awareness of the value.
Let’s compare the athelete over 30 to the artist over 30. Where do the old ballplayers go? Better yet, where are the UofM musicians from Bob Dylan’s era??? Let’s compare them to the local visual artists from that era.

I don’t need responses to the above questions, my purpose is to get something stirred up…. brainstorming…was the old term. During the down times, visual artists have always created a new “drive” for community attention. The drive also raises community spirit and health, aimed at a community pride in their artists.
It’s the time for the 40 year olds…

Then she shifted to explaining the hard realities of her artistic life.

I just read the tales of the “Grizzled Artist.” So, you have it. Onceuponatime I could just skip into a corporate file/admin/secretary job and pick up cash. But this no longer happens over age 50; bright young 30ish people rule the world.

Hey, I have children in that group and want them to do good, but the reality of food and shelter is reality. Also, painting was a habit that sustained me during that nurturing part of life. Artmaking is/was a basic part of my daily thinking. What do we replace it with??? Should I rock back and forth in a chair, or sway to imagined music?

Now the medical community mentions that creative arts keeps the mind from falling into Alzheimers and dementia.

Do I continue to spend amounts of time and money making art that no one wants to see, or do I actually fix the plaster on the kitchen wall and buy paint for it??

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He was a giant when I was in school in the 1980s and 1990s. His aesthetic in many ways ruled those decades, and I long marveled as a young art student at his way of making tense magic out of ordinary and ugly objects.

I had no idea I was so close to him this past spring when I visited Captiva Island in Florida (where he is said to have lived his last years). A friend recently pointed that fact out to me, and said he’d long been friends with the artist and had visited his estate down there. I wish I’d known Mr. Rauschenberg was a friend of a friend–I would have asked for an introduction. I would have loved to ask the artist what he thought of the state of the art world today.

R.I.P, Mr. Rauschenberg.

“You have to have the time to feel sorry for yourself in order to be a good abstract expressionist.”

“It is impossible to have progress without conscience.”

–Milton Ernst (Robert) Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008)

And, for good measure, here’s a (bad) poem I once wrote about an important event in the career of Robert Rauschenberg (I hope you will forgive me):

The 1964 Venice Biennale

In 1964,
less than two years before my birth,
Kenneth Noland’s paintings occupied half the American pavilion
at the Venice Biennale,
and Robert Rauschenberg won
the Gran Premio—
the youngest artist to do so to date.
As a result Europeans raged about America,
about its Pop sensibilities
and its imperialistic designs—
though they didn’t riot like they would in 1968,
when I was two.

In 1964,
less than two years before my birth,
my parents met on a blind-date trip down to Tiajuana,
in Baja California,
and my mother’s mother,
my grandmother Billie,
celebrated the twentieth anniversary
of her divorce from Kenneth Noland,
whom she had met in Asheville, North Carolina,
during the Second World War
when she was just eighteen-years old
and had run away from her mother.

In 1964,
less than two years before my birth,
the esteemed Cardinal Urbani proclaimed a Biennale ban,
and the president absented himself.
Critics fumed too,
at Castelli’s campaign for the American.
“An offense to dignity,” said one;
“A general defeat of culture,” another.
But the artists could care less,
Chamberlain hopscotching across piazzas like a bear,
Oldenburg and his melting typewriter,
Cunningham and a safety pin to hold up his pants.

In 2007,
Forty-three years later,
long after half of these men’s deaths,
and after I had reached the age that Noland was at that time,
I would read about the Venice Biennial
and its embarrassment of riches,
about Rauschenberg’s combines
which had everything but Merce Cunningham’s pants.
And I would pause and consider
how things never really change—
unless you are a cobbler or a typewriter repairman—
and that is both a good and bad thing.

Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present. It cannot regret the past; it is dangerous to prophesy the future. It can, and does, draw on the past in its use of existing heritages but it only does so to give point to a modern argument. In no sense is documentary a historical reconstruction and attempts to make it so are destined to failure. Rather it is contemporary fact and event expressed in relation to human associations.
–Paul Rotha (1935)

It’s a testament to the power of the new documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, “My Kid Could Paint That,”  that people (at least the ones that I’ve talked to) tend to see what that want to see in the film. The documentary, about the recent fifteen minutes of fame of a four-year-old abstract painter, is a strange kind of mirror, reflecting back at each of its viewers an individual reality of the viewer’s choosing. That is, some see it as an indictment of the fickle art world, which has the power to create fads and just as quickly to relegate them to the junk pile. Some see it as an exploration of the enduring power of creativity—particularly of the most pure and innocent (and cherubic) kind—even in the face of the cynical economics of creativity in this country. Still others see it as an American fable about average people trying to get ahead in a field of endeavor they scarcely understand, a sort of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches genre turned on its head…

To me, this film, as well as two other recent documentaries—Esther Robinson’s “A Walk Into the Sea” and Matt Ogen’s  “Confessions of a Superhero”—reveal all of these contradictory realities, and, in the process, explore the complicated  and troubled relationship that Americans have with creativity, fame and fortune, and the ever-present will to stand out above the ordinary masses. Each film reveals something about the the absolute lengths that real people will go to just to get their name in the record books, their work up on screen or gallery wall, or their pictures splashed on a page of the  24-hour news cycle.

“My Kid Could Paint That” tells the story of the Olmstead family from Binghamton, New York. Mark and Laura are the middle-American parents—she a dental assistant, he a manager at a Frito Lay Plant—of two children, Zane and Marla. At age 2, in 2002, perhaps imitating her father, a hobbyist painter, Marla Olmstead began to paint. At age 3, a family friend suggested that they should let him hang Marla’s paintings in his coffee shop. In 2004, a local photorealist painter and gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, mounted a show of Marla’s work, prompting local journalist Elizabeth Cohen to write an article on the painting prodigy that eventually turned Marla—after the New York Times put a “match under a fuse” by picking up the story—into a national, even international, sensation.

To his credit, Bar-Lev keeps his camera level while exploring the competing forces and desires that end up acting on the family after being hit by the storm. Even as the balloon of hype and hoopla inevitably bursts, after a damning 60 Minute profile of the family suggests that an overbearing Mark has been prompting Marla’s creative output, Bar-Lev does not appear interesting in digging into the riddles that are plentiful in Marla’s story. Most of his film flat-footedly follows the agony of the family, and especially of the mother, as they deal with the charges of dishonesty and exploitation and wonder if they’re giving Marla a “normal” upbringing. “I want to take a polygraph,” Laura Olmstead says at one point in the film, “I don’t want to let anyone come in and dissect us again… What have I done to my children?”

Tellingly, throughout the film, Bar-Lev refuses glorify Marla, unlike the initial media stories, as a genius prodigy and natural creative force—preferring to show her most often in her natural state as a goofy and preoccupied four-year-old, pushing paint around like mud with her hands or chasing after butterflies in the yard. Bar-Lev seems to see his role as an unbiased and unjudging observer of one particularly noteworthy example of the country’s troubled love-affair with fame and its misunderstanding of the nature of creative output. 

The most interesting portrayal in “My Kid Could Paint That” is of the father, Mark Olmstead. And while Bar-Lev neither reveals Mark Olmstead as a gray eminence nor completely swallows the family’s explanations of Marla’s pure creative process (he voices his doubts to the family on film), there is enough questioning that we’re not really sure what to believe in the end. After all, the camera records the mother’s saying early on, “Mark always wanted to be in the spotlight.” Like many people, Olmstead is a former athlete who’s always been artistically adept and who seems disappointed by his lot in life. “I would have been better off if I had become an NFL quarterback. That’s what I wanted to do… But I’m proud as hell of my daughter, as far as her painting ability goes.”

Observing the toll that fame and fortune, or the desire to touch the candlelight flame of each, takes on people is of utmost interest to Bar-Lev, and it also appears to drive the makers of two other recent documentary films.

I’ve already written a bit about the first, “A Walk into the Sea,” and I plan to write more once the DVD is available (apparently in early July), so I won’t dwell on it hear. The second, “Confessions of a Superhero,” is beautifully filmed, but ultimately much more lightweight, than either of the other films. “When we were kids,” says a superhero character to introduce the film, “we all dreamt about what it would be like to be a superhero, to have superpowers like x-ray vision or superhuman strength… But we all grow up. And sometimes we turn out to be not that super. And maybe we’re just plain ordinary. [This film] is a look at what people will do to be famous. And what they’ll settle for when they’re not.”

“Superhero” traces the life trajectories of four people who spend their days dressed up in superhero costumes to take pictures, for “tips,” with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard. Interestingly, all of them want to be actors and have minor (very minor) screen credits. Also interestingly, they all seem to be standing just a bit on this side of the sanity smokestack. One in particular, Christopher Lloyd Dennis, who looks somewhat like Christopher Reeves and, of course, plays Superman, is described by the others as fairly nuts. “Yes, obsessed,” says a man who dresses at Batman, “he is very obsessed. That would be the one world for Superman.” He claims at one point that his apartment holds at least a “million dollars” worth of Superman memorabilia, and he claims (dubiously) several times on film that he is the son of the actress Sandy Dennis (who told him on her “death bed” that he should get into the “business”—thus, kicking of his entertainment “career.” “He’s suffocating in the world of Superman,” says a friend from the Boulevard who dresses as Wonder Woman.

But in fact, they all seem, in their own way, rather driven to distraction by the effort to keep stoking the flames of their dreams to make it in Hollywood. “I feel so much like a loser,” says a fourth character, who dresses up as the Hulk, “because I didn’t come out here to get in a costume and stand on Hollywood Boulevard for chump change. I’m out here seriously to make a name for myself.”

In the end, “Confessions of a Superhero” peters out simply because the characters develop no “arc” during the story. All four simply end the film as they started, as people who are burdened by a hopeless dream. Some get married, some divorced; one gets counseling, one lands a role in a cheesy kung fu spoof; one is arrested, another ends up on Jimmy Kimmel. But that’s it. Their dreams live on, pathetically never to be realized.

Documentary filmmakers have been delving deeper into the phenomenon of artistic failure of late. I have seen three such films (which I will describe in a future post) in the past three months myself. And this Toronto Star article, generated by the 15th annual Hot Docs festival, describes an additional four such movies:

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a film about a Toronto-based heavy metal band that has long avoided superstardom, or any kind of stardom. The filmmaker, Sacha Gervasi, follows the bad on a disasterous European tour. (Did I hear you say Spinal Tap?)

The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger: One Man’s Search for the Half-Truth, by Toronto-based filmmaker Matt Gallagher, concerns an amateur auteur named Marshall Sfalcin. Sfalcin, who has created a series of Twilight Zone-like episodes for a local cable station, has long been attempting to film the life story of his grandfather, who was ahead of his time by creating a fast food burger, the titular ”grumpy burger,” for the defunct chain of Hi Ho Restaurants in the Detroit/Windsor area long before MacDonald’s arrived. The film document’s Sfalcin’s inability to complete his film.

Nik Sheehan’s Flicker, is a flim about Brion Gysin (1916-86), a Canadian artist and mystic and close friend of novelist William S. Burroughs. Gysin invented the flicker machine, a device with a bright light inside a rotating cylinder with patterned holes that is said to boost alpha wave-stimulated creativity and transcendence (because the lights supposedly correspond to alpha waves in the brain). The film records the failure of Gysin’s device to find its way to the mass market, leaving Gysin permanently embittered.

Alison Murray’s Carny is about a strange and oft-overlooked subset of the creative class–fairground workers. In particular, the film follows one carny worker, named “Bozo Dave,” as he deals with the highs and lows of his profession and his eventual decision to quit his job.

I have a personal theory that all artists, no matter their stature, talent, social position, or personal history, eventually at some point in their career hits a big, chest-high, brutal hurdle that stops them dead in their tracks and forces them into, at best, an existential crisis, or, at worst, a spirit-shattering spiral into doom–either by a needle-fed OD or by a pistol in a field or by hanging oneself in the woods or through slow mental, physical, or spiritual decline.)

Of course, everyone in every career hits inevitable job hurdles. Maybe you don’t get a position you really want and have to settle for a second choice, maybe you’re passed over for a raise, maybe your new boss or another coworked is a complete douche, maybe you just wake up and realize you hate what you do–all of us face this stuff. We all, at some point, ponder chucking it all, scraping up as much funds as we can, buying a hacienda on the coast of Belize, and spending the rest of our days sipping One Barrel and running a cheesy and perhaps slightly illicit internet business of some sort or another.

For artists, though, hitting the Big Hurdle is different than for most other professions. This is because individuals who take on the mantle of the artist, for some reason, often develop deep identities of themselves as an indelibly crucial part of the culture at large. That is, artists are trained—either by the education system, the artistic culture, their peers, or just pure wishful thinking—to have a bloated sense of their own importance to the rest of the world, a sense of identity that is greatly out of proportion with what their actual role is in the culture. When artists realize, inevitably, eventually, that their sense of themselves (important creators of culture) simply does not match up with how others often view them (lazy, lucky, self-aggrandizing bums), viola! The Great Soul-Shattering Artist Hurdle is met, and the artists either A) tumble horrifically in the attempt to mount the hurdle and become soul-wounded to the core, B) are stopped dead in their tracks and forced to give up their race, or C) find some sort of long and slow way around the hurdle to continue onward.

As I mentioned, this is a theory. I have little quantifiable proof past a few anecdotes really, because, as the axiom puts it, it is generally the victors who write the history books. That is, the artists we tend to know are the ones who have taken path C) around/over the hurdle and have managed to find success (or at least a way to sustain them in their careers). We don’t know artists who at some point have just given up (taken path B), because they just tend to disappear into the blank ether. And we all know a few sensational examples of A)—artists who have killed themselves out of despair or illness—but that is only if they have, at some point, become famous for their art. (I wonder how many unknown examples of A) there are that we’ll never know.)

Part of the mission of CAFA is to pay attention to artists as they meet the career-crushing, soul-smashing Artist Hurdle of Doom. This is in the hopes that artists might learn something essential about themselves and their relationships to what they do. It is to train artists to think in terms of finding their own answers for their problems, not blaming the rest of the world for their struggles. It is because I long ago grew tired of hearing the refrain of complaints from artists, and I’m turning the mirror around in the hopes that artists will figure it out for their damned selves.

All of this is to explain why I lingered too long over the sordid story of the struggling artist Combs, as he struggled with paths A) and B) through his own personal Artist Hurdle. It’s why I’ve kept monitoring ex-artist-cum-blogger Prokop, who has said in regards to giving up art (after I wrote about him):

I never expected success to be handed to me without working for it. I’m not sitting on my hands whining about my failure. What people don’t realize is that hard work does not get rewarded. I’ve worked as hard as I could in my pursuits. I’ve always had such a hard time just trying to make enough money to maintain my own survival. I have to choose between having time to make art and having money to make art. I opt for one, and three months later I need to shift the weight, and maybe sacrifice a flexible job for a consistent income. And I’m not giving up. I’m still writing songs, recording and releasing music. Yes, I quit making “visual art.” That’s a different story. I’m very critical of that discipline right now. I’ll figure out how to write about it eventually…. I’m waiting for something to pay off right now. I’m trying to take it easy and not stress myself out. I can’t afford for my depression to be driving me, so until something happens maybe a little apathy is the answer. I was all ready to make a routine out of bourbon-sours and Law and Order episodes on Netflix, but Michael’s blog got me thinking.

It is also the reason that I–long long ago before I even knew what I was doing–wrote about this overly insistent, but ultimately doomed artist, after he had hounded me to write about him–calling me at home, at my day job, at every number of mine he could find. This artist Kassel had started an amateurish gallery (called Eat Bugs), spearheaded an art “movement” (called New Expressionism), pulled together a pathetic band of followers, and he wanted attention. Of course, the attention I gave was likely not what he expected. Here’s a tidbit:

The conversation shifts again, and Kassel goes off to seduce other likely candidates, so I decide to make my own escape. The air outside is refreshingly cool compared to the oppressive air in the gallery, and the roar of Lake Street is somehow pleasant after the amplified singing and loud talking. Starting one’s own artistic movement is a terrible responsibility, it seems, and those of us who don’t suffer such a burden should appreciate how lucky and free we are.

In the end, like most any artist hitting the Great Artist Hurdle, Kassel closed his Eat Bugs gallery shortly after the story was published and eventually gave up making art. But note: Since then the artist appears to have gone on to a PhD program in political science and, recently, to serve in the Congressional Fellows program.

(Moral of the story: Though you will, like every young artist, eventually, inevitably hit the Great Artist Hurdle, there’s no reason your life has to be ruined when you do.)

I met Dean Fleming in the summer of 2005. Driving through the Sangre de Christo mountains about 40 miles south of Pueblo, I realized the weather in Colorado in August is about a perfect you’ll ever fine. Heartbreakingly beautiful. The sky is a pearlescent blue ocean hanging over the sage green ocean-bottom valleys and the distant coral-reef mountains. On each side of the Huerfano valley, the landscape rises up into scrubby chaparral then disappears into rocky murky mountaintops.

Dean Fleming first discovered this region in 1966. At the time, he was feeling increasingly stifled in New York. “Art was a profession,” he said, “like playing football. You get together a resume and a portfolio. You work to get the critics to do a review… The structure of the profession was not something I ever worked at. I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. In New York, there’s a lot of pressure to repeat yourself and do the same thing. In New York I was the ‘parallelogram’ painter, which I thought sucked beyond belief. I didn’t want anything to do with that. I wanted to do what I felt like.”

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 Dean Fleming, “Untitled,” 1965

 

Fleming took a get-out-of-New York trip to California in 1966 with composer Steve Reich and painter John Baldwin. On the way, they stopped Ignacio, Colorado, to catch a Native American Sundance. “I found it magical,” said Fleming. In a letter to New York gallery owner Paula Cooper in July 1966, he wrote:

Dear Paula,

Excellent mustanging across country spending 4 days with the Colorado Utes sun dancing, basking in stars & Rocky Mountain blaze of sun, cleansing chunks of Manhattan funk & generally changing. Steve playing tapes, John the trumpet & me giving out books & buttons, we Johnny Appleseeded culture across the land…

Fleming’s suggestion that he was changing was revealing. It was difficult for him to adjust again to SoHo when he returned: “When I went back to New York, ” he said, “to my loft on Broom Street, I had a dream that I was supposed to be in the country, surrounded by friends. That was the impetus to come back to Colorado.”

In 1965, some artists, filmmakers, and philosophical types from Lawrence, Kansas had started—in Trinidad, Colorado—what would become known as the first rural “hippy commune,” Drop City. The founders of Drop City had hope to continue working on an art concept—Drop Art—they had developed earlier at the University of Kansas. Drop Art was informed by the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow and the work of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and R. Buckminster Fuller—a professor and inventor who pondered questions related what would later become known as the “sustainability” movement. (Fleming knew “Bucky” Fuller, as he called him. In fact, he learned to make the geodesic dome that is his Libre Commune studio/home from him.)

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The Ultimate Painting ,” by Drop Artists, 1966, acrylic on panel, 60″ x 60″

Fleming first stopped at Drop City with a few friends for a short stay, coming to think of the place as a “touch chaotic.” “They had this open-door policy thing that was untenable,” he explained. “Artists need their own space to think and get work done. They were doomed for failure.” (Drop City was abandoned by its residents in 1970.)

After a few months, Fleming and his group discovered a plot of acreage on a mountainside near Gardner, Colorado. Somehow they scraped up the money to purchase it ($6000), and thus began the Libre Community, a continuously existing commune that has expanded and contracted through the years—with various artist microcommunities popping up then fading away. Amazingly, the commune still exists today, forty years after its founding.

“It’s a funny mix here,” said Fleming, who these days possesses deeply lined face and a long mane of white hair. “There have always been Native American practitioners, Buddhists, wine drinkers, pot smokers. Theater artists. Photographers. Artists. Everyone, each in their own area. Some of the groups overlap. But for me, it’s always just been a great place to work.”

Fleming’s life as a working artist in Colorado has been long and rich—even removed as it’s been from mainstream currents. “I don’t have a lot of money. I never have. But if I have a place to stay, it works out.” Still, like anyone, he seems to have his share of regrets. “I worry about not having health insurance,” he said several times over the course of my stay.

Fleming still paints every morning, first thing—”even when I’m traveling,” he said. Behind his geodesic studio, a good-sized shack holds a large cache of paintings reveals the results of this fifty years of effort. He is pensive about his legacy as he shows this trove to me. “My situation (as an obscure artist) is deliberate. It doesn’t matter in the long run if people like my work or not. I seek a place always where the painting takes over. I’d hope the observer would have that experience, but that’s very individual. It’s the nature of people to like a different painting for different reasons. I think of painting as being a mirror for people—where they’re at.”

As promised, here’s another story of what happens when an artist is exiled by the community or neighborhood he helps (re-)build into a vibrant and hip art district. This time the artist, Dean Fleming, became “exiled” by choice.

Scene: It was the heady 1960s; for the past decade-plus, America’s comfortable and prosperous middle class had been fleeing the country’s cities for the newly built suburbs, leaving huge openings in various city districts for all sorts of opportunistic elements to move in. Such a district in New York City, in 1962 sometimes called “Hells Hundred Acres,” was described by Richard Kostelanetz in his book on SoHo thusly:

“The area below Houston Street [in New York City] was an industrial slum that I might have walked through reluctantly on the way from Greenwich Village to its north or Chinatown to its east. Industrial debris littered streets that were clogged with trucks and truckers during the working daytimes but deserted at night… I first became aware of someone actually residing in the nineteenth-century industrial slum in 1965 when I was introduced on Canal Street to a Korean artist [Nam June Paik] who had just arrived in America and rented a nearby ‘loft,’ which was a word new to me at the time… I later learned of such urban pioneers as Alison Knowles, who, in the late 1950s, had rented space in an industrial building on Broadway just north of Canal Street, where she lived with her husband-to-be, Dick Higgins… By the time I relocated downtown, first to the East Village in 1966, I became aware of artists who had rented large open space in which they worked and, incidentally, lived… [the author mentions Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, the writer Donald Barthelme, Chuck Close, and many others in the text that follows].”

Dean Fleming, a California native, came of age as an artist in New York in the 1960s. A contemporary and friend of sculptor Mark di Suvero, Fleming worked initially in a catchy, trendy (but not earth-shatteringly original) minimalist-geometric style, and he had a few years of success in the gallery scene of the time. Fleming also was, along with di Suvero, a co-founder, in 1963, of the Park Place Gallery in SoHo, which is often called the first cooperative gallery in the district. Kostelanetz doesn’t seem to make mention of the space, but Wikipedia explains, “the gallery showcased works by younger, less established artists with an emphasis on Geometric abstraction, shaped canvas, Hard-edge painting, Op Art, paradoxical geometric objects, and experimental art. Many of the sculptors, painters and other artists who exhibited in Park Place Gallery were interested in cutting edge architecture, electronic music, and minimal art.”

In 1967, burning out on the increasingly large crowds of people clamoring to see what was going on in SoHo, as well as the quickly fragmenting and trend-driven New York art scene of the time, Fleming took off to travel, to far off places like Morocco, Mexico, and the American southwest. While intending to return to New York eventually, in 1968 Fleming became enchanted by the Huerfano Valley region of Colorado, a few hours south of Denver. And, with a few idealistic friends and fellow artists, he bought a few acres and founded, on Greenhorn Mountain, a commune called the Libre Community. His idea was that the community, which still exists to this day, would be a refuge for artists like him looking to get out of the busy city and recharge for a few months. He had it in mind that he’d be able to exchange space in the commune, which has various structures and studios spread across its multiple acres, for an occasional stay in a New York loft. This never happened, unfortunately, and Fleming has remained in the Huerfano Valley—rarely exhibiting in New York or outside of his region—for the past forty years…

TO BE CONTINUED…

In an art world that is ever more beholden to the NEW—to new art, new fashions, new trends, new money, new everything—a very common phenomenon is for artists to fall through the cracks. Artists who, at one point are successfully established in the art world in the end fall through the cracks of changing fashions and fickle tastes. They fall through the cracks of a career that is cut off by new, rising trends. They grow old, making art into old age that was once popular, once part of the rising wave of fashion, yet forgotten because they were inevitably overshadowed by the NEW.

I wrote once about an artist named Sonia Gechtoff, whose rapidly rising career trajectory led her to move to New York City from San Francisco around 1959. In 1960, she was at the top of her game—showing work at the Whitney, obtaining gallery representation, selling enough art to survive. Her future success seemed assured. Then, in 1961, Gechtoff saw a sea-change in the art world—away from expressionism and toward the new “Pop” Art—and her career quickly bottomed out underneath her. Although she survived many years as a painter by teaching classes at this or that school and showing in occasional Abstract-Expressionist retrospective exhibitions, she fell through the cracks of the art world, forgotten in the end.

A current traveling exhibition, called “High Times/High Times: New York Painting 1967-1975,” takes as its subject a generation of painters—many of whom who are relatively unknown—who continued painting in their native styles, mostly abstract, into old age even as those styles were deemed increasingly passé by the art establishment.

A subtext of the dismissal of the old by the NEW in art is much of this, of course, is a power struggle. That is, the art establishment that determines fashions has long been ruled, generally, by rich white men who get ever richer by their machinations and manipulations. Not to be too paranoid and conspiracy-theorist about this, but there’s a reason why women and people of color are legion among those artists who fall through the cracks. Or, as the exhibition description of “High Times/High Times” puts it:

Most art-historical accounts of the late 1960s and early ’70s say little about painting,… [y]et many artists during these same years were exploring radical new directions in abstract painting: pulling painting apart, moving it off the stretcher and onto the floor, creating new shapes and structures, using an entire room or the human body as a canvas. Influenced by social change and the burning political issues of the day, [a number of] artists… created works of great joy, passion, fury, and imagination, expanding conventional concepts of what “painting” could mean. Nearly half the abstract painters whose work is presented in High Times, Hard Times are women, many dismissed at the time by influential art critics, who saw them only as creating an eccentric expression that had some limited value and not as leaders in the renewal of a medium as important as painting. African-American artists such as Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten, and artists from other countries who lived temporarily in New York (Kusama, Blinky Palermo, César Paternosto, Franz Erhard Walther), were similarly denied official recognition. (emphasis mine)

In the great waging war that is the art market, certain artists are the expendable footsoldiers, and curators, critics, gallerians, and museum professionals are the generals who callously condemn them to their fate.

The website Art Obituaries is a very telling sign of the times–i.e., this age of artistic failure. So many artists are cluttering the cultural landscape, and making so much work that inevitably can’t find a home, that a huge percentage of cultural production over the past twenty-thirty years or more is simply ending up in landfills and bonfires.

According to the website:

Art Obituaries commemorates “art that was” by documenting accounts of an artwork’s death. Your intensely personal story provides a rare glimpse into an artwork’s eleventh hour, exploring the nature of an artwork’s life, death, and the process in-between, creating a living discourse where there once was none.

Artists can submit their stories–or artworks lost and put to rest–to Art Obituaries, here

The site also offers this description of the death of art, put into a historical context (that apparently concludes with Art Obituaries):

History is written by the winners, or so they say. Preservation isn’t easy: it’s a series of choices we make, to rescue objects and events from history’s wake. Not everything will survive, we know, so we give life support to those with the best chance. In art history, these lucky few are what we call canon. Other artworks have been doomed to a silent death, until now…

 

Art never dies, but artworks do. Some by accidents of nature, eaten by the strong or bred too peculiar to survive; some by force, put to pasture because they’ve gone bad, or cannot be understood by mainstream society. Art history’s heartbreak has been, simply, that it could not save them all. But now we have a miracle drug. Like some sci-fi invention: we’ve got a pill that cures death. And its name is Art Obituaries