In late 1988, I was newly single and needed a roommate to share the Midtown Sacramento apartment from which my ex had moved. I proposed the situation to M, a young woman with whom I had become acquainted a few years before and who had recently done some modeling for me, and she accepted. She was a budding songwriter who also played bass,1 and had a small record collection – all vinyl; neither of us owned a CD player during the few years we were roommates.

In the Venn diagram of musical tastes, ours had some overlap which grew as she heard the records I played. She didn’t act as DJ much, but one LP I recall her owning is Japan’s live album Oil on Canvas, which is notable for the Frank Auerbach painting that graces the jacket. With its heavily impastoed surface and virtuosic brushwork, the portrait of Juliet Yardley Mills, who sat regularly for Auerbach for over forty years, is representative of his arresting technique and as far as I know is the only example of his work on a record cover.

I didn’t know a lot about either the band or the painter, but was vaguely familiar with both. I’d heard a couple of Japan’s albums and some of leader David Sylvian’s solo work, but didn’t know any of the records well. As for Auerbach, I was aware of paintings similar to the one on the album cover and that he ran in the same circles as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, two other renowned British figurative artists,2 but that was about the extent of my knowledge.

That situation didn’t change much for many years, but when my friend Laureen Landau passed away in 2009, she left much of her estate to a mutual friend of ours, the aforementioned ex, who, from Laureen’s possessions, gave me a black leather blazer of which I am very fond, and several art books, including a Frank Auerbach monograph.3 Of the work reproduced therein, the portrait heads interest me the most, and I have a preference for the charcoal drawings over the oils. Also appearing in the book is a compelling series of forty photographs documenting the progress of a single drawing, Portrait of Sandra. Auerbach would rub out the drawing prior to each session with the sitter and start over with the pentimento of what had been done before as a foundation. He worked and re-worked all his drawings until they were so abraded he often needed to patch them where the paper had been worn through. The resultant layers and textures from this working method give the images a captivating expressionist quality.4

Earlier this year, The Courtauld Gallery in London mounted an exhibition of Auerbach portraits from the mid-1950s to the mid-’60s. I didn’t make it to Merrie Olde for The Charcoal Heads, although I did stroll through the gallery and see the show in the online virtual world.5 In addition to the seventeen titular drawings in the show, there were six oil paintings from the same period, all depicting sitters who appear in the drawings. The work is simultaneously sensitive and brutal; it evokes an emotional desolation that could be viewed as reflective of not only the circumstances of Post-War Britain, but also Auerbach’s personal trauma – in 1939, at eight years old, he was sent to England from Germany via Kindertransport. He never saw his parents again; they were among the over one million people murdered at Auschwitz. Still in his early twenties when he made the earliest of the pieces in the show, he was astonishingly young to be producing work of such sophistication and depth.

Frank Auerbach is now ninety-three years old, and still works every day in his studio. In 2023 he had a show of new self-portraits, both drawings and paintings, most of which were done when his regular models couldn’t sit for him during the COVID lockdown. His process hasn’t changed – he still rubs out all his drawings and scrapes down all his paintings prior to starting again. Although he said the show included “what may be [his] last paintings,” I imagine he will continue that practice until he is unable to work at all.

It’s been well over thirty years since M’s and my living arrangement came to an end. Despite her moving to several different cities up and down the West Coast in subsequent years, she has modeled for me occasionally since then, and we’ve managed to stay in touch all this time. Maybe she’ll take a page from Auerbach’s models, and sit for me regularly for the next few decades.

 

1 Shortly after she moved in, I was listening to Keith Richards’ first solo album, Talk is Cheap, which had just been released and was in heavy rotation at the apartment. The first song on side one is called “Big Enough,” and while it was playing, she asked, “Who is that on bass?!” It’s Bootsy Collins.

2 Decades into their respective careers, all three painters were deemed part of the School of London, figurative artists based in and around England’s capital. Besides these three, the only other artist associated with the group with whom I was familiar at the time was David Hockney. 

3 Robert Hughes: Frank Auerbach; Thames & Hudson (1992).

4 Like Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, Auerbach has denied any expressionist intent in his work.

5 In the actual real world, I purchased the catalogue. Barnaby Wright and Colm Tóibín: Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads; Paul Holberton Publishing (2024).

Ross Bleckner: One Day Fever (1986). Oil and wax on linen, 48" x 40".For much of the 1990s, I had a magazine subscription to Art in America. Occasionally, my favorite part of an issue would be the monthly advertisement for recently-published art books that could be purchased at a slight discount through the magazine itself. If memory serves, there would be four different ads a year, one for each season. It was in one of these ads that I first saw the Ross Bleckner painting One Day Fever, which appears on the cover of the catalogue to his 1995 Guggenheim retrospective. The piece was striking, and even in the tiny reproduction – the photo was not much larger than a couple postage stamps – it captured my attention and for weeks I kept flipping back to the ad. I was already somewhat familiar with Bleckner’s work, which I had occasionally read about and admired in Art in America and other magazines since the early ’80s. On the strength of its cover image and my rudimentary knowledge of his work, I decided to take the plunge and ordered the catalogue through a local independent bookstore I frequented. Apparently one can judge a book….

Bleckner utilizes an ever-expanding set of motifs, but his dark interiors are still among my favorites of his oeuvre. The obscure environment in One Day Fever, as well as those in several other pieces in the catalogue, brought to mind the rooms in many of Francis Bacon’s dark paintings from the 1950s. However, whereas Bacon’s spaces feel airless and claustrophobic, Bleckner’s appear open and expansive – those in the Examined Life series, with chandeliers or other lamp-like objects, often resemble the dance floors of discotheques. The shaft of light coming down on the left side of One Day Fever also recalls Bacon’s ’50s work; it resembles the vertical brushstrokes he used to merge figure and ground and which he referred to as “shuttering.” Despite these similar aspects, Bleckner’s piece no more resembles a Bacon painting than it does El Greco’s Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, a detail from which Bleckner based his composition.  Bleckner has obviously studied the vocabularies of a myriad of artists from the past, but the manner in which he employs them is his own.

Bleckner transformed the El Greco angel’s pale, fleshy legs into spectral limbs which float at the top of the scene and are a principle component of his composition. The roses, lilies, and urn, which fill the majority of the picture plane, create the funereal atmosphere which permeated Bleckner’s work of the time. The urn doesn’t even seem to have a physical presence – it appears to be composed completely of light reflected off an object which is no longer present. Although Bleckner’s approach to referencing HIV and AIDS was actually quite oblique, One Day Fever immediately and unmistakably evoked all the issues surrounding that crisis. As far as I know, Bleckner explicitly referred to AIDS in only one piece – 8,122 as of January 1986 – but in the 1980s and ’90s it was impossible to view his paintings of loss and mourning without thinking about the disease.

It’s been almost thirty years since Bleckner’s “mid-career” Guggenheim retrospective, almost thirty years since I became familiar with One Day Fever. I believe seeing the piece for the first time today, out of the context of the times, would be a very different experience, although it continues to embody the gravitas it held then. I admire Bleckner’s compulsion to make work based on his sociopolitical concerns, I admire his need to do so on his own terms, and I admire the paintings themselves, of which I’ve only seen a handful. One Day Fever has not been among them.

Field of Fire, my first solo show in quite some time, is opening later this week. My previous exhibition was back in November 2020, and almost all the work for it was done during the COVID lockdown, which was a difficult time for me as a painter. I wasn’t making visual or conceptual connections; working on one piece did not lead to ideas for any further work – with each painting I started I felt as if I were back at square one. I believe this was because, in addition to the overwhelmingly oppressive and physically threatening political climate of the time,1 I was barely leaving the confines of my four walls. With next to none of the sensory input that came with what had been normal life, it became difficult for me to transform thought into expression. This was something I did not anticipate, something that I had never even considered I would have to manage, but something that became apparent early in the pandemic.

Several years ago, I began to utilize actual objects – rivets, a fork, a music box, a tooth in a vial – in some of my work, and when the 2020 show was scheduled, I planned on continuing that practice. Unfortunately, as it turned out, I had a hard enough time putting the show together even without adding other elements. The one piece that did have a sculptural aspect – it included rivets, twine and three Chinese coins – was finished in late 2019, prior to the first reported cases of the coronavirus in the US.

When the vaccine became available, I returned to the world outside, but even so, between that time and when I started working on the present show, I only finished a handful of pieces, none of which had an easy gestation. Last year I did produce a painting that incorporated a 7” vinyl record, although I considered it more of a design job than a piece of art.2

Feeling I had to regain my equilibrium as a painter, I decided not to concern myself with the “painting with objects” idea while producing the Field of Fire pieces – I simply wanted to create a body of work that belonged together, that felt like a show. Fortunately, the ability to tap into those artistic processes which had previously been so natural did start to come back to me while I was working on these current paintings.

Although I began these pieces up to ten months ago, they were all finished this year. Since I always had a few paintings on which I was actively working – something I’d never done before – all the work developed together. Additionally, a major occurrence in my life took place about a year and a half ago, and I found that most of the paintings, even those that don’t relate to that event, are seen through its lens, a perspective experienced by most people my age. I believe that these conditions contributed to the cohesiveness of the work as a whole.

Field of Fire will run from April 4-27, 2024 at Archival Gallery, 3223 Folsom Boulevard in Sacramento, CA.

 

1 Which, frankly, hasn’t abated much, and is currently ramping up again. Somebody shove a mute in that trumpet, please.

2 The work served as the announcement image for Archival Gallery’s Top 40 anniversary group exhibition.

Starting in the mid-1990s and continuing for many years, I worked at a small used record shop in Sacramento.1 This was prior to the current resurgence in the popularity of vinyl and also to streaming being the primary manner in which most people listen to music. CDs were the dominant format of the time and also what we generally played in the store, although we did sell vinyl, cassettes, and the occasional 8-track.

One morning, while perusing the racks looking for something to play, I came across Kronos Quartet’s 1993 recording of composer Paul Ostertag’s All the Rage.2 I’d been a Kronos fan for many years, and had seen them perform a few times. Although this particular album was in my personal collection, I hadn’t listened to it in some time, so I decided on it as the first instore-play record of the day. No one else was in the shop as I pushed the play button.

The day’s first customer, a young woman, soon wandered in to browse, and shortly, Eric Gupton’s impassioned delivery of Sara Miles’ libretto came over the speakers:

... The first time someone really tries to kill me.
With a knife like they tried to kill Julio,
a baseball bat like they did Jo,
a bottle like Vickie,
a two by four like Matt,
a fist a fist a fist a foot and a fist...

The voice took her by surprise; she looked up and listened until the section ended. She then asked what I was playing, and I told her the name of the quartet, of the composer, and of the piece. She thanked me and continued her browsing, but I could tell she was paying close attention to the record.

Kronos Quartet: All the Rage CD. Elektra/Nonesuch Records (1993).

In 1991, California’s then-Governor Pete Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 101, although he had made a campaign promise to sign it. AB101 would have prohibited employers from discriminating in hiring and promotion on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation. In response to the veto, there were demonstrations throughout the state, and the one in San Francisco turned violent. Years of pent-up frustration and anger about lack of AIDS funding and support, about gay-bashing, about police harassment exploded after thousands of demonstrators marched from the Castro District to a state building on Golden Gate Avenue where Wilson had an office. Over $250,000 in damage was done to the building. Bob Ostertag was there, and made a sound recording of the incident. Later, he isolated sections of the tape which suggested music, notated the sounds musically, and developed the piece from there. Much of what he wrote for the quartet to play came from the riot’s inherent rhythms which he refined through the editing process; the sounds of screaming, whistles, breaking glass, and chants of “We’re Not Going Back” and “Queers Fight Back” from his tape appear throughout the finished All the Rage recording.

After a few more minutes, the customer again approached the counter.

“I never knew something like this could even exist,” she said to me with a tone and expression that sounded and looked like awe, and asked if I could tell her anything about what she was hearing. I handed her the CD case and told her a little about Kronos – that they were from San Francisco and were commonly referred to as the Fab Four of the classical music world; that they completely changed how a string quartet could look and sound; that their recorded catalogue was varied and always, at the very least, intriguing; that their impact on new music3 really couldn’t be overestimated.

She didn’t talk about how the music affected her, although it was obvious it did so on some profound level. I took her comment about how the piece “could even exist” as meaning she’d never before heard music which so directly spoke to, or possibly even for, her. She read Ostertag’s liner notes, which tell of the riot and his process, and asked if she could purchase the album. I sold it to her and felt I had a role in creating the circumstances which could actually change someone’s life in a positive way.

I’m a straight cisgender male; this fight isn’t mine, except in that I believe in equality; I have close friends in the LGBT+ community; and, as a Japanese-American who has dealt with lifelong discrimination – including having “f*ggot” yelled at me more times than I can count – I feel I can understand that rage.

Art has power. Alliance has power. And rage has power.

 

The Kronos Quartet’s royalties from All the Rage were and continue to be donated to The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR),4 because Kronos is a righteous organization.

 

1 I frequented Esoteric Records for years prior to being employed there, and with one particular employee had had conversations regarding David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Brian Eno, and The Velvet Underground, among other favorites of mine. However, I believe I was offered the job because I knew Doug Sahm’s version of the Bob Dylan song “Wallflower.” I became close friends with my co-worker. Keith. and the owner, Denis, both of whom are no longer with us. I miss their friendship more than I can say, but at least the store lives on, at 1139 Fulton Avenue in Sacramento.

2 Elektra/Nonesuch Records.

3 “New music” is a term used to describe contemporary classically-based music, often avant-garde in nature.

4 The non-profit is now called simply The Foundation for AIDS Research.

In the early-to-mid-1980s, in what now seems like another lifetime, I managed a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor & Ye Public House. Back in those days, something one found in most pizza parlors was a cigarette machine.1 These vending machines have been outlawed in establishments where those under eighteen are allowed, in Sacramento since 1991, in California since 1995, and in the US since 2010. The one I saw five days a week in the Shakey’s dining room is probably rotting away in a landfill somewhere. One might think that someone should do something constructive with these heavy, large, unwieldy metal boxes.

Well, someone has. Since 2007, I’ve been working on-and-off with the Art-o-Mat® project. These good folks refurbish old cigarette machines, making them bright and shiny, and artists contribute a wide variety of cigarette pack-size work to stock them. There are paintings, drawings, sculptures, pieces of jewelry, photographs, et al. which are sold for five dollars each2 at museums, galleries, and shops across the country. One puts a token in the machine, pulls the knob which corresponds to the desired “brand,” and fresh art drops like a stale pack of Marlboro Reds.

I just sent in my twenty-first edition of the painted blocks – over the years, more than 1250 of my small pieces have helped fill the machines. My ongoing series, Paintings of Safety & Danger, depicts objects – actual size3 safety pins, safety matches, safety razors, syringes, broken safety glass, pills, and condoms – which symbolize actions which can be seen as either safe or dangerous. I like that the objects are thematically linked in such a subjective manner, and that the title of the series reflects that. However, despite the obvious caveat in that title, some Art-o-Mat® hosts and collectors have objected to the condoms. Consequently, my work is no longer available at some locations where it could previously be purchased, and is now considered R-rated. It’s not exactly Robert Mapplethorpe, but I guess, compared to most of the Art-o-Mat® inventory, it is kind of racy. Still, it’s a sad comment that this far into the twenty-first century, a painting of a prophylactic could cause a fuss. Nevertheless, Art-o-Mat® founder and Main Man Clark Whittington has never asked me to change the series or desist from painting anything. I have appreciated his support in this matter, as the condoms are such an essential part of the series I wouldn’t want to continue it without them.

 

Art-o-Mat® is for everyone, although the machines do seem to be particularly appealing to children. An interest in art needs to be fostered in order to flourish, and Art-o-Mat® is a perfect way to do that – it’s approachable, inexpensive, and fun. There are plenty of options from which to choose, so give the kid a token and let him or her4 determine what is most appealing. As with the artwork in the museums where many of the machines reside, kids may have questions about some of the pieces one can buy. So, if he/she/they comes to you with a painting of a condom, take the opportunity to have a conversation. It may save you some trouble sometime down the road.

 

1 They were found in many ye public houses, as well. 

2 Lucrative? Uh… no.

3 For some reason, this is conceptually important to me. I’m actually not sure why.

4 Or them. I have no problem with “them.” Well, honestly, grammatically, I kind of do, but ideologically I have no problem with “them.”

I. I first met Laureen Landau on a spring morning in 1996 at the newly-opened Thomas A. Oldham Gallery. Sunlight streamed through the east windows of the office, and she appeared with her slides, hoping to secure representation. I just happened to be there; many of the gallery artists would often hang out – it was that kind of place. We would develop a real camaraderie.

Looking over director D. Oldham’s shoulder at the slides, I felt a sense of recognition. I recalled a large still life of mushrooms at the State Fair Fine Art competition the previous summer; it was the undisputed highlight of the show, an engaging and beautiful painting. I mentioned this to Laureen, and she confirmed it was her piece. As D. engaged herself in other gallery business, Laureen and I talked. She had come in because she had seen my drawing of a woman cradling a skull in her arms, which was reproduced in a review of the gallery’s inaugural show. She believed a gallery which would show such a piece might also appreciate her work.

She was asked to join the gallery, and the relationship we subsequently forged was profoundly important to me. We didn’t see each other often but shared similar artistic sensibilities. I cannot overstate how rare and precious this is. We would always talk shop: about our work, about work we regarded highly, and about work we didn’t – pieces which would, as she put it, “just drag down the whole show.” She wasn’t afraid to voice an opinion.

Corey Okada with photo of Laureen Landau, Midtown Sacramento (2023).

II. In 1997 I had the opportunity to exhibit with Laureen in a two-person show at the Sutter Club, an over-century-old institution in Sacramento. Ours was the first in a series of shows hosted by the private men’s club, which we joked was “now welcoming women and minorities.” The show consisted of figurative works on paper: her paintings and my drawings. It was an honor to show alongside her; I was, and still am proud that my work held its own under those circumstances. Pairing artists for an exhibition can be a delicate endeavor; ideally, the work of each artist should somehow comment on that of the other. The work shouldn’t look similar, but should have some common touchstone which serves as a link between the two. In certain ways, Laureen was an old-fashioned artist, as am I. So be it. Our work is very concerned with the formal, aesthetic aspects of drawing and painting. We also share a sense of foreboding, a haunting quality in much of our work. It was extremely gratifying to find our pieces companionable. I wish we had had the occasion to show together again.

III. The last time we saw each other was September 12, 2008 at the reception for what was destined to be her final exhibition. We spoke of many things: of home, of fireplace pokers, of airsickness, and, as was our wont, of art. That evening we talked at length about our mutual admiration for the work of Ross Bleckner, the contemporary New York painter. I miss those discussions, and the dialogue we shared. She both imparted and received information graciously; her knowledge never prevented her from accepting the ideas and opinions of one many years her junior. We conversed as artists, as peers, and as friends. I once asked Laureen why her landscapes and figurative work tended to be small, while her still lifes were almost always large. She responded “it just seems that’s the way it should be.” Her paintings possess the look of inevitability to which that statement alludes. They are deeply ordered, without even a suggestion of fussiness. They could be no other way. Both her generosity and her talent were immense.

IV. Several months later I found out she was very sick. Shortly thereafter, a phone call came with news of her passing; there would be no funeral. I didn’t cry until weeks later, in her studio, surrounded by her work and the tools of our labor. Near her easel hung a bulletin board, in the middle of which was tacked a page from a magazine published years before we met. Unknowingly, I had watched over her while she plied her trade; the clipping was a photograph of me, in a white tuxedo shirt, standing with two of my paintings.

In early September 2004, I was in a car accident and sustained a back injury which laid me up for months. It was serious enough that I pretty much had to learn how to walk again. During that time I was often doped up on pain meds,1 lying on the couch, staring out the window. I really didn’t see much – my view was just the street, mainly I remember a lot of rain – nothing to divert my attention from the pain or the boredom, no apartment windows through which I might spy on my neighbors.

About twenty-one years prior to the accident, five Alfred Hitchcock films which had not been screened in over two decades were restored and re-released. I saw two of them – Rope and Rear Window – in the theater.2 The former I considered a mildly interesting diversion, the latter I found a revelation. The scenes in both are more or less confined to one apartment each – this is a limitation I particularly enjoy in film.3 I like the intimacy and/or the claustrophobia inherent in such an approach to storytelling.

Rear Window tells the tale of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), a magazine photographer who broke his leg while getting a “dramatically different” photo of an automobile race. He’s laid up, in a wheelchair, stuck in his hot Greenwich Village apartment with nothing to do. He does have someone on his mind – his socialite girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, played by the stunningly lovely and dressed-to-the-nines Grace Kelly.4 She wants to get married; he believes they’re too different for the relationship to work in the long term, but doesn’t want to call it off entirely. To distract himself from this situation, he watches his neighbors through his back window. There’s Jeff’s fantasy woman, a dancer whom he’s nicknamed “Miss Torso;” a newlywed couple; a lonely single woman; a salesman and his ailing wife; an older couple with a dog; a songwriter; and others. Jeff often talks about them, so Lisa and Jeff’s nurse Stella have both become familiar with this cast of characters.

What goes on in these apartments is a kind of microcosm of the world of personal relationships, and some of the situations in them seem to parallel or comment on what is happening in the lives of Jeff and Lisa. For example, Jeff’s work as a photographer takes him far afield, just as Thorwald, the salesman, travels for his job; they are also both having problems in their respective relationships. Jeff compares Lisa to Miss Torso, whom he describes as “the eat-drink-and-be-merry girl,” whose apartment is often visited by prospective suitors – “she’s doing a woman’s hardest job,” counters Lisa, “juggling wolves.” However, Lisa relates more to “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and it is later revealed how they are emotionally similar.

After six weeks of relatively benign watching, Jeff hears a scream late one night and soon becomes convinced Thorwald has killed his wife. It is then that the spying, which had been simply something to while away the time, becomes an obsession. Initially, Lisa and Stella think it’s simply Jeff’s imagination running away with him; however, they eventually both believe Thorwald really may have committed murder.

Rear Window still: Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) in front of the titular window.

Although Lisa, Stella, and Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle are free to come and go, the viewer is trapped in the apartment with Jeff, and sees the neighbors as he sees them, in long shots from his window, across the courtyard. With few exceptions, one gets closer only when Jeff, Lisa, or Stella looks through binoculars or a telephoto camera lens. In contrast, the apartment scenes are, on the whole, tightly composed. Therein lies a dichotomy – Jeff seems closer to, more emotionally invested in, his neighbors whom he only sees from afar than he does to his girlfriend in his own apartment.

Rear Window is about alienation and connection, two themes which are common in the work of many painters, myself included. I didn’t start painting seriously until a few years after seeing the film, but I had already started to form an aesthetic for what my work would become – perhaps that’s why the film had such an impact on me.

Although I haven’t been in constant pain in quite a long time, I still have back problems – I never fully recovered from my injury. I also never suspected a neighbor of murder. If I had, I may have felt inclined to solve the mystery, and it’s just as well that never happened – my better half, who did practically everything for me during those months, probably would have dug up the flower garden, but she definitely wouldn’t have climbed into Thorwald’s second story apartment window, especially in a floral-print dress and high heels.

 

1 Darvocet, which was taken off the market in 2010 because it was linked to a potentially fatal heart-rhythm abnormality, was one of them. It was also one of the “medicines” to which Elvis was addicted. Hey, if it was good enough for the King…

2 I believe it was the late, lamented Showcase, which was torn down in 1984 to make room for a parking lot, at 412 L Street in Downtown Sacramento. The other three films were Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

3 Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder are also very limited in terms of location. I think Rear Window is the best of the four, by far.

4 A few years ago, I watched several Grace Kelly movies in a short period of time. I mentioned this to my father, who was something of an old movie aficionado, and he said, “She didn’t make many movies, but she was never in a bad one.” I haven’t seem them all, but so far this has held true.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Veronica Veronese (1872).I admit it – I have a penchant for a good painting of an attractive woman. I also like expressive hands. Veronica Veronese has both, executed with uncommon grace and vision, so it’s no wonder I like it as much as I do.

I became a fan of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood1 co-founder Dante Gabriel Rossetti when I was a pre-teen, upon seeing Ecce Ancilla Domini: The Annunciation, an early work, in Charles Wentinck’s The Art Treasures of Europe.2 A few years later, almost certainly via the Sacramento Public Library system, I was introduced to Rossetti’s later paintings, including Veronica Veronese. I was definitely already familiar with the piece in 1982, when Bryan Ferry chose it as the sleeve image for the Roxy Music UK single “More Than This.”Eventually, when I started painting and formulating ideas for what I wanted my work to be, Rossetti was one of the artists who provided a foundation for that endeavor. The romantic, hallucinatory quality of his work was something I wanted to imbue in my own paintings.

I am fortunate enough to have seen Veronica Veronese during the summer of 2018 in the exhibition Truth & Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It was my first experience seeing Rossetti’s actual work, 4 and I was quite enamored with the show, which included, among other artists, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Sandro Botticelli, and Jan van Eyck. Even in such lauded company, I found myself looking at Rossetti’s work for the majority of my visit to the museum, and much of that time was spent in front of this particular painting.

The strong verticals and horizontals in the piece provide the basis of the deceptively simple-looking composition. I particularly like how her right wrist is bent forward in such a manner that the forearm and hand form a ninety-degree angle – it appears to be an awkward way to casually hold a bow, but is visually striking and compositionally effective. The implied grid is offset by the skewed fashion in which the figure is holding her head; parallel to this is the diagonal which goes from the bird in the upper left, down the figure’s upper arm, to the flowers in the bottom right. Running perpendicular to these lines, balancing the whole, are the figure’s left hand and her long, columnar neck.

The figure, modeled by Alexa Wilding, who sat regularly and exclusively for Rossetti, delicately touches the strings of a violin with her left hand and holds the bow in her right. Her skin has a glowing, almost otherworldly quality, and her red hair stands out against the green of her dress and of the brocade drapery in the background. The painting is filled with details which add to the lushness of the scene: the ribbon on the scroll of the violin, the sprigs in the birdcage, the silver necklace and bracelet. Her velvety dress is particularly luxurious, and the tassel and feather fan hanging from the waist contribute more texture. The Lady Veronica has left off after writing one staff of music on the paper in front of her – with her heavy-lidded, faraway eyes and somewhat languid expression, she seems transported, possibly by the bird’s song. One of the Pre-Raphaelite’s early tenets was art should be reliant on nature, which here is set free – although there is a cage, the bird is outside of it, perched on the open door. Rossetti also often utilized floral adjuncts in his paintings – in this piece, the daffodils could have some meaning, as he employed both traditional and personal symbolism in his work,5 or they could be included simply for their color, which echoes the yellow of the canary.

Standing before Veronica Veronese was an enthralling experience, one I had looked forward to for most of my life. I may have swooned.

 

1 A group of young, idealistic nineteenth century British artists, the Pre-Raphaelites were the radicals of the Victorian art world. On the whole, contemporaneous critics found their work, which didn’t conform to the Royal Academy of Art’s teachings, assaultive and vulgar. Although the group was only together from 1848 to 1854, and the principal painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti all went on to have long careers, their respective later styles continued to be thought of as “Pre-Raphaelite.”

2 Simon & Schuster (1974).

3 EG/Polydor Records. In the US, the painting appeared on the sleeve to the “Take a Chance with Me” single, EG/Warner Brothers Records (1982). In their respective countries, each was the first single from the album Avalon, which I love.

4 There were eleven Rossettis total in the show, including another favorite, La Pia de’ Tolomei (1868-1881), and a watercolor version of Proserpine (1878), both modeled by Jane Morris.

5 Illustrator Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers lists “regard” as the meaning for daffodils. The book was originally published in 1884; my copy is the Avenel Books reprint (n.d.). In her illustration, Greenaway was heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

One of the earliest art books I received as a child was a gift from my mother. It was unusual in that it wasn’t for any particular occasion, she just brought it home for me one day. The Art of Andrew Wyeth1 is the catalogue for a 1973 Wyeth retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. My mother did not see the show; I don’t know how she became aware of the book or what prompted her to buy it for me, as I had no idea who Wyeth was. Being about ten years old, I didn’t think to ask, I just happily accepted the gift. When she gave it to me, she specifically pointed out that in the painting The Patriot, one can see the stitching on the buttonholes of the sitter’s World War I uniform – she liked the amount of fine detail Wyeth achieved in his major works, which were painted in egg tempera.2 He built up these pieces slowly, often taking six months to complete one; he also used this heavily-layered technique, which he compared to weaving, in his drybrush works. I did find this fascinating, and when I first had the book, it was this aspect of Wyeth’s work on which I focused.

Roughly a decade later, in the mid-1980s, I was given Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth,3 the catalogue to a another Wyeth retrospective. The “two worlds” of the title are the Kuerner Farm in Chadds Ford, PA, and the Olson Farm in Cushing, ME, the two primary places where Wyeth painted. This time the gift was from a consort – an old estranged fiancée of mine. I think the young woman was attracted to the work because of the rural settings, to which she could relate, and the fact that Wyeth had such a strong connection to those environments and to the people who inhabited them. I grew up in the suburbs, so the barns and milk cans and drying corn and bags of grain were all very foreign to me. Wyeth’s strongest paintings have a mysterious aspect, a gothic atmosphere, which is rooted in such imagery.

In 1986, there was an explosion of Wyeth hype when the existence of the “Helga Pictures” came to light. The story was, Wyeth had, for more than fifteen years, been secretly painting a neighbor, Helga Testorf, and putting the unseen work in storage. He was more than twenty years her senior, and they met while she was working as a nurse caring for Karl Kuerner, of the aforementioned Kuerner Farm. It was said that neither Andrew’s wife Betsy nor Helga’s husband had known about their artist/model relationship. When asked about the work, Betsy’s one-word reply was that it was about “Love.” It turned out the story was somewhat contrived, but nevertheless, during the week of August 18, 1986, Wyeth paintings of Testorf graced the covers of both Time and Newsweek.4

The next year, an exhibition of the Helga work was mounted at the National Gallery of Art, and a catalogue5 was published. A couple years after that, I was given the book by a woman with whom I had become acquainted. Her primary art predilection was for Art Nouveau illustrator Alphonse Mucha, but she was drawn to what she perceived as the romantic nature of the Helga pieces. Her favorite image in the book was Night Shadow – I prefer the similar, but earlier full-length Black Velvet. Although Helga appears to be asleep in both pieces, they are among the most physical of the series, which is made up of hushed, contemplative works. This quietude, coupled with the fact that she is always solitary and often nude, could certainly evoke a romantic impression.

Each of these books was given to me by a person who was attracted to Wyeth’s work, each for a different reason. I can appreciate all of their points of view, but am mainly interested in his draftsmanship. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any actual pieces by Wyeth, but I find his graphite drawings to be the strongest work of his oeuvre. Although they can be intricately detailed, they have a freeness to them that is not apparent in his tempera paintings. Many of the most engaging examples have an Ingres-like quality, in which parts of the image materialize three-dimensionally, while other areas drop back in outline.

In 2002, Andrew and Betsy, who was his business manager, set up the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, which retains ownership of some 7000 of his works, many of which are graphite or watercolor sketches and studies which Wyeth considered not polished enough for exhibition. Perhaps this work will go some way in revising the not unpopular notion that Wyeth was an “illustrator” rather than an “artist.” His rise to prominence took place more or less contemporaneously with that of the Abstract Expressionists, who brought the art world’s focus to the United States, specifically New York City, for the first time. Wyeth’s paintings must have seemed antiquated by comparison, but I do find a certain charm in someone working so against the grain. Although throughout his career he did occasionally drift into what I would consider illustrative territory,6 I don’t believe his artistry is in question.

Andrew Wyeth, after a short illness, passed away in 2009 at ninety-one. Betsy Wyeth, whose health had been declining for some time, died eleven years later at ninety-eight. Helga Testorf still resides in Chadds Ford, PA. Wyeth’s studio, the Kuerner Farm, and the Olson House have all been registered as National Historic Landmarks, and can be visited by the public.

My mother continues to be impressed with the detail in Wyeth’s paintings, although she doesn’t recall why she decided to purchase the book for me. It’s been over thirty years since I’ve seen either of the two women from whom I received the other catalogues; I hope they’re both doing well.

All three books are still in my possession.

 

1 Wanda M. Corn, et al.; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California (1973).

2 Egg tempera is dry pigment mixed with distilled water and egg yolk. It takes months to dry completely, but once it does, it is hard and durable – think about how difficult it is to wash yesterday’s breakfast dish with your half-eaten sunny-side up eggs on it. Wyeth initially saved the whites, with which his wife Betsy would make angel food cakes. Eventually, their friends and family all got tired of that and he started simply throwing the whites away.

3 Thomas Hoving; The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1976).

4 Just like Bruce Springsteen, baby, eleven years earlier.

5 John Wilmerding, et al.: The Helga Pictures; Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1987). Although the exhibit did travel, and came to San Francisco’s de Young Museum in 1988, I did not see it.

6 See Christmas Morning (1944), The Revenant (1949), Day Dream (1987), and Omen (1997), for example.

Jasper Johns: Target with Four Faces (1955).The circumstances under which I was introduced to the work of Jasper Johns are lost to me, but I’m fairly certain the first painting of his I saw was Target with Four Faces.1

What initially struck me about the piece was the texture of its surface – at the time, I didn’t even know what encaustic, the painting’s medium, was; I had to look it up. It is an ancient technique, little-used when Johns discovered it. The vehicle is wax; he mixes it with oil paint as the pigment. Encaustic dries so quickly that each individual brushstroke, each individual drip, is discrete; even when layered, each retains its own quality. Johns would later gain more finesse in his technique, taking full advantage of the medium’s unique look – smooth, soft, and translucent, almost like skin. However, even at this stage, the surfaces of his work are distinctive and seductive. Additionally, in Target with Four Faces, Johns employed torn newspaper collage as a visual texture able to be seen through the encaustic.

Johns has said early in his career, “I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions.”2 Certainly, compared to, say, Willem de Kooning’s or Francis Bacon’s contemporaneous work, his does appear reserved. Targets, like the flags, numerals, and letters he also utilized, are a pre-formed design, “things the mind already knows,” as he put it. Once he settled on his subject matter, it was something that he, and presumably the viewer, didn’t have to think about.3 Johns’ focus was on the process of making a painting, and the nature of art itself – is it a target, or is it a painting?

Regardless, I find Target with Four Faces diverges from Johns’ stated tenet. With the addition of the four plaster casts of the bottom half of a face, the target becomes emotionally and psychologically charged. The piece has an uncomfortable edge – the casts are cut off just below the eyes; the faces are, in essence, blindfolded, bringing to mind a firing squad. It’s as if the viewer, facing the target, is the executioner. I can’t fathom how this piece must have looked in the pre-Pop, pre-Minimalist world of 1958, when it was shown in his first solo exhibition,4 but when I saw it for the first time, twenty-one or twenty-two years later, it still packed quite a punch, even in reproduction.

Johns was successful in creating work that would be viewed as emotionally neutral – his first show was seen as a reaction against the Abstract Expressionism of the time, and later on, as a precursor to the “detached” Pop and Minimalist movements. However, one does wonder if, as a gay man in 1950s America, he felt threatened – targeted, as it were – and if this anxiety was revealed in Target with Four Faces.

 

1 The other possibility for this distinction is Flag (1955); either way, it was an astonishing initiation.

2 April Bernard and Mimi Thompson: “Johns On…”; Vanity Fair, February 1984, page 65.

3 Nevertheless, it does seem like it was a contentious time to be painting the US flag – the McCarthy hearings had taken place only the year before.

4 Yes, his first solo exhibition. There was no growing up in public; Johns appeared to have arrived fully formed and with quite a splash. Target with Four Faces was reproduced on the cover of the January 1958 issue of ARTnews, and it and two other pieces from the show at the Leo Castelli Gallery were purchased for the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was not yet twenty-eight years old.