Six weeks ago my friend the painter Charles Seliger died of a massive stroke he suffered while attending an opening at Michael Rosenfeld, his gallery. He sat down in the office, complained of some dizziness and hearing problems and then it happened. Strokes are apparently like an earthquake, once they get started there is no stopping them. When this one was over, Charles Seliger was dead at eighty-three.
I had been composing a letter to Charles in my head for weeks when I heard the news. A letter he never got. Like everyone I was stunned. Months earlier I had picked up a little catalogue from Peggy Guggenhiem's place in Venice, La Collezione, that had both Charles and Gino Severini listed together on the same page. I had been given private mural instruction from Severini as a boy in Rome; I had known and learned from Charles for 30 years and my house is filled with paintings he had so generously gifted me over that time. The catalog is over fifty years old and signed by Guggenhiem, twice. I thought he would get a kick out of it. He had shown with her at Art of This Century when he was just eighteen. A few years ago the Venice museum gave him a show and really fêted him and he loved it. He told me in great length how he spoke to a group of school girls who sat crossed-legged on the floor in their uniforms and listened with rapt attention as he told them his stories of art.
Charles Seliger was an artist and a painter all his life. It was his life. It was not a parade, and he did not parade like so many artists. Nor was it an act of struggle or rebellion. It was so much a part of his life that he was happy to share it with the life around him. He had a family. He had a job! And he painted. He was not a bohemian. He was an artist. Artist as poet, explorer, gardener, astronomer, composer, and botanist. Artist as painter.
Charles Seliger was not like other artists. He worked differently. For this reason not everyone gets him. He could easily be considered one of the great painters of our time; that is, if like I said, everyone got him. I have probably written about Charles more than anyone, and I only just figured this out. After he died! Like any artist he loved hearing someone speak intelligently about his work. He would have really loved this.
Charles Seliger was in many ways a paradox. I've known a lot of artists who worked really hard to cultivate some mysterious and enigmatic persona; he did not. Never mind that he lived in the burbs, worked for a corporation, had a family, was incredibly well read and capable in any number of areas. He was absolutely unique and unusual as an artist.
When some people look at his work they see something that seems very tame. They can't get past what looks obsessive-compulsive, like the gilded lily. They see a highly detailed and yes, lovingly articulated abstract image that seems quiet like the man himself. How could such a quiet man be an artist? How could such a quiet man die of a stroke?
This quiet man, gentle man, had something fierce inside him. A fierce beast upon which his work was firmly built. The beast was at the bottom of him and at the bottom of his work. Call it fire, some primal brute force, call it what you like. It was and is there, in the work. Most artists either have it or don't. If they have it, it usually has its way in the work. The artist is loathe to do what Seliger did, loathe to sublimate the beast for fear of killing it. Yes, the beast and the lily are really two aspects of the same thing. Charles risked the unthinkable; he did in fact, not gild the lily but instead carefully and to great purpose brought that fierce something into the light. And while he gave the beast its run; however, he did not let it run amok. He let it cut the trail of the work; the rest was something else. The rest was what Charles Seliger aspired to, but he knew that the beast was first. He had the sense to trust it, listen to it, and then the sense to also trust something else, something higher. In effect in gilding the beast he was making the lily.
Every single one of Charles Seliger's painting began as the fierce beast. A vital, earthly, virile/fertile, ecstatic, excitable beast that he set about not just taming, but elevating. This was his lifelong challenge. Charles Seliger had a vision. He looked at his life and the life around him and he figured out that a life like Jackson Pollock's might burn bright, but also burn fast, too fast. Charles knew Pollock, showed with Pollock. Pollock was a cautionary tale if there ever was one, and Charles got the message. I know this because I got the same message and followed his lead.
No, Charles Seliger was in it for the long haul. He rolled the dice. He gambled that if he laid down a stable life, he could paint for a very long time and that that would allow him to paint a life's work and climb all the way to the stars. He knew that what he wanted to accomplish would take a lot of time and a very long time. What he would sacrifice in immediate career gratification was nothing compared to the loftier and more far reaching ambitions he had for himself and his work. So he left New York City, the art metropolis, and moved out to Mount Vernon and got down to the business of life and art, in that order!
Now when we think of people who work with beasts, we think of lion-tamers and cowboys who break horses. But Charles was much more than that. Charles was like something extraordinary from C. S. Lewis. He was like Aslan, the lion god, and his Narnia! Charles Seliger's beasts were full-fledged ones, larger than life and straight from some primordial ooze. And like the artist he was, he shaped them, and tamed them, yes, but more importantly he didn't just make sure that he didn't break their spirits, he sang the song like Aslan that raised their spirits, that made theirs shine bright and soar the heavens! Seliger painted amazing paintings that no size could contain. He carried the first-hand lessons of Surrealism and automatic and then all-over-painting through his sixty-five years of work to produce vast but small paintings that encompassed at once the void and the great expanse. Each one the song of life; life beyond any space we can imagine, inner or outer, each one a song of life like we have never heard, of paradise and perfection. Each one a great burst of imagination and spirit.
Trust me, other artists aren't doing this. What they are doing is more like basic plumbing. What Charles Seliger did he accomplished at a little easel in his upstairs bedroom at night. Always inspired. Hugely prolific. Small paintings, yes, but he had the wisdom to appreciate that a little Charles Seliger could go a long way. With each painting he acted out his own story; with each painting he performed his own metamorphosis from base to precious metal--the alchemy of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. Yes, this was it. Charles Seliger was making butterflies! See this, perhaps with the caterpillar instead of beast, if you prefer, and you see his paintings! It is this process that really tells the story. It is the process he wants you to experience, unconsciously.
Charles Seliger was a man of small stature with a giant trapped inside that through determined devotion became a higher being; a mild-mannered Clark Kent turned Superman the great artist. This was his path, this was his struggle, this was his dream. His paintings, every single one of them, tell the story of something wild and free, something completely irrational on one level, that evolves stroke by stroke into something beautiful, something divine, something made of love and goodness and light, that in the end couldn't be more reasonable, as reasonable as the man himself.
Charles Seliger made small paintings. He didn't have to, although from a practical point of view they served his purposes. No, they were a concerted effort to check the beast. The small canvas reeled him in, disciplined him as he so disciplined himself, kept him from flying too close to the sun. No, he had even bigger fish to fry. He wasn't playing for glory or even immortality, he was playing for the divine, the holy, the unattainable, the wholey spiritual, the face of God. The company of God. They always talk about heaven having a hell of a band, but most artists are bound for purgatory. Charles kept his head down. I think he got what he wanted. His paintings were too good for this earth. And our loss is heaven's gain.
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