|Porfirio DiDonna(1985), oil on canvas|
Some artists destroy their work. When it let's them down. When they think it's bad. When they don't want it to ever see the light of day. That is their choice, of course, but I've always wondered about it. For some reason it struck me as some kind of machismo. Part of the whole artist angst thing, the myth of the struggling artist. Some kind of God the creator, God the destroyer, God the Almighty complex. A little self-conscious to my mind. Especially when it is carried out like some sort of Viking funeral or execution or something. Actually what it really struck me as was a rush to judgment. I've always had to sit with my work for a long time to understand it, to learn from it. I guess I'm just slow.
When I was a kid my mother told me God was everywhere. And I believed her. It made sense to me. Why would it be any different? How could it be any different? God is in all things. God is just another word for life. In all things, in all of us. I guess I'm what people who name things call a pantheist, at best, or an atheist, at worst. But I believe in that idea of God being everywhere. With every breath. A thousand times with every breath.
Because of that I believe in everything. Life is in everything. Everything has a purpose. One way or another. I have a hard time throwing things away as a result. And sometimes that is the down side. But I also like to fix things as a result of that conviction, and that is usually an upside. That is the kind of world/God/life I believe in. You don't give up on stuff. You don't throw things away. You keep believing. You make them better. For example, when I was teaching at Putney, I couldn't believe that they kicked kids out for breaking the rules. All of this talk about a family and learning, and then they kicked kids out. You can't give up! You can't kick kids out! When my contract was up, I left. I didn't want to teach at a school where kids could be given up on. Say all you like about the rules, but I don't buy it. There is a much bigger rule. You don't give up! You keep the faith!
Which get's me back to artists who destroy their work if it has somehow "failed," or failed them, or did not come up to scratch! I've run into this a bunch of times lately, which is why I'm writing about it.
The first was with my friend John Wronoski who founded the recently closed but very successful Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square. He opined one day over lunch about artists who should have thrown most of their work away, who let bad work get out there. He cited Picasso as a classic example. In that 'if I were king of the world' way that we are all guilty of, he proclaimed that he could or would do something about it, that he would be just the man, up to the task, of ridding the world of all the bad art out there. Like gun control, he would be the Czar of Art Control. I wish him the best. When a few years later he generously offered me a retrospective I accepted. When he promised to rid me of all my bad art, well then, I thought better of it, and gratefully declined. Call me sentimental. Call me over protective.
But it is not sentimentality. It is what I believe. I believe that everything has a purpose. And that applies to my work. I'm looking, and seeing, and learning. I never give up on my work. Even if I paint over something, I know it is still there, underneath, helping out. If it is leaning against a wall somewhere, unfinished, it is just waiting, a promise. If I don't ever get to it, it still retains that value to me. I don't paint to be successful, I paint for the experience. It would be crazy to assume that I could only learn from my "successful" work. We have all learned infinitely more from our "failures." In that way our failures just might be our best friends of all; that like pain, they teach us about our greatest challenges!
|Nina Nielsen(2008), oil and sand on canvas|
Another recent experience came a month or so ago when I showed my friend, the legendary dealer and artist Nina Nielsen, a picture of a painting my friend Larry Deyab saved from the studio of Porfirio DiDonna after he died. No dealer ever represented an artist more fervently or faithfully than Nina Nielsen did Porfirio DiDonna. She was furious about the very fact that a painting of DiDonna's might be out there that he wouldn't have wanted out there! Furious because DiDonna would have destroyed that painting, and he wasn't alive to defend himself and protect himself from just such a travesty. She was so furious that her husband and partner John Baker had to practically keep her from tearing me apart. And you have to love her loyalty and passion. I do. Wouldn't it be nice that we should all have such a devoted dealer?
She was upset because DiDonna destroyed his work, believed in destroying his work when it wasn't right, and didn't get a chance to destroy this painting. She loved and respected him completely, so that she loved and respected his wishes, with a vengeance. End of story. In truth he was practically obsessive-compulsive in the methodical way he went about destroying his work. Apparently he would take it somewhere else and cut it up and destroy it. To another part of the city!
And of course I didn't get it. As I explained, I'm just not like that. Nina and I argued because I didn't get it. My thinking was, how great! You love his work, I love his work, and here's another one. What could be nicer than that. Amazing! I also figured that if he really wanted it destroyed it would have been destroyed. Since it wasn't then he must have wanted to keep it. Divine Providence!
It was even easy to get Nina to admit that artists can be lousy judges of their own work. That artists are naturally and for very good reason very myopic about what they are doing vs. what they have done. That they are happiest about what is happening at that moment, and that they tend to distance themselves from older work even when, or maybe especially when, other people tend to be more comfortable with the older work for obvious reasons. That sometimes this is one of the things dealers do that helps artists; they give them perspective. But this was different, because this was about what DiDonna truly believed, not what either of us believed. Nina and I probably believe more alike.
But DiDonna was a believer too, a true believer by the looks of it. And that confused me. He took his paintings somewhere else and cut them up, like a mob hit man, and that was just plain crazy to me. Why did he do it? Again. Maybe it is time for me to understand something, get something. Figure it out. I don't know. Still confused. I remember a story a long time ago about Bill Jensen, or was it his father, who thew all of his work from a bridge somewhere in someplace like Minnesota before he left for New York. Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe it is just legend or myth. Jensen was friends with DiDonna.
But then it dawned on me. Of course! DiDonna and I believed in different gods! He was religious. Catholic, but so am I. John Baker thinks he might actually have been a religious painter, making religious paintings, and I would have to agree. DiDonna believed in what I consider the cruel and unforgiving god of a religion that kicked people out. That gave up on people. He believed in the church. He was just acting out his religion in his work. If every artist is a creator, the creator, then he is God, and he plays God in his work. Porfirio DiDonna was just acting out his God. His church. Work that failed him was destroyed.
It makes me think of sin eating. A necessary evil to make a perfect world. John Wronoski was willing to be a sin eater. An art world sin eater to rid the world of bad art.
|James Balla(2009) Cadoro; oil on linen|
So when very recently I was speaking with my friend James Balla about his work and he told me that he also destroyed it, I expressed disbelief. I pressed him on it. Say it ain't so. I just couldn't believe it. He just didn't strike me as that kind of person. He struck me as very forgiving. As someone who never gave up on anything. Fortunately after a few moments he recanted. We were speaking on the phone at the time and he said he was standing in front of a painting with an old painting poking through. A painting he liked a lot. Apparently the old painting was causing the new paint to crawl a little and that of course was a problem. Unacceptable by most people's standard, especially the whole art handling world. Except that it wasn't, it turned out, a problem. Jim admitted that he actually liked seeing the old painting waving from behind the new painting. "Hi! Still here!"
There isn't an artist alive that doesn't think that they can solve all of their problems by making art, maybe even solve the problems of the world. There isn't a painter out there, not now, not ever, that didn't think that if only he or she could just make a great painting, all of their problems would be solved. DiDonna was no different. We may not believe in the same God, but we believe that. I have another friend, Heide Hatry, who makes her work out of meat. She's working something out, and she is solving all of her problems through that work. She can make meat beautiful, and she believes that, and lately she almost has me convinced(what can I say, I'm a vegetarian, but then, so is she). Her conviction is that powerful. Her latest works are flowers made of meat, and they are extraordinary.
Never mind keeping the faith. Never mind never giving up. We're talking about resurrection. Resurrecting a past. Healing a past. Heide's dad was a pig farmer. A pig farmer who died falling into a pig pen when she was still young. Tragic all around. Tough all around. Brutal. So survive that! A parent has but one real mission in this life: to make their child special. That special is God. That everything is special. That they are a special part of a special life. A parent who dies young, even accidentally, blows that reality out of the water. A parent who dies young is lost, gone, and in doing so sadly breaks a vow and fails a child. Heide Hatry has been mending this hole her whole life. She is fierce about it because she has to be. If she doesn't mend it then who will? If she doesn't save herself then who will? If it takes meat to make life beautiful again, special again, deliberately, methodically, intensely, then what could make more perfect sense than that? If it takes making art by making flowers out of meat to fix her life, then who could fail to cheer her on?
A long time ago my old friend Richard Tuttle tried to impress upon me the violence inherent in the creative. To put it simply, breaking eggs to make an omelette. He sensed my naive devotion to the creative, that I believed in creativity and not destruction. What he didn't understand was background, my refusal to give up on things, that that was what was at the bottom, that I was the determined byproduct of a broken family, that I was a cast off. That when my parents got divorced, my father even moved to another continent. That I fixed things. That I made things better.
When I worked for Brooke Alexander in New York I was allowed to take the trash, old frames and stuff, back to my studio so I could resurrect it for myself. I had asked permission. Artists are trained to recycle what others cast off to survive. Once I took home a crate Richard Tuttle had used to ship some prints to the gallery. When I took it apart I discovered that he had made it with some old work, that on the other side of the plywood that was on the outside, were two works of his, two drawings on the painted plywood on the inside. Old works that were intended to be leaned against the wall. He meant, like Porfirio DiDonna, that these works were destroyed. And they weren't. And I never told him. I never told him that I saved them. That they have since leaned against my walls. In my homes. All of these years. That even though he gave up on them I never did. I never told him that this is what I do, that this is who I am, that this is what I believe. But I know he would understand. I know somewhere he believes it too.
Spring Hill, 2013
|That's the Tuttle drawing below the Basquiat head and to the left of|
the DiDonna work on paper. All behind the doors opening outside.