Sunday, September 27, 2020

ROBERT MARX; AN AUTHENTIC LIFE

 Robert Marx had the kind of tall, rangy body that hinted at the youngster he must have been — outdoors, riding horses, planting trees, comfortable in his skin — a Sam Elliott/Clint Eastwood kind of man. He smoked cigarettes in those days — a habit he gave up after a heart attack about 40 years back —wore plaid flannel shirts nearly exclusively, and grew the mustache that he wore the remaining years of his life.


I didn’t know him when he was young, of course. Nor do I know how he got from Germany, his birth place, to the United States. A bunch of talented European artists landed in Upstate New York during the 1950s and 1960s — Kurt Feuerherm, Tage Frid, Frans Wildenhain, Hans Christensen, Robert Marx.  Who said “they came for a better life?” That sounds about right.


They took jobs teaching in newly developed college art departments. I asked Bob Marx in an interview last year: “Can you teach art?”  He answered “No. You can only guide people.  I worked alongside the students in class. They could ask questions, watch how I did things.”


Is that enough? I don’t know that either. I’ve never taken an art class. Design, yes. But not art. Sure, even I could learn perspective, color theory, art history. The great violinist Itzak Perlman said “Music is what happens between the notes.” 


Art is what happens beyond technical skills. 


These artists brought with them a universe of talent and equally important, an “old school philosophy” of what it meant to be an artist — to lead an artful life — a life of authenticity. They approached life with curiosity and intellect and generosity. 


“Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.” (Paul Klee)


Robert shared the last third of his life with Francie. While he was tall and quiet, she is tiny and bubbly. Robert twinkled; Francie is LED super-wattage. They were regulars at classical concerts and loved good movies. Walls at their house are lined with books and favorite movie videos. Until a year or two ago, they thought nothing of loading up the car and starting out on multi-state swings to visit old friends and galleries.


I asked Bob: Have you kept any of your paintings? 


“Yes, I have 5 or 6.”


Why did you keep those? 


“I was trying to get to something and they came closest.”


I think Bob was referring to the music between the notes…his art. 


Robert died September 21, 2020. He was 94 years old.  



 

Robert Marx (photo by Joan Stormont)


Monday, September 21, 2020

COG IN THE WHEEL OF LIFE

 So, you’re old. Really old! Now what? 


You are no longer defined by the job, nor the children, nor the things you bought for your powder room, nor the tile you choose for the re-do of your powder room because guess what?  That was twenty-five years ago and who cares? Nobody much comes to your house so nobody ever uses it!


You are old and depressed. It’s called being “irrelevant.” Now what? You used to be “somebody.” Everybody knew you. Well, maybe not everybody when you really think about it. But you had friends that met twice a week. Now they’re dead or moved to Phoenix.  Chris Rock says in a NY Times interview that you can’t count on friends anyway. But you think your friends are different? Ha! They’ll still move away to be close to “the son in Nevada.”


You worked at (an office, a factory, a store, a farm) and somebody was always needing something that you had. Now? Everything you have is old, worn, out of date, or lost in the last move. Or also irrelevant.


You tried volunteer work which you hated. Your book club/sewing circle/Bible study group dissolved — the Covid 19 quarantine was the final straw. You looked through all the pamphlets for “Continuing Education for the Elderly” and wanted to throw up. You’ve been thinking about writing your memoirs but your life hasn’t been all that interesting and your grandkids don’t read anything unless it’s on their “device.”


Frankly, you did all that “searching and expanding your horizons” stuff in your 40’s and 50’s. You found yourself, made peace with the whole mess and moved on. (You still can’t actually meditate. You try but all you really do is sit with your eyes closed and think about what you’ll have for lunch.)


So what now? (By the way, two caveats for this “irrelevant” situation: you will never be shuffled off to Buffalo if you are rich and give your money away. A whole bunch of people will still call on you with their hands outstretched. Also, if you know how to shake the money tree — if you were a huge donation finder in your previous stints on non-profit boards. But don’t count on that last one. Those sources you tapped? They’ve died or moved to Ft. Myers.)


Google passes on some answers to the age relevancy thing.

First, make sure you can hear, smell or see as well as possible.

Keep up with technology.

Listen to current music.

Go out (after 5:30 pm).

Do not criticize styles - remember your hair in high school?

Entertain and mix up the guest list.

Don’t talk about your health problems (outside the doctor’s office).

Stay as physically active as possible.

Make yourself an authority on something specific or…

Own all the tools!!!

TALK LESS, LISTEN MORE AND ASK QUESTIONS.


O.K. Maybe. But something’s missing from this list — something I can’t quite put my finger on — something I can’t quite find. 


I think it’s this: respect yourself. You are still a significant part of the universal script. Your contribution to this crazy play is necessary. So play your part with gladness and gusto.

  

Charcoal drawing by Peter Allen, "Made In New York"













Friday, September 11, 2020

SOME DAYS ARE JUST LIKE THAT

I’m having trouble writing these days — writing anything at all — emails to family and friends, letters of outrage, birthday messages to grandchildren. I sit down at the computer, type in a line or two and then….nothing. Finally, after I’ve looked out windows, and gone for another handful of salted nuts, I hit the “save” button. After a few days, my desk top is covered with them...debris from days of writing failures. I send them all to the trash. Frankly, that slight effort feels like accomplishment.


Is this depression? Reality? Age related? Diet related? I’m also not exercising as much and that leads to all kinds of mental mayhem. 


Or is this grief? 


This is the 6 month anniversary of “Lockdown” — half a year. Will we ever sit in a crowded theater again? Host a come-one-come-all party? Cheer for our favorite team among  a crowd of fans? Hug and be hugged in return?


We need a warning siren installed in our brain  — SHUT DOWN NOW. SYSTEM OVERLOAD. TAKE COVER.  We do. The sirens are all over the news: alcoholism is up. Gun sales have increased which predicts an increase in suicides. 1 in 4 young people between ages 18 and 24 think seriously about killing themselves. Domestic violence. Public unrest. Anger. BAD DREAMS! 


Whew….anybody have a spare bottle of Valium? 


What do we do with all this cosmic sadness? I wish it was an easy prescription …a pill. “Take 1 daily with ice cream.” 


This week I visited a friend. She lives in a Shangri La that she’s built with hard work, creative genius and admittedly, $$$. It’s been 40 years in the making…beautiful flower gardens, a bird sanctuary… peaceful fields of grasses… a pond designed for frogs and children. She climbs off her tractor, throws her workman gloves across its seat and walks toward me.


“Sit down. I’ll bring out some iced tea.”  We sit outside the required 6 feet apart. In every direction, the view is delicious. If you lived here, could anything bad ever happen? But she is not immune to sadness and trials — her life includes its quota of scars. 


“I asked … to rototill that patch over there. I’m moving shrubs.  He’ll do it, but for him, it’s a chore. Like ‘please vacuum the living room’ chore.  Not for me. I loose myself out here. Sure, it’s hard work but I just….” 


She looks around and begins pointing out changes since my last visit. She doesn’t say “love” … or “satisfaction”…or “accomplishment” but those are obvious. I remember the definition of “happiness” from the Yale happy class.  Here it is. She's offered me a transfusion. I soak it in for an hour before driving back into town.





 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

DEBAUCHERY -- NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH ARCHERY

 Debauchery — extreme indulgences in bodily pleasures…eating, drinking and especially sex.   Decadent, depraved.

I was thinking about Al Franken this week. I always liked Al Frankel as a U.S. Senator — not so much as a comic. I couldn’t help thinking “he got a raw deal! Forced out of the Senate because as a comic he did something stupid” when, in my estimation, as a comic, everything he did was stupid!


But Al’s timing was off. The video of his comic stupidity hit the ethernet just as #metoo was heating up and all the perverts were lining up in courtrooms. The Democrats needed to put a little glow on their righteous halo. After all, Bill Clinton was still wafting around doing “god-only-knows-what-with-whom.” 


And apparently, it was O.K. to make an example of old Al because his seat was safe. In other words, a Democratic Governor of his state (Minnesota) would appoint another Democrat to fill out Al’s term. Also, Senator Kristin Gillibrand of NY wanted to run for President and needed some ammo. So this hot mess was cooked up in somebody’s kitchen somewhere and some idiot said “it’s a win-win!” 


(I hate that expression…almost as much as “thinking outside the box.” First, in my limited experience, there is rarely any such thing as a win-win situation. Somebody somewhere always gives a little more — the scale is never in perfect balance. And that box thing is purely stupid. No explanation necessary.)


So instead of a smack on the wrist, or being grounded for a week, Al fell on the sword. So long, Al! But old Al knows more than one way to skin that cat. Now he broadcasts a podcast and can say anything he wants about anything and Gillibrand flamed out. She’s been totally quiet these last few months.


It is obvious to any moron that the all time debauchee (aside from Caligula) is actually in the White House leading the free world straight to hell (if I may editorialize here just a bit. It’s my blog after all.) Just like Al, no need to look for hidden messages or call in the line-up of bimbos or conduct any investigation.  Each of these men are right there in living color, on tape debauching all over the place.  But nobody has requested the Debauchee-in-Chief step down as “unfit.” Why is that? An even bigger question: why did people vote for him in the first place? I actually love some conservatives; I have close friends and family who are Republicans. I have really good Republican friends that I seriously doubt would take this guy on as a business partner. Hell, I think they’d run the other way before tying their wagon to that stink pot! One of the many mysteries of my life — followed closely by “why don’t I lose 30 pounds when I hardly eat a thing?! And I still don’t get quantum physics or black holes. And why is a nickel twice the size of a dime?”


So here’s another quandary:  the Cancel Culture. (Catch up, people!)  Masses of citizens and former fans instantly withdraw support for a public figure (like Ellen?) after that person says or does something they believe to be offensive. So why isn’t the Cancel Culture coming after debauchees? As liberal as I am — as dyed in the wool progressive — as born-again Democrat — why the Hell did we allow Bill Clinton near a microphone at the Democratic Convention? I’d rather hear Al.


 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

CLOTHES, CLOTHES, CLOTHES


Last week, I took bags of clothes to the Catholic Charities for Immigrants.  The drop off point is a big old, two story house next door to the Pittsford Catholic Church. It has a covered porch and I sneak up to the front door, drop the bags on the porch and run. I don't know why. They won't call the cops or yell at me for trespassing.  After all, they are there for the express purpose of making that connection between "rich, white mostly old people who have way too much and migrant workers or recent immigrants - probably of color - who have little more than the clothes on their backs." 


And it isn't as though I leave them bad stuff. Really...some of it's Chip's.


The following day, I took more than a dozen garments to the consignment shop. Panache finally re-opened. They are very careful. People must wear masks -- only 4 in the store at one time. Consignees must have an appointment. They only accept "good labels" and everything must be cleaned, pressed and on hangers. If your garment is sold, you get 40% of the loot. They set prices -- and then mark them down for special 'sales'. (Sometimes, I take things to Lu's Back Door. The rules there are the same except they ask that styles be no more than 3 years old. I don't take much to Lu's Back Door.)


I feel a little guilty about this whole deal. Why shouldn't immigrants have the $200 Eileen Fisher pants? How come the charity clothes get stuffed into plastic bags and not on hangers -- freshly pressed? 


Being good is hard these days. Political minefields are everywhere.


A news story last week said the sale of jeans are way down. Instead, people are buying soft, slouchy, elastic waist, comfy clothes -- a clothing version of comfort food -- mac and cheese, meat loaf and mashed potatoes. I'm thinking there's a direct connection. I grew up believing that jeans were the comfy clothes. What happened? Another minefield.


Once, while on vacation, I bought a fancy jacket. You do things like that while on vacation. The jacket was wool embellished with appliqued bits to look like tree branches running up the sleeves. Individual petals sown around the neck formed the collar. The price was out of my comfort zone but I imagined how great it would be to wear this piece of art. I wore it to a special Christmas party. Across the room (did you guess?), there she was -- a woman wearing the same jacket. 


Several years later, I took the jacket to Lu's. Nobody even asked me how old it was. I hope I see it again someday. Maybe at a fancy Christmas party. Will we ever get to go to those again?



Saturday, July 25, 2020

SIGNS OF HOPE

"IT'S ALL ROCK AND ROLL TO ME"




























 
 I once knew a girl named Hope. She was a shy little thing. My mom would have called her “plain.” That was before the age of enlightenment. Now with sharper human compassion, we look beyond the surfaces of people to find other attributes. But I never found much in Hope — no hidden talent, no outsized passions, no righteous empathy. She was always waiting for somebody to tell her what to do next — a profoundly sad way to go through life.

Hope’s parents were older — into their forties — when she was born. I didn’t know much about them except that they were scientists and quietly reserved in that Old World proper kind of way.  Did they expect this baby to change their social status or their politics or their own personalities? Maybe they invested all their dreams, yearnings, expectations into this tiny person. Hope’s thin little shoulders simply could not bear that much weight.

When Hope was about 15 years old, her parents divorced.  I never heard why. One parent remarried; the other did not. Both parents were in their early 70s when they died — an age that seems young to me now. I lost track of Hope — where she lives, if she married, became a mother herself. None of those facts. Nor do I know if she ever woke up and became assertive or at least, self confident. Probably not.

America is in the middle of a cyclone right now fed by vile politics and bad health with economic insecurity piling on. The Age of American Arrogance ended. Some of us don’t know where to turn. Peace is what we most want. When the world is deconstructing, where is the Gorilla Glue?  

I’m  a big fan of Rebecca Solnit and I listen to Elizabeth Gilbert and I read Heather Cox Richardson most mornings. Women might save us. In her book HOPE IN THE DARK, Solnit writes “Hope is an embrace of the unknown…a sense of radical uncertainty.”

 (She wrote a lot about radical change even before the COVID 19 virus slammed us out of our stupor. )

Elizabeth Gilbert, in a TED conversation said “Resilience is our shared genetic inheritance.” She told stories of people who found themselves in extraordinary situations — floods, earthquakes, accidents — and reports that they nearly all said the same thing: in the middle of crisis, suddenly they felt calm and intuition took over.

Resilience. It’s what separates us from other animals. Not the opposable thumbs we all learned about in 8th grade. Not even the size of our brains, as it turns out! It is resilience ( and our ability to work together in groups.)  

“In disasters, most people are altruistic, brave, generous,” a point of view echoed by Rutger Bregman in HUMANKIND: A HOPEFUL HISTORY. My daughter just gave me this book. I’m only on page 10.  When I finish reading it, I’ll pass it on because ultimately that’s the most powerful thing I can do — read, think, write, hold on to hope.

Would I ever name a daughter Hope? Never! Just having a daughter — just being somebody’s daughter! — is hard enough.



Sunday, July 5, 2020

THE STATUES OF OUR MAKING


How do you solve a problem like Civil War Statues? 
What about war memorials?
What about buildings (roads, bridges, sports arenas) named for a person? How about company names on those things? Is there a difference?


WE’VE LANDED IN A GIANT COW PIE! 

First, some definitions:  a STATUE is a 3-dimensional work of art usually representing a person or animal and usually created by sculpting, carving, modeling or casting. (Yes, there are statues of non-living objects — badminton birdies for example. But these are outliers and for our purposes, we’ll stick to the more prosaic definition.)

A MONUMENT is a structure built for commemorative or symbolic reasons or as a memorial to honor something or someone. Statues can be used as monuments but not all statues are memorials.

In a perfect world, a consensus of the governed or given community  agrees on whom or what to honor. The overriding question: was the world better or worse for that person having lived or that action having happened?  Politics should (always) be overruled in favor of merit; we’ll stick with idealism rather than reality.

Those of us in the art world understand all too well that the operative word here — CONSENSUS — is near impossible when applied to any art object or art gesture placed in the public domain.  And as a representative of the art biz (I’m taking a mighty jump here!), I consider EVERY SINGLE MANMADE OBJECT PLACED IN PUBLIC DOMAIN TO BE BY IT’S VERY NATURE, ‘PUBLIC ART.’ (I, in an effort at full disclosure,, require that these objects possess some aesthetic degree of sophistication/expertise/intellectual rigor. “Brain tickle” if you will. Otherwise, I’d rather look at a sunset.)

Given all that tonnage of qualifications, how does any statue ever get into public view? Easy! Make it an homage to God, or (as in Greek mythology) the gods. Or Biblical heroes. Those figures are all over Europe…spouting water in piazza fountains or reigning over …well, everybody. Think of “David”… or all those saints and virgins.  

But, uh-oh, not everybody wants a giant Jesus, arms outstretched, presiding over a city. The Jesus of Rio De Janeiro (erected in 1923) was paid for by donations from the general populace of Brazil (nearly 100% Catholic) and is a symbol of that city and a huge tourists draw. But when outgoing President Garcia of Peru, in 2011, had a close replica built and installed over Lima, all hell broke loose. Lots of cat calls but the biggest objection? NOT ORIGINAL (A fundamental measure for public art success: give me creativity… or stay home.)

Next? Make memorials to past reigning kings and queens. Statues of past royals stand all over Europe…and in the last forty years, they’ve caused protests…especially those rulers responsible for colonialism.  Belgium’s King Leopold who brutally killed thousands in the Congo is a special target but increasingly, human rights exercised by all past rulers are being scrutinized and challenged.  

United States “royalty” hasn’t had an easy path either. The Washington Monument in Washington D.C. took more than 50 years from first talk to final construction, not because Washington was a slave owner — which he was — but because nobody liked the obelisk proposed as his monument. (With public art, everybody’s a critic!) Mount Rushmore (conceived and built as a draw for tourism dollars) was bitterly fought by the Lakota tribe whose sacred land was defaced without permission. To get even, a huge statue of Crazy Horse on horseback was carved from another mountaintop which is totally weird — how can one bad decision be fixed by another equally bad? 

Currently, a statue of Abraham Lincoln, standing over a slave with broken shackles on the ground, is among the pieces coming down in Boston. Lincoln? you might ask. Well, here’s the thing, the slave is in a sub-serviant pose but worse! it’s the old “Rio Jesus” argument! It’s a copy of the original Lincoln that stands in Washington DC. 

Copies never work.

Which brings me finally to the Civil War men on horseback. Most of these mighty bronze sculptures were put up between 1900 and 1950, the majority in the 1920s…the same years of the rise of “White Pride.” The US saw a sharp rise in lynchings of blacks and the mythology of the “Lost Cause” (largely fueled by the re-birth of the KKK.) The federal government made no effort to prevent any of this and the movement glorifying the Lost Cause of the Confederacy grew throughout the South.   No, these statues are not “teaching tools” unless we persist in allowing this myth that the Civil War was fought for any reason other than the right to barter in human flesh - slavery.

What happens to them after they’re taken off pedestals? Scrap heap.To do anything less is to be complicit in America’s giant lie. 

How about naming rights? Henry Ford hated jews. Mahatma Gandhi degraded Africans. “Nobody’s perfect,” you say,…you can’t judge people of another era by today’s standards…aren’t we whitewashing history when we remove these names from good things such as charitable foundations, college scholarships, libraries and schools? Does it matter what name is on the local baseball stadium or performing arts center? Or U.S. military base?

Washington & Lee College professor James Casey writes: “Your name, whether you’re Coca Cola or Google, is a pronouncement of your values.” Federal Express just issued an ultimatum to the Washington Redskins: drop your racist name or give back our money and take our name off your stadium. 

(Confederate generals were technically NEVER part of the United States armed forces so how can those names be justified on U.S. military base? Smalll correction: Lee - a few others - were commissioned officers in the U.S.military but resigned to join the Confederacy. Duke Professor Michael Newcity writes "...they were traitors who conducted war against the U.S." How much clearer can it be?))

Bottom line: maybe we’d better be more careful throwing names around in the first place!

Bad ideas expressed in monuments may seem intractable. Public art is nearly always controversial. Consensus is achieved through bushels of talk —  but sometimes, protests and even pain ultimately are the only tools that break through to our collective conscious.

But attitudes can change. Entrenched opinions are not immune to truth and facts. We are creatures of habit but names change every day. Monuments that we assumed would exist forever can come down with enough human outcry. Look what happened to the Berlin Wall.