The Need to Believe
My father, Peter Pinchbeck, was a dedicated abstract painter who died in September, 2000. This week, two exhibitions of his work open in Chelsea, at the Gary Snyder ProjectSpace (250 West 26th Street) and the Luis Ross Gallery (511 West 25th Street, # 311). Opening reception: Thursday, January 22, from 6 - 8 pm. What follows is a piece I originally wrote about my relationship to his work, several months after his death.
When my father died in the summer of 2000, he left behind hundreds of paintings and sculptures in his rent-controlled loft on Greene Street -- the relics of a life-long investigation. The work ranged from severe wooden constructions made in the 1960’s to woozy zigzags created out of plaster; from icon–sized images to rolled-up canvases of vast dimensions. My father’s art went ignored, essentially unseen, during his lifetime. There were no career retrospectives, no museum shows, no fanfare. His artist friends were his central audience.
In the aftermath of his life, I found myself compelled to fight his battle for him: I remained convinced that my father’s art counts as late-breaking news from the last century. The work he left behind is probing and profound, abject and obstinate, luminous and eerie, eccentric yet true to its own inner logic. It revels in metaphysical doubt; it radiates the belief of its maker.
Of course, my perspective is compromised, complicit. Is it simply too painful for me to relinquish his belief, to imagine that all of that effort was wasted? Or, to put a more positive spin on it, to accept that, for my father, the process was its own reward?
Or is there a type of art that only makes sense, a gesture that can only be completed, by the death of the artist?
"The universe as a vast garbage heap of matter, a constant recycling of elements, an indifference to their use or purpose (the universe as a pile of junk)."
-- from my father’s notebooks, 1995
My family moved to SoHo from the Lower East Side in 1968, when I was two. My father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract artist who worked on an enormous scale, commensurate to his ambition. My mother, Joyce Johnson, was a book editor for the Dial Press and a novelist. SoHo was a failing commercial district of cheap lofts. We were part of the first wave of artists moving into the area.
During the day, trucks rattled down the crumbling paving stones of the old streets. Laborers yelled to each other as they hauled crates from the trucks onto the concrete landings. Walking with my parents, I would peek into the windows of small factories and watch steel cutters spinning, sending out sparks.
A rag trader worked out of our building. Louie was an Orthodox Jew with a long beard and pouches of wrinkles under his eyes. Giant bales of rags blocked up the lobby and the cavernous freight elevator. I never discovered who used these rags, or what they were for. I still wonder to this day. I hid from my parents inside the elevator, slipping behind the rag bales, which smelled of mildew and old dust -- an oily, citrus smell. The elevator’s iron gate crashed shut, and at our floor my father rolled up the massive door, which was too heavy for a child to budge.
At night, the streets fell silent. Time seemed to stop. Occasionally, an alley cat screeched, or the footsteps of a lone passerby echoed against the buildings. When I walked with my parents at night, the stillness pressed down on us. Ghosts seemed to hover above the old streets. It is bizarre to recall now, but SoHo in my childhood was marked by eerie emptiness.
The loft was an enormous cavern, a long rectangular box with eighteen-foot ceilings. Gridded windows at each end let in a dull gray light. In those days my father made large wooden constructions and painted colored rectangles that floated on vast sheets of stretched canvas. Most of the space was used for his studio. For my mother and me, he built bedrooms out of wooden beans and sheet rock and installed bathroom fixtures and a water heater. But the living quarters were clearly provisional, an afterthought. My mother said the loft had once been a clothing factory, She showed me old needles she found between the rough floorboards.
When you are a child, everything belongs to a process that is both mysterious and essential. I didn’t separate the work my father did on his paintings from the world of the streets, the rattling trucks and rag bales, the laborers and spinning machines. I assumed my father’s paintings were necessary to the running of the entire system. I think I believed that most fathers spent their nights and days like he did, organizing colored shapes on enormous surfaces. To my child’s mind, his constant activity seemed to have a vital connection to the city’s mechanical processes. It was as if he was trying to distill some totemic essence from that confused tangle of trucks and streets and machines.
After my parents split up in 1971 -- their marriage destroyed by a lethal combination of the Sexual Revolution, Max’s Kansas City, and my father’s bad behavior -- I would visit him every few weeks. He tore down the walls that created the illusion of a domestic interior to liberate the space. My bed was a small army cot set up in a corner of the studio, where I would sleep surrounded by his huge icons, breathing in the sweet and familiar odor of turpentine and oils.
Over time the neighborhood around us transformed, like a slowly developing photograph. The factories and loading platforms vanished one by one. Galleries and restaurants and boutiques appeared and proliferated, like new life forms escaped from some laboratory experiment. Once SoHo was declared chic, the rich descended on the area. The bought out the lofts that the artists vacated or were forced to leave. “The zombies,” as my father called them. We still ran into my father’s friends, with their paint-splattered jeans, their worn faces. But SoHo no longer belonged to them, and they were no longer comfortable in it. They had been outdated by the art stars and collectors who navigated the narrow streets in stretch limos, by the high-end boutiques that renovated the old tool and die shops. Range Rovers and Mercedes replaced the rattling trucks. Only the cast-iron buildings remained the same, like skeletons clad in new flesh.
Everything around him changed but he remained constant, bunkered in his unrenovated loft, unwavering in solitary devotion to his art. As SoHo continued to transform, visiting him became increasingly like slipping behind enemy lines. His studio resembled the last hideaway, the last line of resistance in an occupied zone, and everything he brought forth -- a bottle of brandy, a cigar -- was like some object miraculously smuggled past the vigilant watch of the sentries.
His voice was like an old movie star's, deep and raspy, with a pronounced English accent. He had a full, ready laugh. Either he had a faint case of agoraphobia or a fear of revealing himself, as he liked to keep his jacket on, often wearing his sweater and coat even in overheated cafes. Possessed of a rare street-level social generosity, he was like an unappointed mayor of the old SoHo. He knew hundreds of people in the neighborhood, and he would often be late to meet me as he stopped to hail each person cheerfully, then listen to their sagas. His friend, the painter Peter Stroud, described him as “a true English eccentric.”
In my twenties, when I passed through SoHo late at night, after some party, I would detour by his block to see the light shining in his window. I would feel oddly secure in the thought that he was up in his loft, working, revolving like a planet through his self-created cosmology of painted shapes and plaster structures. He kept working in his loft until his death, of heart failure in September, 2000, at the age of sixty-eight.
“the need to believe”
-- Handwritten note, found on my father’s desk after his death.
My father did not like to talk about his past; therefore, I know very little about it. I know that he was born December 9, 1931, in Brighton, a seaside resort on the southern coast of England. His father, Gerald Pinchbeck, an Irish Catholic pub keeper, left his mother when he was small, vanishing forever from his life. The Pinchbeck name adds its own twist to our story: We are rumored to descend from a line of celebrated English inventors and horologists. In the eighteenth century, Christopher Pinchbeck, an alchemist and clockmaker, invented pinchbeck, an alloy of tin and a type of false gold, as well as a mechanism to help people remember their dreams. In the nineteenth century, the word “pinchbeck” came to mean “anything false or spurious.”
While he was growing up, he and his mother often stayed with their relatives, collecting state assistance. An early stint as an altar boy turned him against religion. Peter was trapped in London during the Blitz -- he remembered emerging from the cellar after an air raid to see the house across the street blown to bits. He came of age during the bleak austerity of the postwar years.
“After the war, everything seemed gray. It was like all the color had been drained out of the world,” he once told me. He saw an exhibit of van Gogh’s paintings, then works by the Abstract Expressionists, at the Tate Gallery. Van Gogh’s visions of rioting sunflowers and luminous night cafes inspired him to become an artist. He told me he wanted to put color back into the world. Lacking connections, he went to Paris, only to find the School of Paris was dead. In the galleries, he saw shows of the New York School, and decided to move to New York.
He arrived in New York in 1960 to learn that the heyday of Abstract Expressionism had ended. He worked as an orange juice seller in the Fourteenth Street subway, then as a carpenter. He found a cheap loft on the rundown Bowery. In early photographs he looks intent, handsome, gaunt, his work shirts buttoned to the top button (he couldn’t afford to heat his studio). His sculpture revealed the influence of the Russian Constructivists, his favorite art movement, as well as the Abstract Expressionists. He found a group of artists who shared his concerns, showing at Tenth Street galleries. He met my mother at a loft party in 1965. They married after she became pregnant.
During his life, my father failed to make a commercial career out of his art. Most of his best exhibits came in the 1960’s, when he was briefly associated with the Minimalists. In 1966, he showed wooden constructions in the “Primary Structures” exhibit at the Jewish Museum, curated by Kynaston McShine, that helped to launch Minimalism. “I suspect that Pinchbeck’s work will shortly become known: it seems hard to believe that work of this authority and rectitude will go undiscovered for long,” noted a critic in the magazine Art International, in 1968. In 1971, his one-person show at the Paley & Lowe Gallery featured wooden boards of yellow, blue, and black, extending into space “with the equivalence of a gesture or perhaps a thought,” wrote Carter Ratcliff in an ArtNews review. The exhibit appears in pictures to have been as beautiful as it was unsellable. After that, my father never had a stable relationship with a gallery.
During the 1970’s, he turned away from sculpture and concentrated on painting. In a sense, he reverse-engineered art history, moving from Minimalism back to abstract painting that became increasingly gestural over the rest of his life. But even his most minimal objects had a handmade touch, lacking the slickness of a Judd or Morris. His signature works of the 1970’s were paintings of squares and rectangles floating in colored fields. Despite his lack of a gallery -- let alone any institutional support -- he demonstrated a consistent and single-minded focus. He regularly painted works of outrageous size: fifteen feet or longer. The paintings were shown in some group shows and in Barbara Rose’s “Painting in the Eighties” (1979), at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. Most of them were never shown at all.
In the 1970’s, larg-scale non-ironic abstract paintings made by a straight man was the most unhip art imaginable. It was the era of Pop and Conceptualism, of political and feminist art. “Painting is dead” was a popular catch phrase. Pop and Conceptual artists used the distended macho ego and hand-wrought mysticism of the Abstract Expressionists as the punch line for their repetitive witticisms. Roy Lichtenstein, for example, Benday-dotted a cartoon version of an Ab-Ex brushstroke again and again. When Bruce Nauman made a neon spiral out of the phrase, “The artist is the discoverer of mystical truths,” it was obvious what movement he was mocking.
Unfortunately for his career, my father could not make concessions, strategize or alter his work to fit a changing climate. For my father and a few of his friends, commitment to style was everything. Style was the mark of individual authenticity, of truth. If styles changed, leaving you outside the art world, you held onto your integrity. Like an old-time sea captain, you put your hand over your heart and you went down with the ship.
The art world boomed and busted and then moved to Chelsea. My father kept working in his loft. He moved from rigid rectangles to biomorphic squiggles, flying cigar shapes, shapes that smashed into and interpenetrated each other. He stacked old paintings against the walls. Sculptures made from cardboard, wood, and plaster curled around each other on the floor—bulbous columns and amoebic entities. Art supplies rested on long tables or the floor: power saws and staple guns, plaster and chicken wire, paint brushes sticking out of coffee cans, tubes of paint piled into cigar boxes. His living area consisted of a bed in a corner surrounded by paintings -- little canvases of spinning shapes watching over him like spirit guardians -- a large television set, and a desk overflowing with notes and papers and pill bottles. Next to his desk were two large sculptures, a blue column and a yellow zigzag made out of plaster. On his billboard, he pinned images and messages that inspired him, such as Buddha’s dictum “Everything is transient and nothing endures.” Or from Cezanne: “You use pigment, but you paint with your feelings.”
His last solo exhibit took place in 1989, and that was at a small space that lacked wall space to show his ambitious efforts, as well as the clout to get the work taken seriously by the art world. His work overpowered the venues in which he managed to show. The group exhibits he organized with his friends in banks and nonprofit spaces were, according to the art world’s rigid hierarchies, almost worse than not showing at all.
My father never lost belief in art. He rarely lost his good cheer. Despite his lack of success, he knew he had achieved a lot. He had come to New York City alone, knowing no one, and with nothing to his name, and he had created himself. He preserved his vision, his integrity. Nobody could take that away from him.
He loved the physical act of painting, of brushing or scraping colored pigment on canvas. Painting infused his life with purpose. He streamlined his life so he could paint as much as possible. He eked out a living, teaching a day or two a week at Manhattan Community College, renting out part of the studio to a painter friend. Living in a huge loft in the wealthiest neighborhood in the world, he was always poor, his clothes baggy, his jackets smelling of mothballs. After his death, I looked at his IRS returns: Over the last decades, his income was usually under $10,000. When my father died, he had just a few thousand dollars to his name.
Today I remain amazed as well as shocked by his purity, his indomitable effort in the face of such total indifference.
“Only the rich will survive”
-- Handwritten note, found on my father’s desk after his death.
From time to time, over the course of many years, I tried without success to imagine one particular moment in my future. I tried to imagine the moment after my father’s death, when I would enter his cavernous loft and confront forty years of his obstinate activity—his forceful bid for immortality -- my bewildering patrimony. What would I do with it all? When I grasped towards this crisis, I quickly pulled back. I was left with a blank, a mental short-out like a blown fuse.
I never managed to discuss this with him when he was alive. It was often trapped in the back of my throat as we talked about other subjects. Even after he developed a heart condition, it seemed impossible for me to bring up this most serious and dangerous issue.
In the last few years of his life I also felt put off, even aggressed, by the titanic gesture, the seemingly pointless yet relentless activity of his incessant art making. I didn’t enjoy visiting him as much as I did when I was younger. His loft felt increasingly claustrophobic, crowded with paintings and papers. I still recognized his gift -- the authority of his line, his originality in color and composition. I still saw the power of the work (a few years ago, visiting him in his loft after an absence of some months, I was shocked at the sheer number of large, luminous paintings he had finished). But his effort seemed increasingly solipsistic, out of sync with the changing world. He seemed to be painting into the void. Struggling for my own survival in New York -- not just a changed city, more like a different dimension of reality from the one my parents knew in the 1960’s -- I tried to distance myself from his doomed dedication.
Whenever I stopped to look at his paintings, I felt I was wearing a different lens on each eye -- one brought the work too close, and the other left it too distant, so that the combined effect was a vertiginous loss of perspective. Useless as it was for me to believe it, I had always believed in his work. Inside his loft, his art had the eerie power of a fully realized obsession. It was an entire, self-constructed universe, a raw cosmology of forms and totems. He put everything he knew, everything he thought, every part of himself into it.
On the other hand, as a critic who wrote about contemporary art for magazines like The Art Newspaper and ArtForum, I understood the forces that had condemned him to internal exile, to a death sentence inside an art world that rejected him. I knew why this type of painting was seen as hopelessly retrograde: It was too heartfelt, too expressive. It displayed no obvious novelty. I saw how the art system fed on new talent and youth -- older artists who were not enshrined had to be pushed aside to make way for the next generations.
He never asked for my help, yet I felt helpless before the spectacle of his helplessness. I stopped writing about contemporary art for a few years, because I identified with his struggle, his belief. The burden was too heavy for me.
Sometimes I worried that his art had convoluted into a more private statement than it might have been, if he had found his place in the world. Sometimes the energy he put into the paintings -- the brushstrokes pressing out from the canvas, the overwhelming color -- suggested a willful transformation of negative experience into frantic and turbulent form. Ironically, in the time since his death, I find that the privacy, the obsessiveness, gives the work its power. I don’t think I am wrong in recognizing that it also contains hints of wild, triumphant laughter.
It is strange: Now the entire weight of his unrecognized project has fallen directly on top of me, yet in some way I feel lighter, less crushed by that legacy than when he was alive. Before, I was paralyzed by it. Now that he is dead I am free to speak for his work as i would like. My father painted abstract forms that borrowed the expressive ambience of human beings; now, after his death, his work and his life become raw material I can arrange into text. I have become this interpreter as well as his curator. The situation provides an uncanny resolution to our Oedipal drama.
I am the inheritor not just of his paintings, but also if his vision, and of the desire to share that vision with the world.
“As long as there is one beggar left in the world, there will still be myth.”
-- Walter Benjamin
After finding my father’s body in his loft, after recovering from the first shock of grief which is like a physical blow, then fighting through the city’s nerve-wracking bureaucracy of death which is its own special punishment of the living, after clearing out decades of accumulated junk and detritus, I began to spend a lot of time looking at his paintings.
It slowly dawned on me that he was a better artist than I had known. From his earliest sculpture to the last sketch, his work revealed an inner logic, a clarity of purpose, an emotional force that floored me. I started cataloging -- an archaeological dig through the subterranean strata of his forty-year career, almost everything held within the same three thousand square-foot space.
I began to feel that I was learning through the paintings -- not just about Peter Pinchbeck, but also about the nature of art itself, even something about writing. While the earlier geometrical paintings are rigidly ordered and flatly painted, his later works include passages that break out, scumbled and scratched surface areas that suggest cosmic chaos, night-lit abysses, fever dreams, the existential confinement of the self in its prison tower. They allow for awkwardness and grace, radiance and revelation, mystical hope as well as mute horror. They remind me of Henry Miller in books like Black Sun, riffing for pages on any subject -- on a walk he took as a child, on a long-lost friend, or flourishing some metaphysical conceit. Miller’s passages skate out towards the edge of collapse with seemingly careless abandon, then circle back to ensnare his meaning with precision. Scuffed, bohemian, almost abject yet oddly redemptive, my father’s late paintings have that quality of a crisis confronted, a disaster averted --but just barely.
What he achieved towards the end of his life, I think, was a release based on those earlier decades of geometric constriction. His last decade was a revel in color and brushstroke, a brooding summation of his life-long inquiry. He exercised the freedom of someone who had dropped off the map—after one of his heart valves became infected a few years ago, he must have known that death was closing in on him, although he hid the truth of his condition from everyone, perhaps from himself as well. Escaping all fashions and trends, he gave up following anything except his own solitary path. In the paintings, he was whispering over and over that invisible secret he had carried with him all his life -- from his early childhood in Brighton to the money-mad Manhattan where he had become an anachronism -- that phantom of meaning and form which had haunted and pursued him. Working in solitude, over decades, he was proving the theorem to himself alone.
He was fascinated by physics and philosophy. He read constantly -- Blanchot, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche. Books on black holes and superstrings and chaos theory. Some of his late works could be seen as poetic images of quantum weirdness, molecular transformations, the space-curving force of gravitational fields. He was seeking some primal strata of shape and structure suggesting planets and atomic orbits, archaic tombs, and menhirs, internal organs and essentialized bodies. Some of the work suggests a loony sexual subtext -- two lumpy shapes sending a blur of fiery light between them in Flashpoint or in a late painting titled Intimacy, on gray rhizome-like form reaching a tubule out to probe its neighbor.
My father found contemporary art unbearable -- I doubt he visited Chelsea more than two or three times. He loved the history of painting, spending many hours at exhibitions of Chardin, Bonnard, Cezanne and so on. After his death, I found a scrawled note on his paint table describing his last work: “Painterly volume is what interests me. What shapes have to have is presence, like a person, have the reality of a figure in space, but still be abstract… I am influenced all the time by that Rembrandt self-portrait in the Frick where the figure sits against a dark background and the figure, face, and the amazing hands have an extraordinary volume and presence.” At the end, he added: “Painting goes its own way. It must always evade our understanding."
After his death, it seems to me, the work has undergone a sea change. It is like a sponge absorbing his substance. In his absence, the art seems to expand and radiate. In some part of my mind I always suspected this could happen -- somehow, his looming presence was an obstruction blocking his work from being seen or known, even by me. But why was this the case? After the decades if obscurity, had he given up hope in some way? Or did he always handle his career in a self-destructive manner? While cataloging, I have found no work from 1972-1977, the years after my mother left him, years when I rarely saw him. I imagine during that era bitterness overwhelmed him. He went down into the depths, passed through a psychic transformation. Afterwards, he made his art for himself alone, with no regard for the outer world. Over the next decade, he slowly groped his way to a gestural style that expressed his personal and metaphysical concerns.
Despite his generous geniality, gallery people steered away from him. As time went on, something about him either failed to communicate or communicated too clearly -- probably they caught the hint of wounded pride and maniacal seriousness underlying his cheerfulness, a dangerous taint in an industry increasingly devoted to fashion. I am sure they also intuited his disdain. In any case, older artists, especially those who have never been “hot,“ are not treated with kindness in the art world.
He was incompetent at presenting his work to those few people he met who might have helped his career. Since his death I have heard stories of well-meaning friends bringing collectors and dealers to the loft. He was barely able to clear wall space to show them a painting. He did not guide them through a progression of works, and they walked away baffled. When we talked about dealers and artists, he usually told stories of how this or that gallery had ripped off an artist in some way, hiding profits from them or letting work mysteriously disappear.
Perhaps he was ambivalent about living into the new century -- in his notebooks he wrote about feeling the society was increasingly depersonalized, inhuman. He never owned a computer, never received an E-mail. In his notes he dreaded “the great Robot Empires of the twenty-first century.” I think he felt his belief system, the existential and hand-made aura of his life and work, was not going to translate into this new era.
Death illuminates, clarifies the meaning of the life. While alive, the individual has only himself, a confusing mass of contradictory impulses and good and bad qualities. With death, he becomes a type, a representative of his age and time. During my father’s life, his project seemed an impossible wilderness in which he was lost. With his death, the individual works fall into pattern, like musical notes unified in a symphony.
Sometimes I see the work he left behind as an elegy to painting itself -- a farewell to the dream of heroic abstraction. And sometimes I think that no dream is ever lost.
"A blade of grass, the suspended flight of a hummingbird. We are travelers in a land where signs elude us, and everything we think or do only magnifies our sense of loss."
-- From my father’s notebooks, 1995
But of course I could be totally wrong about his art. Sometimes I go back to the work and see only his effort, his volatile and at times unsteady struggle with paint. That struggle with primal materiality, in itself, is something we no longer see much in contemporary art. My father’s struggle was particularly, peculiarly, naked. He is all there on the canvas -- utterly defenseless, urgently himself.
There was something primordial, archaic, about him and his work, and he knew it. Paintings are named Primordial Yearning, Primal Longing. The work suggests the Freudian concept of the “oceanic,” the unconscious impulse that seeks a merging of all dualities and opposites. The paintings compel the viewer’s attention to swirl around the picture plane, following the surge of forces through the composition. In each painting, he tried to create tension and equivalence across the entire surface -- absorbing a lesson from the “all-over” painting of the Abstract Expressionists. His paintings are not ironic but the whirling, dovetailing shapes, the collapsed volumes, welcome a humorous response. He often chuckled as he showed them to me.
By his inability to deal with his career during his life, he left the question of the value of his work entirely open for me to define -- as I always suspected he would. Now it is up to me to create a place for the work. Or I could let the work sink into the void, that vast garbage heap of all that is unknown and forgotten -- that empty maw into which all celebrated enterprises eventually follow, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.
After death, could my father’s helplessness and dedication be revealed as a kind of strategy -- like Kafka or van Gogh whose failures in life were redeemed by their work? As Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her little hand-stitched volumes, providing solace for generations of secret scribblers: “Publication is the auction of the mind of man.” The artist’s obstinate unworldly stance, so irksome and even intolerable while they stand before us, can be revealed as a willful negation, a hermetic “will to power.” Their helplessness before life can become part of the story that establishes the work’s integrity after death.
For a long time, my thoughts on his work would swing wildly between contradictory poles: “What are paintings on canvas except a metaphor for the light of the soul trapped inside the fading body?” I wrote in my journal soon after his death. I loved his work, hated the burden -- but sometimes the polarities reversed and I found myself hating the work yet loving the burden. Attraction and repulsion is also a theme of the paintings, with shapes suspended in force fields of tension. He gave me the the right to Dumpster his gigantic efforts, give away the rest, choose a few small ones as mementos, get on with my life. I chose, instead, to hold onto his work, to await the possibility of a redemptive moment of posthumous recognition.
Sometimes I felt myself sucked toward the abyss of my father’s project -- his unrecognized gift and enormous drive, his helplessness, the paintings themselves like naked beings crying for attention (some of them even look strangely like radiant babies). After he died, I realized that somewhere in my mind I was always having a conversation with him about art, the meaning of art within society, the place of the artist, the value of the artist continuing his own work without a public. This conversation continued for many months after his death, finally dissipating, as life moved on.
I recognize a pinchbeck quality to this whole enterprise: However I present his work now, in his absence, is a bit of a lie -- like all texts, this essay is itself full of errors, secret hedges, misperceptions recalibrated as fact. It is a deeply heartfelt yet spurious exercise. Some of our Pinchbeck ancestors in England were, apparently, alchemists, and I am aware that to make of my father’s career something he failed to make in his life requires a kind of alchemy. It requires storytelling, and storytelling, like painting or the Great Work, is an attempt to transmute the raw and transient stuff of life into something precious and sustaining.
With this task, whatever I do, I become the father to my helpless father.
"That life is loss, that you can only hold things together for a limited time, and that despite all your efforts everything falls apart."
-- From my father’s notebooks, 1996
My father once told me an anecdote about an important critic in the 1970s. The critic was curating an exhibition of large sculpture. She made an appointment to see a piece he had finished. But the time came, and she called to say she couldn’t make it. She said she would reschedule the meeting, but she never did. My father was forced to put his sculpture out on the concrete landing. He called a garbage disposal to take it away. From his fire escape, he watched the men put the sculpture in the back of the truck. He saw the sculpture go down the street and out of his sight, His whole career was stories like that one, repeated ad infinitum: So many slights, so many stings.
He never had his moment. Through a profound internal process, he made all of the rejections fuel his belief. He continued to work, without compromise, for nearly forty years. I feel lucky that I seem to have inherited a bit of his willpower. Once -- a few years before he died -- I asked him if he would accept his situation again: If he could go back in time and alter his style, in exchange for exhibits and attention, would he do it?
No, he said. Looking back, he would change nothing.
In the end I think he was a happy man.