Cold again tonight. I loved your call this afternoon, hearing the travel arrangements and picturing you, captivating, enigmatic, smiling, in China. You sounded distant, as though I won’t hear from you for a while. I feel distant, too. Your “I love you” has to last for a while. I wish I could sleep better. This cold is eating my bones. I’d better spike the jasmine tea with brandy.
Spring has reached the high country. It’s been warm for several days. The sky is the clear blue of my friend Justine’s eyes. In paintings, I sometimes pretend the whole sky is eyes, magnified, gently touching the edges of other objects. All objects have presences and boundaries and exist on more than one plane at the same time. I learned this from reading Gertrude Stein. When she said, “The world is round,” I believe she was referring to ways of seeing things as emanations of their materials and as original creations. Have you ever seen a Dogon ladder carved from the trunk of a tree that seems alive, rising up, its steps polished with age and oil, its rings and cracks claiming each year it was rooted, its afterlife noble? Sometimes, as in endless imitations of Mickey Mouse, icons become corrupted, too plastic. Give me the real Mickey any day. How curious that an animated mouse could be lovable when real mice are nasty. I like the ways Stein broke her own rules, over-cultivated her life, her garden, then reduced it all to unpunctuated, basic words. I prefer the deadly nightshade, the lone calla. The wild iris in the forest here is as fragile as Himalayan poppies, but instead of transparent petals of sunny orange streaked with violet, the fields are reversed – translucent violet with orange veins, the petals cupped verticals, not the horizontal, bleeding palms on Europe’s ancient cliffs.
When I think about our love, I realize that what brought us together tore us apart. Some say I’ve never loved anyone, even you. I say the opposite is true. Presences don’t need names. I must remind myself, too, that I was very inexperienced, finding my way from inside. I may have studied art, copied some styles, but the inspiration for pieces always came from nature as it revealed itself to me, or from signs (even from your letters) which led to dreams in shapes and colors. My psychoanalyst has a peculiar slant on my dreams: she says they are unfinished business, spirits that are restless, that rise from the heart chakra. She says that each dream is a particular organ emitting its naked energy instead of resting quietly through the night to renew itself. I don’t yet understand what she’s saying. Would that mean that I am attuned to my restlessness or yours? Or am I feeling the distance between us?
To sort this out, I decided to give each letter of the alphabet a color and to invent words so that I could stack colors on paper in verticals, diagonals, curving horizontals. I have painted color worlds on canvas and hidden the language they sprang from. Why reveal the process behind my abstract game? Do I penetrate your surfaces or mirror my adamant soul or simply name things?
At the time, it seemed natural for you to admire my work, love me. Part of me knew that the artist in me was unproven, not deserving fame, yet, in sheer excitement, I ignored questions of values and worth. Youth! Part of me did not know that what sells – what’s hot – is the enigma, freak, the monster – the hopeless outrage, lust and injustice that comes from paying close attention to things that cross the line. I was oblivious to the truth: what sells is horror, lust, and violence.
We met near the end of my opening night party at Tina Popper’s Gallery in the Village. The champagne was running out, but everyone was in a good mood, and Tina had already sold out the show. I was introduced to six art critics. I knew the Times reporter L.T. Groton from two prior shows; he could be counted on to say something interesting, more or less, from his own safe left of center point of view. You had an entourage: there is no other way to describe the sudden crowd, including your frail wife Bella (dying of colon cancer), the brilliant critic Susan Stone (recovering from breast cancer), Susan’s protégé Mikka, several diplomats and collectors, including Stephen Fulbright, and two married artists whose works you were collecting, Helen Franklin and Don Starbuck, the Harvard-educated house painter whose abstractions were praised to the skies by the leading New York critics, those hardy wordsmiths, a waspish fraternity except for Deborah Blanken, the voluptuous, supernova writer for Art Scoop whose boyfriend was the singer/guitarist for the rock band Whiplash. The President of Brazil and his stunning blonde wife made a dramatic entrance; he had given me a commission for a giant triptych of murals of the rain forests for the oval salon in the Museum of the Americas in Sao Paulo. I had been awarded a gold medal for the panels at the Museum’s grand opening last April.
Your party arrived in three long white stretch limos, which were waiting outside to take us to the post-opening party you and Tina had planned at the Stanhope. I invited Charles Duvail, a sculptor I was seeing then, my friend Anne Sullivan, and her husband Bruce to join our cavalcade.
We arrived at the Stanhope at one a.m. and proceeded to the north penthouse overlooking The Met and Central Park. A trio of musicians was playing Latin tangos as I danced with all of the men. Finally, after we had kicked off our shoes and danced more, the party settled down to animated conversations in dimly-lit corners of the ornate suite with alabaster tables, crystal candelabras with candles, and French-brocade couches and loveseats, all signed French antiques from the twenties, I was told. The setting felt like the party room of an old palace --sumptuous without being gaudy. The wooden dance floor, marble fireplace and bar, and curious Persian carpets in front of the divans made the large room cozy even as the wrap-around windows gave us a panoramic view of Central Park’s east side at night.
We talked about collecting, about tight-fitting tango costumes, tempos, and tempers, about life in New York. Just being in your arms, my nipples became alert and then urgent. My hips began to pivot with ease; I felt natural, light, and sweet.
Then, Helen and Don and Stephen and Mikka came over offering more Cristal and talking about a rival artist in unflattering terms. Don was talking too loudly, which was unusual, because he is quite shy, and he was rubbing against Mikka, which was making both Helen and Mikka uncomfortable. His wife pinched his butt and Mikka went off to find Susan.
I tuned out, wondering whether words or bodies were the biggest traps, indivisible cages with bars. The pain of phonemes, the torture of frigid, empty rows of letters laid out in hieroglyphs of meaning or in parades of empty flatulence, rather like that pushy artist known for his drunken philosophical repetitions and his hunky body. Nobody should be that obnoxious. His early life, first as a coalminer in New Mexico, then as a steelworker in Pittsburgh gave him a tough bad boy image. His patron, a steel magnate, had built him a museum there, and he now had a giant studio in Pittsburgh and an estate on the Hudson River north of New York. He forged his reputation using heavy materials: mass and volume, scale and weight was his mantra. His rival in the field was equally enthroned, this one in a poetic kingdom. Known for cold-bending steel and using light, hue, composition, and space, he shaped sensual images that rocked back and forth with the push of a finger. Swinging on a giant sculpture among mountain vistas and a pink-blue sky was a good ride.
I drew a deep breath and pushed the conversation toward another topic. Besides art, there were suddenly no words for what I was feeling. You, too. Something pulsing between us had nothing to do with the conversation, my eyes smiling in yours. It may have been exhaustion, released tension after a show, the champagne. I liked to joke and gossip, but I tried to avoid sexual encounters with collectors. Women were promiscuous in art circles, and I saw it as another form of entrapment.
Luckily, Charles joined us at this point and we piled into the limos, which sailed us to our respective doorsteps. We ended the morning in my Bowery loft (a huge minimal space in a junkhead neighborhood), listening to a soon-to-be-released studio recording of Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi that served as ambient exotica as Charles and I leapt together, as though we were the burning bush, letting our heat shoot us to the stars, then melting into slumber.