I was up early enough to get the blog written, after an uncomfortable night fighting off a cluster headache—with little success through the early hours. Was it the couple of glasses of Sancerre I enjoyed at the Café Carlyle? The decibels? The big chunk of chocolate cake at the Whitney restaurant? A combination of the above? Who knows. At least it had the decency to leave me a few hours of sleep before morning.
I took a quick walk down the block to buy my Saturday New York Times at the corner vendor, and back to the hotel for a bagel and a cup of coffee—the easiest solution for breakfast while I got the photos downloaded from my cell phone and posted along with my blog text. Then, after a shower and shave, over to the Hilton for the next phase of the conference. A stop at the book shop—they now have one copy left of each of the two books, both set aside “For Display Only.” With luck, Parami Press will get some follow-up orders, but I suspect there’s a good deal of impulse buying going on, and the books may be forgotten once conferees get home. Mal sehen, as they say in Germany. We’ll see.
I was surprised to find a long line forming at the entry to the Grand Ballroom—and still more surprised to discover it was for the Chuck Close/Irving Sadler interview scheduled to start nearly an hour later. It seemed like a good moment to get to know a few more of my fellow conference-goers, so I joined the line and struck up some pleasant conversations as we waited. The time passed quickly.
No idea how many people the Grand Ballroom seats, but at a guess there must have been a couple of thousand or more. Big cheers went up to greet the arrival of both speakers. I had somehow formed the notion that Chuck Close—a victim of debilitating neuro-muscular disease who still manages a demanding studio practice—would be a quiet, retiring kind of fellow. Never trust a stereotype. He turned out to be garrulous, highly articulate, and hugely entertaining. He regaled his audience with marvelous memories of his childhood, at a time when physical and, in his case, severe learning disability were considered, as he put it, merely “dumb.” He had equally fascinating stories about his student days at Yale, in an historic class that included Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, Brice Marden and other luminaries. Philip Guston, a unsparingly biting visiting critic who brutally dismissed the work of other students, nearly ruined his life by picking out his work as the only worthwhile painting in the bunch. As Close remembered it, he spent the next three years trying to make the same painting over again.
After Yale, there were exciting times in SoHo, with artists working busily without expectation of reward or fame in a foment of activity enlivened by outstanding talents in other media—the likes of Philip Glass and Yvonne Rainer—and Paula Cooper opening up shop. O judge by the applause, I was not the only one in the audience to find resonance in some of his peculiar wisdom, accumulated over the years. “Inspiration,” he said at one point, “is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Amen. And “If you know what art looks like, it’s not hard to make.” The hard part, for him, was “purging my work of everything I was good at” and “getting to a new kind of invention.” It’s important, he said, “to make the choice not to do something. Self-imposed limitations are the best way to move on.” I appreciated, too, his preference for “advocacy” over “criticism”—it’s essentially what I do.
Irving Sandler, now an elder statesman, sat for the most part quietly by, stepping in with the right questions at the right moment. Particularly charming was watch them both get lost in conflicting memories, and have a hard time getting back on track with their thoughts. In all, a very human performance, and one that concluded with a standing ovation from the thousands of us in the audience. It seemed a shame to stop. Check Close was all ready for another hour—but I guess the hall was booked for another event. We trooped out, reluctantly, to follow other paths.
For myself, I stopped by my room to shed my conference gear and headed out to MoMA to see the current Cindy Sherman show. First, though, a stop at the cafeteria for a good panino and a conversation with a fellow Brit who was there with his young son for an art class. The comprehensive Cindy Sherman retrospective gave me a good sense of the range of her work since the late 1970s. Her multiple self-portraits are a challenging and often deeply disturbing experience. At once photographer and the subject of her photographs, she is at the same time costumer, make-up artist, costume designer and hair stylist. She morphs from sexy Hollywood icon to renaissance aristocrat to aging socialite with numerous other stops along the way, revealing the human vulnerability beneath the disguises we all wear to present ourselves to others. I could not help but think of “Mind Work” and its examination of the identities we adopt as we make our way through life, concealing those parts of ourselves we do not wish others to see. We use them as defenses, as ways to hide our fears about who we are—our physical presence and our emotional distress. Sherman manages to show us the pretense, along with the chinks in the armor that betray our insecure humanity.
Heading back to the hotel, I found a cigar shop with a smoker’s den, and stepped inside to enjoy my weekly indulgence. I was joined at my table by a fellow smoker, and we soon fell into a fine conversation. Learning my name, he scratched his head and swore he’d come across it somewhere: he had a book of mine, he said. I thought that was unlikely, but ran through my titles—and it turned out that he had been at a bookshop on the Upper East Side, perhaps fifteen years ago, where I was signing copies of “While I Am Not Afraid.” It may be a cliché, but yes, the world is small indeed. He confessed that he had probably not read the book!
After taking time for a welcome half hour’s rest in my hotel room, I met up with and old friend, Amanda Allison and her husband, Justin, from Forth Worth, Texas. We had a lovely reunion and a good dinner at La Maison, just across the street from the Sheraton. It was Amanda who invited me out to Texas to talk to her summer class of continuing art education for teachers—and who brought me to my first NAEA conference, in Seattle last year, to facilitate a workshop with her. I’m grateful to her for introducing me to an important and receptive new audience for my thoughts about the creative flame—and the great need to find ways to keep it burning, even out there in the working world.
Later this morning, at the very end of the conference, I’ll be offering my “lecture/discussion” session on the subject of creative work as a valid form of research. I woke up remembering how much I dislike the word “lecture.” Maybe that’s where I’ll start…