+ gottlieb and me

so the summer after i graduated from college, the summer of 1972, i was living in my friend andrew's garage apartment/studio out on long island. trying to paint. and sort of making ends meet by scraping and repainting the trim on his aunt’s house.

somehow, i heard that adolph gottlieb, who lived in east hampton was looking for a studio assistant. he’d had a stroke and was stuck in a wheel chair, but still wanted to work. perfect. i drove my old red volvo out to his house. met a small entourage, his very formidable and somewhat domineering wife and finally, him. i wheeled his wheel chair in and out of the studio and talked a bit about what i seemed to be about.

after a while, the crowd thinned out and suddenly, it was just adolph and me. as the gravel from his wife’s car settled in her parting wake, he stared at my chest and i realized he was fixated on the pack of old golds in my pocket. i asked if it was ok to smoke and he said of course, have at it. i lit up and then offered him one. he grinned like a thirsty pilgrim at the edge of an oasis in the desert. he probably had been jonesing for a smoke for months and the pleasure he took from it was enormous. we talked about his work. my fledgeling work. the hopelessness of most all art.

i was thinking, i got this…this will be great for me…a window into the art world i was so longing to crack.

but soon enough, adolph’s wife returned. she walked in and took one wiff. she knew. and she was furious. at him. and at me. she summarily dismissed me never to darken their door again. as i tried to say goodbye, she turned on him and started in on his smoking and how she had forbidden it. the look of abject misery on his face was unforgettable. in an instant, it told the story of a man who had climbed to the top of the art world, ran the table and had his way with all the best that this life can dole out and then, because of his stroke, became a prisoner to the wheelchair and ultimately to the dark, vengeful retribution of a woman who had suffered in his shadow, endured his willful, impulsive, decadent artist’s life and was now in charge. of everything.

beyond sad.

 

            + mom and pollock

my mom might not have been such a great mom, but she was a great woman. a woman ahead of her time. she was a successful clothing designer with her own labels. she was the interior decorator to some big clients – residential and commercial in the city. she and my awful stepfather bought an inn in east hampton and turned it into a chic european style hotel. she also worked with some of the brighter lights in the advertising world and knew all the hot photographers, designers and artists of new york in the mid 50s and early 60s.

one of her earliest discoveries was jackson pollock who had recently taken up residence in springs not far outside of east hampton where we summered. this was, of course, before he was discovered. she bought one of his prints at a local clothesline art shows for ten or fifteen dollars and told anyone who cared to listen that someday he was going to be a huge presence in the art world and that this print would some day be worth some real money.

some years later, she gave me the print and i have always loved it. looking at it, i felt as though i was in touch with the divine. touching the hem of genius.

unfortunately, that print was lost in the fire that burned down my loft in jamaica plain outside of boston in 1976. i can still see it in my mind’s eye.

and I miss it.

 

            + harold and mae

i spent a lot of time in east hampton and amagansett during the summer of 1972. my sister was living in a little beach shack with my best friend george. i was seeing the girl next door. and we were all hanging out at the beach and trying to figure out how and what to paint.

george got a job working on harold and mae rosenberg’s house. patching the roof. light landscaping. maintenance. once we figured out that harold was that harold rosenberg, the renowned art critic and his savvy wife, we started stalking them. i went over there at least once a week, ostensibly to visit with george, but really to peer in the windows at their amazing collection. pollock. kline. de kooning. brooks. vicente. gottlieb. david smith. a little summer cottage full of giant art.

at one point, i think mae took an interest in us and started talking about the ford foundation and how it was funding the renaissance of lithography at the tamarind institute outside of alburquerque. maybe we should look into it.

or maybe she was just wishing we would go away.

 

            + dekooning’s bike

in all of this coming and going in springs, amagansett, quogue and east hampton, i had the opportunity, on numerous occasions to be wandering through de kooning’s neighborhood. i often saw him riding his funky old bicycle to jacob’s landing and back. of course he was almost always drunk. he would be fine on this old bike until he had to turn.  when it came time to turn, he simply fell over. he would lie there on the sandy asphalt. laughing i think. staring up at the milky sky. and then he’d pull himself together and set out on the next straight segment of his journey home.

but god what a painter.

 

          + topless cricket

one of the artists we worked with at fox graphics in the 1970s was leonard baskin. in fact, publishing leonard's limited edition lithographs for his new york gallery kept herb, the shop, and me, afloat. so he was an important guy for us. i'd always sort of liked his sculptures – mostly bronzes. his prints though were kind of up and down. some i thought were terrific. some not so much.

anyway. we did a lot of stuff with and for leonard. so when he called and asked if herb and i could drive to northampton, ma to a small intaglio shop to dismantle, pick up and transport an etching press to his farm in maine, we jumped on it.

it was a long day. there was traffic, it was hot. the press resisted. and it was heavy. but the two of us eventually got it apart and into the back of herb's truck. by midnight or so, we arrived at leonard's farm. his assistant brought us in and showed us where we could stay for the night and made sure we knew that leonard was counting on us staying the weekend.

leonard's farm was beautiful. and it was right on the coast. (my memory is that it was somewhere near portland, me, but i could be off on that.) anyway, expansive, beautiful ocean views, a rugged, rocky coast, a large barn for leaonard's sculpture studio, meadows, fields and forests, a huge house, outbuildings, and lots of people all over the place. quite the entourage. 

our host was, of course, effusive in his thanks and introduced us around at breakfast including his new wife whose name now escapes me. she was very outgoing, larger than life and veddy, veddy british. she was also about 40 years younger than leonard and, shall we say, quite statuesque.

so we had the plough man's breakfast and then got down to the business of unloading and reassembling the press. we had it done by noon, in time for lunch. another sumptuous feast followed by the announcement from the british wife that after lunch, we would all be playing cricket in the meadow in back of the big house. leonard kind of rolled his eyes and we got the message that giving this a pass was not really an option.

we gathered on the lawn and the wife walked us through the intricacies of the game of cricket. a very peculiar game. and we started playing and it was awkward, but the wife was having fun. it was also really hot and at one point, she stripped down to her bikini and then shed her top. like i say, veddy british. veddy european. but to us, kind of shocking. not to mention that she was quite generously endowed, proud and, i believe, quite enjoyed watching us squirm.

so that was my introduction to cricket – topless cricket. it was a surreal, vaguely pornographic experience that is forever etched in my memory.

i will say that leonard was a good sport about it all.

as a footnote, i have to say that i found some of leonard's work at the farm quite amazing. he had recently done a series of "dead man" sculptures. these were life-size bronzes of the human body in repose as if fallen in combat or felled by lightning, or maybe collapsed from some mysterious exhaustion. a number of them were scattered around the property and i came across many of them quite be accident. it was an unsettling, slightly disturbing moment. various grasses and natural growth had been allowed to grow up around them and they were startling, eerie, haunting and stayed with me for a long time. in some ways, with each new discovery, i felt like an interloper somehow intruding on a most sacred and private moment. 

i never did speak to him about this work. i really wish i had. in retrospect, it was a lot more significant than topless cricket.

       

       + getting a break

most artists labor away in complete anonymity. and the truth is, we sort of like it. it's a monkish, reflective existence. but there's also a side to it that challenges the ego and the ambition, too. after all, one does not make visual art so that it can be ignored and left invisible.

there comes a moment when you want to exhibit. you want people to take notice. and so you get your 35 mm slides made (it was the 1980s after all). and you take them around to the galleries in an attempt to get them in front of the owner/manager. of course, they are never around so you have to deal with a spectacularly disinterested gatekeeper –usually a stunningly thin, deliciously turned out and beautiful young woman with a clipped british accent. to her, you are simply another pathetic, starving, desperate artist. you are scruffy, though not without a certain measure of charm, but carrying yet another sheet of tiresome slides that are to be handed along, perhaps misplaced and forgotten. you know this. she knows this. but you work through it anyway sometimes with many galleries in a given day.

then you do your follow-up call to see if there is any interest. any curiosity. anything at all. usually the clipped british accent doesn't know and promises to call if there are any developments. this almost never happens. then you're left with chasing down your slides so you can maybe pass them along to the next gallery.

pretty grueling, cruel and heartbreaking.

but really, it's all you can do. this is the game. meanwhile, you and your other anonymous artist friends get on the mailing list for some of the opening receptions and stare enviously at that night's artist, basking in the glow of his or her one-man show, certain sales, ensuing exhibits and success (whatever that looks like). of course, you stuff your pockets with all the carrots, shrimp, cheese and crackers you can politely get away with and, if you're a drinker, tie on a tidy buzz with the complimentary wine.

and so it goes. this was the game i played.

but in late 1980, as i was starting to scale up my work in the portland street studio and take on some pretty ambitious ideas, word got around that the institute of contemporary art (i.c.a.) was about to launch a search for ten boston artists to showcase in the first of a series of annual group shows developed to support the local art scene. the request started with ten slides along with an application and artist's statement (always thought this was a little strange – isn't the work supposed to be the statement?). but like handing my slides to the clipped british accent, i figured this is sort of like the lottery – you can't win if you don't buy a ticket. so i filled it out, wrote it up and sent in my slides.

i figured, rightly as it turns out, that every artist in town would be into this including the higher-profile people who had already established a track record of significant exhibits. in fact, i correctly predicted the inclusion of three painters who were then working on a monumental scale (i'm talking about paintings that were like 12 x 28'). so i really didn't hold out much hope. i sent in my prayer and let it go.

but a month later, i got a call saying that one of the i.c.a. curators in charge of the selection process wanted to come to the studio. this was a big step and i really tried not to get too excited about it. we had a great visit and a very smart conversation. i felt like i made a good case for my work without being too obnoxious or desperate. i figured that, okay, that was better than no phone call, no visit, no response. but i also figured maybe they had narrowed the field from 1000 to 150. still a real long shot.

two weeks after that, the i.c.a. called again and asked if the other curator could come for a visit. that went really well, too. i felt like she really got the work and i succeeded in not throwing up all over my keds. after she left, i thought, wow, i'm close. maybe they've got it down to like 20. of course, she couldn't really say anything one way or the other or even when they might make a final decision.

i couldn't sleep that night. i started to think of all the things that might happen if i had the good fortune to be selected for this show. i tried hard to put it out of my mind over the next days and weeks. just go to work. and work the work.

ten days later, the i.c.a. called and wanted to schedule a visit with the two curators and the director. now i was having a nervous breakdown. i knew i was very close. they came and we had a very cordial, smart visit, but they couldn't commit obviously. i figured they had it down to 15 or so and were trying hard to make the final cut. agony.

three days later, one of the curators called to ask if i would be interested in participating in the i.c.a.'s first boston/now exhibition featuring what they deemed to be the ten most significant artists in town.

blow me over with a feather.

and the whole thing happened really fast from there. there was another visit to discuss which paintings to include. there was a press conference where they introduced the artists. there was a studio visit with members of the board of trustees. i actually sold two paintings from this visit. there was a schedule: the trustee' reception, the press reception, the public opening.

and suddenly, my phone rang. and there, miracle of miracles, was the clipped british accent politely pronouncing my name and telling me the owner had reviewed my slides and would i be receptive to a visit. in fact, this actually got to be a pain in the neck. i hadn't realized how many different galleries i had begged to look at my slides and how many i had left scattered in my wake.

the openings were a blinding series of evenings where the attention was both highly gratifying and exhausting. my family came in from all over the country. in fact, i think it was the first time in many years, and the certainly the last, that my mother and father actually occupied the same space.

there were reviews in all the newspapers and local circulars and art rags. some were favorable. some were reserved. some were critical. what does it matter. the attention was astonishing. during the first week of the exhibition, i was approach by one particular gallery owner who seemed to get me. we had a long talk and came to an agreement. a one-man show in the next six months. active representation bringing collectors and patrons to the studio. some serious p.r. efforts. and of course a 50% commission on all sales, whether the gallery was involved or not.

and that's the way it was. i went from complete obscurity to tripping the light fantastic in the boston art world. people recognized me at openings. i became the artist at the reception that the other artists looked at longingly. sadly, some friendships suffered for it.

the next year, i was included in boston/now again – this time at the boston museum of fine arts. i had other one-man shows and was invited to participate in a variety of other museum/institutional group shows. the gallery worked hard for me and brought interesting people to the studio many of whom invested in the work. ultimately, the curator of contemporary art at the boston museum of fine arts brought the critic clement greenberg to my studio for a visit and, after some conversation, decided that the museum needed to own one of my paintings.

i will be forever grateful for this break. i don't know how it happened. the odds seemed so unlikely. but it made a huge difference and also put me on a strange path upwards which was not without its conundrums, paradoxes and complications.

 the painting wall • portland street • 1982

the painting wall • portland street • 1982

 

              + me and the mfa

at one point, the curator from the boston came to the studio and brought clement greenberg. now clem was kind of past his peak freshness date, but he still had some real stature and i respected him completely. in the movie 'pollock' he was played by jeffrey tambor and famously said, "paint is paint and surface is surface." he was a big abstract painting, color-field champion. and while i didn't think of my work as really occupying this vein, it was relevant in some ways and so he responded enthusiastically.

the curator was a very smart and friendly guy and, i think, brought clem along to see what he thought. that evening he told me that the museum wanted to acquire one of my paintings and that he would be in touch again soon to meet with my gallery owner and to select a piece.

at this point, this was a huge surprise. very gratifying. it took the better part of 6 months getting a collector to support the sale and make a donation along with a grant from somewhere and approval of museum funds. all pretty complicated and obscure. but the day came when the painting went down the freight elevator. they picked a good one. it's title is "kurtz" – after the joseph conrad character in heart of darkness. a few weeks later the phone rang and the curator informed me that kurtz was installed in the contemporary wing and that i should come see it.

so the next day, i climbed on the green line near the studio and road out to the boston museum of fine arts. this is a big museum. it's right up there with the metropolitan in new york city. on the ride out, i don't really remember what i was thinking about, but it had something to do with being discovered and authenticated. validated. certified, grade-a american artist.

so i made my donation and got my little bendy button. i wandered the museum working my way toward the contemporary wing. and suddenly, there it was. the little metal panel next to it read, "kurtz" oil on canvas, 1983, frank campion, american, b. 1949." kurtz was exactly as i remembered it. it hadn't suddenly attracted magical, transformative pixie dust for being in the museum. and as i sat there with my work, in the company of giants, i realized that my rent was still due. i still owed the art supply store a small fortune. and i was starting to worry about the next show and where the next sale might be coming from.

this was a revealing moment. i realized i was on an endless ladder with an infinite series of rungs ahead. each one a measure of some kind of "success" leading to...what? some sense of security? a greater conviction about my work? 

eventually, this insight would lead me away from the art world. it became very confusing as to whether i was creating a product for a particular kind of audience with a distinct set of expectations and a path paved with higher prices, greater profile and prestige or whether i could still rightly claim to be following my own light forward, obeying my creative instincts without a thought to the commercial consequences.

now, 30 years later, i don't have to worry about curators, collectors gallery owners or the clipped british accents at the front desk. i am in my studio and i am working. i'm not even sure if the work is any good. and i'm pretty sure, to my great relief, that this is not my problem at least not yet. so there is a freedom to this new chapter. there is a purity of intent and action.

but i do have a painting in the permanent collection of the boston museum of fine arts.

 kurtz • oil/canvas • 70 x 74" • 1982

kurtz • oil/canvas • 70 x 74" • 1982

 

            + fox graphics

in 1976, a few months after my first large show at the cyclorama/boston center for the arts, my loft/studio in jamaica plain burned to the ground. it was a big old, rambling boot factory with 15' ceilings, thick oak beams, huge windows, endless bricks and yawning skylights. it was a grand old building perfect for artists, but in a predictably terrible part of town. in fact, one of the guys who helped me move in, was actually relieved of his watch and wallet at gun point.

anyway, one february night as i was driving back, there was a glow in the sky and radio reports of a multiple alarm fire at my address. arthur fiedler, a notorious fire chaser and director of the boston pops showed up. by the time i got there, the fire department had abandoned the building and let it burn. i remember that it was unseasonably warm for february and it was raining. during the night, though, the montreal express blew into town and the temps plunged well below freezing. the next morning, the streets were coated with ice, there were fire engines encased in thick sheets of it and the ice was actually holding up part of one wall and a smoke stack. the rest was just a smoldering pile of ash.

this was when i lost the pollock print my mother had given me.

i also lost everything else. everything. suddenly, i had no art materials. no tools. no work. no paint. no pants. no books. no records. no bed. no underwear. no socks. just whatever random junk i had on my back and in the car.

pretty quickly, i needed a job and found it at fox graphics. i had worked with herb fox before as a sort of shop janitor. i repaired holes in the ceilings. swabbed the floors. moved the lithography stones around. painted. cleaned. whatever herb needed. at that point it was just helping me make ends meet.

but after the fire, i was at such a loss and so broken and confused, i really needed some way forward and i talked to herb about the possibility of seriously apprenticing with him to become a professional lithographer. and he took me on. 

for the next three years, i threw myself into the techniques and art of stone and plate lithography. i learned to regrain the bavarian limestones and process aluminum plates. i learned to condition the leather roll-up rollers. i became an expert at a variety of different multi-color, multi-pass registration systems. i learned about ink. i became a gum arabic whisperer. we printed for leonard baskin. paul rotterdam. mike mazur. jack beal. at one point, we proofed some plates for agnes martin though she never did come to the shop.

at one point, i was sort of hitting the wall with it all and went to visit my sister in los angeles. as luck would have it, she had become good friends with a printer at gemini g.e.l. who invited us to visit the shop. gemini at the time was arguably the foremost limited edition workshop in the world. they were doing lithography, intaglio, serigraphy, relief printing and starting to experiment with handmade paper, and cross-media, multiple techniques. and their stable of artists was a who's who of american art – ellsworth kelly. robert raushenburg, jasper johns. robert motherwell. james rosenquist. to name just a few.

after a quick tour and cocktails, this friend of my sisters asked if i was interested in taking a job at gemini. they needed to bring on a junior printer. it was very flattering. it would have been a front row seat to the actual making of big-time american art. but it was also a crossroads moment for me and it forced a bigger issue. i did not set out in life to print other people's work. as proficient as i had become at this mysterious alchemy of a craft, i was not a lithographer. i returned to boston and for a while, i kept working for herb fox and helped keep fox graphics going, but my heart was restless for my own work and I soon found the opportunity to return to it and rediscover my own path.

i have to say though that i owe herb fox a huge debt of gratitude for taking me on, training me, providing me with a bit of desperately needed stability, and offering me a viable path forward.

 master printer, herb fox • peter o'sullivan • me • chris bonfatti • fox graphics, bromfield street, boston • 1978

master printer, herb fox • peter o'sullivan • me • chris bonfatti • fox graphics, bromfield street, boston • 1978