He was part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists and participated in the historic Ninth Street Exhibition in 1951, which included works of Pollock, Ernst, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Kline, de Kooning and Motherwell. Abstract expressionism was an outgrowth of the crisis of the 1930’s in the midst of the Great Depression and the height of the Socialist movement in America. Before that, American artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were more concerned with social realism than artistic style. But the times, as Dylan would later chant, were a changing; the world, led by dictators, had become violent and these artists reflected their anger through strokes of rebellion.
“All your life,” I asked, “you experimented with your craft, never static, never working in one style. Why?”
“The mind must never stop seeking, experimenting. How else can I avoid the nausea of seeing the same things on my canvas every day. Once that happens my creation becomes stultified, my passion diminished, my love devolves into work.”
“Is there a secret to creating?” I asked.
“A secret?” he softly repeated. “I imagine it’s the quest for spontaneity. Life is often a series of accidents from which you define your choices. I try to approach the canvas with nothing in mind. I just look at the blank surface and say. Well now, what do we have today and where will it take us? I start with a single stroke of the brush, trying to keep my mind as blank as the canvas before me, free from the past, and soon the stroke and I enter into a dialogue until, at some point and in some irrational way, it unveils what it chooses to be.”
Again I sought clarification. “So spontaneity is your freedom?”
He thought for a moment and looked at my boys. “Come with me.”
We walked to a large old wooden barn located behind the house. The inside had been converted to an artist studio, painted white with oversized wooden floor planks surrounded by paintings in various states of completion leaning against the walls and sunlight pouring through the windows.
“What would you boys like to draw?”
He sat them on the floor and gave each a sheet of blank paper, colored pencils and as their fingers began their dance he observed from a distance. When they had finished he picked up their drawings of scattered lines, indefinable shapes and blots of formless colors and placed them on his work bench. He focused on their work for what seemed a long time, almost as if in a reverie. Finally, with a sigh, he said to us. “If only I could draw like this.”
Charlotte gave an understanding smile while we stood in silence.
He paused for a long moment. “That’s freedom. That’s the spontaneity I search so hard to find - coming to the canvas devoid of past, finding only the honesty of the present, no influence of a trained mind that dictates what or how to draw – go where you choose to go with no preconditions, no boundaries to limit you. It is a moment in time to make something out of nothing.”
It was a lesson I never forgot. One of the great painters of our age, one of the great innovators in creative thought and expression, wishing he could return to the primal energy that powered two children to draw on sheets of paper. It was the simplest explanation of freedom that I had ever heard – creating with no restraints.
“Freedom”, as James would say. “it’s what you see when you look out at the sea – the waves – the currents – the light reflecting off the crests – the feel of the breeze in your face – no beginning, no ending – just being. Isn’t that the freedom man seeks? Isn’t that why we’re here?”
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