This long weekend, I hope to spend some time at an exhibition of some early paintings by Richard Pousette-D’art.
I studied painting with Richard for one semester at Sarah Lawrence. He was a hulking man in a smock coat who always carried three identical pairs of heavy glasses on chains around his neck (and somehow always seemed to know which one he needed at the moment). He was the youngest of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, a group that had included Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning and Clifford Still, among others.
This was Sarah Lawrence in the 70’s. I don’t remember the class having set hours or any curriculum. The studio was open all day. You came in whenever you wanted, set up your canvas, easel and paints and went at it. Some people barely showed up, some spent the day there. I came and went.
Richard stood at one long side wall, working on the same canvas the whole semester, as I remember it. It was a huge canvas that he was filling with a pointillist rendering of a carnival – ferris wheel, roller coaster, hot dog booths and shooting range. No details, just basic outlines in dots of primary colors. Too bright, too garish for my taste. No nuance at all. I thought the thing was stupid but he just kept at it, day after day, adding his little dots of simple color.
Worse than that, he did very little teaching that I could see. He would talk to students here and there, just a bit of conversation, and he was fully available whenever any of us sought him out with questions. But I’d been working for weeks, painting whatever came into my head, without more than a few words from him. I’d done a Van Gogh, a Monet, a couple of Picasso’s – not copies of real ones but my version of what those great painters would have done if they lived in my world with my level of talent.
Finally, I came in one day and had no ideas, no one left to imitate. I stared at that empty canvas and started trying to paint, applying a little color and looking at the result and adding something else, totally at random, totally lost in the blank expanse.
I’d reached my level. I was at that horrible place where ambition suddenly meets untested, meager skills and I knew it. I put more paint on the brush but had no idea what to do with it.
Suddenly, I heard a rustling behind me and there was Richard grabbing me from behind.
“From the shoulder,” he said. “Paint from the shoulder. Try that.”
It took a moment for me to have any clue at all to what he was saying. I was holding up the brush in front of the canvas in my hand, same as I always did, ready to apply a little paint to the canvas, if I could only figure out just the right spot to put it. It was the only way I’d ever considered the physical act of painting. Why would using my shoulder make a difference?
The answer to that question came as soon as I tried it. First of all, I simply couldn’t just apply a little paint with my shoulder. There was no ‘just the right spot.’ As soon as I tried to paint with the shoulder, the whole canvas was a target. My movements by necessity had to be more expansive and suddenly I was seeing differently.
More to the point, I wasn’t thinking, just doing. I’d spent the first month or two teaching my hand to serve my conscious mind, to paint what I was thinking of, or as close to it as it could get to it. Painting from my shoulder, that connection was completely severed. My body was doing the painting, not my mind. I painted different. Freer, looser, more emotional, connected to me in a way my self-conscious self-protective thoughts and plans never could be.
Richard helped make me the writer I am, for better or worse. I have a totally chaotic process of finding a story. I try a million things, chasing a feeling, discarding lots of perfectly good threads because they feel conscious and artificial. I am usually in total despair just before a novel starts coming together. And I’m not sure the results show any of the craziness I go through to get there.
But the idea for me is to get past my conscious plans and thoughts and try to bring each scene back to that first flash of unconscious, subconscious vision, the very first version that played out in my head. Because the unconscious knows everything, taps a level of existence that goes much deeper and wider than our puny, controlling thoughts.
By the way, several years after I graduated, I went to an exhibition of Richard’s work at the Whitney Museum. And there was the carnival painting, the ferris wheel, the blocky booths in their primary colors – but now just a shimmer of life behind layer after pointillist layer of white paint. It was magical and one of my favorite pieces ever. Naturally, I can’t find that one online but I think you get my drift, just as I finally got Richard’s.