In 1988 Stephen De Staebler had a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, called ‘The Figure’.
I went there. And, I want to say something about that show. But, first let me tell you this: I am not a
particularly sensitive man. I’m not unreasonably cold, nor am I driven by dark passions of any sort; avarice
or greed or jealousy. I have no appetite for either recognition or power. Ambition of any sort is so foreign to
me that I could not, without looking it up in Rodale, come up, just now, with the word. If I had it my way, I’d
live out the remainder of my life quietly, without any inconvenience whatsoever, in the comfort of our own
little house, with my truly delightful wife, a dog, a cat, a cello and ten thousand books that I’ll never get a
chance to read, though I frequently pretend to nurse the desire.
I know that all of this must make me sound selfish. Perhaps I’m a selfish man. Admittedly, I’m not in touch
with the angels of my own better nature, and I really want as little to do with the very essence of Life as I
can. Given the choice between drifting aimlessly and getting my hands dirty in ‘what Life is really all about’,
I’ve always chosen drifting. Those few brief seconds when I am in contact with the astounding purity of the
gift that’s been given us, usually dissolve pretty quickly into a kind of idiotic mindlessness. I’m unlikely to
think great thoughts, but not for lack of opportunity. I know this because I broke my ankle a couple of years
ago, and had that chance, and thought no great thoughts. Not one. I recognized the possibility of course,
and regretted my failure to seize upon it, but that’s as far as it went. So, I make no claims that the demands
of making a living, and the ten thousand trivialities of daily life get in the way of me being more of what God
would have me be. That’s a good excuse, and though I comfort myself with it frequently, it’s not really true.
Whatever else I may be (or not be) I am an honest man.
I say all of this only to demonstrate how cold and indifferent and stupid I am, passing through Life unmoved
by anything, other than the slightest glance from my very dear wife, which always transforms me and
makes me human for a while.
I rarely respond to ‘art’ of any sort with anything beyond mild interest.
Having studied painting—forty-some years ago, in college—I know something about the craft of painting,
and I know something about static art in general, but I must confess that I look upon all of it with a cold eye.
To me, painting is an analytical process, and my view of Art in general is analytical. When I see a painting I
like, it is because I recognize the process and applaud the decisions the painter has made. I might say,
“Wow, I like that blue mark; the way it pushes that orange back underneath.” Or “Man, I wish this thing was
larger. I think it’d really work on a much much larger scale.” That’s as excited as I can get; it’s just the way I
see painting. It motivates my brain, not my heart. So, when I see someone like Schnabel, a complete idiot,
whose work is just plain undeniably unjustifiable crap on every conceivable level… well, forget that. We live
in a world in which there are critics who can, and do, justify ANYTHING, and people wealthy enough and
stupid enough to buy that justification and the crap it explains. This is not the sour grapes one might
suppose—I realize that it sounds very much like that, but I haven’t painted in years, and have no intentions,
and have even fewer regrets.
Nonetheless, as they say, nonetheless…
One time, a couple of friends of mine said to me, “If we buy you a nice dinner in a good restaurant, would
you come with us to the show that’s now at the MOMA and tell us your thoughts?” ”What?” I said. I could
hardly believe my ears. They repeated themselves, using the very same words and I still couldn’t
understand it, so I asked them why they thought my opinion of anything was worth a nice dinner in a good
restaurant. As far as I could recall I’d never even mentioned painting to these good people, or my studies
in the matter. Nonetheless, we had a nice meal in a very nice French restaurant, and then we went to the
show at the museum, and we walked around and, once in a while, I’d make a comment. During our stroll
through the galleries, we came upon a Manet with some people sitting around languidly under a striped
awning, eating lunch. I believe it was called ‘the boating party’, and it was much larger than I’d ever
imagined that painting. “Wow,’ I said, as we stood in front of it. “It’s much larger than I ever imagined it to
be”, and since I didn’t think I’d given them their full nice-dinner’s-worth yet I started to embellish. At that
precise moment a mid-western American woman of some plump sort—who had been studying the thing up
close for a long time—returned to her undeniably mid-western American friends and said this: “You have to
go up there and look at it closely. That little dog is made up entirely of brush strokes!” This remarkable
news inspired her friends to follow her back to the painting where they all leaned forward in order to verify
this astounding discovery for themselves. When my friends turned to me, I said, “I really believe she just
said it all.”
I knew exactly what this good woman had meant though. One time, in the Art Institute of Chicago, I came
out of a gallery and rounded a corner and there, facing me was a huge portrait of an aristocratic lady, by
John Singer Sargent. She was standing there in a full-length gown, looking over her shoulder at me, as
though I’d just walked into her boudoir, as indeed I guess I had. I was so stunned to see her there, that I
lowered my eyes and mumbled an apology. But rarely am I moved so much by a painting that I feel
anything as maudlin as emotions well up within me. So I have to admit, as I did at that moment: “Man, that
son-of-a-bitch can paint.”
So, these same good people who fed me a good meal in a nice restaurant in order to hear what I might say
about some paintings a few years earlier, told me that some guy named De Staebler had a show at the
museum and, if I happened to see it, maybe I could tell them if it was worth their time or not. Though I
almost never go to museums, for reasons I can not explain, I thought I’d go on down there, and if the price
wasn’t too much, see what kind of a fraud this guy De Staebler was perpetrating upon the innocent and
gullible museum-going public. So I went.
Having read nothing about that show, either before or since, I had no idea what the shills had said about
the man’s work—and still don’t--but, maybe an hour and a half later I was at my friends’ house, pacing
around in front of them, gushing about what I’d seen.
I don’t know how many rooms were involved in that show; I went directly to the central and largest room,
and I remained there until I left forty minutes later, completely overwhelmed with emotions I did not know I
I’ll tell you what I saw. I don’t know if you have seen the man’s work. And I don’t know if I can describe it. My
guess is that there were maybe 8, no more than 10 pieces in that room. They were slightly more than life-
sized figures. Some were cast bronze as I recall, but most were formed from clay. Upon entering that
gallery I immediately recognized a lovely young woman, captured in mid stride. Perhaps she was an angel,
though her wings were tattered, one broken off completely. And in her stride there was everything of youth,
and joy in life, and expectation, and a vigorous, freshly-emerging confidence in her own femininity. All this,
captured in her bearing. I recognized it immediately. I’d seen it before. At once I also recognized that this
young woman had been dead for many thousands of years. She was like those poor people of Pompeii,
captured forever in their moment of death. But, Mr. De Staebler had captured this lovely creature forever in
a moment of life. That's the hard part.
There was another, somewhat like her, in the opposite corner, proudly going about the clever business of
just being herself, now a thousand years dead.
And in the middle of the room there were two figures side by side. I seem to recall them on thrones. I can
find no photographic evidence of these pieces on thrones anywhere, but their dignity was such that they
belonged on thrones. They sat side by side, each elegant, regal in bearing. Though I knew nothing about
great love at the time, I perceived a great love between them. And I found myself riveted there, standing at
a distance, facing this royal couple, in awe, awash in tears.
I was surprised to be moved so powerfully by what I saw. And I just stood there, in that gallery with tears
running down my face, while people came and went and chatted and quipped and laughed and
occasionally stopped to observe one of these pieces briefly, without effect, before moving on. I couldn’t
understand how anyone—especially anyone with a declared desire for Art—could look at those figures and
not be moved. For a couple of these viewers I became the exhibit, standing there like an idiot, weeping,
and suddenly, I felt deeply embarrassed. I was not embarrassed about my tears, I was not embarrassed
about the remarkable indifference of the viewers, I was embarrassed by my intimate knowledge of these
people before me, each once so noble, each now a thousand years dead.
I remember getting on the elevator with tears still upon my face. And, I remember the people on that
elevator giving me a wide birth. I felt their cautious eyes upon me. And, I remember running (RUNNING) the
few short blocks to my friends’ house to tell them, “Yes, by god, you gotta go see that show. You gotta. But
be forewarned, if it can do this to me, I have no idea what it might do to anyone with true sensitivity.”