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
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 possessed.
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.”