Monsters of Vanity
by Pat Nolan
Art is selfish, obsessive, self-centered, monstrous egotism. It exalts as well as devours the artist. For those in the artist’s orbit, family, close friends, the unpredictable mania of creation takes its toll as an often unconscious indifference to the emotional needs of others. It is a familiar story painfully depicted many times over by the partners and/or children of the artists. Not surprisingly it is usually a wife or a daughter who has suffered the neglect from these ogres and is obliged to come to terms with the absent presence by setting the record straight in memoirs. The dynamic of artist mother/son memoir is barely represented, and when it is, tends to be hagiographic.
Also A Poet, Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun (Grove Press, 2022), caught my interest not solely because it is about Peter Schjeldahl but anything, anecdotal or otherwise, having to do with Frank O’Hara will always draw me in.
Musa Mayer’s Night Studio, A Memoir of Philip Guston by His Daughter (Knopf, 1988) I deliberately sought out because I thought I might gain some insight into my own late life artistic doubts. Not a particular fan of Guston’s work, I could identify him as an Abstract Expressionist who had abandoned that style for cartoonish figuration that seemed to be a total rejection of all that he had produced previously as an artist.
I have to admit that I am too, by the above definition, a monster of vanity. However, I wonder if my daughter would write a memoir detailing my neglect of her and her mother. Being a parent changed my perception of the responsibility for my choices. It was a balancing act, but the choices were not difficult, and selfishness, more often than not, was set aside. Still I retain the option to plead guilty to a self-centered life in the thrall of the muse.
Peter Schjeldahl is someone whose poetry I encountered in the early 70s in little magazines and anthologies, notably Bill Berkson’s Best & Co and the Shapiro/Padgett New York Poets. I may have owned but certainly did read an early selection of his poems, The White Country. At that time, anything poetry related emanating from New York City, especially from poets associated with The Poetry Project and the Lower Eastside, was of vital interest. Most of the participants were of my generation and expressed a similar ambivalence toward the literary status quo. Schjeldahl, of all the poets who made a few quick bucks from reviewing gallery shows for various art magazines in New York City, was the most successful and turned this sideline into a career as a renowned art critic for The New Yorker.
His adult daughter, Ada Calhoun, no slouch in the writing department either, has penned a few notable tomes as a New York Times best-selling author. Even so she felt the shade of her illustrious father. He was a mystery, a father figure as well as a shadow figure, distant, unresponsive, indifferent, even to her own success. Naturally inquisitive, she wondered why, and set about digging into what made Dad tick or not tick. In the course of her personal archeology, she found the tapes! Here is where it gets interesting.
The tapes are of Peter Schjeldahl interviewing various artists and writers as the anecdotal material for a proposed biography of Frank O’Hara. Why didn’t Dad finish it and why had he never mentioned it? Also A Poet, a wonderfully ironic title, becomes a whydintit as opposed to a whodunit. In retelling her adolescence on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, living on fabled St Mark’s Place down the street from Joan Mitchell, the Schneemann’s, and the Berrigan/Notley ménage in a quasi-bohemian enclave blocks from an apartment once occupied by Frank O’Hara, Calhoun delves into the poet’s renown through her own reminiscence of encounters with Frank or his mystique, and those of the accounts recorded by her father.
The details of O’Hara’s life and death have been retold in various biographies and memoirs by those who were part of the New York art scene in the fifties and sixties. The narrative has become fairly gospel in its rhetorical consistency. The taped interviews by Schjeldahl come under critical scrutiny from his professional writer daughter. She doesn’t hide her disappointment at their amateurishness. There are more than a few “Dad, how could you?” and “Dad, really?” moments.
As the story evolves, Ada insists on learning why the project was canceled, and Peter is either unwilling or too caught up in his own drama to offer any coherent or acceptable answer. Ada keeps digging, going through her dad’s old files, reading the original notes, getting down to doing some real literary detective work. Then there’s a fire in Peter’s apartment and files are damaged. Some serious drama occurs, and in times of stress things can go from intense to shit in a New York second. And that’s when the real grievances reveal themselves, the struggle to come to terms with this really self-absorbed, self-important person who is central to her life but who also remains a cypher. The complaints are legit. Peter is a shit. But Ada ain’t gonna quit.
The O’Hara matter keeps getting sidelined by the family drama. But Calhoun persists. She discovers that the main stumbling block to Schjeldahl’s O’Hara biography was the executor, Frank’s sister, Maureen Granville-Smith. Without permission from the estate, access to much of what consists of the biographical material (letters, photos, writings) would remain unavailable.
But why wouldn’t the O’Hara estate authorize a biography by a respected art critic, someone who’d known Frank personally, also a poet? It seemed like a marriage made in art gallery poetry reading heaven. Who better to write the bio than someone who was as intimately involved in the art world of New York City as was O’Hara. His perspective would be invaluable.
O’Hara, in an interview with Edward Lucie-Smith, confirms a collaborative spirit among “unemployed poets who worked for art magazines and wrote art criticism,” and the painters who were “the only ones interested in any kind of experimental poetry” in a way that the general literary scene was not. Melding aesthetics of approach to how they viewed their work, the poets initiated a defining development in postwar American poetry as important as Williams’ discovery of Kandinsky earlier in the century. Schjeldahl was a participant and witness to that shift in esthetics, among poets in particular.
After a few false trails and sidesteps, Calhoun comes to the crux of the matter. It was a case of self-sabotage. And it’s on tape. The scenario: Peter and his agent get an audience with Maureen Granville-Smith to go over any misunderstandings that might be hampering the progress of the proposed biography. Maureen is hesitant, still has reservations. Peter is impatient. He blurts out that he thinks John Ashbery is a better poet and that Frank is just an art scene social phenom. Or something to that effect. Open mouth, insert foot.
Schjeldahl’s contention raises an interesting point. Before Perloff’s Poet Among Painters and Gooch’s City Poet, O’Hara was dismissed as “also a poet.” The appreciation of O’Hara by a younger generation of poets, Schjeldahl’s in fact, who were taken by the quotidian charm and experimental demeanor of O’Hara’s work is without question. As an artist bridging plastic arts and literature, O’Hara, in essence, fused them in a witty painterly esthetic discourse. Ashbery, the better poet? Perhaps, technically. His longevity gave him the advantage of being able to speak differently without appearing to do so. Importantly, The Tennis Court Oath offered poets permission to follow his audacious disjunctive often flip language lead (Cf. “Europe”). On the other hand, O’Hara’s Personism allowed for a personal intimacy in addressing the self in the poem that was liberating to many. Both trends were adopted, adapted, and abused by subsequent generations of poets. But that’s a matter for another time.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the failed O’Hara bio story is the transcript of the conversation between Maureen Granville-Smith and Ada Calhoun. It crackles. Granville-Smith is no slouch and holds her own as Calhoun presses to make her point in favor of renewing her father’s project. Maureen is the junk yard dog of her brother’s legacy. Ada encounters the same roadblock her father had. There will be no new Frank O’Hara biography anytime soon, certainly not from Schjeldahl’s notes and interviews, but at least Calhoun has made a story out of why there won’t be, and at the same time addresses the enigmatic figure of her father chained to the demands of his art.
Poignant and predictable is the scene in a doctor’s office where Schjeldahl receives his cancer diagnosis and where it is made clear that his family (wife and daughter) rank a distant second in importance relative to his writing. Calhoun justifies her bitterness and makes the best of it. Needless to say, Schjeldahl, as a dad, does not come off very well. Peter passed away from lung cancer on October 21, 2022, recognized as one of the great art critics of his time, also a poet, six months after his daughter’s stormy tribute to him was published.
I am intimately familiar with the poet/writer/artist at whose center profound megalomania will not allow one to be done, that to be done is a failure of doing, and doing is what art is all about. The contradiction is in trying to lead a normal life all the while attempting extraordinary impossible things. A question might be why do wives/daughters put up with these selfish, self-devouring household demons?
Musa Mayer’s quest to find an answer is a fascinating story. Night Studio, a daughter’s memoir is quite thorough in laying out the particulars of Philip Guston’s life. Born Philip Goldstein in Montreal in 1913 to a family of recently immigrated Russian Jews who, shortly after their arrival in North America, migrated to the West Coast and Los Angeles. As the youngest male of a dozen siblings, he was doted upon by his liberal mother. His father was a distant, sometimes abusive, bitter man who, although well educated, could only find work as a rag picker in a boomtown rife with antisemitism and hooded vigilantes. Guston early on displayed an aptitude for drawing. He attended Otis College of Art & Design School in Los Angeles where he met his future wife, Musa McKim, and made the contacts that led to his apprenticeship with noted muralist David Siguieros and his development as a muralist. In the later years of the Depression, Guston worked as a Works Project Administration artist and achieved recognition for his figurations strongly influenced by Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca and by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. In the fifties his shift to a limited palette and gestural grouping of the abstract expressionist style of the New York School established him as one of the more successful artists of that period. By the late 60s, Guston’s work had evolved back to representationalism although not with the rigorous formalism of his murals. The new paintings were a further exploration of a tortured psyche but depicted as cartoonish figures and objects in a landscape that owed something to both de Chirico and George Hermann’s Krazy Kat. This latter phase of Guston’s work was not well received by the established New York art world as it smacked of the loathed Pop Art.
As Guston’s daughter portrays him, candidly and with telling detail, she recounts her dawning awareness of her father as more than just the chain smoking mercurial presence often smelling of turpentine and attired in paint smudged clothing, but as an imposing respected presence in the world of art as well. Still he is a distant figure, a god in the clouds, intimidating, demanding, and totally self-involved. And she and her mother pay the price of the emotional estrangement.
Intimacy does not allow the distance needed to appreciate great genius. The artists you know and love for themselves want to be known and loved for their art, and any deviation from that focus is a distraction from the elemental fire that burns within. Any attention directed at them fuels the passion of that genius to manic heights as any perceived inattention (or attention to others) dampens the spark with self-doubt. Great art proceeds by obsession, and in the many iterations of the romantic cult of the individual over the past two centuries, the self is a convenient vehicle. That Guston’s early experience as an artist was depicting the monumental and heroic might have had something to do with his sense of self and have appealed to the innate male quest for the larger than life. In the self-conscious post-War reexamination of the psyche, the agony of creation, the hand to mouth laboring in obscurity for an ideal conflicts with the need to survive on the labor of one’s art.
Daughter Musa has done her research and her own soul searching, and the memory of her father is told with thoroughness and detail as well as with bitter acknowledgement of the missteps in the family dynamic. With Guston as the temperamental driving engine, there was much insecurity on the emotional plane, from the mania of self-bliss to the doldrums of uncertainty. Guston was a charismatic chimerical figure to his daughter, large (he was a big man) and larger than life, full of contradiction. Musa brings it all into focus, and the picture of Guston she paints is as elegant as that of an old master, or of someone who knows enough about old masters to represent them. Musa Meyer’s Night Studio is a convincing portrait of a major American artist, an existential archetype with brush, canvas, and turpentine. And what is life like with someone constantly battling their ego, sometimes a winner, other times a loser, wracked with doubt, elated at chance? Meyer’s memoir proceeds by revelation and realization and hope for redemption. The monster of vanity is still a presence but not as forbidding.
To view the arc of Guston’s work from a distance is to view a conventional development of talent, the investment of self in the life career of creation proceeding in rather predictable phases from art student to muralist to teacher to painter to outcast to a final validation of his dissident vision. In his work on murals, he was heroic, in his Abstract Expressionism, he was an intellectual, and in the final phase, returning to the time when art first gave him pleasure and was not yet a down payment on his family’s future, he was the sage primitive.
The later work as representations of a student sketchbook is where he could recollect and portray that time with a youthful parodic energy. The landscapes are from his understanding through George Hermann of how dimension is portrayed with a few simple lines, and reinforced later on by examples from de Chirico, mural painting, and the art of the sober palette. The figuration is cartoonish as one would find in the doodles and marginalia of a young artist’s sketchbook where a language of personal symbols is being developed in a kind of shorthand storytelling commentary for deeply incised memories and impressions. Guston returned to this simpler style but on a monumental scale, heroic and intelligent, with an achromatic emphasis examining his progress as an artist in understanding the picture plane. The saga’s nonlinear narrative depicts the son of an imbittered ragpicker in post Great War Los Angeles, the antisemitic prejudice his family suffered as well as the incidentals of his present life conflated in minimalist Krazy Kat landscapes accenting with the deft contrast of an illustrator’s black line on neutral ground the shapes of his later concerns. They are all points of entry referencing a deep self-abiding in a personal yet universal iconography of ecce homo, hoods, cigar butts, and all.
Yet art’s selfish obsession persists, the partitioned soul allots little for anything but self-entanglement, the Gordian knot of inner knowing. It is the legacy of Romanticism that the artist must suffer, torment mostly self-inflicted. But even without the questioning demands of post-Romantic art, the amount of psychic energy the creative dynamo devours has a diminishing effect on those most closely associated, the family of loved ones by now (hopefully) inured to the self-absorbed self-consumption that artistic endeavor entails.
I went to Guston’s biography for an understanding of what caused the radical retooling of his aesthetic. With so much invested in the elevated discourse of his internationally renowned coterie, what was it that turned him back toward narrative figuration? Perhaps through the agency of the reviled Pop Art, eyes averted like most of his generation of artists, he allowed himself a glimpse at his roots before onset of the social consciousness of the murals, the trend setting abstractions of his worldly success, the crushing responsibility of family. Although I am certainly not in the same league in the same ballpark on the same planet in the same galaxy as Guston or Schjeldahl there is a recognition of that which drives us to address the inhuman as a spark of sentience just beyond our grasp. And to that holiest of holies, the creative urge, all else is shut out. The alternative is to untether from the desire for celebrity, for attention, of establishing a commanding righteousness in the creation of a universal vision, and accept a simpler truth.
Schjeldahl embraced the compromises and estrangements that would allow him his pontifical assertions as a celebrated art critic. Guston struggled with unpacking and revisiting the demeaning contentions of his upbringing to achieve the pinnacle of his painting. Both these memoirs did their work in turning my gaze outward to the tolerance, consideration, and patient understanding of those who have shared my life as a monster of vanity and the self-indulgent attempts at recapturing the fleeting light of certitude at the beginning a lifelong journey. Doubt is art’s most familiar shackle, celebrity its most fickle one. To be without either is to be free to wonder at what might have been. In the end, however, the definitive assessment might be found in the words of wives and daughters.
Pat Nolan’s poetry, prose, and translations have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of a dozen poetry selections including So Much, Selected Poems Vol. II (1990-2010) from Nualláin House, Publishers (2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, 2018). His online poet-centric novel, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusing at odetosunset.com. He is also the founder and editor of The New Black Poetry Society’s blog Parole. Made In The Shade, a limited term poetry document, began posting monthly in January of 2022 and which will end on December 31, 2022, can be viewed at made-in-shade.com. His most recent fiction project is Dime Pulp, A Magazine of Serial Pulp Fiction (tencentfiction.com). Pat lives in the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
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Enjoyed the review. You may wish to correct the spelling of Musa Mayer’s surname, which is misspelled “Meyer” throughout the review.