New York, New York
by Ramon Kubicek
In the middle of a busy college teaching year, in my early 40s, I decided to go to New York. I had received a Rockefeller Flowfund Award for artwork and research connected with water. An art book I had written was being considered by a New York publisher, and a friend and mentor, the artist Beth Ames Swartz, was having an important exhibition. I could spend the ten days of term break there and the award money would pay for it.
I needed something to jump-start my life. More importantly, I had to transform the feeling of being lost, of wandering and wasting time, of not recognising when opportunity came knocking. On the one hand, Vancouver was the place where I was married with a child; I had a full-time teaching job at a college; we owned a home in a very nice area of the city, with a few hundred acres of forest available for walking. We had friends. We were a 15-minute car ride from the ocean.
On the other hand, New York was the city of dreams for anyone wanting to make it in the arts. I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that success would embrace me just because of my feelings. But I wanted to use the trip to see whether any sign would appear of what my path should be. I had a life, but also a conviction that I should be doing something in the field of art. Not as a hobby or past-time, but as a vocation. I was being called, but some kind of deafness or blockage was stopping me.
So I made some calls and was able to secure an invitation with a friend of a friend, to stay in his Soho apartment. My plan was to visit the publisher with whom I had an appointment, go to the opening of the Beth Ames Swartz exhibition and the party associated with it, and in between visit some museums and galleries, attend the annual meeting of the College Art History Association, and get together with some artists.
The weather was typical for February in New York: blizzards and melting snow, as the temperature dipped and rose and dipped like a fairground roller coaster. Just before leaving Vancouver, I realised my West Coast shoes would not survive the snow, so I bought a pair of good leather winter boots. But on the plane my feet swelled enough to rip the skin off my Achilles’ tendons when I began walking at the New York airport.
Henry’s apartment was on the third floor of a four-storey stone walk-up. His apartment was like what I imagined to be the interior of a submarine. Long, narrow, dark, with the various fixtures scaled to fit. The sitting room doubled as a bedroom. Couches facing each other opened up into beds that were then close enough one sleeper could reach across and touch the other. I sat down on my designated couch bed and looked at the row of books lining the wall that I would be able to look at as I lay in bed. All hardcover, and about a third of them books about masturbation in different cultures. I realised Henry and I might not have that much to talk about.
Henry was a medium-sized, balding man in his late forties. I remember three things about him: He made no extraneous movements, he had a very intense gaze, and I never saw him smiling. “Help me, God,” I said to myself more than once. I asked him about his art practice. Praxis was supposed to be a process evident in one’s life and conversation. I couldn’t see any signs of art, though he did have some mangled dolls fixed to the walls. He pointed to them and said that he collected dolls that had been run over by cars. Most of them looked like the kinds of Victorian dolls one sees in horror films.
I had no idea what to say that would not appear to be critical. How many of these dolls could there be? He said that he had many more in a locker. We talked more over a vegetarian dinner we had prepared in his galley-sized kitchen. I found out that he had been a Christian monk for ten years. He then said that most of us were conditioned by false morality. He asked me if I’d ever had sex with an animal.
“No. And I never will.” I also said that this had been an obnoxious question, designed to create an effect rather than to solicit an answer. “I don’t know anyone who would even consider contemplating such an act with an innocent, non-consenting being.”
When I had a free moment, I called around to find another place to stay. But all the small hotels were full. There were still about two pages of hotels to go through, and the next day was going to be busy, so I had to be patient. Unless a miracle appeared, there would be at least one more night with Henry.
The next day I went to the College Art Association annual meeting, where two thousand college profs were gathered to hear speeches and take part in workshops on art. I looked around at the gathering of my fellow professionals but did not feel at all a buzz of excitement or recognition. I heard Ivy League academics address each other in theatrical baritones, so that everyone within a 20-metre radius was compelled to hear the conversation.
I found a workshop that seemed interesting. “Healing Art”. Two artists were presenting their work and discussing their process. Both of them used the same procedure. “Hello, I am Mary Beth Johnson, I have a B.F.A from Cornell and an M.F.A. from Princeton, and my painting which I am showing you now on the large screen is about the ways Nature can heal us.” During question period, each person would say something like the following, “Hi, my name is Gerald McCracken. I have a B.F.A. from NYU and an MFA from Washington State. My question is…” There were five or six questioners, and each said the same thing. “My name is…I have a B.F.A from… and an M.F.A. from…and my question is…” I tried to stay attentive to what was being said, but the pompous delivery, and more importantly, the assumption that if the artist said something was healing art, then it automatically became healing art turned me off.
Thinking doesn’t make it so, I said to myself. And that line of thinking opened up the inquiry about what art was, what healing was, how the two could be related. I knew from my own studies that any art was a product of technique, certainly, and knowledge of the field, but also of the inner resources the artist possessed. The inner resources bit could not be quantified; nor were there any diplomas that guaranteed inner qualities. The artists from the past that I admired seemed to have those inner qualities, and artists I had studied with certainly showed those qualities. To combine all of these—knowledge, technique, and inner state—was the recipe I needed.
Easier said than done. Meanwhile, I had to get through the next several days. The publisher’s office phoned, and said they had to reschedule for the following week. I could not be there the following week, because that week I had to begin teaching again. I realised that being in New York when I couldn’t see the publisher was no better than being in Vancouver. I knew that having a book published guaranteed nothing; not fame, not honour, not money. So that reason for moving to New York did not hold, and that cancellation also pointed to the dangers of solely depending on income from work as a writer or artist in Vancouver.
While I was mulling these questions I was also very slowly moving down the list of hotels with no success. The dinner in honour of Beth Ames Swartz went very well. She was clearly loved and admired by many people. I met writers and artists at the dinner who were likeable. They were also stimulating and entertaining. This was the life of a celebrity, yet as pleasant as it was, this dinner did not mean nor any other meetings meant that I would develop friendships any more easily than I already had. I understood what I was really interested in was meeting artists who were inspiring.
Such artists would have the quality of wanting to do something other than for their self-interest. They worked for Nature or for the socially disadvantaged. Beth Ames Swartz was such an artist. Another was Agnes Denes, who invited me to her studio one evening when I called out of the blue. I was amazed by her drawings and the concept development of her projects.
Beth and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Talking on the steps, she introduced me to Rachel Rosenthal, a performance artist with a striking presence. She was my height, six feet, and had shaved her head bald. We talked for a few minutes. She looked at me intently and offered me a position in her theatrical company. I laughed, thinking that she was joking. She did not like my laughter. “I am serious. Stay in New York with me.” And I said to myself, okay, here it is, the invitation. One always wants the invitation, particularly from an exotic goddess. And to God I said, You are toying with me, offering me what I want in a way that You know I cannot accept. Reluctantly, I turned down her invitation. I was so dazed from meeting her that all I can remember of the Met was the wonderful Lucian Freud exhibition.
The next day I went to the Museum of Modern Art. Every room was filled with great art. But one room in particular stunned me. It contained a single painting. “One” by Jackson Pollock. I had talked about Pollock in my art classes, often with a disapproving tone that I tried to hide. His drinking and treatment of women turned me off. But when I saw the painting, all thoughts vanished. My breath stopped. I sat down on the bench facing the painting, my heart beating in my entire body. I sat there for about fifteen minutes and just looked. A voice uttered in my head, ”You do not get to choose whom the gods will favour.”
And I knew I had been given a lesson and a gift.
I survived the last three days at Henry’s place. I found out that he had a very large light-filled room with cathedral windows in the front of his apartment, completely at odds with the submarine design of the rest of his apartment. We drank tea in this room that he usually kept shut, and he told me more disagreeable stories. I understood that he needed to tell someone and I had been chosen—because I had accepted his hospitality—to hear what he had to say. It was all right. I let it all wash off me.
I returned to Vancouver with no answers about what my road should be, but I had more material to work with. Art was my guide, even though I made my living as a teacher. At the very least I knew I had dedicated myself to the question.
Copyright © 2021 Ramon Kubicek