Working for The Man

 

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Abstract Expressionism had seemingly run its course and Pop Art was the new thing.

Artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all the rage.

 

When I was still in high school, and not being one of the “in crowd,” I spent a good deal of my free time in the library reading Artforum®  and other magazines pertaining to fine art in the hope of ascertaining what my life might be like after I, myself, became an artist.

 

My teenage eyes looked hungrily at the pictures in the magazine of the paintings of dollar bills and Campbell’s soup cans and American Flags and Monogram”, that piece Rauchenberg did,  of the quilt attached to the canvas, generous amounts of oil paint splattered– or spilled onto it,  the whole guarded by an actual stuffed goat with a rubber tire around its neck.

Or was the goat part of the artwork?

 

“That’s the kind of art I want to do”, I thought to myself, as I sat at the long wooden table, only occasionally glancing up if the librarian should happen to pass my way as she went about her bookly duties.

 

But several more painful, lonely, misunderstood, rejection-filled years would have to pass before I would finish high school and hopefully, go on to art school in order to properly prepare myself to become the big successful artist I always knew I was, somewhere down deep inside myself, in my heart of hearts,

 

Years passed.

 

It was a bright, clear- but-cold March morning almost fifty years ago, when a graduate student, Bryan____, whose meticulously-rendered abstract drawings on Bavarian limestone I had greatly admired, happened to walk past me in the painting studio at The University of Georgia. He stopped  for a moment and looked at my large 8-foot long painting, “The Florida East Coast “, an orange and black train  passing a deserted railroad crossing and then off-handedly commented that I, “probably would not be able to make a living as a painter” and that I would “probably have to teach in order to avoid starvation.”

 

This unsolicited revelation by someone whom I hardly knew, but nevertheless looked up to and respected– and whose work I had heard spoken of very highly, in hushed tones, by Charles Morgan, (the head of the printmaking department), caught me off-guard. In no way did it comport at all with how I envisioned my life would be in only a few short years, after I had graduated from the University with a degree in painting and drawing and moved with my few possessions to New York City to pursue my fame and fortune.

 

…..I imagined myself alone–and happy about it , in a big art studio with high ceilings and a huge skylight at one end of the room facing North, of course, because the light is always diffuse and steady from that direction and no distracting rays of sunlight dare play across my canvas masterpiece…..

 

…..From time to time, I would have visitors, my dealer would bring various rich art collectors by to see my latest works. But they would always call first…..

 

The idea of graduating from art school and then having to settle for some kind of teaching job was something that happened to other people, not to me. For if there was anything I had learned up to that point in my life,  it was that I was not at all like other people.

 

Therefore, in my mind, I must surely be an artist. That was the only possible explanation. Someone apart from the rest. Someone who  marches to the beat of his own drum.

 

So what if it’s a drum that only he can hear?

 

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had been listening to that drum all my life, and if not marching to the beat of it, at least following it along and trying hard not to fall too far behind.

 

But just to be on the safe side, I thought I had better follow Bryan’s advice and go on to graduate school and major in something that you could actually teach–something, perhaps with a complicated technique involved.

You can’t teach someone how to make great art.

But technique can be taught.

Printmaking was very technical, while still allowing for a love of drawing.

And so it was, that I set my sights on a graduate school where I could devote myself wholeheartedly to the mastery of the highly-technical,  mentally and physically demanding printmaking method known as lithography.

 

It was a compromise of sorts.

 

But I still got to be an artist.

 

And at least I wouldn’t starve.

 

And it was in New York City.

 

Several years later, after considerably more suffering and deprivation, I managed to complete graduate school and was set free in New York to pursue my dream. One of the first things I did was beseech my printmaking instructor, the great master printer, Deli Sacilotto, (who had been kind enough –or foolish enough to allow me to maintain the illusion that I was his assistant in the graduate lithography department), to recommend me to one or the other of several fine arts printmaking workshops that were then  operating in New York City.

 

I applied at the first one and was not offered immediate work.

In a few days, or perhaps a week later, while living on a diet of cheap beer and Premium® saltines, I proceeded to the second one, which was located on the third or fourth floor of an old factory building on West 23rd Street.

 

It was known as the Bob Blackburn Workshop and Bob Blackburn, was the captain of that ship. Lithography is a difficult, demanding and unforgiving medium and Bob Blackburn had all of those same attributes. But he did offer me immediate employment and paid $10 an hour, which, while not being a princely sum, was almost three times what I had been making at my part-time job, standing at an electric grinding wheel, removing and smoothing-out the rough casting from solid brass and copper plumbing hardware for an avant-garde furniture designer to the roar of truck tires underneath The Brooklyn Bridge.

 

At The Bob Blackburn Workshop, the very first artist with whom I was assigned to work was the prominent New York sculptor Calvin Albert. Apparently, Mr. Albert’s dealer on 57th Street had suggested that he produce a small edition of lithographs to satisfy a demand for his artwork by collectors who presumably did not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars for one of his three-dimensional artworks.

 

Upon being introduced to me by Mr. Blackburn, Mr. Albert, (though it was not apparent to Mr. Blackburn), appeared at least as unhappy to see me as I was to see him.

 

Unfortunately, only a year or so before, when I was a student in Mr. Albert’s Introduction to Sculpture class at Pratt Institute, I did not miss a single chance to raise my hand to take issue with practically everything he said during his lectures.

Looking back on it now, why couldn’t I have just kept my mouth shut and let Mr. Albert expound upon his beliefs about art without interruption?

I don’t know why, but for some reason I couldn’t control myself. To make matters worse, it sounded as if I really knew what I was saying and I had the feeling that one or two of my fellow students were beginning to fall under my spell.

Suffice it to say, that after a couple of weeks of this, Mr. Albert spoke to me privately after class one day and told me in his rather deep voice,

“Don’t come back.”

Never meaning to be disrespectful, and being quite spontaneous,  I did as I was instructed—and received an incomplete for the class.

 

The very next time I saw Mr. Albert, it became my lot in life to help him produce an edition of his prints. We somehow managed to complete the task, owing in part to his early arrival and completion of  the original drawing and then departing soon after giving it to me with the instruction that he needed a hundred of them. I guess he didn’t care to stay and let me show him how it was done.

 

It was somewhere around number thirty-seven of one hundred that I discovered that I had no desire to be the obstetrician who brings art into the world that he does not like–even if it was someone else’s and even if he was being paid to do so.

 

And I did not care to be on my feet, for six or eight hours at a stretch, my body in continuous motion producing work I disliked and for which I had no respect.  It was quite enough that there exists a delicate balance which must be maintained between the stone, the ink and the water which makes lithography one of the more difficult processes in printmaking.

 

So in about seven or eight hours, I finished the job and dragged myself back home to Brooklyn.

 

After a few days, and in desperate need of money, I summoned the courage to call up Bob Blackburn and ask him to pay me for the work I had done.

 

He asked me, “Where are you calling from?”

 

I told him “….from a phone booth just around the corner”.

 

“Wait right there”, he said.

 

In a few minutes, Bob Blackburn appeared, and one look through the thick glass lenses of his round black glasses and  something told me this was not going to turn out well.

 

I quickly gathered that he was not happy with me and that he was not going to pay me.

And that I was not welcome to come back to his print shop.

 

And that, my friends, is how I became a cab driver in New York City.

 

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