Monday, November 18, 2013

F*ck Art (Let's Dance): An Artist’s Memoir by Sally Eckhoff (Water Street Press)
Sally Echoff spent ten years, beginning in1977, living on East10th street in New York's Alphabet City, when this area was a no-man’s land; a mecca for drugs and crime, as well as storefront galleries and punk bands. In F*ck Art (Let’s Dance), she describes her life as an East Village artist, a young woman working to make meaningful art, pay her rent, and be noticed in the “scene,” a creative vortex of talent and desire. With humor and compassion, F*ck Art pays homage to the NewYorkers (locals, natives and transplants), who joined in this ecstatic moment in time.  For along with the improbable rise in prices for East Village art in the go-go 80’s, came inflation of real estate—and the end of the era.

F*ck Art (Let’s Dance) began with Echoff's upbringing in a Long Island suburb. Her mother, whose family owned a paint manufacturing business, channeled her talents into homemaking.  Her father, a formal Naval Officer, was an inventor and owner of a paint company. Young Sally got his great affection for pigments and solvents and admired how her grandmother put paint on canvas. And, as the family was always painting their house, she came to enjoy brushwork. There was also the influence of her family’s dress-up trips to New York art museums sweetened with treats. Add nature and her family’s horses, and Sally’s was an idyllic childhood, except for the fact that her parents, Christian Scientists, were unpopular. Families thought them different, though for Sally just assumed that her parents weren't so concerned about injury and illness, Though, as an adult, she considered that her native optimism might be a reflection of her parents’ beliefs. If faith was all you had to combat disease, you had to have a lot of it.

More interested in riding horses, Sally was awakened to art as a way of seeing life, a kind of filter for reality, by Gypsy Bill, her high school art teacher. She was also awakened to sex with Pablo, her first love. Together they also explored pool hopping and skinny dipping, until they got caught.  But Sally was always an equal in adventure, not Pablo’s reflector. They were twin mirrors of curiosity and ambition. That sense of equality with men characterized Eckhoff’s memoir. Not so coincidentally, she related that t was her mother, who had pointed out a Time Magazine article on CBGB’s. Sally got the idea she wanted her to go to New York, 

In 1977, young women artists living on their own were still uncommon. More typical were the “pretty girl” muses of talented boyfriends, who camouflaged their own artistic ambitions for that more acceptable role. Sally only stayed with Pablo, when she first came to New York, until she found an apartment. And they were again equals in pursuit of interesting art. She was delighted, when he shows her hidden paintings by Robert Cobescott and H.C.Westermann, great painters outside the usual canon of moderb art.  

Eventually, weeks of Village Voice ads led to the apartment on E.10th street with its severely slanted floors and the bathtub in the kitchen. Sally decided it was perfect and forked over the money she made from the sale of her beloved horse. Part of her enthusiasm was the cheap rent, though she had to pay an expensive “fixture fee” to get it. Also ignored was the serious danger from violent criminals, not to mention junkies and bums, who resided across the street in Thompkin’s Square Park. But while Echoff had reason to be scared, She relished her freedom and space to make art. But first she had to survive in this alien urban life.

In F*ck Art (Let’s Dance) Sally Eckhoff figured she was off to a great start, despite the fact she had no marketable skills. With the divine grace of “the fool” in the Tarot deck, she landed a job as a receptionist in a Soho antique gallery, where she once greeted a young Robert Maplethorpe with “Shit” painted on his jacket. Then, survival in hand, she oriented herself to her new neighborhood, cheap pierogis at Polish restaurants and the “Hole in the Wall,” bar,run by a family that also lived there. Best for survival in Sally’s skill set was her ability to make instant friends, such as the Rasta street musician, who sold Jamaican tapes, the Hells Angel, who ruled 9th street, and others, who increased her comfort level.

Some of these encounters worked less well, like the elderly sculptor at the Met, who asked her assistance with his wheelchair, and "copped a feel" when she bent over. A more felicitous chance meeting led to her friendship with Chip, a musician/artist with whom Sally later formed a band that played at CBGB’s. Sally met McNulty, an electrician in the filmmaking industry, after an opening on a Soho street. Then there Ed, an uptown lawyer with downtown tastes. Both were her escorts in evenings of openings and art parties. There was also handsome smooth-talking Terence, the first man to break her heart.  

Yet Sally's social life did not pay the rent. About the time the antiques place figured out she had but one decent outfit, she realized she needed a better job. A friend suggested typesetting and she learned on the job, perfecting her skills on the all night “lobster shift.” Because typesetting paid decently and jobs were plentiful, Echoff was finally able to buy art supplies, clothes, and pursue her real calling.  A painting was chosen by a gallery in Soho, she attended Alice Neel's art lecture, and received a scholarship to Skowhegan, the famous artists’ retreat, where meals are tactfully left at the studio door. There she took up with talented Brian of the perfectly planed face and Sharmelle, a beautiful blonde woman painter from Chicago. The three painted in shacks in pastures, away from aggressive cows, went carousing on the town and enjoyed the luxuries of time and quiet.   

When Sally returned to the grind of drumming up jobs and resumed her life of painting, parties and clubs, she's part of the action but also a spectator. What makes the memoir surprising is her wry perspective on the tumultuous “scene.” She got into tight spandex pants to play at CBGB, but acknowledged her limited musical skills and the fact women weren’t expected to be able to play. She goes to Max’s Kansas City and saw it had become irrelevant without Warhol’s crowd. Sally is also smart enough to sidestep Warhol’s infamous factory, but talks to the genuinely charming Basquiat, before his drug addiction. 

A major coup, was when she was accepted for a studio at PS 122, the school converted to free art space. She talked of how when a studio mate objected to Keith Haring's painting with gay sex, it was taken down. But she spends far more time on the dancer artist, angular Irene. A great strength of this book is that there’s little time spent on famous people. They are part of the moving backdrop. The  real action is where the lives of people she cared about unfold. Irene's mystical sensibility is haunting, along with the fact the reader will not have heard of her—that Irene had seen to that.      

How Sally Echoff transformed herself into a serious artist is the journey of  F*ck Art so her process is central to this memoir. She well described the skull deranging task of portraying how light came through her window, as snow was just about to fall. The purity she sought in her art, seemed to aim at transcendent states of nature and feeling, And her painting became a refuge and inspiration. While she painted the city out her window, she would, lose herself in the work. There was also the less ethereal struggle between  personal vision and trends, usually based on a dealer or curator’s themes. It was enormously frustrating to figure out how to paint what was considered salable or evaluate what work might fit outside criteria. For instance, the theme of the landmark Times Square Show was drugs and junkies. When her paintings didn't  fit, Echoff made a satirical box that did get into the show, a fact celebrated at her workplace, the Village Voice, where she was a type setter and later a reviewer.

Sally’s search for spiritual transcendence took forms other than art. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote about the search for transcendence leading to its “substitute” anesthesia. Similarly, Sally’s East Village art world began to resemble Baudelaire’s in Paris. Clubs and parties on Ecstasy weren’t far off from opium dens and orgies in the country. Lives can fatally unravel, when the need for transcendence takes this direction.  Though this happened around her, Sally’s honesty saved her. One wild weekend in Long Island, she realizes she had become what she most despised. While amid the exquisite beauty of nature, she was stoned out of her mind. Nature originally called her to what was magical in life. No artificial state was necessary to the experience.
As Sally came to her senses, the Tompkins’ Square Park riots of the late 80’s erupted. The East Village of poverty, eccentricity, cheap rent and ethnic food, musicians and artists, was transformed by real estate interests. When her tenement valued at millions, refused services, as bloated water bugs floated by, Sally packed up and left. She and New York were undergoing yet another transformation.

Like the Dylan Thomas poem, Sally Eckhoff’s artist life led her to fall in a gutter, looking up at the stars. But she also saw her work sell out to a museum in Florida. Though Sally, always honest, says most of it was later returned, she experienced her art as a hot commodity. After she traded New York for Philadelphia, she seemed to have become of all things, a mature artist. We have her to thank for this wise and entertaining social history. F*ck Art (Let's Dance) is personal in focus, specific to time and place and universal in its quest.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowlands, Gauri, Subhash, and Udayan, form a triangle of love, politics and circumstance in an India unfamiliar to many westerners. It’s part of Lahiri's art that you warm to her fondness for a familiar place and people, an idyll of domesticity and the comfort of tradition. Of course it’s a set-up for the wrenching unthinkable change to come.  But she’s such pleasant company you are willing to go where she takes you. Her words describing a huge crowd, a bird singing, a young woman in a sari or rooftop view, are perfect miniatures of a moment in flight to the next. Yet, what seem inconsequential, passing, adds up. They are the substance of a huge generational shift that begins with two brothers growing up in the 1960’s in the outskirts of an Indian city. 

Cautious Subhash, the older by 15 months, shares a small room with Udayan, his unpredictable brother. Though he's dutiful, wanting to pleases his parents, he finds it unfair that no matter how he works to achieve their ideal, they favor his rebellious brother. Still the brothers are each other's best friend with a common curiosity and ingeniousness (which once inspired them to build a wireless radio), though Udayan leads with Subhash following. So it was Udayan, who came up with the idea of breaking into an exclusive Country Club. But when they were caught, Subhash took the beating. Udayan never forgot the policeman who ignored his pleading to stop.

The boys' father, a government clerk, saved for decades to buy the house near the near the Lowlands, nature's respite from the city. The wild marsh, where the boys play, is also a meeting place of rich and poor that changes with India's culture. The father built his house with the expectation that his sons will live there with their families. Their first hurdle was to excel in their studies, so when they get the highest grades in their exams for college, he proudly felt they were on their way. Udayan chose Chemistry, Subhash physics and their lives diverged in more significant ways. While Subhash was dedicated to his books, Udayan attended meetings of student groups and became enthralled with Karl Marx.

Then Udayan made secret trips at night, referred to friends his brother didn't  know and lectured from political tracts. Subhash feared Udayan, with his high emotion, and rash personality, could easily be led astray. And he did become entranced by a charismatic political movement, rejecting government, property, arranged marriage, and, ultimately, the careful life their father had made to keep them safe and comfortable.

Soon only Subhash slept at night and did chores. He took his degree in chemistry but like many of his generation, discovered he was over-educated, prepared for nonexistent jobs. Inexplicably,Udayan was happy with a low-level job teaching mathematics. When Subhash learned of police round-ups of students, he feared for Udayan but knew he could do nothing. Subhash then decided he would take a scholarship for a Master's in Marine Biology in Massachusetts. He would get his degree and return. 

Though his adjustment to New England weather, strange food and a profound sense of aloneness was difficult, he persisted. Subhash received a few letters from his brother about his job and new girlfriend, but not a word of politics. Subhash wondered if he’d given them up, though Udayan cautioned him to burn the correspondence. Subhash had his American life; he fell in love with a married woman, and went on to a doctorate with little thought of return. He missed nothing but the once close friendship with his brother. When he learned of Udayan's marriage, he wistfully wondered about the girl who had taken his place in his brother's affections..  

Suddenly, he learned his brother was dead and his parents wanted him home. With his Americanized eyes, Subhash became painfully aware of the rigid provincialism of his parents. Gauri, his brother’s widow, lived as an outcast in his parents' house. His mother was unforgiving of this girl she didn’t pick and blamed her for his brother’s ruination. The fact she was pregnant didn't soften his parents' attitude. They placed her in a small room away from them. And when Subhash imagined her grief and decided to share his own, his mother couldn't imagine he spoke with her--while he could not imagine his parents’ cruelty. He was further enraged, when he learned of their plan to raised the baby and send Gauri to her relatives. 

“She only cares for books,” his mother said dismissively. Yet Subhash realized it was her scholarly nature, along with her natural beauty, that attracted Uduayan. Subhash offered to marry her, take her to America, where they could raise the child and she could pursue her studies. Subhash had both a wish to honor his brother and an attraction to Gauri. Despite how upset his  parent were, that both sons married the unacceptable girl, Subhash fled with his bride. Escape meant not just leaving India, but the horrific secret of Udayan's end. 

That secret and Gauri’s trauma are sublimated in the American model of a normal family life. They created a fiction that was both refuge and  curse. And in The Lowlands, emotional  inheritance is a serious factor in destiny. Motherhood did prove difficult for Gauri, because of her inclination to solitary scholarship. And with her grief she was not able to love the brother, who resembled the one she had lost. Subhash could not take his brother’s place but was in the hopeless position of trying. 

The most satisfying relationship in this novel is Subhash's with Bela, his daughter. He is a natural parent, who shares his love of the ocean and knowledge of undersea life. The exchanges between father and daughter were honest, affectionate and funny. But poor Subhash always fears the day she will learn he's not her biological father. Tension accelerated, when Subhash and Bela go to India and his mother points to a picture of Udayan and told  Bella it was her father. .

When they returned, they discover Gauri had fled to California and a position as a philosophy instructor. With a brief note to Subhash, none for Bela, and no contact information,she walked out on her 14 year old daughter. This rejection haunted Bela, who distanced herself from Subhash, dropped friends,so neglected schoolwork that they suggested a psychologist.

Eventually, she improved and grew up to resembles Subhash in her love of nature and Udayan in her active physical pursuits. She studied agriculture, but rejected her parents' academic paths. Instead, Bela became an itinerant farmer, who worked on farms, in natural foods co-ops, and lived with groups in squats. Her situations were always temporary.  Subhash is never sure when she will visit. She just showed up. 

Then she came for a longer time, after he retired,and he learned Bela was pregnant. Subhash made her the offer to return home and, at the same time, he found a woman who cared for him. When he thought of marrying, he tracked down Gauri. She didn't care about his request to sell their house in India, but the idea of a divorce disturbed her. Gauri, who had been happy in her life without emotional ties, wanted to see Subhash and Bella. She decided to bring the papers to him.

What happened when she goes to the house and Subhash is not there, the climactic meeting with Bela, is what must happen. The secrets that had been kept Bella's whole life are revealed. You get the sense a kind of wholeness will  eventually occur for this family of bridged cultures. That the new generation will make their own traditions, in the America that became their own. 

This family saga was intensely moving, not least because of the delicate way Lahiri paints shades of emotion. She traces their sources; how they are linked to weather, landscapes, the creatures of ocean, air, and food. Subtlely, she reveals the mystery of how love can occur in real life, apart from the expectations of people. She also demonstrates how emotion, time, and physical events weave the texture we recognize as human life. Like The Lowlands, which are trashed and then land-filled, you see that nothing is untouched by this process. Choice can mean, whether to stay broken or find completeness like the life of the ocean or the food of the fields.