HIS MASTER’S VOICE
As a realist painter, I work only from my direct experience of what I see before me. I made this decision, about what I would do as an artist, as a teenager when I served as an Infantry soldier in the United States Army in Italy during World War II, because of what happened during a nighttime training exercise in 1944: I was creeping along a small riverbank near Montecassino when a phosphorescent bomb exploded at my feet and I was blinded. I sat down on the riverbank and waited for a medic to come along—which they always did, eventually, on these training exercises. As I sat waiting I thought, “Well, this is the end of my hope to be an artist, but at least I will be sent home.” After a while, a medic did find me and led me to the medical emergency tent, where I waited my turn at the end of a rather long line of other hurt soldiers. The attending doctor removed my eyeglasses and I could see again—my glasses had been covered by river mud. I realized then how miraculous eyesight is. Many years later, as a known exhibiting artist, I declared in an article about my approach to painting that: “I get my highs from using my eyes.” My painting experience is rather like that of the ancient classical Chinese Zen artist’s experience of meditating on an object, losing oneself to its essence, and then on snapping out of this trance-like experience and using the brush and ink at hand to visually record the experience. However, as a western realist painter, using store-bought oil paints, I can only try to duplicate what I actually see, and I do not want to paint from photographs.
Over the course of my career, I have painted many portraits. Some have been painted on commission, but most often they have been painted as gifts to friends and relatives. The painting in the photograph of me in my studio was of two friends: J.D. McClatchy and his husband, Chip Kidd. Chip is a graphic designer and published authority on comic book art. J.D. McClatchy (known as Sandy) was a prominent poet and translator. He translated into English many of the operas performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; these translations are transmitted onto small screens on the backs of the seats for the patrons to follow during actual performances. Sandy and I had one very important distinction in common: I had been the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 2002 to 2006, and was succeeded in that role by Sandy, who served as president for the following three years. This academy is the most prestigious in the United States for historians, architects, creative writers and visual artists. I am certain that no other former president of this academy had his portrait painted by another former president. The painting was developed over a period of seven or eight two-hour sessions. Sandy made the decision that they would be dressed informally, he without a necktie or jacket. Chip dressed in his running outfit. I decided that the painting of them should be life-size, and I chose the two chairs they would be seated in: one was a transparent inflatable armchair that I had purchased at a museum gift shop to use as a studio prop, the other was an old hospital metal examination chair that my wife had spotted on a sidewalk in front of an old hospital across town. She telephoned me and described the chair as having an Art Nouveau look, and she thought it would be a usable prop. We brought it to my studio in a taxicab. After the first two sessions, because of their own busy schedules, Sandy and Chip would sometimes come singly. But they were together for the final two sessions. On the evening the photograph was taken, only Sandy was present. When we took a break in the work session to give Sandy a rest, I took a rest in the plastic chair, and that is the present portrait of me in my studio.
Sandy has since passed away, and Chip has the painting in the home they shared in Florida.