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Friday, June 17, 2011

A Bit of Blueberry

One afternoon, not long after we moved to New York in 1961, the doorbell rang. My mother opened the door to reveal a great moose of a man. He had wild white hair, a generous moustache, a prominent hearing aid with wire attached to a box in his breast pocket and a cigar jammed into his mouth. He wore a proper, if misshapen, Brooks Brothers raincoat over, what I would learn was his uniform, khaki shirt and pants and white Jack Purcell sneakers. He introduced himself as Waldo Peirce a childhood friend of my mother’s mother. He’d heard from my grandmother that we’d recently moved to the neighborhood and he’d stopped by on the way to his studio on the next block. He invited us to visit him there and so a few days later my mother, sister and I found ourselves in the one-room apartment on the second floor of a walk-up where he did his painting.

Waldo had a booming voice, as deaf people often do, and an easy laugh. He sat my sister and me down at a table with a large book between us. It was full of watercolors he'd done of various animals. He asked us each to pick one; my sister chose a tiger and I, younger and a little timid, followed her lead and selected another big cat, a lion. After we left, as happens with children, our attention soon shifted to other things and my sister and I completely forgot about the tea party in the artist's studio.

But Waldo hadn't. A week later, he appeared at our house with two large packages wrapped in brown paper. He presented one to my sister and one to me. Unwrapping them, we discovered paintings personally inscribed by Waldo to each of us. My sister's shows a three-quarter portrait of a magnificent yellow-eyed tiger against a shaggy green jungle, mine has a gentle looking lion lying under a tree beneath a full moon enjoying a hunk of meat. (My older brothers used to tease me by pointing to the meat and saying it was me). I loved the painting instantly and knew even at five what a treasure I’d received. Thereafter, Waldo painted a charming landscape of a Central Park playground in which my sister, I and our dog, Foxy are featured. I can date the picture to Spring 1962 as I am not wearing the uniform our school required and my sister is, so I was not yet in kindergarten.

Not long after our meeting, Waldo gave up his studio and moved back to live full time in Maine, but our connection didn’t falter. We used to visit him on our annual pilgrimages to our lake near Bangor and for many years he sent us postcards and letters written in silly rhymes and decorated with wonderful animal illustrations. He had a wide circle of lucky friends who received these missives. My mother carefully saved ours and we each have a framed group.

The following summer my grandmother rented a cottage in Searsport, Maine where Waldo owned a rambling Mansard-roofed Victorian house. Grandmother’s cottage was one of those perfect summer abodes, unpretentious, funky and charming. Gray shingled, with blue shutters sporting half moon cut-outs, it was perched among hydrangea bushes on a slight hill facing the bay. In addition to the kitchen, there was one large room. I remember it as being dark, not in an unpleasant way, just old-fashioned. It had unpainted bead board walls and was appointed with a hodgepodge of wicker and upholstered furniture in faded chintz that looked like it had been there forever. There were a couple of small bedrooms in the rear off the single bathroom. I think my brothers must have bunked in the living room during our weekend visit. The crowning feature of the house was the covered front porch. It was here that Waldo painted watercolor portraits of my sister and me. I remember the day vividly. Waldo filled the place with his voice and laugh. At lunch, my grandmother served cantaloupe and I was astonished because not only did Waldo put salt on his melon which I'd seen people do, but black pepper as well. (It was not until decades later that I encountered a similar approach at a Mexican vendor’s stand in Los Angeles where cayenne pepper was sprinkled on the cut fruit—delicious I might add.)

Grandmother must have served blueberry pie that day for on my portrait there was a purple stain and penciled note in Waldo's hand (both fading over time) identifying it as “a bit of blueberry” that must have fallen onto the paper. The mar seemed to encapsulate Waldo’s character. He was just the exuberant type who embraced life with the sort of gusto that meant you ate the pie at the same time you painted, and once the damage was done you cheerfully made the best of it, incorporating the flaw into the work and actually making it all the more special. It was a good lesson to learn at an early age.

Waldo did a subsequent portrait of me that must have been painted the following year (my grandmother rented the house for several summers) because my hair is short, while in the first one I had braids. I don’t remember that episode and maybe it’s become merged in my mind with the previous year. I don’t know what’s become of that portrait, my grandmother kept it and I think it went to my aunt, but where it went after her death I have no clue. Sadly, the other two were inadvertently stowed in the basement of my parent’s new house when they moved and were destroyed by moisture.

Waldo has been compared to many artists, most notably to Cézanne and Renoir and I would add Maurice Prendergast and Ludwig Bemelmans. He was once even called the "Hemingway of American painters," to which he replied with a twinkle, "They'll never call Ernest Hemingway the Waldo Peirce of American writers!" But Waldo was a true original. He may have been trammeled in his pursuit of artistic greatness by the ever-present security blanket of his family’s wealth, but he produced an oeuvre that perfectly mirrored his joyful existence.

Born in 1884 in Bangor, Maine then known as the "lumber capital of the world," Waldo lived an idyllic life, hunting and fishing in the surrounding forests with his father and brother. His was an affluent existence; his doting parents, Mellen and Anna Hayford Peirce, owned vast tracts of timberland north of Bangor. 

A bright, but indifferent student, Waldo attended Andover graduating in 1903 and Harvard. Of college, he said he "majored in pool," playing upstairs at the Leavitt and Peirce Smoke Shop (no relation as far as I know) in Cambridge, where his comical, illustrated poem about the poolroom still hangs. 

I remember hearing Waldo recount with great glee how on a visit to New York as an undergraduate, he got hold of some police barricades and convinced his companions to help him dig a hole in Times Square in the middle of the night, which they surrounded with the barricades. He was delighted to discover on his return several months later that the barricades and hole were undisturbed. While he did the prank as a lark, to my eye it also stands as a credible example of an early performance piece. During his time at Harvard, Waldo was on the football team, he was a strong swimmer, tennis player, golfer, and avid fisherman. All these extra curricular activities took a toll on Waldo’s studies and it took him six years to attain his undergraduate degree.

His most famous exploit occurred just after he graduated from Harvard when he and his friend, John Reed (of Reds fame in which he was portrayed by Warren Beatty), booked passage together on a freighter to England. As the ship was leaving Boston Harbor, Waldo decided the accommodations were not up to his standards. Without telling anyone, he jumped overboard and swam (reputedly several miles) to shore. Back on the ship, with Waldo unaccounted for, suspicion turned to Reed who was accused of the murder of his traveling companion and thrown into the brig. When the freighter arrived in England, Waldo was waiting on the dock to greet it—he’d sailed across on a faster (and more luxurious) ocean liner.

Waldo joined the American Field Service in 1915, driving an ambulance during WWI. He received the Croix de Guerre for bravery at Verdun. He'd been living in Paris since 1910 and he stayed on after the war, continuing there on and off until 1931. This was certainly the time for an artist to be in Paris and Waldo immersed himself in the heady atmosphere. He studied at the Academe Julien and for a time in Segovia with the Spanish Impressionist Ignacio Zuloaga, where he met and married the first of his four wives, the unconventional Dorothy Rice, who drove a motorcycle. To the detriment of the marriage, Rice's mother, who Waldo referred to as "the umbilicus" was very much in the picture. 

Before leaving Paris, Waldo would marry twice more; first to Ivy Troutman, an actress, whom (always one with a witty turn of phrase) he later referred to as "Poison Ivy" after they divorced. His third wife was Alzira Boehm, with whom he had twin boys and a girl. He married his final wife, Ellen Larsen in 1946; they had two children. Four marriages is a lot, especially back in the day when divorce was still fairly scandalous. But all this matrimonial upheaval didn't seem to adversely affect Waldo; I suspect he easily became carried away romantically and married the women he slept with, as well-brought up people were inclined to do in those days. These impulsive early marriages were made without a huge emotional investment and so when they ended, the damage was slight. I only saw him with his fourth wife, Ellen and they seemed genuinely devoted to each other. She was yin to his yang. A slight, graceful woman, she was quiet, much younger and a serious painter in her own right. With her, he'd finally met his match and their 24-year marriage endured until his death.

In Paris, Waldo (subsidized by his parents) had a magnificent apartment overlooking the Seine at 77 rue de Lille. He knew almost everyone who was anyone, there is no mention of Picasso and I suspect that, in a addition to a probable personality clash, this is also because Waldo was somewhat of a traditionalist when it came to painting and this would have been a profound parting of the ways for these two. But Waldo hobnobbed with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Ford Maddox Ford, Archibald MacLeish, and Ernest Hemingway, who would become a lifelong friend. I had always heard Waldo first encountered Hemingway driving ambulances during the war, but it seems their relationship really took hold in Paris. In July 1927 they traveled to Pamplona. Waldo recorded the trip in a collection of drawings, watercolors and photographs.

Waldo found early success in Paris with his Impressionist paintings and portrait commissions. In 1915, in New York City, his works were exhibited along with those of John Sloan, George Bellows and Edward Hopper. The Peirces moved back to the States and settled in Bangor in 1931. Waldo's career flourished throughout the '30s. He exhibited alongside Andrew Wyeth, Bellows and other prominent artists and his self-portrait with his family, Haircut by the Sea, was acquired by The Metropolitan Museum.

I know from my interactions with him that Waldo had a special affinity with children. A gentle giant, he was devoted to his own five, painting them hundreds of times. Hemingway gives an amusing, if somewhat exaggerated account, of a visit Waldo and his brood paid him in Key West. It reveals a besotted father: "Waldo is here with his kids like untrained hyenas and him as domesticated as a cow. Lives only for the children and with the time he puts on them they should have good manners and be well trained but instead they never obey, destroy everything, don't even answer when spoken to, and he is like an old hen with a litter of hyenas. I doubt if he will go out in the boat while he is here. Can't leave the children. They have a nurse and a housekeeper too, but he is only really happy when trying to paint with one setting fire to his beard and the other rubbing mashed potato into his canvasses. That represents fatherhood."

Growing up we had a copy of Mary Norton’s 1943 edition of The Magic Bed-Knob, or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (The precursor to Bedknob and Broomstick), which Waldo illustrated. In fact, the story goes that Norton wrote the text specifically to accompany Waldo’s illustrations. They were wonderful, so rich in detail and full of life. I regret that our well-thumbed book finally fell apart and was tossed. Of course, a much more insipid illustrator was chosen for the subsequent edition.

In addition to his countless drawings, paintings and voluminous correspondence, Waldo produced ribald poems and ballads. Scribner's once considered publishing the pieces, but ultimately felt they were too risqué. He was given a $500 advance from the publisher to write his autobiography, but it was never completed. It's a pity; Waldo's many funny and irreverent quotes indicate how much he enjoyed expressing himself through words. An example: "I'll give you a tip on painting ladies of today...I always let the lady paint her own mouth, which she knows better than I do, and does it two or three times a day on the original countenances." 

Waldo often visited Hemingway in Key West, where they fished for tarpon and Waldo painted many portraits of him. One, Kid Balzac, hangs in the Hemingway collection at the JFK Library. In 1937, Time magazine commissioned Waldo to paint Hemingway for its cover. Waldo and Hemingway met for the final time in March 1959 in Tucson, Arizona, where in later life Waldo had a house. Two years later, hearing of Hemingway's death, Waldo immediately knew the early reports of an accident was false and that his friend had killed himself.

Waldo died in 1970 and is buried next to his mother in Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor. A bon vivant, Waldo was incredibly generous and despite his bold, larger-than-life persona, humble—always insisting he was a “painter,” not an “artist.” As he was wont to remark, he never "worked" a day in his life, yet he devoted countless hours during his lifetime to painting thousands of pictures, toiling away well into his eighties. The downside of being so prolific is that not every painting is going to be a keeper. Sometimes Waldo’s pieces have an overly slapdash quality and the exuberance that is his trademark devolves into messiness. But when he’s on, they’re great. As a critic said, his splashy, sensuous paintings “smell of sweat and sound like laughter."

It was a real gift to have Waldo in my life from an early age. A free spirit and true bohemian he showed me you don't have to follow an expected path. Part of Waldo's great appeal to the young was that he was so very modern, or perhaps timeless is a better word as he seemed to fit so easily into whatever time period in which he lived. The other people I knew his age, including his great friend, my very proper grandmother, were much more conventional and decidedly elderly. I have such posthumous respect for her for valuing him and being his friend; I can't imagine Waldo interacting with my father's parents who remained formal Edwardian creatures until the day they died five and seven years after he did.

In addition to The Met, Waldo’s work (unless it’s been deaccessioned) is in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the University of Maine, the Bangor Public Library, the Penobscot Marine Museum and Colby College. There is a beautiful, extremely sympathetic portrait of him done by Bellows in 1920 that I was delighted to happen upon prominently displayed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Full Circle

Another bit of serendipity occurred while walking through the Central Park Zoo where we came across posters for Full Circle: Ai Weiwei and the Emperor's Fountain a sculptural installation presented by New York's wonderful Public Art Fund.

The piece which is installed at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza, references the 18th-century zodiac fountain clock designed  for the imperial compound known as the Yuanming Yuan (the Garden of Perfect Brightness) by European Jesuits

The original fountain clock featured large-scale bronze heads of the 12 animals that make up the Chinese zodiac. To this day, the fountain heads are potent symbols for the Chinese, a painful reminder of the humiliation it suffered at the hands of the West: during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Yuanming Yuan was ransacked, the fountain destroyed and the animal heads looted. Seven have since been located, including, famously, the rat’s head, which turned up in the auction of Yves Saint Laurent’s belongings two years ago. The hammer came down at $12 million, but the sale was cancelled after the Chinese government protested.

Ai’s heads are not exact replicas of the originals; in recasting them he has created new layers of meaning to address China’s complicated understanding of its past and its complex relationship with the West. As Ai points out, the heads are not really national treasures—designed and made by Europeans as they were—but have assumed such a prominent place in the Chinese collective consciousness on account of their history. The fact they represent the zodiac—so important to Chinese culture, as anyone who’s ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant knows—adds to their potency. 

There is another set of Ai's animal heads on view in London, I assume in front of another western fountain, but it is particularly fitting these are in New York as Ai, who lived here for many years, refers to it as a “zodiac city.”
The heads are really beautiful, ranging from the simple, almost archaic mouse and monkey to the far more complicated and animated cock and dragon. There is something august and eternal about these inscrutable beasts who stare out at the world from their elegant Giacometti-like stands.

An accompanying exhibition examining the history of the fountain clock and the concept behind Ai’s piece, is on view at the Arsenal Gallery (located within the Central Park zoo). (I discovered on my visit that the Arsenal originally housed the Museum of Natural History. Something growing up in New York, I never knew.)

To add further frisson to the piece, In early April, Ai, an activist (he's been birddogging government corruption in China, including the scandal surrounding the construction of the schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake) was arrested at Beijing airport in early April.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I love stumbling across something unexpected in a museum, which becomes a door to a whole new, unexplored world. At the Metropolitan last week while in the Asian wing admiring the matinee idol Buddhas from Afghanistan, I overheard a docent tell her tour group that they must see the exhibition of Tibetan rugs. She said it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see them all together. 

Intrigued, I climbed up through the carved Indian temple to the upper gallery where the rugs were displayed. The small, but dense exhibition focused on Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, exploring the role ritual objects played in the advanced sect of Buddhism that flourished in Tibet 8th-20th centuries. On views, in addition to the tantric ritual rugs, were utensils—including knives, vessels, fire-offering ladles, ritual staff and daggers.

There were several rugs featuring tiger skins. I have seen plenty of modern versions. I never realized they were anything other than trompe l’oeil, less expensive takes on the real thing. It turns out they are ritual rugs representing the flayed skin of the animal. More surprising were the human versions of the rug. The one I have pictured featured a flayed man (who reminded me of an E.C. Segar cartoon character with his bedhead hair and clown-like (amputated?) nose) the red stripes on his flesh indicate arteries; he is surrounded by his bones with his skull between his legs. The border is made up of severed heads. It's very handsome, if one can get beyond the subject matter, with its archaic stylization and subtle hues and I can see why it would appeal to its owner, the former British Contemporary Art dealer Antony d’Offay who appeared to own most of the items on view.
The gruesomeness seemed totally out of sync with what I know about Tibet and Buddhism, which granted isn’t a whole lot. The accompanying text was pretty vague as to whether the flaying/deboning/decapitating actually took place (one would assume it did at one time) or if it was ritualized. (There was mention of life-sized human effigies.) But whether real or ritualized, the point of it was to celebrate detachment from the corporeal body, removing obstacles, specifically the three poisons: Ignorance, Delusion, Greed that stand in the way of enlightenment replacing them with Good, Wisdom and Compassion. While the means may have been extreme, the goal is admirable. When I look around at the world these days, I can see that it is truly poisoned by the former triad. As Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And so I will strive each day for the latter through deeds and meditation. You?