http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/16/AR2010041603867_pf.html . Thirty years ago, developers were not so ambitious, the space was smaller, but we packed in more artists: 30 in two "Laundry Shows", thanks to the late Herb White delaying the makeover of the Lee Laundry on Columbia Road into his first eatery, and many more in the Artists Invitational Museum in the Beverly Court apartments. I was the self-appointed polemicist for the artists. Leslie chose Big Al Carter to be in the first Laundry Show and we still have the painting he put in it.
Here's how the artists' revolution sounded 30 years ago.
Living with a Realist, or
What is Realistic About the Laundry Show
I have it better than she did on two counts. Thanks to advances in photography, when I model I seldom have to hold a pose for much longer than a few minutes. And generally, I can spout any theories of art that I want. Hence, this essay.
Van Gogh's body wasn't my first job for Kuter. Over the years I've been Mr. America's calf, Byron Nelson's hands, James Meredith's facial expression, the knuckles, knees and wrists of several baseball catchers, George Washington's torso, the limp of a Holocaust victim's forearm. You ask, "why, dear boy, have you never been yourself?" Yes, once, in the nude, on my back, and I kept my eyes open. (In the photo below of one of Leslie's works is it Michelangelo's David's hand or mine?)
Ah, I used a word of aesthetic discourse - realism. But what is so realistic about me being Van Gogh's body? Nothing at all! Seeing how Kuter has treated me over the years, I know that I am not nature to her. I am just one weapon in her arsenal. In one room of our apartment lie piles of wool. In another room lies me. Indeed, if I lived with an Abstract Expressionist and lounged around her a half dozen years and then she finally let her Expressioners do deep filigree work with my soul on a canvas, then I might be part of a more valid equation of realism then when Kuter stripped me naked, tied a loin cloth on me and told me to crouch like an Indian.
But there must be a difference between Kuter's art and the art of Davis, Rothko and Pollock (other than the price.) But after my long stint as a model, I realize that the words realistic, representational, images and figurative don't help much. Nor does the word "nature." To me, a red stripe is more "natural" than a Campbell's soup can.
But what about the abstract artist who got mad at a man because his comment on the circles she used in her art was that "there are no circles in nature"? Of course, there are different kinds of models: geometric, mathematical, spiritual, and flesh and blood like me. So Kuter is a realist because she uses flesh and blood like me! She's a flesh and blood realist as opposed to a geometric realist. So at last we open the dictionary and read that realism in art is "fidelity to nature or to real life," and poof! We are back to where we started because we know that that is not Van Gogh's body on the wall -- it's mine. Realisme, c'est moi!
Hold it! What happened to our nice sophistry about aesthetics? It got us nowhere. But, does realism have anything to do with power... gulp?
Today, Kuter confuses more than most abstract artists. How many times have I heard the question: "Why is the baseball catcher there? How does she make it? What does it mean?"! In vain I point to the catcher's ankle and say "C'est Moi!" Kuter, as do many "realists", handles nature too abstractly for folks who knew at the age of 12 what Pollock was up to.
Well: Realism is that style of art which was not included in Livingston's "Five Washington Painters" show, and that got her not a little heat. Then realism got another cold shoulder in the "Master of the 70s" show and Hilton Kramer made some snide remarks about Livington being stuck in academic and anemic 60's ruts. Meanwhile, local artists, who by virtue of the fact that they are nearby and have a nasty tendency to appear a bit realer than the Masters in Vermont, kept up their bitching. So a realistic solution to the problem presented itself: hire a curator to just busy about touring the studios of local artists, and then have that curator mount a show of Washington realists! And to keep things in perspective, let's not appoint someone like Nina Felshin or David Tennous -- they obviously know a little too much about what's going on. Let's appoint a fresh young face. Voila: Realism!
Now, history has ways of taking care of itself. And we can ask "What is realism to the artists in the Laundry Show?" These artists happened upon an even more classic definition of realism than the Corcoran did. It is this: Realism is art without rules. And in this case not rules of perspective and design and color. Realism is the revolt against convention. When Courbet revolted against the conventions of Ingres and his followers, he called the movement Realism. Ironically, today Courbet and Ingres are more or less lumped together as realists, representational, figurative, etc. etc. Like true realists, the artists in the Laundry Show are revolting against the one remaining convention in American art (All the aesthetic ones have been cast in doubt.) They are revolting against the convention of curatorial choice.
So Kuter called Bill Lombardo. They admire each others work. Each called others whose work they admire. No studio visits, no paranoia, no muss, no fuss, just a natural swelling of mutual admiration. As it happened Herb White had just bought a building across the street with a store front laundry. He was gutting it so he could fashion a bar and eatery. It would be vacant for a few months and he let Kuter and Lombardo mount all the shows they could.
Well, I go overboard. But I do wager that in the history of art more good art has been put on the walls in shows arranged by artists than by curators. Think of the Armory Show that American artists hung, and the Impressionists Show that Renoir and Monet hung, and the Ninth Street Show in 1951 that New York artists hung.
1) The folks organizing the Laundry Show have more shows in mind. And since artists as a whole are in such jeopardy it is foolish to become pawns in curatorial battles. (The Seventies ended with Washington curators getting big play in the New York Times, but not any Washington artists.) So no lip service will be paid to curatorial definitions of art. All over the nation curators are turning back to "realism" and concocting shows of Flowers or Ships or Nudes. Only quick action by
artists can prevent the 1982 Triple Nigger Show which I predict the Corcoran will mount: Flowers done by Washington realists!
2) Indeed, I dreamed of boozing it up at the Corcoran openings. While the little lady was being lionized, I'd lurk in the corner and sneak up on those blond beauties that flock to the Corcoran and so demurely separate from their lawyer husbands (or must they work late in order to make enough money so contributions to the arts would make a good tax deduction?) and to these blonds I'd coo "That thigh, dear, c'est moi!" Dreams.
I'm glad I had a little part in getting Vincent into the Laundry Show. And in the spirit of comradeship which Vincent thought was the only hope for art, I'll admit the truth at last: Realism is Us.
(The way we looked in our prime. Me in my typical action pose)