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If You Can Tell Me A Riddle, Can’t You Paint It Too?

If You Can Tell Me A Riddle, Can’t You Paint It Too?

Some years ago, I was watching “educational television”—which asks my fellow Americans to choose, somewhat high-mindedly, between the crudely entertaining and the sensationally uplifting—and on came a program which, with a fascinating presumptuousness, attempted to get at the nature of double-gifted-ness, particularly as it applies to the intersection of the visual and literary. According to the narrator, writers who stumble into visual art are visually precocious with regard to linear literacy, but nothing more. Drawing “fools” were trotted out to demonstrate that premise and. . . whaddya know? When writers are also artists, they are strictly linear. Was this true? Well, as I considered this double-threat to a person’s image and livelihood, I could not locate a single writer-turned-quill-stalker who had thrown caution to the winds and chosen to paint. To a man (regretfully, no woman writer-artist emerged), they were all addicted to the pen and pencil—by which I mean to designate all the graphic media there is. There was Tom Wolfe, whose efforts were predictably clever—nervous, but consciously disciplined contour-lines tracing character deficits and other moral failings William Hogarth had skewered so deliciously that it’s rather hard to appoint a successor. I found Gunter Grass’ oeuvre unsurprisingly provocative, but all of it the product of an acid pen. There was Victor Hugo, who would occasionally splash at his drawings with moody washes—yet I looked in vain for paint-slathers, whiffs of unmixed color, gobs of glutinous, chromatically tortured poetry. He too stuck with his sepia ink and his block-headed nibs.


Le Phare des Casquets by Victor Hugo via

One of my favorite, but, alas, forgotten characters of mid-Twentieth century arts and letters—though he came to national prominence as a television personality—was Alexander King, a Viennese refugee who, late in life and possibly worried that his many heirs would have to settle for crumbs on the table, wrote two raffish biographies, which were probably true in the author’s head, but came out as comic opera en grisaille. They had all of the picaresque ingredients of a swashbuckling tale, but they were saturated with the author’s fatal attraction to all things bookish. Here was a man who, but for a heroin habit that hurled the sad, but over-spiced remains of his brain and body to Lexington, Kentucky—where drug-addled celebrities were strapped down to long wooden tables and told to sweat it out—could do almost anything. He once translated Ovid with a professorial colleague and won rave reviews. He wrote ballets and operas; pulp fiction; plays that ran on and off-Broadway. He was the potent intelligence behind a Life Magazine that would, as long as he was there, live up to its name. He helped Clare Booth Luce shape a little play that became The Women. He was an illustrator who was chosen to wax eloquent with pen and brush-strokes until hand and heart gave out—or his teeming imagination found some other distraction. He wrote (to use to the word again) skeweringly in his adopted tongue—as Mine Enemy Grows Older and Let This House Be Safe from Tigers attests with a give-it-away abundance. In his graphic work, he found that he could alternate between modernist obscurantism and a soberly calculated grimness that was somehow embraced by the herd mentality of art directors and publishing moguls alike. But did he paint for himself? Was he drawn to visual phenomena for their lush and nature-liveried attire? Did he swoon at a sunset and, after getting back on his feet, rush to a sparely appointed studio to possess it, as it were, after the fact? And while his peripatetic lifestyle strew a lot of his creations behind him, there isn’t any evidence that he wanted to transcribe himself or nature with blocks of color and dedicated brushwork. Like so many of his glittering colleagues—who chose the pursuit of a livelihood over that of an immorality that is often too little too late, he took the main chance and looked back only when somebody was not only chasing him, but not out of breath enough for comfort. Until, of course, he sat and remembered a life was defiantly out of step with his contemporaries; shortened by substance abuse; and enriched with a sense of the comedie humaine that was King’s monumental gift to the world.

But was Alexander King a painter? In the strictest and therefore most unforgiving definition of that word, no. His satirical glance and unsparing sense of justice chose a linear format. As much as I would love to hear of a padlocked studio in Connecticut—one that would yield the paintings that were possibly lost, not only to his crutchy habit, but to a peculiar pragmatism that would more than keep his cookies dry for life—none has been found. And none will likely show up anytime in the near or distant future.

Da Vinci, of course, kept at his notebooks, which were voluminously illustrated and exclusively linear. Words were only incidental; when an “a” or “b” would suffice, he happily retained it. Michaelangelo may well be the only pre-modern painter who wrote anything other than poison-pen letters to patrons. Yet his best sonnets describe the agony of creation and are tied to his day-job, as it were. What, then, of Benvenuto Cellini whose autobiography is read with pleasure today? Well, if you want to elevate tea services and loving cups into an atmosphere that hovers between the dinner table and The Sistine Chapel, you most certainly may. Do I feel Cellini deserves a double distinction? Having spent innumerable hours in the company of good, solid crafts-people. . .you bloody well bet I do!

Dawdling without chronological rigor among the centuries and, because of a deplorable ignorance of almost everything else but Western Art, I will appoint the Dour Dean of Art Criticism, the large-bearded, but, according to contemporary accounts, peniley ineffectual, savant, John Ruskin, as possibly the most gifted among writer-artists. He is known today as the champion of Turner’s late-in-life seizures that, as it turned out, made Impression possible. (What the Abstract Expressionists thought of these wild canvases is not on record, though I’m sure he was mentioned at the Cedar Tavern. As well he should have been. If any dead artist was responsible for Jackson Pollock, it would have to be Turner!)

In any case, Ruskin diverged from a path he may not have even known existed and created a watercolor portfolio that passes muster to this day. For eyes accustomed to John Singer Sargent, his on-the-spot creations might seem fussy—particular, as one might say. Well, for someone who got behind a group of eccentric painters who were fed up with classical decadence and imperialistic rant and restored painting to its morbidly religious roots (my polysyllables have been teased out by those Head Waiters of old-style Christianity, The Pre-Raphaelites), his stuff would look like a little like theirs. They wanted every hair on one’s head. (Ruskin did too.). They loved big splashy statements. (As did Ruskin.) And if painterly ambiguities interfered with a moral message, they were rigorously repressed. (Ruskin had that all over.) Ruskin believed that certain types of architecture—which he blatted about in The Stones of Venice—were (in spite of what has often occurred inside of them) ennobling. But unlike Henry James—who knew Sargent and probably felt he was artistically “covered”—he went and did something about it on the picture plane. And, even in an age that was watercolor-mad, his finely wrought creations were among the most accomplished of his era. Let’s give credit where it is due, even if we must castigate the prissy old guy for suing Jamie Whistler for throwing his pots of paint a little too far and nearly ruining the man.

Painter/illustrator/writers crop up now and then. To stick to Ruskin’s era, the now-forgotten novel, Trilby, was written by George Du Maurier, an artist who, because he learned his slightly less-than-sullen art at Left Bank ateliers, knew all sorts of juicy stuff about art students, their hangers-on, and the demimondaine generally. He was a bona-fide painter, the genuine article, The Real Thing. How did he get there? God only knows and He ain’t tellin’.

Because the book was such a great success, Du Maurier—who was probably as terrified of having to stay an artist as other similarly choice-less people—decided to exhibit less and write a whole lot more. But he could paint and, like Ruskin, he should be recognized as double-jointed—as so few of his successors either cared to be, knew they couldn’t and didn’t try, or tried and withheld their creations.

The most distinguished writer/artist wannabe of our era—assuming you want it to be elastic enough to start with Prohibition—would be John Updike, who after a stint at the Slade School, heard, from a more insistent muse, a rabbit running, high-tailed it back to the States, and channeled a callow, but complex, young man who would dog him for the rest of his life. Yet he retained a lifelong affection, as well as an Updikean appetite, for visual art and artists. Few dedicated arts-interpreters have surpassed him as voluntary go-between and docent extraordinaire. (Just Looking is the most companionable guide to mid-century painting there is.) As to his output at drawing-pad or easel, he was cannily (or modestly) mum. I haven’t seen daub or scratch. I would opine that the relentless perfectionism that goaded him as a writer was very much in force across the board.

Fairfield Porter wrote mouthy criticism as well as poetry that failed to out-sparkle his canvases, but he was a painter first and wouldn’t have objected to hearing it. So too Rackstraw Downes, who has written perceptively, but has dawdled at typewriter and computer screen just long enough to flush gerunds and participles out of his system. After the exorcism is performed, he hops back on the subway with his painting gear and looks for panoramic views that would have struck Frederick Church as lacking in sublimity.

If anyone other than myself and the people who were responsible for that television program accepts the premise that, when writers have some visual capacity, it is almost exclusively with lines and not blocks of color, I can proceed to my next, and ostensibly hubristic, proposition, which is to say that there is someone among you, on this day, who practices both art forms well enough to realize how dauntingly difficult they are; that failure is the most reliable outcome there is; and that a double major is a virtual guarantor of a spirited, but somewhat bow-legged, mediocrity. That this someone has had only moderate success, but continues to insist on his right to keep plodding along? And that this someone is. . .I.

Furthermore, how is it that I have, by default and a possibly willful ignorance, snagged the title? By what quirk of fate, accident of birth, or genetic blue printing am I the only painter who writes, writer who paints, and am consequently, a four-eyed, schizophrenic, quadruple-handicapped freak show-of-one? However, when things go badly in one area, I can always blame the other guy. And when that’s done and over with, I can ask him to dig me out.

Well, if you can stomach such grandiosity, let me flavor it a little. For starters, I didn’t want to do either until it dawned on me that: 1) I would never, in this life, play professional baseball; 2) A paradise lost complex would compel me to seek, and possibly re-capture, the incandescent wonder that marked my earliest years on this planet; 3) Language was not up to the task of replicating the nuances of visual perception while painted images could only hint at, or hollowly suggest, a narrative structure. Painting, then, for all of its soaring poetry, could not “speak” and writing, with its audible peaks and valleys, its glottal stops and conceptual glimmerings, left me hungering for texture, for tactility, for. . .more!

I had to have both and that’s all there was to it—and is to this day.


Triad by Brett Busang via

Having gotten through the hard part, I want to say something about how impossible it is to coordinate the two—and why.

I hardly ever paint when I write—and vice versa. When, after writing, with great erratic bursts, for almost twenty years, I stopped for ten. Into this vacuum, I inserted my brushes, my four-color palette as well as the knife that would slather it on. For this time-period, a mono cultural approach re-started my engines in addition to getting me a livelihood. I would eventually exhibit widely enough; tear at a sales resistance that would never collapse, but gave way around the edges; and establish myself in the almost-invisible way I seem to prefer. (Maximum visibility ensures that you always have to be “out there”. I have always reserved the right—to my detriment as a Success Story—to slip away.)

When I took up writing again, I was that lag-behind who did not fall in right away, but plodded to the rear. But, over time, I was able to fall into stride with my other half and stay within sight of him. Sometimes I’d get a jump on him and sneak ahead for a while. Just to keep him, as a pitcher does when he knocks you down but doesn’t hit you, honest.

There is, however, a perceptual gap that, depending on who’s looking, disqualifies me as one or the other. Every country has its flag. To fly another were traitorous, not to say bad for business. If you want people to identify you as something, you’d better do the branding first. And keep at it. That is why, among those who know me exclusively as a painter, I usually let them. Trouble often arises when I say I’ve written some plays or had an article published somewhere. A kind of psychological deafness takes this gentle heresy and un-hears it. When people tell you they “don’t quite catch something”, they’re lying. They’ve caught it only too well and need to sit on it. Some feel a sense of betrayal. Here I’ve told them I’m this and I suddenly want to be something else! It’s the kind of thing that used to infuriate husbands, who thought the little lady had dinner on the stove and heard Chopin over in the parlor. Your liberal husband would say: “Tickling the ivories, eh?” The less forgiving: “I thought I told you to forget about this nonsense.” A domestic terrorist would call the piano movers and pay them, to remove the offending object right away, overtime.

Some people apply emotional blackmail and say: “I like you better as a painter. I don’t know, you’re friendlier that way.” For such people, writing becomes a strictly underground activity. The same thing goes with writing: “I like some of your paintings. I mean, you’re talented and all, but, I’m sorry, my image of you is as a writer. You’re not offended, are you?”

How can I be? I’m dedicated, by the tenets of my profession, to the truth. Or want to give that appearance until I can skulk away and scream into a pillow. Or open my mouth widely enough to emit something darkly tumultuous and let the mouth itself speak for me.

Pragmatists want me to do the thing that is most organically connected to a money supply that isn’t available to all comers. They say things like: “The thing they pay you for is your livelihood. All that other stuff. . .it’s your hobby.” Such people understand feast and famine academically and play fast and loose with it in real life. If, for example, I told them that, for time periods that would strike them as agonizingly suspenseful, I made no money at all, they’d blink and say: “Would you repeat that?” When—as I almost always find – repetition does no good, I tell them that Hollywood has optioned an unfinished novel and send them away with that. Or if I don’t think they can hear of me writing a novel, I’ll say that I’m painting a mural and will be leaving very shortly for South America.

Brett Busang
Brett Busang

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