From about nineteen fifty nine on, I returned to New York City where along with me Leland Bell had just been hired to teach in the foundation program at Pratt Institute. I had known other Jane Street members. Nell Blaine, slightly, since she was the Aunt of a childhood friend who had become a sculptor, Hyde Solomon because we met at Yaddo, and Ken Ervin who taught with me at SUNY New Paltz, and probably hired me, there. So, Leland and his general position was nothing startling for me. But he inhabited his position with much more articulate power and had a truly charismatic personality, something not true of the others I had met before him. I had discovered Balthus by myself. On the occasion of his first American museum show, I went to the MOMA show several times, and to his concurrent one man show at Pierre Matisse Gallery, which included the final version of "The Room", a very intense and strong work. I had already rediscovered Dufy, the Nice Matisse, Soutine and had become taken with the Japanese brush stroke painters of the 18th and 19th century including the Shijo school who worked from nature in color, with a big brush. I referred to them in the sixties in an article for Art Forum called "Expressionism, Eccentric and Concentric". At the end of the article I credited Leland and Al Kresch for the angle at which I discussed the issue. But I also included a photograph of an album opening showing a seated woman by Onishi Chinnen, one of the finer figures, from a book I had gotten. I found out many years later that Al never knew I had credited him.
I have neglected to discuss Helion, who was the whole Jane Street's guide into figuration from abstraction, and under whose aegis Leland and his friends worked. I will discuss that in the next piece.
A good part of Leland's beliefs were reflected, as I saw them in that piece. I realized that he felt that a quick, brush stroke approach could give a finer and more intense idea of a figure or other things in a painting which expressed its tension, gesture, and its forms, through the calligraphy of the artist. This is also true in the late Soutine, when he is no longer wildly distorting the space, but using his brush to make it intense and full. These certainly were behind the work in question, and by then Al's, Leland's, and Ulla's work. I recently heard that Leland saw some of Stanley's work, some years ago, and complained that he couldn't see Sranley's stroke! The former student of Stanley's, who told me the story said, further, "but now, Stanley has his own stroke, and it isall over the work." He had to get it his own way.
When I heard Leland talk about what the entry points were into our contemporary figuration, he was never exclusive. Many of his friends felt that it was impossible to get into modernist construction with out going through Cezanne, and/or Matisse. Leland seemed to want to open up the means up to include Seurat, Late Renoir and, of course, Derain. He also valued Dufy, Braque, Vlaminck, Marquet and Soutine. Occasionally he would push Kees Van Dongen He certainly was not immune to the work of Picasso and the cubists, especially Gris, who went through a late period in which he tried to accommodate figuration more directly with less cubist distortion. In his contemporary context, which included the cubism of the Studio School, at which he later taught, he came across as someone who wanted there to be a greater openness in the modenist figuration which a number of thoughtful artists then espoused.
He brought up other artists with enthusiasm: the pastels ond paintings of Redon, Courbet, Corot, Delacroix, and earlier Watteau and Chardin. He certainly espoused Poussin and Lorrain and enjoyed the work of many earlier artists including the 14th and 15th century Sienese, whom I adored.
Sometime after 1977, The Pierre Levy collection was given, upon Levy's death, to the nation. Until that time, the only person I knew who was allowed entree into it was Leland. Now it was placed in the museum at Troyes which was a few hours train ride from Paris. So, I and my wife went and saw it. We were pretty much true believers, expecting to be knocked out by what we were going to see. Levy had a huge number of Derains, but he also had Balthus and some of the other better painters of his period. Well, we were not happy. The collection consisted of about 25 large paintings and some 60 or so quite small ones. Among the large paintings we found only two which added up. They were a still life and a view sous bois of a village out in the light. I had seen a large study for it in a show in New York, and thought it was a great one. The big one was even better. And every single little painting was a knockcout, whatever the style. But the great quantity of the paintings, based on looking at painting the way I ended up loving all the others didn't hold up. They were not fulfilled. I started to look for reasons. The collection included a portrait of Levy's wife which was a hard fought failure. at the Orangerie, another collector of Derain's who had died earlier had another portrait of his wife. That one was the same sort of dismal failure.I decided that Derain had a problem of staying inside the painting. He most often tried to maintain conscious, vigilant control of what he was doing. He couldn't let go and stay limber while he painted something he felt needed to be wonderful. Since he never did this with still lifes-I have never seen a failed one-it is not a failure of talent, but an unconscious change in his mind set.
I have seen, though enough Derain's to know that his ideal of how an artist should work was something he could achieve, and did so many times. He felt that rather than making up a new, eccentric, or even bizarre style, an artist should cultivate his own stroke and execute each work with that personal calligraphy. He also believed that with each new motif it was possible to accept a new style, which was executed with the continuing personal calligraphy.
For example the style of a painting of a farmer harvesting grain [hops] could be that used by a provincial painter making a wooden sign for a bar. The choice of style should then be executed within that style with the artist's own stroke. Among Pierre Levy's smaller paintings, this idea was essayed successfully over and over again.
Derain had another idea which he did not write about [the fragments of his book on art were translated by Roseanne Warren and published in the Georgia review in the 1970s]. He would make an abstraction, not through a cubist reconstruction of the forms, but by a brush driven version of traditional painting as in the work from Watteau and Chardin through Corot and Courbet. In this version he would display fewer of the spatial cues which were required by those artists, thus, in a sense abstracting the work, and fulfill the painting and its space in part by the intensity of his brush and its movement over the picture. All of these ideas of Derain's are new ones. They imply a profoundly different view of how to relate to tradition than was practiced, not only by academic painters, but even by those who felt themsleved consecrated to the modern spirit of forming, in conjunction with the great art of the past.
Ultimately, Leland felt so embattled about these sources he espoused that he was uncomfortable with almost any one who was not one of his students, probably with the exceptions of Charlie Marx and Al Kresch. I think Nell Blaine, another one of the Jane Street Group, was OK. In those days, she was much more accepted as a painter than Leland, and she supported both him and Al.
What happened to his ideation about paths to get into good painting? Well, he was no longer open minded. You had to go through Renoir, Matisse and Derain and the others of his favorites, or you were not doing the right thing. Thus far I have neglected another one of his favorites, Modigliani. By the way don't get the idea I disagree with any of his picks. I value Derain differently, but he would be there, too, for me. His taste was absolutely impeccable, for example including the greatg Eilshemius'. The one artist he introduced me to, was Marquet, whom I had not found on my own. Modigliani, alive during the early cubist amnd fauve days managed to find his own way as a figure painter by discovering cycladic figures for himself and working as a sculptor while he injested there wonderful and original forming. Then when he painted his nudes and portraits, they were fully reconstructed in those terms as he painted from nature. Surely a genius, but also mad about the figure and unwilling to develop it by abstracting it. He reconstructed it in such a way that the nudes are among the most sexually provocative nudes, while at the same time fulfilling in spades their full formation as paintings.