under the influence
Charles M. Schulz Museum
November 15, 2003 - March 15, 2004
Why is it that we are only aware of a profound influence through its retrospection, or, at best, during its evolution? In other words, it seems to be only with time, looking back, that one can clearly see what has taken place and to what affect it has had. Just imagine how helpful it would be if, along the motorways of one’s consciousness, there were signs that read, “Slow – Immense Influence Ahead” or “Yield To Oncoming Influence”. I do realize that influence will not knock upon the door to give notice of its arrival, but a doorbell would be nice – maybe chimes. Is part of its charm derived from unexpectedness? How do we explain to the children, eager for knowledge, that it will require all of their intuitive abilities to recognize it? If not, it may go undiscovered and undeveloped, unless and until we choose to focus on its importance. Maybe influence is so difficult to see at first, because its vitality has swept us along with irresistible momentum. Without a doubt, this is a very special time, and in its current is an inspirational wave that carries one period to an end as another period magically begins.
So, how does it happen?
Of course, it was a dark and stormy night (what else would one expect) with all of the usual suspects at play acting out their award winning roles of the famous unsavory east coast winters. The rusted buckets were activating a strong rhythm as they swallowed each intermittent raindrop as they fell
from the ceiling, pretending to be waterfalls. But, not to be outdone, the hot water pipes, running horizontally underneath the old nineteenth century floor, were steaming away as if to be the mist rising from the waterfall. All of this was perfectly complemented by rattling shocked and determined windows moving to the beat of the argument between the freezing cold external air and the defending, hot internal air.
It was about 25 years ago, and I was standing barefoot in my east coast studio. Facing me was a large 20 X 25 foot white wall, with the exception of some splattered evidence of past works in progress. On this wall I was preparing to use an opaque projector to enlarge some Charles M. Schulz drawings. I was attempting to make them the familiar scale of my 20 foot skeleton paintings, of the past few years, for a deeper investigation. I was about to work on some presentation drawings, involving Peanuts, for a design group requiring them for a meeting at Charles Schulz' studio.
Unfortunately, I was now brought face to face with what was the real burden - my frustrations with this unfamiliarity. My background, that is, my formal art education, had never included training in cartooning, although I don't think that this is necessarily a bad place to be, but rather, a good place. Frustrations, especially concerning the unfamiliar, can sometimes create some of the most surprisingly resourceful means for one's work. Since I was familiar with a few of the Peanuts animated features, I think what I expected to see, once I turned on the projector, was a huge black and white suspended animation.
Thus, the studio lights were turned off and the projector was turned on.
Astonishing! Animated suspension is what pulsated across my huge 25 foot wall. These extraordinary, elegant black lines were presiding over my dark studio like suspension cables stretching across a bridge that gracefully wiggle from tower to tower. I had actually blown-up his strip much too large for the wall, which cropped off the text balloon and the comic-strip's borders, leaving only these larger than life beautiful black lines. They had motion like an echo in a canyon. But these lines revealed a confidence that understood how to hit it and quit it. I felt excited by it.
And, there too, once I had realized it, I began to find visual traces back to Chinese ink painting and, moreover, to the black and white paintings created by Abstract Expressionists Franz Kline, Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and others in the 1940's and 1950's. As you can imagine, since they were all very important early influences on my own work, my acquaintance with the inherent physical characteristics of his line was now instantaneous. This was solid ground again and I was thrilled.
I never made it past that first blown-up drawing of his strip. I sat in front of it for hours. I don't even remember leaving it.
A few months later, the meeting at his studio was on, and minutes afterwards, Charles Schulz and I were off to his drawing studio with the presentation drawings. He had told me that he could always recognize a copy of his work, and never really liked them. It was at this point that I was aware that he knew that I had redrawn them. So, I briefly explained to him my background, and, thus, the necessity to redraw his art in order to capture the feeling of his originals. Certainly, he was then aware that the popularity of his characters was not my main focus, but that I was completely fascinated with the brilliant architecture of his black ink line that formed them. I do feel, looking back, that this was something new to him, and do believe this to be the moment that inspired our friendship.
Critique turned to play as he broke out his ink and pen nibs. For a long time we drew nothing but lines - just lines! But, and most importantly, they were not just abstract marks; he was actually, with each stroke, showing me his own unique language.
Shortly thereafter, he started showing me the images of his vision and style, like, the flattening of the perspective of the doghouse, the calligraphic slashing of Woodstock's nest, Schroeder's toy piano, the black pulsation within Lucy's hairdo, and, in my opinion, his confident and heroic rain lines. By the end of our day, in his kindness, I was given a substantial quantity of his special ink pen nibs. That afternoon was to be the template for the rest of our relationship. From that day forward, his name was Sparky.
The pen nibs, however, were not the only thing that he shared with me. Sparky had been deeply concerned with a sensitive notion that the art world did not recognize his art as art. This was something that truly bothered him. With his massive output of brilliant work, one would know it was absurd, too absurd, because it would have meant that the art world had missed that he had shown us a new and different way of seeing. Had the art world lost its art manners? Certainly, I was taken aback at first by this, but had no idea that his insecurity would eventually become one of the central matters of my art, that still continues to seriously fuel my work to this very day.
I must take this chance, while I have it, to persuade you to take a moment and look very closely at his art, in particular, the structure of his ink line. It is too often referred to, as Sparky himself did as well, as just 'a wiggly line', which is usually thought of as a line that quickly continues to move back and forth, or left and right. During the many incredible opportunities that I had to see the creation of this line, I can promise you that it was very much more.
Most of Sparky's lines were made with ink and a two-pronged, split, sharp end quill pen that was very flexible and malleable. The thickness and thinness in each ink line was determined by the pulsating pressure of his hand onto the ink filled prongs, that would push open and shut to release the ink. So actually, these strong confident 'wiggle lines' may have been a reflection of his energy, and more importantly, an autobiographical mark of the moment.
After a few years of this unique relationship, I was producing supplemental drawings for magazine covers and interiors, and special projects, imitating the 'Schulz-like style' in the manner of which he had taught me. He trusted me to do it and I did it; I didn't let him down. I would continue to create these drawings, on and off, for about the next 17 years.
At about the same time, in my studio, the previous skeleton based paintings were being replaced by a new body of landscape paintings. This work would attempt to reconstruct and bend the reality of actual landscapes into a new way of seeing them as artificial puns of the same landscapes. Although I would work full-time on these paintings for the next several years, it was obvious to me that I was becoming more and more motivated by the supplemental drawings for Sparky.
By the latter part of the 80s, I was convinced that his influence on my act of painting was inevitable. Even the backgrounds and colors in some of my 'Schulz-like' drawings were becoming a little painterly, especially relative to the conventions of cartooning. Neither of us could envision what it meant or how it would ever work in a balance. I was really confused and stuck.
Then, in the summer of 1988, the brakes jammed and came to a screeching halt. Surprisingly, I had been diagnosed with the very late stages, probably too late according to the hospital's consensus, of colon and liver cancer. Due to its late discovery, it had spread to many areas. All this as friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, devoted artist to the cartoon as an artistic painting language, was being buried in Brooklyn.
What I should like to convey about extreme cancer is short - everything stops. But, much like when one period comes to an end as another begins, one's internal reality is re-thought as things start to relate and cross-relate into a new way of seeing things. As I unexpectedly made it through the two 10-hour surgeries, Sparky's images and influences, that had long before been made my second nature, and my demands of painting, blended together into a new way of seeing. My future Schulz inspired paintings began to develop themselves, one after another. Immediately I told him and he couldn't wait to see the first piece.
In another attempt for recovery, I spent the next year in radical chemotherapy at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. During this time period, I was heavily involved with preparing drawings and concepts, and filled a thick sketchbook with crayon colorfield ideas for the new paintings. Above all, my most important consideration, in creating and thinking about this work, was Sparky's expectations and approval.
Sparky expressed, and very emphatically, that the paintings should be something different from what he would do or think. If not, they would be nothing more than a facsimile of his work. He stressed that it had to spring from my own individual feelings and insight - inventing a new way of seeing the same.
Thus, my goal, in this new work, was to strike an effective balance between altering the conventions of his comic strip, without undermining its fundamental verity, and my thinking about painting. If cartooning, in principle, is once removed from real life, then my paintings were to be once removed from cartooning.
Immediately following the year of chemotherapy in 1990, my first concerted effort at producing this work was finished. It was a 6 X 12 foot painting of the toy piano, that consisted of two canvas panels. My practice of using panels, whenever possible, refers back to the panels of the comic-strip without the obligation of the normal conventions of the black outline borders. The explosion of scale was and continues to be very important in emphasizing the difference between the cartoon and the painting, and forces a close-up view. In my opinion, the toy piano is the most elegantly drawn object in the strip. Considering my recent year, this was a new way of seeing, up-close, the beauty of things in the world.
I thought it would be humorous to paint the piano in cadmium red, because of a law that was being presented before Congress to ban cadmium in paints. When Sparky first viewed this painting, he was joyfully impressed, but terribly disappointed with the title 'Schroeder's Toy Piano'. He thought it sounded like something titled by himself, and without my insight. Concerned about being safe, I overlooked our mutual understanding, that these paintings must be somehow different, when I was designing a title.
To make matters worse, I had already written this title onto the side and back of the canvas. Pulling from my insight, I added, 'Play On Cadmium Red!' to 'Schroeder's Toy Piano', as the title. Sparky was very pleased. It is therefore not surprising that all future titles reflected my own insight and feelings, usually in the form of verbal-visual puns. Many of the found objects from the strip that were used as subject matter for these early works, and even to the present, like the toy piano, were inspired by the drawings in that first meeting with Sparky, 25 years ago. Several paintings would go on to mix them together, as did 'Late Afternoon Doghouse Cathedral In Rain', where the work is predominantly about the rain lines with the doghouse in the background. The title is a humorous comparison of the doghouse to Monet's series of cathedrals in various outside conditions.
Still lifes, such as the flower vases, that were tucked away in the backgrounds of the strip, were some of my most playful found objects. I would pull them out and into the conspicuous foregrounds, and title them with their corresponding date of the strip for reference, for example, 'Still Life From A 6-21-82 Cartoon Life'.
Soon after the first found object paintings, I began to experiment more with the strip's characters. Each character chosen for a particular painting was picked, not for who they were, but for the expressive manner in which Sparky had drawn them. In other words, I would select one of his drawings, to start with, based on a character's expression that most identified with what I was trying to say. It was as if the character could be a self-portrait of my astonishment. In a most recent work entitled 'Sophisticated Mama', the facial expression and over-all attitude of Peppermint Patty, perfectly presents my humor about the many unsophisticated sophisticated.