ART : The Late Jean St. Pierre: ‘He Would Live for His Art or Not at All’ : Those who knew him share their memories of the paradoxical Orange County-based artist who died last month at the age of 44.
Was he a man of uncommon spiritual purity and vision, forsaking everything for his art? Or was he a thief and a ranting bore who drank too much, a manipulator who refused to hold an honest job? According to those who knew him, artist Jean St. Pierre--who died last month at 44 of liver and kidney ailments--was above all a supreme paradox.
He was an old-fashioned romantic, an ascetic and loner who nonetheless shrewdly made his way in the world, warming his way into the hearts of his patrons. Briefly a member of a Benedictine monastery (after early training in a Franciscan seminary and graduation from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana), he spent a lifetime conflicted between the call of the spirit and the demands of the flesh, love of mankind and peevish grudges.
In his last years, he made a number of emotional text-based works on paper, addressed to his perceived friends and enemies--artists, critics, teachers, God. On one sheet, he recounts his puzzlement at being asked, as a schoolchild, to bring in money for “pagan babies” even though he was also small and poor. He recalls that when he came to class with no milk money, his teacher slapped him, saying, “Your tears ain’t pearls.”
Rarely straying for long from South Orange County--he liked being near the sea and treasured his privacy--he was particularly close to his mother. They had a breakfast ritual--speaking French over cups of French-style coffee--during the years when he frequently crashed at his family home. Her death of a heart attack in 1986, after a bout with cancer, devastated and nearly destroyed him. But he was also capable of estranging good friends for years, sometimes for life, with insistent demands for attention and his habit of repossessing works of art.
Flat broke most of the time, he sometimes gave his works outright to people who offered to purchase them. But he also had a habit of “borrowing” back his works from people who never saw them again--until they turned up in other collections.
He was best known for his small, fragile-looking, white, encaustic paintings (made with wax, which reflects and absorbs light) of the 1970s. Unlike other monochrome paintings of the era (such as those of Brice Marden and Robert Ryman), St. Pierre’s works were widely interpreted as being metaphors for a longing for spiritual transcendence over earthly suffering and decay. Twenty of the white paintings, inspired by the music of modern French composer Olivier Messiaen, were purchased by Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1975.
St. Pierre’s later pieces included free-standing sculptures made of organic and industrial elements, and introverted, wispy collages and drawings. They sometimes incorporated photographs of artists or images of the human body as well as St. Pierre’s halting scribbles, reminiscent of the work of Cy Twombly.
A loyal group of Orange County collectors amassed many pieces of his work--he was a terrific salesman, in his own intense way, people say--and some of it is in the permanent collections of Newport Harbor Art Museum and the Laguna Art Museum.
Phyllis Lutjeans, curator at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery, owns a small St. Pierre sculpture that she first saw in his studio. It started life as a simple wooden dish-towel rack. “Somehow he wrapped thick rope around part of it,” she says, “and had it standing so it looked like fingers, (propped) on a crate that says Made in China--I have it in my living room. His ability to take ‘nothing’ and make something (so evocative) is so poignant for me.”
One piece in the collection of Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs is an all-white canvas with two lines of smudged, erased handwriting, quoted from a poem by Dylan Thomas: “When the bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, they shall have stars at elbow and foot.” Wachs says the piece still sits on the floor, the way he first saw it in the gallery.
What does the piece mean to him? “That there’ll always be something good at the end, something religious and reaffirming. As long as you still have the stars, you’ve got all the beauty of the world, what really counts.”
In his early years, St. Pierre played the piano and had theatrical aspirations. His high school performance as the sweet-talking swindler Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man"--curiously apt casting, in retrospect--made a strong impression on his high school choral teacher and good friend, Sister Nuala Ryan, who recalls the “intensely rhythmic” energy he brought to the role.
There were several apparently abortive attempts to join professional theaters. Years later he would tell Robert Mayer, who shared his last studio in Costa Mesa, that he was bothered by the gay lifestyle of some actors. (“There were a lot of unresolved things in his life,” Mayer says. “Sexuality was one of them.”)
As a teen-ager, he would roam the hills, filling up a notebook with abstract notations, Leigh Unger recalls. Now a composer and music teacher living in Santa Ana, Unger met St. Pierre at Mater Dei. “It wasn’t sketching nature; it was always abstract.”
In 1969, Unger and St. Pierre went to Europe together, after raising money from a series of concerts at the home of a local patron, where the young artist cannily sold framed pages from his art journal. The trip included “a pilgrimage to Van Gogh’s burial place,” Unger says.
“We spoke a lot about Van Gogh in those years. It was his passion. Perhaps he was really emulating that intensity, that devotion to the art. He believed (art) was not something to be sold and then you do five more. He was his own worst enemy as far as being successful financially. He would never, ever repeat something.”
In the early 1970s--after studying at various institutions, including the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) in Valencia--St. Pierre befriended a group of independent-minded young artists studying at UC Irvine, among them Chris Burden.
But the catalyst for St. Pierre’s mature work seems to have been Jasper Johns. The young artist probably saw one of Johns’ small encaustic works for the first time in the early ‘70s at the former Jack Glenn Gallery in Corona del Mar. Glenn recalls “the look on Jean’s face . . . his absolute infatuation. He would have looked at (the painting) in meditation as long as I’d let him stay there.”
Joan Gordon, director of Newspace Gallery in Los Angeles, remembers watching St. Pierre at work on an encaustic painting, melting wax on a Bunsen burner at night in a littered storefront on Melrose Avenue.
St. Pierre had founded Newspace in Newport Beach and subsequently moved it to Los Angeles, in search of a more enlightened environment for contemporary art. A few years later, however, mounting debt forced him to close the gallery. But he had nowhere else to go, so he stayed there, as Gordon recalls, sleeping on “a little shelf, a ledge about 10 feet off the floor.” Although they had never met previously, one September evening in 1975, during a long, far-flung conversation, he actually talked her into buying the gallery--even though she had never owned one before.
Five years later, Gordon moved the gallery to its present location on Melrose. “Jean was still a member of the gallery,” she says, "(but) I recognized he was starting to drink, traveling with a rough crowd. On the other hand, he had people so devoted to him, buying his work, paying his bills, treating him to trips. . . .
“We had an exhibition for him, and he got a poor review. Sales were bad. ’81 was a recession. And he just started to come apart at the seams. He often interfered with sales. He’d stay in the gallery and pick up the phone and listen in. . . . All of a sudden, a week before the show was about to end, he started . . . taking (his art) out of the gallery. . . . We had a tussle over a painting that broke. It was a terrible thing. So I had to tell him he wasn’t welcome anymore. I had to get a restraining order. I’m very sad about it.”
Doug Kennedy, who lives in Long Beach, began collecting St. Pierre’s work in the late ‘70s. He says the artist “wanted to just remain as aloof as possible. . . . I don’t think he could be true to his own work by being around people. I think he needed a lot of solitude. People could influence him too heavily and he knew that. And they would take up too much of his time.”
Mayer, a young portrait painter who met St. Pierre in Laguna Beach in 1989, says he believed “great work was produced when you are away from the mainstream.” Poverty was part of the equation. He lived on rice and pasta, and refused to raise his prices. A gallery price list from several years ago lists mixed-media pieces selling for no more than $3,000, half of which was the gallery’s cut.
St. Pierre never would get a job. (He taught briefly at a school and served for a while as a preparator at Newport Harbor--painting walls and hanging works of art--but that was it.)
“He’d say, ‘I want to make my art,’ ” Councilman Wachs recalled. " . . . It would force me to ask myself questions. On the one hand you’ve got to be responsible, pay the bills--and on the other hand, you should be true to yourself.”
As Gordon says, “He would live for his art or not at all.” If this credo seems rather nostalgic and dated in our cynical age, the work retains its quietly fierce allure.