Legacies and loss

Special to The Times

The "art of losing," wrote poet Elizabeth Bishop, "isn't hard to master." I agree, and I think that all art is in some broad way deeply tied into what's lost and how. To be human, by definition, is to wage a losing battle for survival. For many artists, the waxing and waning of their creative powers -- seemingly capricious -- is merely an extension of the futile battle to live on past the allotted time.

I remember the moment I started thinking that one day I might be compelled to write about art, its movements and the short, unhappy life span of so many artists. Some 20 years ago, I saw something happen that made me think about artists and their place in the economy of late 20th century America, with its marketing, blockbusters and high-octane political boredom.

I am with a friend, an elderly gentleman, a painter, and we are walking through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had on exhibition a staggering array of German Expressionist art.

My friend stops in front of a print and stares at it. It is a George Grosz, tiny, nasty and perfect. He shakes his head, turns to me and declares simply, "I used to own this. But I had to sell it to live, after my own work stopped selling."

It was a note in my diary, just a note. Could have been sheer fantasy on his part; I'll never know. But it endlessly gnawed at me. And the way the zeitgeist works is funny.

Lawrence Weschler, a chronicler of arts and culture, wrote a piece for the New Yorker titled "Shapinsky's Karma," which dealt with the manners and moods of art and fame in the 1980s. It revolves around an obscure Abstract Expressionist painter, Harold Shapinsky, who, like a fairy-tale character, is discovered and championed with some success, due to a witches' brew of market excitement, bombast and romance. He's not the hero of Weschler's story; the unhinged academic who discovered him is. Shapinsky fades into the night to take his place in a more painful obscurity; that of a cultural curiosity, a parlor trick, an amusing story. And useful in what was coming together in my head for what was less a diary entry than a first act.

The '80s arts scene

I'm in my 20s, and culturally speaking, this is a heady time for Los Angeles, and therefore, by extension, for me. By 1984, the Olympic Arts Festival is flooding this sneaky and coercive town with a serotonin rush of art; the smart and bratty L.A. Weekly has been causing trouble for five years. There's so much happening. Giorgio Strehler's "Tempest," Peter Brook's "Mahabharata," the nascent Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo. A generation of L.A. artists coming or just having come into their own (Lari Pittman, Gary Panter, Roger Herman, Mike Kelly, Raymond Pettibon). Add to that the exhilarating experimental theater scene of the Padua Playwrights Festival, L.A. Theatre Works (remember Steven Berkoff's "Greeks," John Steppling's "The Shaper"?), Reza Abdoh's delicate and piercing performance pieces, the hope- and promise-filled opening of the late lamented Los Angeles Theatre Center and Taper Too at the Ford Theatre.

And downtown life? There's late-night exhilaration at Al's Bar on Traction Avenue, followed by the soothing Russian Constructivist cafe Gorky's, or the equally late lamented Vickman's Restaurant and Bakery, where old Mr. Vickman would feed young artists in exchange for a sketch! (Fair trade for bacon and eggs at 4 in the morning.) The Chili Peppers, Pee-wee, surf punks; it never ends.... The galleries -- Ace, L.A. Louver, Rosamund Felsen -- are also a hotbed of invention, seldom dull places to be.

L.A. is filled with hyperkinetic energy and exuberant countercultural challenges to its old stock role as "glamour capital of the Western world." For me, this, after a decade in decaying colonial white South Africa, is quite simply Isherwood's Berlin. L.A. of the 1980s was spectacularly interesting.

But not for everyone. A few miles away from LACMA lives the painter who started this for me: gentle-spirited, soft-spoken, bemused and blocked, irreversibly stuck in a style that he never mastered, a man for whom time effectively stopped in the late 1950s.

In my memory he is prone to small, aching fits of jealousy and disdain for what followed his "perfect" time; Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol -- a platoon of carpenters constructing the handcart to take the art world into hell. He is stubbornly holding onto the tenets of a style that he has, frankly, never mastered but that he adores. His work is rich and slightly awkward, closely aligned to a style called "Bay Area Figuration," a group of artists working in and around San Francisco that made a (sometimes tortured) shift out of abstraction and into figuration at the beginning of the 1950s. These painters included David Park (1911-60), who was the oldest of the group; Elmer Bischoff (1916-91); and Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93), an abstractionist turned figurative artist who, after only a decade, left that phase behind and found a singularly thrilling language of abstraction that seemed to capture the light and topography of California in an entirely new way. Many of these painters taught or studied at the California School of Fine Arts. Clyfford Still, who was on the faculty, was a star Abstract Expressionist and hugely influential in his bellicose disdain for figurative work.

The anguished search for a personal style is a recurring theme. Park had worked diligently for four years as an abstract painter, and then one day in 1949 drove to the San Francisco dump to throw out all his nonrepresentational painting. Four years later in an art magazine, he explained: "I was concerned with big abstract ideals like vitality, energy, profundity, warmth .... I disciplined myself to work in ways I hoped might symbolize those ideals. I still hold to those ideals today, but I realize that those paintings practically never, even vaguely, approximated any achievement of my aims. Quite the opposite: What the paintings told me was that I was a hard-working guy who was trying to be important."

Trying to be important is a zero-sum game for artists. Park's crisis, and that of his circle, which my painter friend so admired, is heartbreaking and achingly close to my own contortions and comic desperation. All of it echoed for me in the art of that moment, a shadowy time of transition and eclipse.

The despondency, not to mention possible liberation of Park's act of destruction, figured in my imagining of "Ten Unknowns," which, finally, is a self-portrait of the artist as young/old man. To be a blocked artist is to have a disease: Almost blind, often numb, you don't stop wanting to make art. And you don't want to find yourself staring at others', riven with rage like Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself asunder.

I have seen that loss of direction and rage imprinted into the visages of so many artists I admire; this strange admixture of terror and bluster, the need to be loved, in combination with the need to dominate.

Jottings and art

Now for the truth:

The sad, self-regarding lives of artists is not really a fit subject for grown-ups, is it? It has to be about something more compelling. "Ten Unknowns" began with an ambitious notation 20 years ago, on the day I visited LACMA with my friend -- "Artist encounters picture he once owned and had to sell; artist is lost, age has won." A jotting about money, dealers and sales transformed itself into a 20-year rumination on endings, impotence, helplessness and old age. The impulse to complete it was frustrated again and again as all the inchoate realizations about ticking clocks and waning powers slipped in and out of my line of fire. The play, revised beyond recognition, was a touchstone for me as I got older and tried to tackle the subject in close-up. Maybe seeing my own mortality face to face six years ago helped: I suddenly knew what it was to lose when I went into congestive heart failure and found myself at age 36 having open-heart surgery. It brought me closer to my source. I rewrote it some more, and put it out there, and still, it wasn't right.

My father dies of cancer in slow motion, and there is it, right before me. The thing itself. The elderly painter, fathers, children -- the real world being more real than the art world. I then realized a play about art and artists is pointless.

So much loss of potency to process and to navigate. My own faltering energies, the power of intuition so unexamined and underappreciated in one's 20s -- hiding itself away for a return engagement.

I saw it all in the note made on the day I visited LACMA with my friend. All beautifully described by Bishop in her beautiful poem "One Art."

The art of losing isn't hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster....

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

Embracing failure and loss is inevitable because both are so intrinsic to, oh, just about everything. The search for a personal "style" (whether or not you're an artist) only means something if it's bound to one for meaning or value or protest. My fascination with the nature of the relationship between artists and their assistants only matters if it has larger ramifications. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there are thousands of cases of misattribution, in which the work of a student or apprentice of, say, Frans Hal is utterly irrelevant, totally ignored, completely uncredited.

Is it interesting to anyone other than me that quite often those assistants happen to have been women? Look at the art world, and you can hopefully see everything else contained therein; the failure of monitorship, the triumph of merchandizing over bravery, the manner in which so many artists are edited out of the chronicle of their time by virtue of not having been in the right place at the right moment. Sexual battles, booze and sadism. Art is not life, but it's a little bit similar some of the time.

Except for right now. You might ask, as I have, why would anyone want to see a play about the crazed lives of artists when there are so many more interesting things going on. As this goes to press, our country has gone to war. I am not Picasso, my play is not "Guernica." But today art has been eclipsed utterly by the zeitgeist. In such times, art falls so far short of real life that the failure is unbearable. And in such times the stakes become higher.

I expect my play not to be remembered or performed much over the coming years. So what? To be alive is to live to fight another day. In art, and in life. The hypnotic image of my elderly painter friend, standing before the once-owned remembrance of things past at LACMA now makes much more sense to me: It was a portent of what's to come; my own mortality, that of friends, family and country -- ticking clocks and centers not holding. And all of it is visible everywhere around us, in gas stations and bars, on street corners and beaches.

You just have to look.

Jon Robin Baitz's plays include "The Film Society," "Mizlansky/Zilinsky" and "The Substance of Fire." His TV and film credits include "The West Wing," "The Substance of Fire" and the upcoming "People I Know," starring Al Pacino. His new play, "The Paris Letter," will open this fall at Boston's Huntington Theatre. "Chinese Friends," which was first seen this year at the Taper New Work Festival, will open in New York next spring.


'Ten Unknowns'

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Opens Thursday. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Exceptions: April 30, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; May 4, 2:30 p.m. only.

Ends: May 4

Price: $31-$45

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World