While in Paris, Dégas’ close friend Giovanni Boldini painted a still life on a canvas that measured 47 1/4 inches high by 15 1/4 inches wide. This narrow canvas that stretches to nearly four feet in height was probably meant to evoke a Japanese screen or scroll. In it he painted a glass of red wine just emptied, the residue barely visible at the bottom of the glass and a stack of Old Paris plates, white porcelain with gold trim that casts a celadon shadow. On one of the plates, there is a silver bowl lined with glowing gold. Another plate is strewn with apricots and figs, their skin is the same shade of green as the plate’s shadow, only darker; the inside is the shape of an almond, only white. Faintly in the shadow falling diagonally across this unusual expanse of canvas — so tall and narrow, — one can see an embroidered “D” on the tablecloth, perhaps for Dégas.
As soon as I saw this painting in a coffee table book of still lifes, I knew that this was what I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint that painting, or rather a painting of that size, that composition, that beauty. So, I plunked down the $125. and hefted the book into my arms and carried it home to my small apartment.
In my career as an artist, the muses often contacted me in this manner — leaping from a page in a book — or jumping off the wall. Once, while removing notes, postcards, and photographs from the wall of my studio, I found that the backs of several postcards that I had dropped on my work table framed a perfectly cropped, eloquent painting-to-be of the back of a woman. Without disturbing a thing I carefully taped each of the obliging scraps of paper to the found image, thus making a makeshift frame around it. This way I would know exactly what this painting required, what part of the image should be included and what needed to be cropped out. Careful to maintain the precise proportions I stretched and primed a small linen canvas. The painting effortlessly appeared under the caressing strokes of my brush. I merely revealed through the gentle dusting of my brush an image that was already there; midwife to this painting, I was neither the creator nor owner of what came forth.
The Boldini was different. I knew I wanted my painting to have the same feel: the transplanted Orientalism of the elongated format with the objects casually, yet perfectly distributed on the surface with the shaft of light that divides and illuminates the space, bringing focus to one object and leaving another in the quiet eddies of darkness.
As a dealer once said to me, “I can find plenty of artists who paint well, but they don’t know what to paint.” Not so for Boldini, whose painting is emblematic of his life; a café life, a casual meeting with friends just over, their conversation reverberating in his ear as the muse pulls him aside and says, “Paint this.”
In my apartment, I drag a table in front of my west facing windows. In the late afternoon, the sun pours into the room like rain lighting each bit of dust. But no one has been to my apartment in weeks — no meal just eaten, nothing has been left casually on the table. So I pull objects off my shelves and line them up first by color — the blue vase, the blue cobalt and white Spode china, the gold and blue Lenox teapot. Then I arrange the objects like soldiers in a row. I move everything to the center, then everything to the edge. I try for a Zen-like casualness that fails utterly, as my anti-muse takes over and enters a regularity into my placement that is dull and even.
As I struggle with my artificial arrangements, other artists’ still lifes come to me: Eric Fiscl’s kitchen counter top under florescent light, so modern, real and evocative; and the master of still life painting, Janet Fish’s all over compositions that show formal sophistication, and yet at the same time are so full of her life, friends and everyday objects — a football game on a portable TV surrounded by bags of Cheetos and chips, with a dog asleep under the table and the convenience store across the street visible out the window. Her world is complete, inside and out and it is peopled by friends, family and animals.
I continue to move my objects around — old things like my Grandfather’s Lalique vase, and new things, like my cell phone. With each arrangement, another artist’s work seems to appear: Wayne Thibaud, Morandi, Matisse. I feel like a writer who cannot construct a sentence without recognizing which Hemmingway story it is stolen from.
My own objects are not enough. My friends lend me theirs: 19th Century English Mulberry Brushstroke china, a Belgian crystal ball, and an open-cut lace tablecloth. With each arrangement, I photograph the still life to paint from later. At first I take dozens of photos. then hundreds. Some things remain, the tablecloth, the Lalique, the old China. Others are eliminated, the cell phone. I compose like a veteran editor at the New Yorker. Taking the great raw material of superior artists, I cut and paste until I am left with either the echoes or the essence of the originals. Some of my borrowings are obvious — Vermeer makes an unabashed appearance in the form of a reproduction in a book.
Boldini left me with some evidence of his life. What evidence am I offering? I suppress the query and move on. Two themes emerge, despite me. The tablecloth, which seems never to be eliminated from the still lifes, is taking on a personality of its own. Its arabesques of open-cut lace move across the surface of my paintings like a well-charted landscape. As the light changes from bold to muted and passes through the increasing quantities of translucent objects, it is as though weather is passing over the lace landscape. A cool winter glaze covers the surface when it is coupled with a shimmering crystal sugar bowl in the blue light of the early morning.
My birthday comes and with it a bit of colored translucent wrapping paper that shifts appearance like a chameleon when you crinkle it and let light pass through it. I can’t even remember what came in this magical paper, the wrapping itself seemed such a gift. I put the paper around bouquets and water-filled vases. As the light splinters over the surface, the solid objects in its grasp dissolve, melted in its refracted light. Here is the final theme; The light, the transparence and the disappearance. It is here that I emerge, a thing that is no thing, a reflection, a transparency, an object that light passes through.