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Having earned recognition as a painter since the mid-1950s, Felix Pasilis quit the New York art scene in the early 1960s to eke out a peripatetic existence with his family. Early appraisal of his works had noted their arrangements of a few objects – coffeepots, pitchers, cups, oranges and lemons – that never failed to make new and pleasant discoveries. Such a sustained, if not obsessive, concentration upon a small number of motifs reappears in his recent Tuscon pictures, in which the artist works in landscape, employing brilliant colors and a lighter brushstroke with delicate applications of pigment. Attempting to explain what might motivate someone to paint a dozen pictures of the same tree, vegetable garden, or telephone pole, Pasilis’ wife Sally Rawley theorizes Felix paints to resolve geometric problems. The artist demurs: 'It’s not as easy as it once was for me to get around. I guess I'm just lazy, but moving my chair about the garden seems a lot easier than moving about the continent.' Pasilis has worked for six decades on the fringes of the establishment, and his paintings are included in more than fifty private collections, and in the permanent collections of MIT, Fashion Institute of Technology, Gallery Gertrude Stein, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.1
Written by Erik Noonan
The author gratefully acknowledges the generous assistance of Felix Pasilis, Sally Rawley, Adrian Wurr, and John Lally.
Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler
Proust could stare at the symptom of a face
for years, while Frank O'Hara, like anyone with a job,
was always looking at his watch.
– Elaine Equi, 'Bent Orbit'2
Two poets, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, will show us how Pasilis' early work struck sensitive viewers, helping us grasp his position within the arts of the time. Tracing the poetry of Frank O'Hara backwards through the process of commodification it has undergone since his death, we will arrive at a moment in the mid-1950s when the poet’s private life had reached an impasse, and when, with the arrival of a breakthrough in his writing life – thanks to the examples of Marcel Proust and Pierre Reverdy – his poetry began at last to 'sing false,' adopting the conventions of autobiographical fiction and portraying a reality that existed, not only within the poet’s consciousness, but also in the social world: a reality which he 'had merely to uncover, to observe – realized already in a material form by nature – and to reproduce.'3 To discover how the work of Felix Pasilis served as the main reference point for O'Hara’s new subject matter, we will take a trip into the past and explore the genesis of O'Hara's poem 'A Step Away From Them.'
We begin with a TV commercial. In 2008, Don Draper, an executive at a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the television show Mad Men, glanced over from his lunch and asked a man who was reading Frank O'Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency beside him at a bar, ‚Is it good?' 'I don’t think you’d like it,' the man replied. Draper opened a copy of the book while drinking at home that night before the credits rolled, and read the fourth section of 'Mayakovsky' in a voiceover:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.4
In a piece about the series, the New York Times touched on this scene, and characterized the author of the above lines as frivolous and provincial, calling O'Hara 'a relatively obscure poet of the New York School,' and commenting:
After Don read aloud from Meditations in an Emergency during the opening episode of the second season, annual sales have jumped more than tenfold. In 2007, 197 copies were sold, according to Nielsen BookScan; the next year, the tally rose to 2,028 and has not dipped below 1,971 since.5
In these lines, the Times writer weighs in on a then-current debate about the status of television in the U.S.A., siding with others who claimed that TV was supplanting movies at the summit of entertainment. The paper asserts the power of TV – the medium itself, rather than a particular program – to determine the commercial success of a product or service, and therefore decide the commodity's cultural currency. To support this point, the Times denigrates O'Hara and interprets his poem as nothing more than a piece of ad copy, as if, being on television, poetry could not be anything but brand messaging. In fact, by conventional measures, 'Mayakovsky' was quite persuasive when performed by Jon Hamm as Don Draper: Season 2, Episode 1 logged 2.06 million U.S. viewers, so that, if we suppose Mad Men fans were the only new consumers of Meditations in an Emergency in 2008 – i.e., assuming that the show was the only reason for the increase in sales – an impressive 1 in 1126 of those viewers arrived at the Purchase Stage of their Customer Decision Journey and bought the book.6 (It should also be remembered that the sales figures cited by the Times represent a conservative estimate, in that Nielsen only accounts for new copies sold, since there is no way to estimate how many people were 'buying used’ – a salient point here, considering the fact that a significant number of poetry readers read second-hand books). How many other products, one might ask, can boast such numbers, with no ad except for a few lines of copy, which only air once, during a gloomy scene in a period cable series? A related question is whether Mad Men producer U.R.O.K. Productions contracted with Grove Press (a subsidiary of Grove/Atlantic, an independent publishing house, that retains the rights to O'Hara’s book) to license the poem, or whether Grove contracted with U.R.O.K. to advertise the book. In a Times interview, director Matthew Weiner recounted how 'Mayakovsky' came to be used in the show:
That was a magical occurrence. I had studied poetry in college, and I read a lot of poetry, but I did not know Frank O'Hara. My wife took me to an exhibit between the first two seasons at the Museum of the City of New York and they had individually printed pieces of paper where you could read some Frank O'Hara poems. So I had one of these folded up in my pocket and it led me to think that Don, who was experiencing boredom after recommitting himself to his family, runs into this guy who just says he’s a suit, he's a button-down guy.
In my mind, Don bought the book Lunch Poems. But that had not come out yet, so we had to use Meditations in an Emergency. I read a little bit of it and said, we’ll use this. It has a great cover, it's very period, it was definitely a popular book.
We put it into the episode and then at the end, Kater Gordon, who was the writer’s assistant at the time, said, 'Don’t you think he should read some of it? Don’t you think we should hear it?' And I had not read the whole book. So I sat down and read that last poem, 'Mayakovsky,' and I said, 'What? This is the story of the season!' It was exactly related to how Don felt in that episode. I wish I could act like it was planned that way, but it wasn't.7
Other accounts of this episode emulate the scurrilous aspect of the Times's coverage. The Independent chimed in:
Mad Men has a record of salvaging work from the bottom drawer of cultural history: poet Frank O'Hara was barely in print until Don read aloud from his collection Meditations in an Emergency. Sales boomed [...]8
On TV, the dramatic lyric, spoken by a post-Romantic self within a contemporary urban setting, becomes an instance of product placement. But O'Hara’s exploration of a new way of writing nevertheless sprang from an active and powerful artistic current, albeit a narrow one, that continues to fertilize multiple fields of discourse within the larger domain of contemporary literature.
This revitalisation, partly at O'Hara’s hands, took lasting effect not only in poetry, but also in commercial fiction. Here, for example, is a passage from Bret Easton Ellis' 1998 novel Glamorama, composed in the vein of an O'Hara vignette:
Zigzagging toward Chemical Bank by the new Gap it’s a Wednesday but outside feels Mondayish and the city looks vaguely unreal, there’s a sky like from October 1973 or something hanging over it and right now at 5:30 this is Manhattan as Loud Place: jackhammers, horns, sirens, breaking glass, recycling trucks, whistles, booming bass from the new Ice Cube, unwanted sound trailing behind me as I wheel my Vespa into the bank, joining the line at the automated teller […]9
We will do well to remind ourselves that this excerpt follows after the movement known as the New Journalism, in the market category of 'literary nonfiction' – one of whose exemplars, Joan Didion, influenced Ellis – and we should recognize, moreover, that, as Anglophone readers, we have grown accustomed to this mode of engagement with the world; we accept such an approach as a fixture of the intellectual realm, in the same way that we assume its referents to belong to the physical world. But things weren’t always so. O'Hara’s work keeps pace with that of William Burroughs, anticipating the New Journalism by a decade (Junky was published in 1953, In Cold Blood in 1965). To discover how it became possible for a poet to represent the present moment of mainstream American culture in literary writing, we need to delve further into the process by which he arrived there. We will learn that this development had everything to do with the painting of Felix Pasilis.
In the discrete system of writing it is the newfound attunement of one writer’s sensibility to another’s that brings about a reorientation of the creative process vis-à-vis the question of subject matter. These defections, these sudden accesses of love or grace, these conversions and substitutions, this possibility of being successively sensitized to the work of incompatible authors, are literary phenomena of the first importance. Therefore no one mentions them. In 1955, fictionalized autobiography, and the representation of contemporary life, as worthwhile activities in their own right, became for the American poet Frank O'Hara a way to write, for the first time since his undergraduate days – and this change inaugurated the final, magnificent period for which his work is best known.
Until 1955, O'Hara had written in what has been called an 'expressionist' mode that deëmphasized the mimetic, the figural, and the personal (his 'Personism: a Manifesto' would be written in 1959 and published in 1961). In the Fall of 1956, O'Hara's new development began to take shape, with the composition of his poem 'In Memory of my Feelings': While staying at Sandwich that summer, he had been reading Proust, and we know from a June 1956 letter to James Schuyler that À la recherche du temps perdu was not only on his mind but had so far affected him as to alter both his social persona (which he now understood to be fragmentary or kaleidoscopic rather than unified and singular) and his sense of that persona’s relation to writing. 'I think Proust is ruining me,' he wrote to Schuyler, since when one is not actively reading him one seems to be unconsciously scrutinizing one’s own experiences and particularly one's motives (ugh!) and finding them unworthy [….] For example it may be that where I acted like Marcel with Larry, I acted like Albertine with Bobby and with Jane continue to act like the Prince de Guermantes to her Oriane, unconsciously heightening my own vulgarity to make clear to others my admiration and appreciation of her superior sensibility, sensitivity and wit (superior to my own, that is) [….] From all this, it is only too apparent what is occupying my mind these days while I make 'real life' into a fantasy which bears little resemblance to the actual and largely fortuitous events which inspired it in the first place.10
This excerpt records O'Hara's loss of his sense of self, and his acquisition, in its place, of the knowledge that his personality and his life were at odds. O'Hara's crisis had begun with a period of mortal dread around his thirtieth birthday, and now manifested itself in Proustian terms. The crisis culminated in a radical departure in his poetry: the fictionalized autobiographical portrayal of a persona whose intent was to 'live as variously as possible' in what he called, humbly and perhaps also with some trepidation, his 'I do this I do that' poems – notably 'A Step Away From Them,' which we will discuss shortly.
Although O'Hara saw himself as taking on the roles of various characters from À la recherche in his social life, Proust was not useful to him technically, because of a difference in temperament: there is a bit of the barbaric yawp in O'Hara, and none of it in Proust. To actualize his assimilation of À la recherche, and write about modern life, the poet would have to turn elsewhere. If Proust showed O'Hara that a fiction writer could use his own milieu as subject matter, then it was Pierre Reverdy who had written the kind of lyric poem that O'Hara wanted to write. By 1955 O'Hara had been aware of Reverdy for a few years. In a letter to Mortimer Guiney, dated 19 February 1962, he qualifies the French poet’s influence upon him:
John Ashbery drew my attention to Reverdy's poetry about ten years ago – we were both very excited by his work and I, at least, very influenced by it [...] You will find, though, in a poem written later ['A Step Away From Them'] a reference to how important this was to me [...] It seems to me [...] that I at least for a time was taken over by that lovely quality of walking-along-the-street-moment-by-moment, in some of Reverdy's poems [...]11
Copying these lines out, one recognizes a characteristic which is shared among writers of a generous disposition: the capability of being, as O'Hara phrases it here, 'taken over' by someone else’s writing, rather than by the status of a text or author. O'Hara had translated two of Reverdy’s poems. Here is «Pour le moment», the text that bears upon 'A Step Away From Them':
Just for Now
Life is simple it's great
The clear sun rings a sweet noise
The song of the bells has died away
The morning passes the light all through
My head is a re-flooded shell
And the chamber I inhabit is finally cleared
A lone ray suffices
A single peal of laughter
My joy which shakes the house
Restrains those who wish to die
With the very notes of its song
I sing false
Ah but isn’t it droll
My mouth wide to all the winds
Launches everywhere its mad notes
Which depart I don’t know how
To fly towards the ears of others
Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the squandered sunshine
At the wall midst the vines the greens
And my arms are stretched towards you
It’s today that I love you 12
Discussing his translations from Reverdy in the letter to Guiney, O'Hara states that he 'only did them to get close to the poems rather than to put them into English.'13 With the false naivety of a lyric 'I' that launches mad notes everywhere without knowing how, combined with the self-consciousness of an autobiographical narrator in search of lost time, O'Hara could now explore the mode that would yield a new form.
Here is the poem he wrote:
A Step away fro Them
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
On to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
Neon in daylight is a great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at juliet’s
corner. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for bullfight and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.14
Although the critical commentaries on 'A Step Away From Them' apply formidable erudition to the printed text, they never mention the possibility that this piece represents a pitch of emotion amounting to exaltation. The writer composed the poem to express a reality in which the Poet inhabits a time marked by a high point of culture, when the superior artists and thinkers gather in the same place: a golden age, in short.
What commentators have categorized as sensory imagery or period detail in these lines constitutes instead an ambitious claim as to cultural status. The primary colors, the car horns, the construction and demolition, the brand names, the burger and malt, the musicals, the Black political dissent, the mere presence of Latinxs – presumed to be Puerto Ricans, stereotypically beautiful and warm – the commerce, Marilyn Monroe: these are everything that 1950s New York is known for by people who do not know it at all. In other words, this is cliché mainstream white American culture itself. As the poet ends the second verse-paragraph, he has established that this coveted, despised and ignored atmosphere is his element, and a sense of purpose expands to urgent proportions. In the course of writing these lines with no preset end in mind, O'Hara mentions the queer poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, and begins to see what the poem is about: in a bid for legitimacy, the poet is trying to conflate a coterie, in the heart of the metropolis, with the culture at large, and by extension with the international world of art. The mention of another star, not from Hollywood but from Cinecittà, the Italian actress Giulieta Masina, and her husband, the director Federico Fellini, prepares us for a reference to the Armory Show, with its evocation of a time when an artistic community seemed to transcend the divisions within Europe, and when an expression of this unity could be found right there in New York City, where the show took place. (The very mention of Masina’s name at this point in the poem, immediately following a line signaling the sight of a sign outside a diner, is itself a trope, originating in Ulysses, whose characters often think of things because they’re reminded of them by seeing printed words on the streets of Dublin.) This evocation of an international avant garde provides a context in which we can understand the significance of the poet's heart in his pocket, the volume of poems by Reverdy, who stood at the center of a group of expatriates living in Paris, as its poet, in the same way that Proust stood at the center of his own earlier Belle Époque group. O'Hara's self-identification with Reverdy is evident, and by this allusion, the poet asserts a leading role in a group and in a cultural moment.
The poem is dated 17 August 1956. Its occasion is Jackson Pollock’s death six days earlier and his funeral the day before. Joe LeSueur’s anecdotes about Masina and Pollock in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara support his claim (malgré O'Hara’s assertions of openness) that the poet was in fact quite exclusive in his estimation of his contemporaries, and that when it came to fellow artists, he granted or withheld his respect according to an evaluation of them as artists, irrespective of his opinions of them as people. The two vignettes are worth quoting. The first one relates the story of O'Hara’s meeting with Masina, after the poem had been written, and it shows the theatrical form that his admiration of another artist could take. Beyond the esteem that the poet reserved for accomplished fellow artists, this encounter demonstrates an added distinction which O'Hara bestowed upon the actress – that of belonging, for all her foreignness, to a kindred social world:
Eight or nine years later, Frank would meet the great Chaplinesque actress over drinks at Earl and Camilla McGrath’s. Masina spoke no English, Frank no Italian, so Camilla acted as interpreter – Camilla, the former Contessa Pecci-Blunt, a more splendid and heavenly Italian woman one could not hope to meet, a favorite of Frank’s who will appear again in these pages when we get to his last night on the town, some forty-eight hours before the accident that took his life. Without gushing, though perilously close to it, he let Masina know in no uncertain terms how great he thought she was; and when Frank met an artist he admired, he was neither stingy in his praise nor willing to check his penchant for the dramatic gesture. So down on his knees in front of the tiny, cherubic woman he went, with Camilla standing next to the chair where Masina sat, acting as interpreter: 'You are not simply a great artist, you are a fact of our lives' – that was how his little speech began, and it sounded terrific when translated into Italian.15
'[O]ver drinks at Earl and Camilla McGrath’s' – LeSueur immerses us in the details of a scene in the service of a wish to present the poet’s social world in all its diversity. The McGraths, who would become prominent Los Angeles socialites in the nineteen-seventies, were the future head of Rolling Stone records and, as LeSueur notes, an Italian countess and descendant of Pope Leo XIII. Rough around the edges by design though he surely was, O'Hara remained decidedly raffiné, a Harvard University alumnus and Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art: someone who, while he lived on the Lower East Side, was nonetheless conversant in the table talk that obtained over drinks at Earl and Camilla McGrath's – just as much as Masina was, despite the language barrier. After the above story, in LeSueur’s digression, a second anecdote provides a different case, in which O'Hara rated an artist highly, while disdaining him as a person. This story concerns Jackson Pollock, and it illustrates the impartiality with which the poet made his assessments of fellow artists:
Did Pollock call Frank and Larry faggots one night at the Cedar, either to their faces or behind their backs? It would have been at the time of their brief and unlikely affair, when Larry was experimenting with homosexuality the way he did with heroin – it was no more than a flirtation. I must remember to ask him about the Pollock incident the next time I see him; if true, it might help explain why Frank had not seemed to like Pollock and why, in later years, he appeared reluctant to say anything of a personal nature about the man, particularly in Lee Krasner’s company. That is, it was my impression that if he didn’t have something good to say about this controversial artist whose work he admired so extravagantly, he would rather not say anything. It is, then, Jackson Pollock the artist who is elegized along with Frank’s great and cherished friend Bunny Lang and his new friend John Latouche.16
No matter how great an artist he was, Jackson Pollock is not a fact of our lives, because he was intolerant and mean. His death occasions 'A Step Away From Them,' a poem that celebrates a coterie and mourns its demise, while opening new territory in the domain of mimesis.
The foregoing discussion of an isolated moment in American poetry has led us far afield from Felix Pasilis. How is his art related to the above? To answer this question, we will need to travel a few more years back into the past, to 1954. Representing reality instead of appearances, Pasilis’ art captures objects and people in space, and transposes them out of the physical universe and into the visual imagination. Frank O'Hara noticed this, and his written expression of it once again exhibits a distinctly intertextual character. The article O'Hara wrote transposes the reality of objects and people a second time, out of the visual, and into the literary imagination. Given the pivotal role of À la recherche in the transformation of O'Hara’s art in 1956, it is revealing to note that the great change had been prefigured two years earlier, in 1954, by a prose piece entitled 'Nature and New Painting.' In this essay, O'Hara discusses Pasilis, and quotes Proust to illustrate his interpretation of the painter's work. The quotation comes from a passage in À la recherche concerning the theme of haecceity, or 'thisness,' as the Narrator discovers it in a watercolor by the painter Elstir. In Volume II of In Search of Lost Time, 'Within a Budding Grove,' the Narrator visits Elstir's studio and flips through a portfolio of his pictures while waiting for him to finish working. By chance, he views a piece that impresses him deeply, and this discovery gives rise to one of the novel’s many excursions on the subject of art:
I happened to bring to light a water-colour which evidently belonged to a much earlier period in Elstir's life, and gave me that particular kind of enchantment which is diffused by works of art not only deliciously executed but representing a subject so singular and so seductive that it is to it that we attribute a great deal of their charm, as if the charm were something that the painter had merely to uncover, to observe, realized already in a material form by nature, and to reproduce. The fact that such objects can exist, beautiful quite apart from the painter's interpretation of them, satisfies a sort of innate materialism in us, against which our reason contends, and acts as a counterpoise to the abstractions of aesthetic theory.17
A composite representation of the painters in Proust's own life, the fictional character Elstir serves as a reference point for the relationship between writing and painting. In 'Nature and the New Painting,' comparing himself to Proust by quoting this passage, O'Hara also compares Pasilis to Elstir. After the quotation, the poet adds a further note about the painter:
[C]ompositional skill is like handwriting in his pictures, completely at the service of the meaning of the work, at the service of his brooding, violent mediations on the essential quality of the coffee pots, flowers and stepladders as they assert themselves in light and in space, full to overflowing with color and with sentiment.18
Commenting on Pasilis’ technique and its relation to his theme, O'Hara concludes:
Using a heavy impasto to weight the relationships of his subtly perceived masses from which flowers burst forth and into which light seems to seep as you look, he captures the felicity of inanimate objects as they are.19
An appreciation of the essential quality of things in and for themselves – as the 'felicity' he has glimpsed in the art of Felix Pasilis – therefore, inaugurated for O'Hara the possibility of representing the immersion of a self within the common particulars of everyday life. On this basis, it seems reasonable to suppose that an encounter with Pasilis’ work – perhaps during a studio visit like the one described in the novel – gave O'Hara the peculiarly Proustian feeling of being a privileged witness to a unique efflorescence of talent, an experience that compelled him to 'sing out,' as Reverdy might, in verse.
As instructive as Frank O'Hara is in his use of Pasilis’ paintings for his own ends, another poet provides an accurate assessment of them, in terms of painterly technique, artistic tradition, and pictorial style. In February 1956, James Schuyler wrote about a solo Pasilis show at the Ganymede gallery:
All the paintings shown are still-lifes with recurrent objects, painted in odd perspective with flat, chopped-off areas of counter-thrust. The small Easter Basket shows his way at its simplest: a child's Easter basket woven of bright dyed cane holding an egg stands on a dark blue table against a rich green wall. The point of view, from above and to the right, is established by the table surface and wall, a strong diagonal division of the picture into green and blue slanting down from the left. Into this is painted the body of the basket: a cube of which two sides and the top are seen, so that painted flatly it becomes a hexagon whose upper angle cuts straight up into the green. The brushmarks themselves make the shapes: the curving red handle (a single stroke) that arches monumentally to the top of the picture, the oval of the egg, the small dabs of different bright colors which are the weaving of the basket. In the big Pepper Plant with Easter Basket, the disarranged objects are strong and vibrant in color. But neither color reflection nor shadowing is used to knit the picture together. It is used, when at all, as a way of giving an area its own character.20
'The brushstrokes themselves make the shapes' – Schuyler treats the 'objects' of a painting not as physical realities existing outside it, but as images created within it. Schuyler's poem 'Invocation' distinguishes amongst the categories of Nature, Writing, and Painting, and invokes the truth of a Pasilis picture:
Scatter your lines like willow leaves
a summer storm tears at the weeping withys
sprinkle with words this sheet as the wind
cross-ventilates and veils the yellow floor with dust
pollinate, a poem
or at least a sneeze
the tops of the clouds are clear
in bulk and turning edge
the bottoms are fused with sky while the Beekman Tower
begins to burn in an evening fury
deeper than gold
Speak a few light words
quick and true
as the pigment – was it pink – Felix
Pasilis worked into the still wet ground
– who stops to count the waving willow leaves?
from here, blended strokes
wavering for the storm is passed
summer is more than come
so come, in a few bright naming words. 21
For Schuyler, it was not color that distinguished a Pasilis painting, but the touch with which the artwork had been executed. In contrast to O'Hara's deeply transformative encounter with Pasilis, as part of a complex of interrelated events and perceptions – Proustian in its preoccupation with the reality and felicity of its subject matter – Schuyler's assessment takes up its position at a critical remove from the pictures, uninterested in the referent. O'Hara sets great store by the cathexes that attach private meanings to a text or canvas (or, in the case of Pasilis, to an oeuvre), and he orders and reorders these meanings until their dynamics shift in such a way that he can write a poem. Schuyler, by contrast, is an archaist, practicing a late form of neoclassicism: an art critic in verse.
Answering Schuyler's call for 'naming words,' Parts Two and Three of this essay propose – as lightly and quickly as possible, albeit with varying brightness – to name the qualities which cause Felix Pasilis' work to command our interest, sixty years after his first shows.
1948 saw the publication of Hans Hofmann's collection of aphorisms on the visual arts entitled The Search for the Real and Other Essays. That same year, Pasilis began a course of study at the German-born abstract painter's art school. As with many historical student-teacher relationships, it is not possible to state definitively in what ways or to what degree Pasilis absorbed Hofmann's instruction: first, we have no record, either of what was taught, or of what Pasilis understood himself to have learned from the older man; and second, a comparison of the optical characteristics of individual works by the two artists is unlikely to yield much of value, because appearances are particularly deceptive when it comes to pigment on canvas. Instead of citing or demonstrating influence, therefore, we can perform a capsule contextual analysis of 'The Search for the Real' so as to show, when we come to Pasilis himself in Part Three, how Hofmann exerted a formative influence on him. The Search for the Real and Other Essays appeared at the peak of U.S. wealth and power, and the book belongs to a group of midcentury works of art theory that take up antithetical positions with respect to dominant interpretive frameworks. In this respect, the character of the collection's title essay inheres in its diction: we read of a universe, expansion and contraction, space, movement and countermovement, tension, force, and the laws of art. The text applies a scientific vocabulary to the picture plane as the artist faces it with pencil or brush in hand. In this regard the book belongs to a genre of midcentury instructional works on art that sought to establish academic and professional contexts for the practicing artist, intended to meet the demands of the social currents of the day.
Because the possibilities of an artwork become increasingly limited as the artist works – suggests Hofmann – the image contracts as it expands. Therefore, the composition partakes of space. The marks being made on a surface entail movement and countermovement, resulting in tension. Tensions are the expression of forces, and forces express actions. The composition is a world unto itself, a microcosm. We can derive laws from its behavior, and we can determine its relation to imagination and empathy:
From the beginning, your paper is limited, as all geometrical figures are limited. Within its confines is the complete creative message. Everything you do is definitely related to the paper. The outline becomes an essential part of your composition. Its own meaning, as a limitation, is related to the multi-meanings of your two lines. The more the work progresses, the more it becomes defined or qualified. It increasingly limits itself. Expansion, paradoxically, becomes contraction.
Expansion and contraction in a simultaneous existence is a characteristic of space. Your paper has actually been transformed into space. A sensation of movement and countermovement is simultaneously created through the position of these two lines in their relation to the outline of the paper. Movement and countermovement result in tension. Tensions are the expression of forces. Forces are the expression of actions [...] Your empty paper has been transformed by the simplest graphic means to a universe in action [...] So your paper is a world in itself – or you may call it, more modestly, only an object, or simply a picture with a life of its own – a spiritual life – through which it can become a work of art.
Pictorial space exists two dimensionally. When the two dimensionality of a picture is destroyed, it falls into parts – it creates the effect of naturalistic space. When a picture conveys only naturalistic space, it represents a special case, a portion of what is felt about three-dimensional experience.
'Depth' is not created on a flat surface as an illusion, but as a plastic reality. The nature of the picture plane makes it possible to achieve depth without destroying the two-dimensional essence of the picture plane.
Appearance is two dimensional. Reality is three dimensional. Hence the conception of three dimensionality and two dimensionality are identified with the terms reality and appearance. The process of seeing is based upon appearance – whereas experience is based upon the effect of the appearance on us. The resultant effect is something entirely different from the appearance.
Spatial nature is not two dimensional – it only appears to be so – and the appearance is not three dimensional, but rather it has the effect on us of being so. Emotionally, we experience space as being three dimensional. If things are other than they appear, then the limited capacity of our sense must be united through an inner vision. Empathy results from this inner vision.
By using the faculty of empathy, our emotional experiences can be gathered together as an inner perception by which we can comprehend the essence of things beyond mere, bare sensory experience.
The physical eye sees only the shell and the semblance; the inner eye, however, sees to the core and grasps the opposing forces and the coherence of things. In their relations and their connections, these things present us with effects which are not three dimensionally real but are supersensory and thereby transcendental. As far as we are concerned, then, the essence of things lies in super-sensory conceptions.
We control reality through our sense, and all our ideas of the world go back originally to our emotional conceptions.
Painting possesses fundamental laws. These laws are dictated by fundamental perceptions. One of these perceptions is: the essence of the picture is the picture plane. The essence of the picture plane is its two-dimensionality. The first law is then derived: the picture plane must be preserved in its two-dimensionality throughout the whole process of creation until it reaches its final transformation in the completed picture. And this leads to the second law: the picture must achieve a three-dimensional effect, distinct from illusion, by means of the creative process. These two laws apply both to color and to form.22
The two-dimensional nature of the picture plane is its essential characteristic, because this is what determines the relation of the image to the artist and to the viewer. The artist takes for granted the viewer's awareness of the two-dimensionality of the picture plane. Rather than depicting objects as if the picture plane did not exist, the artist draws attention to it, as a surface to which paint is applied, attempting to coax thematic significance from subject matter, in a performance that satisfies the viewer's expectations of the conventions of painting.
Appropriating the objectivity of physics, Hofmann's vocabulary is scientistic. The Search for the Real helped to dislodge prevalent assumptions about the subjectivity of artworks, by asserting that certain conditions are integral parts of the artistic process – making marks on a surface, turning that surface into a picture plane – irrespective of the artist's or the viewer's intellectual orientation. By implication, then, Hofmann's text locates the pathos of emergent midcentury commodity aesthetics in an ideology that abdicates production techniques in favor of an illusionism of consumption. Hofmann's argument is exploratory and prescriptive. Besides being a treatise on how to paint, and a theoretical text, his book is also a critique of the cooptation of art by commerce under late Capitalism. Painting is not contemplation, but an action carried out in the social world. The painter develops spatiotemporal relationships through line and color. These relationships possess a speculative character, as propositions within the aesthetic domain.
It is important to note that Hofmann's essay is but one installment in a long tradition of writing by artists, on the relationship between the painted and the real. Note that the term 'the real,' as used in Hofmann's title, refers to a concept which is distinct from 'the apparent.' The 'search' of the title, then, is an endeavor to make manifest to the eye, by means of plastic art, that which is unseen. Especially, but not only, in this sense, the book adheres to, and departs from, the theories of Rafael Alberti, Piero della Francesca, and Paul Cezanne.
Felix Pasilis was born in 1922 in Batavia, Illinois and attended West Aurora High school in Aurora, Illinois. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940 and was stationed in the Arctic for two years as a weather forecaster. Upon his discharge in 1945, at the end of World War Two, he held the rank of Master Sergeant. After a stint at the Weather Bureau, he enrolled in the American University in Washington, D.C. to study drawing, painting and composition under William Calfee from 1946 to 1948. From 1948 to 1950 he studied with Hans Hofmann. He organized the 813 Broadway show with his fellow artists in 1951 while also showing in the Expansionist exhibition. Together with other exhibitors from these shows, he established the Hansa Gallery. Pasilis left New York City in the mid-1960s and accepted an artist-in-residence position, as his website biography states, at 'a large university in the Pacific Northwest.' The trip proved to be the first of many that the family would take over the next few decades, traveling thousands of miles and living where the winds of opportunity urged them. Pasilis, his second wife Sally, and their three children settled in Pacifica, California and the couple made a living in San Francisco as street artists specialising in gold and silver jewelry. Pasilis now resumed painting en plein air in the backyard, and his subject matter shifted to the landscape that lay in the shadow of the California coastal mountains towering over the tiny seaside town. When the children had left home for work or college, Pasilis and Rawley relocated to Morelia, a colonial city in central Mexico, where he continued to paint, and in 2001 the couple returned to the United States to live with their youngest daughter in Tucson, Arizona, where Pasilis once again embarked on a new phase, which continues to the present.23
The New York period is perhaps best represented by Still Life No. 2, in which the speed of the application of pigment determines the character of the things represented. The objects reach us by way of a formal abstraction, thickly present in their sensuous address to the soul, rather than in a gaunt appeal to the eye. Next, Pacifica finds Pasilis selecting his open air motifs for the first time: flower beds, garden paths, pots, fences, blooms, walls and shadows predominate. The sinuous impasto of New York has become a light, tentative stroke, in Pacifica 16D, with fields of color applied so as to display a meandering hand, à la Morandi. In Morelia, the palette takes on a distinctly post-Pop character, as the arid shadows of midday strike the artist's eye with the lavender of Matisse, and flowering stalks tilt against a stucco wall, as in Morelia 2D: the painter shifts his view in the sparse refuge of a terrace garden. In Tucson the artist's hand continues to assert itself, tentative and calligraphic, as in Tucson 2E, with depictions of a cucumber bed, path, telephone pole, cinderblock wall, fence, gate, roof, lamppost, tree, and sky: a bounded space opens to our view. The swift application of areas of bright color present an atmosphere of repose. It remains for curators and collectors to organize a major retrospective that includes works from every period of the painter's long and productive career.
I learned of Felix Pasilis from Frank O'Hara's piece containing the quotation from Proust, but I could not find anything written about him after the 1950s. I wrote to the email address listed on a webpage dedicated to his work, and its curator, Adrian Wurr, replied. A few days later, an envelope arrived from Tuscon containing a sheet of notebook paper filled with large double-spaced block letters in blue ballpoint, with adhesive notes that read 'Letter dictated to Sally Rawley' and 'That you got this much out of F. is remarkable':
Dear Mr Noonan,
I received your e-mail via Adrian which I read with interest.
A painter's work is not easily verbalized. It is the result of many attempts to solve the problems of 'spatial concepts.' This is a complicated and tedious affair which the painter must solve. It cannot be explained nor can it be taught. A painting is simply, or is not, a worthy achievement.
In spite of this 'truth' the world of art is 'dancing' with words. A verbal 'sales pitch' fostered by the painters themselves as they 'jostle' for position on the world's stage. It is all about 'selling' and 'selling' is verbal.
I spend these last years quietly without funds and dependent on the 'good will' of family.
If your 'discovery' in the 'dust bin' of the forgotten could, in any way, generate interest in my work I am grateful.
All the best,
I sent a collection of my poems in reply, and Sally wrote in her thank you note: 'It just occurred to me; in all the years I’ve known F he never referred to himself as an artist. When asked he simply said, 'I paint.’' That answer rings out with a clang amidst the brands of our day.
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3. Hofmann, Hans, Search for the Real and Other Essays, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1973, pp. 42-63
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14. O'Hara, Frank, ,A Step Away From Them', The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, p. 257.
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17. Proust, Marcel, C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D. J. Enright, In Search of Lost Time, Volume II: Within a Budding Grove, New York: Modern Library, 1992
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19. O'Hara, Frank, Donald Allen, and Edward Lucie-Smith, Standing Still and Walking in New York, San Francisco, CA: Grey Fox, 1983
20. Schuyler, James, and Simon Pettet, 'Felix Pasilis I' Selected Art Writings, Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1998, p. 172
21. Schuyler, James, James Meetze, and Simon Pettet. 'Invocation', Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 3
22. Hofmann, Hans, Search for the Real and Other Essays, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1973, pp. 42-63
23. 'Felix Pasilis, Artist', ed. Adrian Wurr, www.felixpasilis.com, accessed 31 March 2017.