|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
In the fiery cauldron of war I appeared to have been recast into someone I was not before. Discharged from the army, returning home, I was determined to forget the dark past. My art was to bear no marks from it. Color and light was to expunge all reminders of what I did not wish to be reminded of. And like a healing hand life began to take on a sweet and lovely tint. The notion, even desire, of having children began to intrude - perhaps a natural, reaction to all the deaths, especially the children dead, I had seen. The desire to become a father had become inevitable. But I was reluctant to discuss this with Rennie. She could never bear children, she had been told. Originally, I felt relieved when she admitted this shortly before we married. The idea of having children I had rejected even before I decided never to marry. There were some things the artist had no right to, I had insisted. But step by step, under changing circumstances, one may forgo one inhibition after another. And so, shortly after I returned from the war, we had discussed the possibility of adopting a baby.
One morning, however, Rennie began feeling nauseous and having stomach cramps. A miracle, which her gynecologists had insisted could never be, had happened - Rennie was pregnant and we were overjoyed. Surely, this miracle, we determined, must have been conceived one especially magical night: camping on a Fire Island beach, sleeping under the moon and stars to the sound of surf and ocean waves. The rhythm of waves and surf - it seemed of all the world's oceans, heaving, breathing, sighing and gasping - surely must have added to ours. It seemed as though we and the ocean and heaven were coupled and embraced in one vast universal rhythm. Of all the starry skies I had seen, there had never been one quite like this night over Fire Island. The night was alive, with stars appearing more like fireflies, blinking, beckoning, dancing about. When I awoke, it was to watch the sun rise - fiery, exuberant and triumphant. It was a night and dawn of pure magic, a moment in time and space which could bring forth miracles.
I had prayed for a daughter, but she came too soon - 2 l/2 months premature, weighing a bare 2 1/2 pounds. The doctor said that there was little hope for Vivian - her lungs were not sufficiently developed, she was turning blue. Expecting the worst I had returned home, and when in the middle of that night the telephone rang I was certain that it was to inform me that our first-born had died. It was not the hospital - it was a "wrong number". Shaken and overcome, I thanked God for, what I was sure, was another miracle. Vivian's survival, however, was due to the fact that "girls are stronger than boys", the doctor explained. Vivian lived and grew into a strong, healthy woman as did Nina, born l9 months later. Grateful and overjoyed to be blessed with two daughters, we decided not to tempt fate further. “What if the next would have been a boy? What if a son turned out to be like me, a chip off the old block?". I did not care to face a reflection of myself. Two daughters confirmed my view of a world borne in light and color.
When I resumed painting, I proceeded by whatever means and media to make my paintings ever more glowing - to expunge all shadows of past reminders. Suffused with translucent, transcendent light and color, these paintings became not only the means to rise above the past, but became successful also commercially. They began to sell and to be exhibited in repeated shows in various galleries, as well as museum exhibits throughout the U.S. and in Europe. I had become "successful" and it felt good - "life was great". Good fortune appeared to cradle me and my family.
Having my very own family was like a door opening, a threshold out of darkness toward the possibility of joy, delight and occasional laughter. Even all the unforeseeable responsibilities and problems of fatherhood appeared as only another, enriching, dimension of this new life. First Vivian and then Nina: no reality of biology could explain the miracle of birth or even the first cry. Nina's cries, however, soon turned to screams. "Colic", the doctor explained, but it seemed like divine retribution for the screaming and howling my parents had to endure. I not only felt frustration but sympathy for a neighbor who yelled across the open courtyard: "shut that baby up or I'll call the police". The Police? And off I went on a "short vacation", a respite from sleepless nights.
Rockport, Massachusetts, a "picturesque" fishing village on the Atlantic, appeared to reflect and refract sun and ocean and dissolve even the rocks along the shore, confirming my view of a world of bright light and color, which I sketched from the earliest light. I was, however, offended by how Rockport had turned from a fishing village into an art colony: arty gallery owners and arty artists congregating in the local cafes and bars, discussing Art. Rockport confirmed my doubts about the "art scene", and whether I could ever feel comfortable as part of it. Returning to New York, sooner than I had planned, I resumed my fatherly duties, and even pleasures when Nina's colic finally subsided. I even tried to sing lullabies (in a voice which was never meant for that purpose). But these were quiet moments - soothing and healing. I felt grateful, no matter whether to some God or more likely to Rennie. Whatever scar tissue might have remained from the past appeared to dissolve, and my art reflected the spectrum from this newfound bliss.
My paintings, at the time, would start out with some agitated, but totally abstract underpainting, and then glaze after translucent glaze transformed them into more recognizable shape. It conformed to my vision of how the world must have begun - abstract and unrecognizable; who was there to recognize it? I could have built a far more successful career as an "abstract expressionist". But remembering my "color orchestrations" from Karlshorst of 25 years earlier, I was not about to resurrect a rejected past. This may be the dilemma of all abstract art - no matter how loose and free or how precisely geometric - it cannot explain itself. And so abstract, or rather "non-objective," art required an ever increasing volume of explanations and rationales, which however became less illuminating than self-serving. "Autonomous, self-evident" abstraction was meant to kill all illusion, to represent "nothing but itself" as more and more “illusions” were discarded until there seemed little left besides scholarly commentaries and theories. But what if illusion reflected its own reality, and may, in fact, be the very essence of not only art?
While I thought to have succeeded in my light-filled paintings to have expunged forever the nightmare of my past, I could however not rid memory. I had to acknowledge that peace did not follow World War II. The Cold War followed, Viet Nam and one slaughter after another, amid the ever increasing threat of ultimate nuclear nightmare. Try as I might, I could not keep pretending that I did not see what I saw; the obvious began to sound ever more insistently shrill. My world of translucent color and light was turning into transparent lies. In almost schizophrenic confusion, I tried to do both: expunge my vision of a horror filled past by evermore light filled paintings while at the same time being pursued by that very same nightmare vision. It was, perhaps, a moment of momentary madness, which in 1951 made me tear up one of the light filled paintings. "A lie, a lie", I probably felt as I tore into the joyously sundrenched painting. But this time I did not discard the remnants of that moment of madness. After it passed, I looked at the pitiful pieces and began arranging and rearranging them into one pattern and another.
Eventually, I would see not an act of momentary madness, but "meaning" in the process of carefully building up a painting, but then tearing it apart and reassembling the pieces into some new form. "I've found my language", I thought : No, it is not destruction; not any more. "After all, don’t I resurrect them again into ever new creations? This is what life is about", I lectured It became an art of transfiguration and, in the end, an act of redemption. But had I truly found my language - “deconstructing” my paintings and then reassembling the remains? I thought so. But, my language? - when I would not be contained or restrained ¬by any media, form or dogma -"straight jackets!" It took some time after I thought that I had found “my” language to recognize the full implication of an art too restless and uprooted to settle into any one form or media. Perhaps, there may be "meaning" to constantly shifting restlessness, even a peculiar kind of order to disorder and complexity, even chaos. “Destroyed”, only to be resurrected again, and again. A figurative painting might turn into a landscape, but the process would not stop: The now fragmented landscape might be restored into an even more fragmented figure. Often, this process of "death and transfiguration" might go on for "generations" of changes. I considered my works less "finished" than "playful", reflecting, possibly, some playful divine order. “Nova ex veteris” - the new must be born out of the old .
It was fortunate that museum and gallery guards are not mind readers. Often, I passed their precious treasures with imaginary scissors and glue - cutting, transposing and rearranging, a portrait here into a still life there, or a group exchanging their heads. I went through museums and galleries with fantasies of cutting, rearranging and pasting until the hallowed halls would turn into a cavalcade of renewed, irreverent, even joyous life. "Cutting up" may not only be an expression of playfulness, but may be as valid a media as any other. Disrespect for the "object d'art" may have grown out of the "respect and obedience" which Prussian school masters had tried to beat into me, but it only provoked rebellion.
In my own "disrespectful" way, it was less the stark tragedy of my past which I tried to portray but, often, to transform it. Through the magic of transfiguration art can become the media of redemption. How else is reality, in all its harsh and tragic overtones, to be redeemed, as well as exorcised, except by art? All forms of art, no matter which, may all share this common purpose - to redeem reality. Call it esthetics, call it beauty - it must be within the essence of all art, even when it reflects the awful reality of horror or hell. An alchemist, the artist transforms everything, even nightmares, into a thing of beauty, and by this transformation redeems, perhaps also himself.
Once embarked on this journey of transfiguration (and ultimate redemption), a new world began to beckon. It literally opened windows into other dimensions and memories, reflecting a multidimensional and complex world, one as real as the other. In the juxtaposition of totally unrelated images, often years apart, something new, and strange, appears: More than the sum of its unrelated parts was a phenomena the Surrealists discovered. I first became conscious of this “strange” juxtaposition in my triptychs and multiptychs of the 1950's, following The Parade, but preceding the Procession and Millipede series. Triptychs, going back to the early Renaissance, especially, Grunewald’s Isenheim Altar piece confirmed that “time” could be an artistic dimension, relating not only the obvious but seemingly contradictory, unexpected imagery.
To recreate an image of the Holocaust, for instance, within a bleak and black sky was the obvious way to portray its dark tragedy. But increasingly it appeared to me that what actually accentuated this tragedy (or any other) was not that the sky was black, but often a brilliant blue, and that just outside, beyond the horror, lay green meadows, flowers, and birds continued their singing. Perhaps it is this very incongruity - a juxtaposition of seeming contradictions - which give ultimate meaning to tragedy and perhaps all else. One might even be meaningless without the other, its very opposite, its contradiction: Could one recognize misery if one had not also seen bright joy? Recognizing the often intimate relationship between extremes, my work began to relate, juxtapose and finally merge and combine what might seem irreconcilable. Reality is a many-dimensional, possibly contradictory, complex paradox, I concluded, and my art would reflect this. Such a world appeared to make obvious sense, but obviously was not readily decipherable and less describable.
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