Monday, January 25, 2010

A "Family" Inheritance

This piece was one of the few things I inherited from a family member.  It is an abstract work which is a portrait of the person who ultimately passed it into my hands.  His name was Fred, and he was the person who introduced me to New York city, and not just to NYC, but to gay life in NYC.  

This work was done by Fred's boyfriend from the 1960's, Richard Passantino, who changed his name at some point to Richard Santino.  Richard went on to become the lover of Richard Poirier, a noted literary critic.  Mr. Poirier acknowledged Richard Santino as his lover, and as the creator of the collage for the front cover of his book "Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing" which remains a valuable reference on Frost's work. (A scan of the cover is included after the jump at the end of this post.) This book was assigned to us in a class taught by Joseph Brodsky at Columbia when I was a poetry student there.  I did not take the time to read the introduction of the book back then, so I had no clue of the connection until researching this post, but it goes to show what a small world this is.

The work is entitled "Mon Homme," and is a serigraph, signed and dated by the artist.  It measures 11.5" x 15.5" and is in the original frame.  It consists of an arrangement of mainly abstract cubes with the figure of a man seeming to recline on those forms.  There is a patterned background, and the overall colors are blue and yellow.   

Why I like this piece: 

I can verify that, as a person, Fred was composed of these colors.  He had very blue eyes, and his wardrobe almost always included a splash of yellow with the blue he used to set off his eyes. This piece is fairly simple in its composition.  I do not generally favor abstraction, but this clearly comes to us from the 50s and 60s when abstraction was more the norm.  But because of it's simplicity, the piece seems to have no grand aspirations other than an artist trying to capture the personality of, and his own feelings about, the man he loved.

What this piece reminds me of: 

This piece is my "madeleine" of the first few years in New York.  I moved to the city to attend graduate school at Columbia.  When I first moved here in January of 1978 it was merely with the intention to attend school.  The city held no fears for me, or attractions other than I knew that movies always opened here before they were shown in the rest of the country, and there were quite a few that appeared and never were shown to the rest of the country.  But the main thing was that, other than getting an education, I had no expectations of the city.  

One of the lifelines that I had in this endeavor was my father's cousin, Fred.  He taught English as a second language at New York University, and was well-known among ESL teachers for having produced a series of useful text books for the college level. My father put us in contact, and Fred put me up for the first weekend I visited Columbia to complete the registration process.  A week or two later, I moved into a Columbia University dorm for grad students.  

Fred introduced me to the subway system, pointed out some of the architectural wonders, and generally acted as a tour guide for those first few months.  He was a very good guide, having lived in NY for most of his life.  His apartment was in the Washington Square Towers, just south of Washington Square Park.  Early in the summer of that first year, he asked me to take care of his apartment while he was away on vacation in Puerto Rico.  It was a great opportunity to get a break from the dorm.  

I had an off-again, on-again girlfriend in medical school at the time, but our relationship had strained due to the long-distance aspect of the affair, as she was attending school in Philadelphia.  When I stayed in Fred's apartment, I had already decided that I wanted to explore the Village.  Christopher Street seemed a natural place to start.  It was already famous as a gay mecca, but I was more innocent than I knew.  That first evening, I could not believe what I saw and felt as I walked down that street.  Men were looking at me openly, very opposite to the furtive way I had always looked at men.  It took me three passes before I finally got up the courage to walk into a bar at the end of the street.  That night I took a man home for the first time in my life.

When Fred returned from his trip, he noticed the change in me.  As we were walking by Sheridan Sq. one evening not long after his return, he asked if I had anything I wanted to tell him.  I came out to him, and he came out to me.  "Now," he said, "you can meet all of my friends."  And I did, and it was one of the best coming out experiences that could be imagined. 

Fred was one of the best people to know if you were a young man coming out of the closet.  He had been involved with the Mattachine Society in the early 60s.  He regaled me with tales of how secretive gay bars and gay society was when he first came out.  He talked about the codes and signals that gay men used to identify each other in social situations, and how careful it was necessary to be at work.  He told me of his love for NYC; how it provided a gay man a real life.  He talked about his flirtations with students and with how he and his friends had come to know and love one another. 

That was Fred; one of the most generous men I've ever met.  I still use the stainless flatware that he gave me when I had to move out of the dorm.  He nursed and nurtured me through the usual heartbreaks and fears of becoming an out gay man.  

Fred too was taken by HIV.  He became ill on a visit to his beloved Puerto Rico.  During our last phone conversation, he spoke from his hospital bed.  I was in the process of losing two other friends and couldn't bring myself to tell him of these other catastrophes.  So while I kept the conversation light and topical, he pronounced me as being a very boring person.  

As was so often the case, when Fred passed away his "family" swept in to remove all the evidence, as if the family he had created in New York was of no account.  (Yes, I deem the quotes to be correctly applied.)  They did have the good grace to ask me if there was anything in particular I wanted.  His portrait was the first thing that came to mind. 

You can see the cover of "Robert Frost" by Richard Santino after the break.

No comments:

Post a Comment