Saturday, January 23, 2010

Art, and Betrayal and Friendship

This piece of art was obtained in a roundabout way.  It is not a particularly happy tale, but it is about how art can twist things, even relations among best of friends.  This piece was first spied in the front window of Peter Spielhagen's antique store in the West Village.  I saw it out of the corner of my eye and stopped short.  My boyfriend at the time, Terry, went a few steps beyond before noticing that I was no longer at his side.  He hated when I did that.

I pointed to the painting in the window and said how much I liked it.  We went in and asked as to the price, and of course I didn't buy it on the spot. Again, I had to somehow justify the purchase.  I didn't think the piece would sell very quickly in any case, but knew that I would be back to take another look.  When I did go back, about three days later, the piece had been sold.  I won't say that I was heartbroken, but I did feel as if I had lost one of the best things I had seen in awhile.

This work portrays a boy grasping tree branches to climb out of a lake or pond, and glancing back for friends or just to check his progress above the water.  (Other observers may insist that the swimmer is checking to place his next step down into the lake.  I don't agree.) The piece is dated 1969 and signed by the artist, Robert Kalthoff, a winner of the Sargent Medal.  It measures approximately 14.5"w x 9"h.

Why I like this piece:  

There is a certain calm aura to this work.  At first it was a mystery to me why the artist chose to portray the swimmer leaving the pond with his face turned away.  But I realize that although the subject is approaching the viewer, and the sense of movement out of the water is palpable, the subject's backward glance creates a tension between time progressing and regressing.  The piece therefore has a heightened sense of the suspension of time which translates well to the viewer.  

Time can only "regress" in our minds, our memories.  We can't stop the cycles and flows of time around us.  But the artist has created a scene that partakes of stopping time in its simplest elements.  This is quite different than taking a snapshot and saying that time has been stopped.  The piece communicates its central message without any extraneous narrative; it shows a moment, at a shore, when a boy is climbing out of the water.

Many of my friends have expressed their wish to have this work when I'm "finished" with it.  It has pride of place whether it hangs solo on a wall or is grouped with other work; it always takes center stage. 

What this piece reminds me of: 

The first encounter with this work was in late 1983.  By the summer of 1984 I had mostly forgotten about it, but one evening while visiting Terry, my now ex-boyfriend, it did come up in conversation.  Terry said he had something to confess, went over to a closet, and pulled the art work out.  He said that he had intended to give it to me for a birthday present, but then decided to keep it for himself. 

Now, Terry and I were still very close friends.  He was a software engineer for Intel, and had a very strong artistic bent as well.  You will see his work in a later post.  Unfortunately, Terry was beginning to have symptoms of HIV-related illnesses in 1984.  Although our sexual relations had ended, his illnesses, and the friendships I had gained through knowing him, kept us close. 

When he pulled this out of his closet, and explained himself, I could barely contain my anger.  I was flabbergasted, and came very close to ending our friendship right there.  Of course, there were a few weeks during which our contact was minimal.  I was trying to process how he could do that, how he could hide from me something which he knew was important to me.  I went through all that and decided he was more important than what he had done with the art.  

Terry passed away in early 1985.  His parents were very supportive, both of Terry and of the group of friends who had taken care of him prior to their arrival.  Terry had admitted to them the gravity of his illness in late 1984.  They did not challenge the estate, and so his possessions were divided equally among those named in the will.  Everyone knew the story of the picture.

Cut to about a decade later.  I had a new partner, Dan, and we were working on putting together a country house on the Delaware.  Milford, PA was becoming a destination town for people looking for reasonable country homes.  Much of the town was being renovated.  One prominent new resident was Sean Strub, who had purchased an old hotel.  Diagonally across the street from that hotel was the old Pennsylvania School of Forestry, a building dating from the late 1800s.  It had been renovated to house several antique vendors.  One of those vendors was Peter Spielhagen.  He and his partner's business now occupies a majority of the building.

On a visit there over ten years ago, I noticed canvases that were eerily reminiscent of the "Swimmer."  Mr. Spielhagen confirmed that it was the same artist.  So a piece of art that already had a decidedly strange history in my life took another turn.  I discovered that there was a living artist with an important career behind it. Peter Spielhagen gracefully reminded  me of the artist's name in a recent email.