“Hey Hindoo! Come, buy!” shouts the shaggy man, squatting amidst a litter of watercolours on the pavement in Madison Square. An old codger whistles nonchalantly as he wheels a piano across the street, painted with Van Gogh’s brilliant sunflowers. Behind you, an avant-garde gallery displays scrap sculpture.
Everything is grist to a journalist’s mill. But somehow, I never got round to writing about those two months in 1992 when I plunged into my very own rabbit hole to emerge as an Indian Alice in New York’s wonderland of contemporary art. Winding through art galleries and museums, I face challenges, unnerving, also intoxicating: Jackson Pollock’s maze of splashing colours; conceptual artist Adrian Piper’s confrontational collage; glossy ribbons tearing through James Rosenquist’s synthetic flower; a silver-dipped vacuum cleaner in a glass cage with pink lights winking upon it. I back up against a wall, to be told that I am blocking a light sculpture of fluorescent tubes. I move away to find a Barnett Newman glowering at me— scarlet canvas streaked with blue.
Luckily, I also get to visit ateliers, and watch artists at work. Flamboyant Julian Schnabel, obviously used to playing the lead in life (as in his velvet-curtained studio), declares, “You want to understand contemporary art? Simple. Come here everyday and study my work deeply”. Rene Ricard looks at his poem-painting poster, wipes his eyes, and exclaims, “Don’t you think I am amazing?” Oh yes, vanity is self-assertion, but does it cloak inevitable insecurities?
Leafing through photographs of brilliant collaborations between sculptor Isamu Noguchi and dance diva Martha Graham at her school on 63rd Street, I am startled to learn that I was actually sitting on a work of art – a chair designed by the sculptor. Later, sipping tepid coffee at artist Alex Katz’ studio, I learn that modern dance maestros Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor sought cross-genre collaborations. What enticed Katz was the “fun of doing zany things on the stage. Once I had this mammoth grid to frame the dancers, at another time I put up 50 dogs for the dancers to dodge as they zoomed through.”
No dearth of wackiness, certainly. At El Morocco, 18th century costumes-clad Peter McGough and David McDermott, find me exotic! “You’ve never tasted meat! How pure, noble!” they chorus in rapture. Ross Bleckner wants to know if I draw fresh designs on my forehead each day.
What intrigues me is that these artists draw their fire and imagery from such eclectic sources across time and space –Asian, Mayan, Aztec, native American cultures. My host Francesco Clemente is inspired by strains of India – tantric symbols, Mughal miniatures, film posters...
I walk into minimalist Brice Marden’s studio resounding with bhairavi (Salamat, Nazakat Ali Khan). The open book on the table has original Chinese poems with translations in English. It dawns on me that the structural purity of calligraphy, as also the whorls and loops of taans (musical phrases) are reflected in Marden’s canvas.
An atelier can also be a factory. I see assistants hammering, pounding, slicing aluminium strips for Frank Stella’s massive sculpture-paintings. To hear Stella talk, as only a great artist can, is to feel the spectacular pageantry of American abstract expressionism throbbing in my pulsebeats. “I don’t worry about meanings beyond the act of painting,” he shrugs. Frank Stella, Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl, Richard Heller, Kenny Scharf… All cameos in my mind now. But, your work, and your words, have made me understand that creativity is the struggle to banish intolerance, to find release, freedom from tyranny.
To be an artist is to strengthen the wisdom of the human race.
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature