"Untitled" (2002), Peter Pinchbeck, 30"x40", oil on canvas
"Orpheus" (1997), Peter Pinchbeck, 24"x30", oil on canvas
"Untitled" (1992), Peter Pinchbeck, 48"x60", oil on canvas
When my father died two years ago this September, he left behind hundreds
of paintings and sculptures in his rent-controlled loft on Greene Street - the relics of a life-long investigation. The work ranges from severe wooden
constructions made in the 1960s to woozy zigzags crafted out of plaster, from icon-sized images to rolled-up canvasses of vast dimensions. My
father's art went ignored, essentially unseen during his lifetime. There were no career retrospectives, no museum shows, no fanfare. His artist friends were his only audience.
In the aftermath of his life, I find myself compelled to fight his battle for him: I am convinced that my father's art is late-breaking news
from the last century. The work he left behind is probing and profound, abject and obstinate, luminous and eerie, eccentric yet true to its own
inner logic. It revels in metaphysical doubt; it radiates the belief of its maker.
Of course, my perspective is compromised, complicit. Is it simply too painful for me to relinquish his belief, to imagine that all of that effort
was wasted? Or, to put a more positive spin on it, to accept that, for my father, the process was its own reward?
Or is there a type of art that only makes sense, a gesture that can
only be completed, by the death of the artist?
The universe as a vast garbage heap of matter, a constant recycling of elements, an indifference to their use or purpose (the universe as a
pile of junk). - From my father's notebooks, 1995
My family moved to SoHo in 1968, when I was two. My father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract artist who worked on an enormous scale,
commensurate to his ambition. My mother, Joyce Johnson, was a book editor for the Dial Press and a novelist. SoHo was a failing commercial district
of cheap lofts. We were part of the first wave of artists moving into the area.
During the day, trucks rattled down the crumbling paving stones of the old streets. Laborers yelled to each other as they hauled crates from the
trucks onto the concrete landings. Walking with my parents, I would peek into the windows of small factories and watch steel cutters spinning,
sending out sparks.
A rag trader worked out of our building. Louie was an Orthodox Jew with a long beard and pouches of wrinkles under his eyes. Giant-sized bales of rags blocked up the lobby and the cavernous freight elevator. I never
discovered who used these rags, or for what. I still wonder to this day. I hid from my parents inside the elevator, slipping behind the rag bales,
which smelled of mildew and old dust - an oily, citrus smell. The elevators steel gate crashed shut, and at our floor my father rolled up the massive
door, which was too heavy for a child to budge.
At night, the streets fell silent. Time seemed to stop. Occasionally, an alley cat screeched, or the footsteps of a lone passerby echoed against
the buildings. When I walked with my parents at night, the stillness pressed down on us. Ghosts seemed to hover above the old streets. It is
bizarre to recall now, but SoHo in my early childhood was marked by eerie emptiness.
The loft was an enormous cavern, a long rectangular box with eighteen foot ceilings. Gridded windows at each end let in a dull grey light. In
those days my father made large wooden constructions and painted colored rectangles that floated on vast sheets of stretched canvas. Most of the
space was used for his studio. For my mother and me, he built bedrooms out of wooden beams and sheet rock and installed bathroom fixtures and a water
heater. But the living quarters were clearly provisional, an afterthought. My mother said the loft had once been a clothing factory. She showed me old
needles she found between the rough floorboards.
When you are a child, everything belongs to a process that is both mysterious and essential. I didn't separate the work my father did on his
paintings from the world of the streets, the rattling trucks and rag bales, the laborers and spinning machines. I assumed my father's paintings were
necessary to the running of the entire system. I think I believed that most fathers spent their nights and days like he did, organizing colored shapes
on enormous surfaces. To my child's mind, his constant activity seemed to have a vital connection to the city's mechanical processes. It was as if he
was trying to distill some totemic essence from that confused tangle of trucks and streets and machines.
After my parents split up in 1971 their marriage destroyed by a lethal combination of the Sexual Revolution, Max's Kansas City, and my
father's bad behavior I would visit him every few weeks. He tore down the walls that created the illusion of a domestic interior to liberate the
space. My bed was a small army cot set up in a corner of the studio, where I would sleep surrounded by his huge icons, breathing in the sweet and
familiar odor of turpentine and oils.
Over time the neighborhood around us transformed, like a slowly developing photograph. The factories and loading platforms vanished one by
one. Galleries and restaurants and boutiques appeared and proliferated, like new life forms escaped from some laboratory experiment. Once SoHo was
declared chic, rich people investment bankers, heiresses, Pop stars descended on the area. They bought out the lofts that the artists vacated
or were forced to leave. "The zombies," my father called them. We still ran into my father's friends, with their paint-splattered jeans, their worn
faces. But SoHo no longer belonged to them, and they were no longer comfortable in it. They had been outdated by the art stars and collectors
who navigated the narrow streets in stretch limos, by the high-end boutiques that renovated the old tool and die shops. Range Rovers and
Mercedes replaced the rattling trucks. Only the cast-iron buildings remained the same, like skeletons clad in new flesh.
Everything around him changed but my father remained constant, bunkered in his unrenovated loft, unwavering in solitary devotion to his
art. As SoHo continued to transform itself, visiting him became increasingly like slipping behind enemy lines. His studio resembled the
last hide-away, the last line of resistance in an occupied zone, and everything he brought forth a bottle of brandy, a cigar was like some
object miraculously smuggled past the vigilant watch of the sentries.
My father's voice was like an old movie voice deep and raspy, with the distinct trace of an English accent. He had a full, ready laugh. Either
he had a faint case of agoraphobia or a fear of revealing himself, as he liked to keep on his jacket, often wearing his sweater and coat even in
over-heated cafes. Possessed of a rare street-level social generosity, he was like an unappointed mayor of the old SoHo. He knew hundreds of people
in the neighborhood, and he would often be late to meet me as he stopped to hail each person cheerfully, then listen to their sagas. His friend, the
painter Peter Stroud, described him as "a true English eccentric."
In my twenties, when I passed through SoHo late at night, after some party, I would detour by his block to see the light shining in his window.
I would feel oddly secure in the thought that he was up in his loft, working, revolving like a planet through his self-created cosmology of
painted shapes and plaster structures. He kept working in his loft until his death, of heart failure last September, at the age of 68.
"the need to believe" - Handwritten note, found on my father's desk after his death.
My father did not like to talk about his past, therefore I know very little about it. I know that he was born on December 9, 1931, in Brighton,
a seaside resort on the southern coast of England. His father, Gerald Pinchbeck, an Irish Catholic pub keeper, left his mother when he was small,
vanishing forever from his life. The Pinchbeck name adds its own twist to our story: We are rumoured to descend from a line of celebrated English
inventors and horologists. In the 18th century, Christopher Pinchbeck, an English alchemist and clockmaker, invented pinchbeck, an alloy of tin and a
type of false gold. In the 19th century, the word "pinchbeck" came to mean "anything false or spurious."
While my father was growing up, he and his mother often stayed with their relatives, collecting state assistance. An early stint as an altar
boy turned him against religion. Peter was trapped in London during the Blitz he remembered emerging from the cellar after an air raid to see the
house across the street blown to bits. He came of age during the bleak austerity of the postwar years.
"After the war, everything seemed gray. It was like all the color had been drained out of the world," he once told me. He saw an exhibit of Van
Gogh's paintings, then works by the Abstract Expressionists, at the Tate Gallery. Van Gogh's visions of rioting sunflowers and luminous night cafes
inspired him to become an artist. He told me he wanted to put color back into the world. Lacking connections, he went to Paris, only to find the
School of Paris was dead. In the galleries, he saw shows of the New York School, and decided to move to New York.
He arrived in New York in 1960 to discover the heyday of Abstract Expressionism was over. He worked as an orange juice seller in the 14th
Street Subway, then as a carpenter. He found a cheap loft on the rundown Bowery. In early photographs he looks intent, handsome, gaunt, his work
shirts buttoned to the top button (he couldn't afford to heat his studio). His sculpture revealed the influence of the Russian Constructivists, his
favorite art movement, as well as the Abstract Expressionists. He found a group of artists who shared his concerns, showing at Tenth Street
galleries. He met my mother at a loft party in 1965. They married after she became pregnant.
Ultimately, my father had a miserable commercial career in the art world. Most of his best exhibits came in the 1960s, when he was briefly
associated with the Minimalists. In 1966, he showed wooden constructions in the "Primary Structures" exhibit at the Jewish Museum, curated by Kynaston
McShine, that helped to launch Minimalism. "I suspect that Pinchbeck's work will shortly become known: it seems hard to believe that work of this
authority and rectitude will go undiscovered for long," noted a critic in the magazine Art International, in 1968. In 1971, his one-person show at
the Paley & Lowe Gallery featured wooden boards of yellow, blue, and black, extending into space "with the equivalence of a gesture or perhaps a
thought," wrote Carter Ratcliff in an ArtNews review. An exhibit that appears in pictures to have been as beautiful as it was unsellable. After
that, my father never had a stable relationship with a gallery.
During the 1970s, he turned away from sculpture and concentrated on painting. In a sense, he reverse-engineered art history, moving from
Minimalism back to abstract painting that became increasingly gestural over the rest of his life. But even his most minimal objects had a handmade
touch, lacking the slickness of a Judd or Morris. His signature works of the 1970s were paintings of squares and rectangles floating in colored
fields. Despite his lack of a gallery - let alone any institutional support - he demonstrated a consistent and single-minded focus. He regularly
painted works of outrageous size: Twenty feet or longer. The paintings were shown in some group shows and in Barbara Rose's "Painting in the Eighties"
(1979), at NYU's Grey Art Gallery. Most of them were never shown at all.
In the 1970s, straight-ahead, non-ironic abstract painting made by a straight man was the most unhip art imaginable. It was the era of Pop and
Conceptualism, of political and Feminist art. "Painting is dead" was a popular catchphrase. Pop and Conceptual artists used the distended macho
ego and hand-wrought mysticism of the Abstract Expressionists as the punchline for their repetitive witticisms. Roy Lichtenstein, for example,
Benday-dotted a cartoon version of an Ab-Ex brushstroke again and again. When Bruce Nauman made a neon spiral out of the phrase, "The artist is the
discoverer of mystical truths," it was obvious who he was mocking.
Success can be a question of timing, or a question of cunning. Al Held was one of my dad's drinking buddies. Held was a talented second generation
Abstract Expressionist, but he switched styles. His forms suddenly appeared hard-edged, like they were cut by machines. His new style related to the
ironies of Pop Art and the sleek surfaces of Minimalism. They were a marketable update of the Ab-Ex pieties. Held was picked up by Pace. My
father and his friends saw Held's revamped style as a sell-out.
Unfortunately for his career, my father could not make concessions, strategize or alter his work to fit a changing climate. For my father and a
few of his friends, commitment to style was everything. Style was the mark of individual authenticity, of truth. If styles changed, leaving you
outside the art world, you held onto your integrity. Like an old-time sea captain, you put your hand over your heart and you went down with the ship.
The art world boomed and busted and then moved to Chelsea. New generations of artists rose to the top of the heap, got fitted for their
Armani suits, feted by movie stars. My father kept working in his loft. He moved from rigid rectangles to biomorphic squiggles, flying cigar shapes,
shapes that smashed into and interpenetrated each other. He stacked old paintings against the walls. Sculptures made from cardboard, wood, and
plaster curled around each other on the floor bulbous columns and amoebic entities. Art supplies rested on long tables or the floor: power saws and
staple guns, plaster and chicken wire, paint brushes sticking out of coffee cans, tubes of paint piled into cigar boxes. His living area consisted of a
bed in a corner surrounded by paintings - little canvasses of spinning shapes watching over him like spirit guardians - a large television set,
and a desk overflowing with notes and papers and pill bottles. Next to his desk were two large sculptures, a blue column and a yellow zigzag made out
of plaster. On his billboard, he pinned images and messages that inspired him, such as the Buddha's dictum "Everything is transient and nothing
endures." Or from Cezanne: "You use pigment, but you paint with your feelings."
His last solo exhibit took place in 1989, and that was at a small space that lacked walls to show his ambitious efforts, as well as power to get
the work seen by the art world. I always suspected my father's work was too strong, too bold, for the venues in which he managed to show. The group
exhibits he organized with his friends in banks and nonprofit spaces were, according to the art world's rigid hierarchies, worse than not showing at all.
My father never lost belief in art. He rarely lost his good cheer. Despite his lack of success, he knew he had achieved a lot. He had come to
New York City alone, knowing no one, with nothing to his name, and he had created himself. He preserved his vision, his integrity. Nobody could take
that away from him.
He loved the physical act of painting, of brushing or scraping colored pigment on canvas. Painting infused his life with purpose. He streamlined
his life so he could paint as much as possible. He eked out a living, teaching a day or two a week at Manhattan Community College, renting out
part of the studio to a painter friend. Living in a huge loft in the wealthiest neighborhood in the world, he was always poor, his clothes
baggy, his jackets smelling of mothballs. After his death, I looked at his IRS returns: Over the last decades, his income hovered around $15,000. When
my father died, he had just a few thousand dollars to his name.
Today, I remain amazed as well as terrified by my father's purity, his indomitable effort in the face of such total indifference.
"Only the rich will survive" - Handwritten note, found on my father's desk after his death.
From time to time, over the course of many years, I tried without success to imagine one particular moment in my future. I tried to imagine
the moment after my father's death, when I would enter his cavernous loft and confront forty years of his obstinate activity his forceful bid for
immortality - my bewildering patrimony. What would I do with it all? In my mind I grasped towards this crisis and then pulled back. I was left with a
blank, a mental short-out like a blown fuse.
I never managed to discuss this with my father while he lived. It was often trapped in the back of my throat as we talked about other subjects.
Even after he developed a heart condition, it seemed impossible for me to bring up this most serious and dangerous issue. My father and I were close,
but I had inherited from him an English reserve, as well as a habitual drive to push away all practical matters, to avoid concrete reality as much
In the last few years of my father's life I also felt put off, even aggressed, by the titanic gesture, the seemingly pointless yet relentless
activity of his incessant art-making. I didn't enjoy visiting him as much as I did when I was younger. His loft felt increasingly claustrophobic,
crowded with paintings and papers. I still recognized his gift - the authority of his line, his originality in color and composition. I still
saw the power of the work (a few years ago, visiting him in his loft after an absence of some months, I was shocked at the sheer number of large,
luminous paintings he had finished). But his effort seemed increasingly solipsistic, out of sync with the changing world. He seemed to be painting
into the void. Struggling for my own survival in Now York - not just a changed city, more like a different dimension of reality from the one my
parents knew in the 1960s - I tried to distance myself from his doomed dedication.
Whenever I stopped to look at my father's paintings, I felt I was wearing a different lense on each eye one brought the work too close, the
other left it too distant, so that the combined effect was a vertiginous loss of perspective. Useless as it was for me to believe it, I always
believed in his work. Inside his loft, his art had the eerie power of a fully realized obsession. It was an entire, self-constructed universe, a
raw cosmology of forms and totems. He put everything he knew, everything he thought, every part of himself into it.
On the other hand, as a critic who wrote about contemporary art for magazines like Art & Antiques and Harper's Bazaar, I understood the forces
that had condemned him to internal exile, to a death sentence inside an art world that rejected him. I knew why his type of painting was seen as
hopelessly retrograde: It was too heartfelt, too expressive. It displayed no obvious novelty. I saw how the art system fed on new talent and youth
older artists who were not enshrined had to be pushed aside to make way for the next generations.
He never asked for my help, yet I felt helpless before the spectacle of his helplessness. I stopped writing about contemporary art for a few years,
because I identified with his struggle, his belief. The burden was too heavy for me.
Sometimes I worried that his art had convoluted into a stranger, more peculiar and private statement than it might have been, if he had found his
place in the world. Sometimes the energy he put into the paintings - the brushstrokes pressing out from the canvas, the overwhelming color
suggested a willful transformation of negative experience into frantic and turbulent form. Ironically, in the months since his death, I now find that
the privacy, the obsessiveness, give the work its power. I don't think I am wrong in recognizing that it also contains hints of wild, triumphant laughter.
It is strange: Now the entire weight of my father's unrecognized project has fallen directly on top of me, yet in some way I feel lighter,
less crushed by that legacy than when he was alive. Before, I was paralyzed by it. Now that he is dead I am free to speak for his work. My father
painted abstract forms that borrowed the expressive ambience of human beings; now, after his death, his work and his life become raw material I
can arrange into text. I have become his interpreter as well as his curator. The situation provides an uncanny resolution to our Oedipal drama.
I am the inheritor not just of his paintings, but also of his vision, and of the desire to share that vision with the world.
"As long as there is one beggar left in the world, there will still be myth." - Walter Benjamin
After finding my father's body in his loft, after recovering from the first shock of grief which is like a physical blow, then fighting through
the city's nerve-wracking bureaucracy of death which is its own special punishment of the living, after clearing out decades of accumulated junk
and detritus, I began to spend a lot of time looking at my father's paintings.
In the weeks that followed his death, it slowly dawned on me that he was a better artist than I had realized or even suspected. From his
earliest sculpture to the last sketch, his work revealed an inner logic, a clarity of purpose, an emotional force that floored me. I started
cataloging - an archaeological dig through the subterranean strata of his forty-year career, almost everything held within the same 3,000 foot space.
I began to feel that I was learning through the paintings - not just about Peter Pinchbeck, but also about the nature of art itself, even
something about writing. While the earlier geometrical paintings are rigidly ordered and flatly painted, his later works include passages that
break out, scumbled and scratched surface areas that suggest cosmic chaos, night-lit abysses, fever dreams, the existential confinement of the self in
its prison tower. They allow for awkwardness and grace, radiance and revelation, mystical hope as well as mute horror. They remind me of Henry
Miller in books like Black Sun, riffing for pages on any subject - on a walk he took as a child, on a long-lost friend, or flourishing some
metaphysical conceit. Miller's passages skate out towards the edge of collapse with seemingly careless abandon, then circle back to ensnare his
meaning with precision. Scuffed, bohemian, almost abject yet oddly redemptive, my father's late paintings have that quality of a crisis
confronted, a disaster averted but just barely.
What he achieved towards the end of his life, I think, was a release based on those earlier decades of geometric constriction. His last decade
was a revel in color and brushstroke, a brooding summation of his life-long inquiry. He exercised the freedom of someone who had dropped off the map
after one of his heart valves became infected a few years ago, he must have known that death was closing in on him, although he hid the truth of his
condition from everyone, probably from himself as well. Escaping all fashions and trends, he gave up following anything except his own solitary
path. In the paintings, he was whispering over and over that invisible secret he had carried with him all his life from his early childhood in
Brighton to the money-mad Manhattan where he had become an anachronism - that phantom of meaning and form which had haunted and pursued him. Working
in solitude, over decades, he was proving the theorem to himself alone. In his late work, my father was communing with the depths of his own strange
and stranded soul.
He was fascinated by physics and philosophy. He read constantly - Blanchot, Derrida, Wittgenstein,
Nietzsche. Books on black holes and superstrings and chaos theory. Some of his late works could be seen as
poetic images of quantum weirdness, molecular transformations, the space-curving force of gravitational fields. He was seeking some primal
strata of shape and structure suggesting planets and atomic orbits, archaic tombs and menhirs, internal organs and essentialized bodies. Some of the
work has a loony sexual subtext two lumpy shapes sending a blur of fiery light between them in Flashpoint, or, in a late painting titled Intimacy,
one grey rhizome-like form reaching a tubule out to probe its neighbor. When I show off the studio to my friends, Phillip Guston and Henry Moore
are often mentioned as points of comparison. My father's late work reminds me of a fusion of Guston's two phases: The moody abstractions of his
sublime phase and the anguished cartoons of his last years.
My father found most contemporary art unbearable - I doubt he visited Chelsea more than two or three times. He loved the history of painting,
spending many hours at exhibitions of Chardin, Bonnard, Cezanne, and so on. After his death, I found a scawled note on his paint table describing his
last work: "Painterly volume is what interests me. What shapes have to have is presence, like a person, have the reality of a figure in space, but
still be abstract... I am influenced all the time by that Rembrandt self-portrait in the Frick where the figure sits against a dark background
and the figure, face, and the amazing hands have an extraordinary volume and presence." At the end, he added: "Painting goes its own way. It must
always evade our understanding."
With my father dead, it seems to me, the work has undergone a sea change. It is like a sponge absorbing his substance. In his absence, the
art seems to expand and radiate. In some part of my mind I always suspected this could happen somehow, his looming presence was an obstruction
blocking his work from being seen or known, even by me. But why was this the case? After the decades of obscurity, had he given up hope in some way?
Or did he always handle his career in a self-destructive manner? While cataloging, I have found no work from the mid-1970s, from 1972 - 1977, the
years after my mother left him, years when I rarely saw him. I imagine during that era bitterness overwhelmed him. He went down into the depths,
passed through a psychic transformation. Afterwards, he made his art for himself alone, with no regard for the outer world. Over the next decade, he
slowly groped his way to a gestural style that expressed his personal and metaphysical concerns.
Despite my father's general geniality, gallery people steered away from him. As time went on, something about him either failed to communicate
or communicated too clearly probably they caught the hint of wounded pride and maniacal seriousness underlying his cheerfulness, a dangerous
taint in an industry increasingly devoted to fashion. I am sure they also intuited his disdain. In any case, older artists, especially those who have
never been "hot," are not treated with kindness in the art world.
He was incompetent at presenting his work to those few people he met who might have helped his career. Since his death I have heard stories of
well-meaning friends bringing collectors and dealers to the loft. He was barely able to clear wall space to show them a painting. He did not guide
them through a progression of works, and they walked away baffled. When we talked about dealers and artists, he usually told stories of how this or
that gallery had ripped off an artist in some way, hiding profits from them or letting work mysteriously disappear.
Perhaps he was ambivalent about living into the new century - in his notebooks he wrote about feeling the society was increasingly
depersonalized, inhuman. He never owned a computer, never received an e-mail. In his notes he dreaded "the great Robot Empires of the
twenty-first Century." I think he felt his belief system, the existential and handmade aura of his life and work, were not going to translate into
this new era.
Death illuminates, clarifies the meaning of the life. While alive, the individual is only himself, a confusing mass of contradictory impulses and
good and bad qualities. With death, he becomes a type, a representative of his age and time. During my father's life, his project seemed an impossible
wilderness in which he was lost. With his death, the individual works fall into pattern, like musical notes unified in a symphony.
Sometimes I see the work he left behind as an elegy to painting itself - a farewell to the dream of heroic abstraction. And sometimes I think that
no dream is ever lost.
A blade of grass, the suspended flight of a hummingbird. We are travelers in a land where signs elude us, and everything we think or do
only magnifies our sense of loss. - From my father's notebooks, 1995
But of course I could be totally wrong about my father's art. Perhaps the value - the value of zero - that the world put on it was the final
arbiter, the right call. Sometimes I go back to the work and see only his effort, his volatile and at times unsteady struggle with paint. That
struggle with primal materiality, in itself, is something we no longer see much in contemporary art. My father's struggle was particularly,
peculiarly, naked. He is all there on the canvas - utterly defenseless, urgently himself.
There was something primordial, archaic, about him and his work, and he knew it. His paintings are named ^̀Primordial Yearning,' ^̀Primal Longing.'
The work suggests the Freudian concept of the "oceanic," the unconscious impulse that seeks a merging of all dualities and opposites. The paintings
compel the viewer's attention to swirl around the picture plane, following the surge of forces through the composition. In each painting, he tried to
create equivalence across the entire surface absorbing a lesson from the "all-over" painting of the Abstract Expressionists. His paintings are not
ironic but the whirling, dovetailing shapes, the collapsed volumes, welcome a humorous response. He often chuckled as he showed them to me.
By his tortuous inability to deal with the practical aspects of his career during his life, he left the question of the value of his work
entirely open for me to define as I always suspected he would. Now it is up to me to create a place for the work. Or I can walk away from it, let
the work sink into the void, that vast garbage heap of all that is unknown and forgotten that empty maw into which all celebrated enterprises
eventually follow, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.
After death, could my father's helplessness and dedication be revealed as a kind of strategy on his part like Kafka or Van Gogh whose failures
in life were redeemed by their work? As Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her little hand-stitched volumes, providing solace for generations of secret
scribblers: "Publication is the auction of the mind of man." The artist's obstinate unworldly stance, so irksome and even intolerable while they
stand before us, can be revealed as a willful negation, a secret "will to power." Their helplessness before life can become part of the story that
establishes the work's integrity after death.
Lately, my thoughts swing between contradictory poles: "What are paintings on canvas except a metaphor for the light of the soul trapped
inside the fading body?" I wrote in my journal soon after his death. I love his work, hate this burden but sometimes the polarities reverse and I
find myself hating the work yet loving the burden. Attraction and repulsion is also a theme of the paintings, with shapes suspended in forcefields of
tension. I would be in my rights to Dumpster his gigantic efforts, give away most of the rest, choose a few small ones as mementos, get on with my
life. I can't do it.
I am snared in the paradoxes of the situation. I feel myself being sucked towards the abyss of my father's project his unrecognized gift and
enormous drive, his helplessness, the paintings themselves like naked beings crying for attention (some of them even look strangely like
radiating clumps of infant-matter) and it is like a dangerous gravitational tug, pulling me away from my own writing, my own thoughts. I
realized after he died that somewhere in my mind I was constantly having a
conversation with him about art, the meaning of art within the society, the
place of the artist, the value of continuing his own work without a public. Months after his death, the conversation continues.
There is also a pinchbeck quality to the whole enterprise: However I present his work now, in his absence, is a bit of a lie - like all texts,
this essay is itself full of errors, secret hedges, misperceptions recalibrated as fact. It is a deeply heartfelt yet spurious exercise. Some
of our Pinchbeck ancestors in England were, apparently, alchemists, and I am aware that to make of my father's career something he failed to make in
his life requires a kind of alchemy. It requires storytelling, and storytelling, like painting, is an attempt to transmute the raw stuff of
life into precious matter.
With this task, whatever I do, I become the father to my helpless father.
That life is loss, that you can only hold things together for a limited time, and that despite all your efforts everything falls apart. - From
my father's notebooks, 1996
These days, we are suspicious of the uncompromising and unworldly stance. The "postmodern" values are fluidity and flexibility; the current image of
the contemporary artist is less a suffering neurotic than a hipster strategist with market savvy shmoozing collectors and curators, swinging
on the international art circuit, changing tropes with the ease of an ad campaign. Today, artists know that their work is a fashionable commodity,
circulating amidst other fashionable commodities. They embrace the system. What becomes harder and harder to figure out at least for me is what
meaningful function is actually performed by this type of contemporary artist. They seem to have no critical edge. The society eagerly embraces,
then instantly discards, their novelties.
The only art that matters for me is art which challenges or endangers both the art-maker and the society. Everything else is chic wallpaper - and
we live in a world increasingly inundated with chic wallpaper. It seems we have lost the habit of courage, of conviction.
Despite the generally accepted postmodernist stance, I would venture that art which does not receive easy acceptance might contain a critical
edge that threatens the society's assumptions, not just about art, but about reality itself (it could also be bad art). At first glance, my
father's painting does not seem to contain much of a threat. But something in its obstinate gravity, its intentional handmade awkwardness, its
exteriorizing of interior struggle, its insistence on the primacy of the visual sign over the linguistic code, its philosophical wondering quality,
might offer a critique of the mainstream art discourse of the last decades and not just the art discourse, but all of those larger forces that
dehumanize and deindividuate us with an ever-increasing ferocity. To me, all of this is present, immanent, in the work he left behind.
Postmodernism is characterized by the loss of romantic alienation, a collapse of the Modernist ideal of the unique consciousness, the suffering
genius. In art, this loss is expressed as the end "of style, in the sense of the unique and the personal, the end of the distinctive individual brush
stroke (as symbolized by the emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction)," the theorist Fredric Jameson wrote. My father held to his romantic
alienation, to belief in the primacy of the individual act defined by the painter's mark. For him, that act remained redemptive, even in a world
continually revamped by capitalism and new technologies. He remained a lonely modernist, up to bat in the late innings of a lost game.
My father once told me an anecdote about an important critic. This was decades ago now. The critic was curating an exhibition of large sculpture.
She made an appointment to see a piece he had finished. But the time came, and she called to say she couldn't make it. She said she would reschedule
the meeting, but she never did. My father was forced to put his sculpture out on the concrete landing. He called a garbage disposal to take it away. From his fire escape, he watched the men put the sculpture in the back of
the truck. He saw the sculpture go down the street and out of sight. His whole career was stories like that one, repeated ad infinitum: So many
slights, so many stings.
He never had his moment. In a profound and internal process, he made all of the rejections fuel his belief. He continued to work, without
compromise, for nearly forty years. Once a few years before he died - I asked him if he would accept his situation again: If he could go back in
time and alter his style, in exchange for exhibits and attention, would he do it?
No, my father said. Looking back, he would change nothing.
In the end I think he was a happy man.
Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, recently
published by Broadway Books.
A version of this article originally appeared in Art Forum.