Theatre Intime

On my “drawing wall”, my preliminary drawings often layer themselves over one another, or over blank sheets waiting quietly for the burden of new ideas. In 2001, on the margin of one of those blank sheets, I quickly roughed out several thumbnail sketches, and two years later, in the summer of 2003, a full- scale prelim appeared above those thumbnails - the first version, as it turned out, of “Theatre Intime”. A small image, only 9.7” X 6”, and as yet untitled, it managed to combine an austere overall structure clearly determined by the golden ratio with a lively hodgepodge of familiar studio character actors: bottles, bits of fruit, a dry leaf, a cylinder of white birch topped with a bird’s egg - all reminiscent of earlier pictures, but scrambled here, some lit, some in shadow, the frame itself defining the vertical sides and lintel of the miniature stage the objects disport themselves on, and the front proscenium emphasized with a concave/convex molding. I remember feeling hypnotized by this image, half in love with it and half uncertain about the contents of the ledge, their relationships and colors. I stalled. What stalled me - my journal notes make this clear - was the tempting possibility of eliminating the front face of the ledge altogether, and aligning this image with other recent experiments in creating deep space, with only “a thin bit of the floor of the niche showing . . . . . which will require some very subtle single vantage point perspective gradations.” Or, I asked myself, should I avoid the floor of the niche altogether and crop the feet off the objects closest to the viewer with the bottom of the picture edge? But “Theatre Intime” simply wouldn’t turn into something else, and I had to pursue the answers to those questions in other future images - one of them sketched out a few months later on the right side of the same sheet of preliminary drawing paper. And then I put the sheet away. For ten years.

It reappeared last February when I was in the midst of packing my studio for our move to 112 N. College Avenue. “Theatre Intime” got hold of me all over again, and I felt that it was the right moment to revise this image on its own terms. Listen to it, I told myself, and try to locate only those parts of it that don’t quite satisfy, for whatever reason. As I redrew it on a fresh sheet of paper, I found myself wanting to widen the differences between this and earlier images. The familiar dry leaf disappeared, opening up a thin wedge of deep space all the way back to the bottom edge of the far wall. The cylinder with the egg on top, a borrowing from “The Garden of the Hesperides”, evolved into a short stack of letter blocks and a wooden game piece. The plumb transmogrified into a 4-ounce bronze weight, the rifle shell into a piece of chalk, the small “3” (for 2003) into a sprawling “XIII” scratched into the stone. The spiral of sea worm shell stayed put, but it shortened bit by bit, ultimately revealing the right foot of the “M” sitting solidly on the floor of the ledge, an “O” block on top of it - “ OM”, reading down, a nod to the meditation practice I use every day when I first sit down at the easel. As I worked in pencil, hues got clearer in my mind’s eye, color-wheel opposites warming the heart of the composition: the red + green of the small apple, stage left; the orange against blue of the tiny bottle and the “M” block (a stand-in for my signature), stage center; and the intense yellow at the peak of the stack keeping its distance from the piece of purple chalk, stage right, with an almost yellow crabapple behind it.

But the most radical change came when I got snagged in a local flea market by a small cube of marble with the number 67 sharply cut into it, probably a grave or columbarium marker. I walked away from it, went back to it, and finally thought: this belongs to me. I’m in my 67th year, and I turn 67 on December, 13 (6+7), 2013. But more than that: I knew that I’d found the formal substitute for the blackish brown low-shouldered bottle bleeding off the left edge, an unsolved problem (too dark in the context for readability) since 2003. And its personal connections answered my last question about the anonymous face of the stone wall, which I ultimately decided to embellish with pock marks mapping Sagittarius, the constellation I was born under, along with partial outlines of all the states I’ve lived in.

Even the title I chose is a little memoir-ish. From that first trial drawing, I had been thinking of myself as a director, blocking and lighting my repertory company of things on an intimate stage, without the least glimpse of that pure flat black, suggestive of intergalactic darkness, in so many of my pictures. “Little Theater” would have done the trick, but in 1967, midway in my stint as an undergraduate, I was in the habit of spending many late nights in Princeton’s tiny Theatre Intime, designing and painting sets for student productions. I only vaguely recall the performances, but I vividly remember sitting in the back of the empty theater, mesmerized by the finished, potently silent, actor-free stage set of “The Cat and the Canary”, imitation moonlight pouring across the back wall of the “library” through a “mullioned window” I had cut out of homasote with a hand saw. I don’t mean to diminish the important influence of my first serious art teacher, Dick Goetz, a painter of academic still lifes - but perhaps my love affair with this genre really bloomed there, in that dark theater, the empty rooms I’d created waiting for Act I, scene 1 to begin, the props in place, just so: vase, book, lamp, revolver. After all, as Norman Bryson puts it in Looking at the Overlooked, “Still life negates the whole process of constructing and asserting human beings as the primary focus of depiction . . . . . still life is the world minus its narratives.” Or more accurately, in terms of my own studio practice, its explicit narratives.

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