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Leonard Baskin - in memoriam
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Leonard Baskin
in memoriam

One afternoon several years ago in Leonard's press up in Leeds, Leonard responded to a question I had posed hours before in the morning. It took me a moment to register just what Leonard was talking about. In response to the quizzical look on my face, Leonard blurted out, "Have you no sense of the continuity of conversation?"

I can hardly speak to the immense influence Leonard has had on my life. Whatever proportion of dumb luck & fate propelled me into Leonard’s close orbit fifteen years ago, my life now without having known him is unimaginable. What I can more easily articulate is what it felt like to know Leonard for all those years was like one long, fabulous conversation. A conversation as one might have on a summer’s afternoon for it felt that fluid. A conversation that meandered around making art & survival as an artist, around centuries of innumerable artists, their triumphs & failings, around life’s curiosities & about the profundity of being human.

Michael Kuch and Leonard Baskin in the studioMy conversation with Leonard began the day I met him as he interviewed me for his tutorial at Hampshire College. He was impressed by my sizable stack of juvenile ink drawings & he agreed to take me as a student. As I was leaving he pronounced in response to a lone pastel hanging on the wall of my studio space, "And your colors are wretched!". Curiously, as I left the building a smile crossed my face. I understood then, that I had found a real teacher, a teacher who would not hide behind a veneer of feigned praise, a teacher who would be honest, not to be brutal, but would be brutally honest for the sake of being open.

In college I still retained some sense. In the early months of knowing Leonard I informed him that I was not going to pursue a career in art; I told him I was a practical person & after all nobody survives making a living as an artist. Now, Leonard more than most people, smiled with his eyes. His eyes were set apart as he would always portray them & he would look at you sideways as if to say, ‘It is more sage not to waste my breath.’ & his eyes relayed this kind of mischievous, twinkling wisdom. This is how Leonard smiled at me when I informed him that no one survives making a living as an artist.

Still disputatious, in the next weeks I suggested that things were different when he was young. When he was starting out there had been a kind of renaissance of printmaking & schools had not handed out such a staggering number of art degrees. Leonard agreed that I was quite right. He said, "Yes, in my day everyone understood truth & beauty & went rushing out to buy it." I stopped arguing with Leonard & never again put sense before sensibility in the pursuit of art.

When I discovered how many honorary doctorates Leonard had accumulated, I started calling him Doc & called him that all the years that I new him. But I called him Doc, not for his degrees, but for a kind of art psychotherapy he administered. Leonard listened as much as he instructed. For Leonard, how one drew was only as important as what one drew upon - that if ones art was to have emotive resonance, one had to attend one’s emotional core. Leonard may have been scathing in his criticism, but only out of high regard for art & artist. The respect Leonard garnered was entirely genuine for he demanded no expedient of veneration. What Leonard offered his students I can only describe as a love of youth.

After graduating from Hampshire College, I wanted to continue printmaking. In exchange for being able to use Leonard’s etching press I helped hang sheet rock in the corner room of the Piranesi style barn that Leonard was converting into a press office. Around that time, Leonard had had been collaborating with his new friend, James Baldwin, on a Gehenna Press book when Baldwin died. Leonard decided to illustrate Baldwin’s poems with portraits of him. Leonard asked me if I wanted to print the etchings in the book. I had taken a class with Baldwin & felt extremely honored to work on the project. As it was, I had never printed a full edition of an etching in my life. Yet Leonard had much greater faith in eagerness, than any practiced skill. Thus I began my decade long career printing etchings for the Gehenna Press.

Now Leonard was first & foremost a family man.The Gehenna Press was a ma & pa business. Leonard’s family welcomed me into their home & quickly adopted me. The Gehenna Press kept no regular hours. I would join the Baskin's at the supper table, most importantly for Lisa’s apple pies. Leonard would tease Lisa about the pie being burnt as he devoured his slice as Lisa was very critical of her crusts exact golden hue.

After supper I would return to printing in the barn. I would quit around one in the morning & find Leonard playing with his collection of Mexican revenue stamps. He would explain to me with only moderate success the esoteric significance of this early printed ephemera which he sorted & arranged by hue into elaborate geometric designs hinged onto pages. At other times he would show me antiquarian books from the library, the repository of Lisa & Leonard’s shared acquisitive habit. He showed me books of ornament designs full of grotesques in various states of bloom as well as ancient volumes of anatomy which he collected for their illustrator’s investigation into the human spirit & not for their science. The fabulous array of artists & cognoscente who visited Lisa & Leonard at their home rounded out a spectacular graduate education.

Leonard never permitted his colossal talent to overtake his inquiry & openness in art making: he wanted meaning itself to educate him in how to create a work. He despised art that hid behind skill almost as much as abstract art. Leonard described the rich variety of media available to artistic expression as the great gift & like a child Leonard was not prone to pass up a gift. He would utilize sculpting, drawing and printmaking to investigate his themes in a new light. Invariably he would announce after completing each work that it was the best thing he had ever done, not because he truly lacked critical apparatus, but because of a youthful pride. It was as though each piece represented the first time he had completed a work of art.

Over the years, Leonard would discuss his art with me, it’s dualities & layers of meaning which he meant to provoke dialogue, not to resolve it. He told me once that what made his early, monumental woodcut, Hydrogen Man, so compelling was that one could not tell whether the figure was persecutor or victim. His favorite subject, raptores, revealed his anthropomorphic beings as half predator, half angel contained in the vessel of augury. Finally, there was Leonard’s preoccupation with Death in his art. He would often mention the surprise of his viewers upon meeting him that he was not at all morbid. Indeed, Leonard was the happiest of people & most alive in spirit. ‘He got that stuff out of his system’, he liked to muse.

As a post-holocaust artist, Leonard had replaced the Divine with the figure of Death, but his context remained essentially biblical. Leonard had a complicated relationship with the archetypal father, Abraham. But like Abraham on behalf of Gomorrah, Leonard was willing to entreat the great Other to show, if not compassion, then restraint. It is not that Leonard ever thought one could win the conflict with mortality, but Leonard understood that it is the dialogue itself that keeps us awake & alive. The finiteness of life keeps it rare & precious. We need to confront death; it is death after all that makes us human.

Perhaps the conversations with Leonard I remember most fondly are the times we didn’t talk about anything deep. There were enthusiastic & competitive games of horseshoes on summer afternoons. After ordering lunch at Look Diner we invariably played a game we called quarters. The game was the stupidest imaginable. One slid a quarter across the table with the object to have it hang over the edge without falling over. It was impossible to acquire any measurable skill at this game. The winner was the person with the most points at the time sandwiches were served. But in order to appreciate this insipid game, one needs to play it with an adversary who is forty odd years your senior, yet will play it with all the seriousness of a child. & I have been in awe all these years that his person who was to me, master, mentor, father figure, captain, comrade, companion, boss, rabbi, therapist & beloved friend, was mostly a child in this world. In that protean state, Leonard knew he could be all things. I hope one day I learn to be as young as Leonard.

Leonard did not believe in an afterlife. Leonard did not believe a whit in God & only believed slightly in angels. Leonard thought death was final - though, last week in Manhattan, I did have a strange encounter with a baby falcon who landed on my balcony & allowed me to draw him as I sat four feet away.

So Leonard is gone. But what does not die is the conversation. The art that Leonard left us speaks as he always intended with his tremendous & tenacious voice to posterity. & Perhaps sometimes the living must speak to the dead, to seek their counsel, though we strain to hear. & there is Leonard’s lesson that youth & age should communicate, listen to each other, for in that dialogue is all the understanding that the breadth of years permits.

So Leonard, to answer your question, Yes, thanks to you, I have a sense of the continuity of conversation.

Michael Kuch
Leonard Baskin’s Memorial Service
7 July 2000