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 Leonards 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 summers 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 lifes curiosities
& about the profundity of being human.
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 ones 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 Leonards
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 Baldwins 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. Leonards 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
Lisas 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 & Leonards 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 illustrators
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,
its 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 Leonards 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.
the conversations with Leonard I remember most fondly
are the times we didnt 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 Leonards 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.
Leonard Baskins Memorial Service
7 July 2000