General 6-19-2004

The Column: The Doomed Artist, part 1

Michael Fallon has been collecting the stories of artists whose brushes with fame have not lasted. Here's one of his tales; more will follow.

Michael Fallon

SEVERAL BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTOS BY HANS HELMUT hang in the stairwell of painter Sonia Gechtoff’s studio apartment. Taken in 1957, they depict various Bay Area artists of the era. In one photo, an alluring young woman stands in the midst of a classroom of art students at the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute). Her hair is dark and wavy and pulled back in the manner of Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause. Her dress, taupe or ivory or something neutral in color, shows off her tapered waist. Her eyes, behind her cat’s-eye glasses, are vibrant. A cigarette dangles from her sharply painted mouth and spits ghostly smoke into the air beside her head.

“We thought we were the height of sophistication,” says the 75-year-old Gechtoff of this earlier version of herself. And there’s some evidence that she might have been right. The version of Gechtoff depicted in the photo seems wholly free and sexy and alive. Her creative spirit is clear in her stance, the set of her cigarette, the luster in her eyes.

At the time, Gechtoff was friends with members of a coterie of artists that made San Francisco a rival to New York. She lived next door to Jay De Feo (in a Mission Street studio) and was acquainted with Richard Diebenkorn. Her mother, Etya, ran an influential exhibition space in San Francisco called the East-West Gallery. Among Gechtoff’s circle of friends were Elmer Bischoff, Frank Lobdell, Roy De Forest, Bruce Conner, Michael McClure, and many others who rose to various levels of prominence through the next few decades. “There was a lot going on,” she says. “New York people were always amazed to find out how much was going on [in San Francisco].”

It was right about the time of the photo, in fact, that New York’s art establishment was learning about the happenings on the other coast, and when New York discovered San Francisco they discovered in particular Gechtoff. Her first big break occurred at age 25, when she was picked by the director of the Guggenheim Museum, James Johnson Sweeney, to appear in the 1954 “Young American Painters” show. A whirlwind of exhibitions and opportunities followed: In 1955, Gechtoff was included in “Action 1”, Walter Hopps’ seminal show of abstract painters held in a merry-go-round on the Santa Monica pier. In 1958, she appeared in “American Painters, 1958,” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in the Pittsburgh Bicentennial Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute, and in the American pavilion at the Brussels World Fair. In 1959 and 1960 she had several solo shows at the Poindexter Gallery in New York, and in 1960 she appeared in “Sixty American Painters” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and in “Young America” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1961, she exhibited at the Sao Paolo Biennale in Brazil.

It is hard to imagine an artist rising much higher in so short a time. In 1959 Gechtoff gave up teaching and moved her infant daughter and husband, Jim Kelly, also an artist, to New York with full expectation that she would have a successful career. Many viewers today, regarding her paintings more than forty years removed from the crest of abstract expressionism’s “second wave,” a movement that included Gechtoff and her compatriots, may find it hard to understand the sense of excitement surrounding her work at the time. To examine one painting more closely: “Children of Frejus” (1959) was included in the “Young America” show at the Whitney. It’s imposing at over eight feet long and six feet high, and filled with energetic shapes (somewhat similar to Franz Klein’s forms), mostly black and white surrounded by splashes of blue and a few spots of red. There is plenty of energy in the painting and a lot of smeary movement–it was painted mostly with a palette knife. The horizontal orientation of the black shapes suggest a watery landscape, and some swipes of paint suggest figures in a struggle against a rush of forces. The title was taken from a news story about a town in France where a dam burst and children were drowned.

From this painting, it appears that Gechtoff’s work was about energy, movement, vitality, and natural forces suggested through pure painting, as well as the potential for tragedy to result from such forces. It is appealing work, but not earth-shatteringly original–so perhaps it’s not surprising in retrospect that Gechtoff never ascended to the artistic immortality suggested by her few great years. In fact, eventually her career took quite the opposite turn.

SONIA GECHTOFF KNEW WHAT SHE WAS GETTING INTO when she became an artist. Her father, Leonid Gechtoff, was an artist from Russia who settled in Philadelphia in the early 1920s. For a few years, according to Sonia, he did well–selling landscapes and other scenes painted in a heavy impastoed, Impressionist style. “I remember my father was very successful in the early 1920s,” says Gechtoff. “He came to the U.S. and was selling work in Holland and Manila and all over the world… They [her parents] had a lot of money at one point. They bought art all over the world–batiks from Java, a huge collection of samovars.”

When the market crashed in 1929, the money her father had in stocks went out the window, and he was left with practically nothing. “They kept going during the Depression by selling stuff off,” Gechtoff says. She also recalls her father hustling to sell paintings and to find occasional work as a restorer. “But I remember when I was a child all the money was gone. He was practically a pauper when he died in July of 1941… I think all the financial worries exacerbated [his illness].”

Watching her father disintegrate due to the fickleness of the art market didn’t keep Gechtoff from following his path. She attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now the University School of Arts) and graduated with a BFA before going to San Francisco in 1951. In fact, she credits her father with being her first art teacher.

Gechtoff’s open-eyed walk into the accursed profession is not uncommon. In Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth, the main character is the archetypal artist Gulley Jimson, who knew what a struggle he was in for.

“I never meant to be an artist,” says Jimson at one point. “You say, who does? But I meant not to be an artist because I’d lived with one and I couldn’t forget seeing my father, a little gray-bearded old man, crying one day in his garden.” Jimson’s artist father was poverty-stricken all during Jimson’s childhood, and the boy grew up hating art–for ruining his life.

“I was very glad to get the chance of going into an office,” Jimson says. “When I came to London in ’99, I was a regular clerk. I had a bowler, a home, a nice little wife, a nice little baby, and a bank account. I sent money to my mother every week, and helped my sister. A nice happy respectable young man. I enjoyed life in those days.”

So what goes wrong for Jimson? What ruins his genteel life? To put it plainly, art–despite his determination to avoid it. One day, he drops an inkblot on an envelope at his office. “Having nothing to do then,” he says, “I pushed it about with my pen to try and make it look more like a face. And the next thing was I was drawing figures in red and black, on the same envelope. And from that moment on I was done for.”

Suddenly fired with passion to draw and do nothing but, Jimson gets fired from his job. He sells all his furniture for art supplies, even though his wife and child are starving. His wife flees, and his mother dies “of a broken heart at seeing her youngest go down the drain,” and Jimson grows increasingly bitter at his fate (though he is powerless to avoid it). At one point, when an acquaintance tries to console him by saying it is the role of the artist to make us see the beauty of the world, Jimson replies severely: “What is art? Just self-indulgence. You give way to it. It’s a vice. Prison is too good for artists–they ought to be rolled down Primrose Hill in a barrel full of broken bottles once a week and twice on public holidays, to teach them where they get off.”

One could say this is just fiction and that frustration does not necessarily have to be the artist’s lot. But from my observations of the artist community where I live in the Twin Cities, wherein bitterness and dismay is more often than not the order of the day, the character of Jimson is as a realistic a portrait of an artist as I have read. Indeed, in a preface to the New York Review of Books edition of The Horse’s Mouth, Brad Leithauser seems to say so too: “Gulley Jimson offers us an unforgettable portrait of the artistic temperament contending with its daily exhilarations and discouragements.” Leithauser goes on to call such figures “doomed artists,” suggesting that failure and misery is as preordained for artists as for characters in a Greek tragedy.

GECHTOFF’S IPHEGENIAN FALL FROM THE HEIGHTS OF THE LATE 1950s CAME RATHER SUDDENLY. “My husband and I were at the Janis Gallery,” she says, “And we saw the first show of Warhol’s boxes (in 1961). I looked at my husband and I said, you know what, this is the beginning of the end for people like us.”

Around the same time as the Warhol show, Gechtoff, buoyed by her recent successes, had broken with the Poindexter Gallery. “It’s my fault,” she says now with a touch of disgust. “I had a falling out with the director of the gallery. We couldn’t stand each other, and I walked out in the middle of a show. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve done in my life.

“I thought I could walk into any gallery,” she continues, “but I was wrong. My timing was terrible…. We had a number of bad years then. A lot of us abstract expressionists felt the door close on us when Pop Art took off.”

Today, many years later, Gechtoff now lives alone in a two-floor Westbeth studio complex in New York’s West Village. She is no longer the person in the 1957 photo. She moves slowly and painfully, and only with the help of a walker. She’s recovering from hip replacement surgery, and her tapered waist long ago has been lost to the ravages of time. Her hair is unruly and worn wild and loose. She frowns when she speaks, and her voice is full of worries. As she explains, her art practices have now all but tailed off due to the pain and effort it takes just to get around. Samples of the work she made for the past fifty years are stacked here and there in her studio, looking neglected alongside the paintings and drawings of her late husband, who died this past summer.

“I have no solo shows coming up as of now,” she replies when I ask. “I’m exploring a couple of possibilities. Walter Hopps [now a curator at large for the Guggenheim] is going to help me.” She talks a bit about the search for someone who can help restore the reputations of herself and her husband, but she doesn’t sound hopeful. “I’ve had a few bummers for dealers,” she says.

We tour her cluttered studio for a time, peering behind a hospital cot, wheelchair, and oxygen tank to see some of her works. In time, I can sense her energy beginning to flag. She points out the “Children of Frejus” and has to move some of the clutter so we can look at it.

“It’s one of the few I still own,” she says, seated slump-shouldered on the hospital cot in her studio. “And one of my favorites… I’ve held onto it even though I could use the money. But I’m glad I did that.”

She is still sitting on the cot when I bid farewell and leave.