Stella, my mom, was an abstract painter. When I was a kid she spent most of her time in her studio above the garage painting furious dark canvases. Whenever she could escape our Great Neck life, she drove to Manhattan and spent nights in the Cedar Tavern where the best painters in the city gathered. Abstract expressionism had taken hold in the New York art scene and at the “Cedar Bar” realists were considered pariahs.
Over time Stella became friends with George Spaventa, Gandy Brodie, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, whom she found intense and irresistible. "He was smoldering." Soon she was painting with de Kooning in his studio on Long Island. Mother was counting minutes before she could bring herself to leave my salesman dad and Great Neck, which she found suffocating and banal.
Here is a reflection on that time from my memoir, The Last Marlin. “When I stared at her canvases as a boy, I could see nothing but unrecognizable forms, most of them dark. Her art was careening away from everything that was identifiable and warm. In her self-portraits the faces were obliterated by swirls and gashes of color. …Mother insisted that her work was life-like, which taxed my view of reality and triggered fights between us. She attacked her canvases with long, vicious strokes. Everything about my mother’s work was disturbing, and I continued to believe that she painted this way mainly to irritate me and Dad.”
Stella finally made her break when I graduated high school. We moved to New York and her artist friends were always stopping by, Louise Nevelson, George Spaventa, Boris Lurie. De Kooning came for dinner with his pants covered in paint. Frankly, I was embarrassed by these slovenly eccentric friends.
Yayoi Kusama was a fixture in Stella’s home. Kusama was seductive, obsessive, fascinated by things one could not imagine. She lived in her own world, although it was a world that Stella frequently visited. For a time she and Stella were inseparable. They both began doing sculptures of phalluses. Kusama's were like thick white bulbs rising in clusters from bowls and tubs. Stella's were like oddly shaped transparent dildos. I think they inspired one another.
After a few years Kusama disappeared from our lives and Stella began making expressionist sculptures of books—whole libraries of rare crusty soulful books without words. My father and his salesmen buddies had taught her that "words are lies" as she often reminded me.
Fred Waitzkin is the author of Searching for Bobby Fischer, and most recently, The Dream Merchant, a novel about a good man who does very bad things.
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