My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver  

There are still things worth celebrating

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The past 24 hours,with big men around the globe doing scary things, have brought me two encounters with sheer joy via small boys.

First there was Jax, whose dad has some extraordinary art in a show just opened at The Barber Lounge in San Francisco (Sam Lamott, emerging artist, you saw it first here. See illustration left, for proof.) Lots of emerging artists, great vibes, free beer……. but the big news of the day was that Jax had floated on his back. Jax is four, dark-eyed, camera-shy and equipped with a mop of furry black hair that, unfortunately, is not available for stroking by friends of his grandmother. But he will talk about floating.

“On your BACK? That’s scary.”

“Sort of.”

“Have you been floating on your front very long?’

“Yes, but not on my back.”

“Well, which do you like better?”

Sparkle in the dark eyes. “On my back. You can look up and watch.”

The next day I was pulling out of the driveway of our former house, where I’d stopped to visit with some old neighbors. A small person emerged from the car parking in front and a voice of utter delight said, “I lost a tooth!”

It was Finn, whom I have greatly missed since our move six months ago. Finn is seven, elfin-handsome and bright, endowed with a dimple that is going to spell trouble for a LOT of girls in another 10 or 12 years. He was holding the tooth out for inspection. The gap where the tooth had earlier resided — “I pulled it out in the car!” — was also proudly on display with a small-boy grin.

“Where’s Bud?” Finn asked — my husband is also a Finn fan.

“He’s at home at our new place. But I’ll tell him you said Hi.”

“Tell him I lost a tooth!”

Now THOSE are times worth celebrating. Maybe the tooth will, as I told Finn I hoped, bring big bucks. And how can things be that bad in a world where you can still float on your back and watch?

Sitting with Marina Abramović: MoMA event invites art study and self-study

You have one more week to run over to the Museum of Modern Art — this will necessitate a quick trip to Manhattan if you’re not already there — to sit with Marina.

That would be performance artist Marina Abramovic, who has been hanging out in the atrium at a bare table in the middle of a huge, white space with itinerant visitors every day since late March.

She doesn’t move, she doesn’t speak. You can do the same, seated across the table, for as long as you like, if you’re willing to wait in line. One sitter sat for more than a day, incurring the wrath of the sitters-in-waiting, but a large, soft-spoken guard and the general tradition of gentility at MoMA keep the lid on things.

When I visited the site recently — I would happily have sat for a few moments, but the sitters-in-waiting told me they’d been sitting in line for close to three hours — the scene raised a whole bunch of questions. Being more Mom than art critic, I couldn’t help wonder about the toll this has to be taking on Abramovic. She spoke about it with James Westcott of guardian.co.uk at the beginning of this saga:

“I have to be like a mountain,” the artist told me a couple of days before going into her “big silence” for the performance. She will go home every evening when the museum closes, but, in order to sustain her meditative state, she will not speak until 31 May. “The atrium is such a restless place, full of people passing through. The acoustics are terrible – it’s too big, too noisy. It’s like a tornado. I try to play the stillness in the middle.”

While I was talking to her, Abramović was anything but still. Her habitual anxiety and jovial hyperactivity – so different to the formidable power and placidity she has demonstrated in 40 years of extreme acts of endurance – were in overdrive. “People don’t realise it is pure hell sitting so long,” she said in her thick Serbian accent, while fidgeting. Cramps will set in after an hour or so. Her bum will begin to hurt. But she will ride out the pain. “The concept of failure never enters my mind,” she insists. To insure against it, a masseuse, a nutritionist and a personal trainer will visit her apartment before and after each day’s work.

She will undoubtedly need all of the above, and possibly a long soak in a hot tub. Visitors, though, get off easy and certainly are never bored. For the rest of the show, a retrospective of her work including some fifty pieces from four decades, visitors are invited to galleries upstairs. Entrance to those galleries involves squeezing in between naked people standing in the doorway (Abramovic trained others to replicate her original creation of the standing-in-the-doorway piece, when she and her partner were the standers-in), but the squeamish can go through an alternative entryway.

It is the contemplative aspect of the seated Abramovic that most strikes this viewer. Sitting motionless, speechless, for extended periods of time suits some of us better than others. My gentle therapist friend Sue, for example, leaves this weekend for a vision quest. Part of it, she explained, will involve four days in the wilderness, alone. “No books?!,” I said? She gave me one of those patient, indulgent laughs. I think that means you just sit with yourself, possibly speechless, motionless.

I’m not so sure about myself, but Marina Abramovic could handle it.

Performance artist Marina Abramović – ‘I have to be like a mountain’ | Art and design | guardian.co.uk.

Goldsworthy sculpture sends spirits soaring

Just when you think there is no good news, anywhere, any more, comes wordSpire sculpture this morning that Andy Goldworthy is considering a new sculpture in the Presidio National Park. His last work, Spire (left), created a monument to nature out of the trunks of 37 cypress trees. Like most of Goldsworthy’s works, Spire evokes a sense of reverence and peace. And, also like many others, it will eventually disappear as surrounding trees grow up to and past their silent neighbor.

The serenely beautiful film Rivers and Tides introduced many Americans to the creative Scottish sculptor a few years ago. My 40-something children loved it. Their teenage children loved it. Preschoolers love it. What’s not to love about Rivers and Tides? Goldsworthy art has a way of inching into your soul and making thinks okay. The new piece in the Presidio — that gorgeous chunk of land you and I now own — would be a band of eucalyptus branches snaking along 350 feet of Lover’s Lane, in the southeast corner of the 1,491-acre park. It may not leave the ground, but it still promises to soar.

Goldsworthy’s best known works in the San Francisco Bay area include his Stone River at Stanford, and Faultline at the de Young Museum

You’ve not met Andy Goldsworthy? Treat yourself. It’ll make your day.