You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

But You Can Tell a Picture by Its Frame

When I was young, many, if not a majority of the gods of art held no academic degrees. Mark Rothko bid an early good-bye to Yale in spite of a scholarship. Jackson Pollock was famously expelled from a manual arts high school in Echo Park, California. Before he became a star, Willem de Kooning stowed-away in a tramp steamer then survived in New Jersey doing carpentry and painting houses before becoming a commercial artist in New York.

That was how it was in the 1930s and 40s and into the 50s. But by the time I hit town things were changing. For better or worse everything was in flux. It was the 60s, after all.

I’d ended my college years short of a degree then bee-lined it to New York. Since Pollack had never worn a cap and gown, I figured I too needed none of that pomp and circumstance, just a class or two at the Art Students League or Cooper Union if I was lucky, Parsons or SVA if I wasn’t.

Since I was hardly alone rejecting academia, many of the major colleges and universities not obsessed with football noticed this spike in kids who craved a career in the arts and began aggressively expanding their programs, offering not only B.A.s but advanced degree programs as well, lorded over by the usual pompous old profs along with big-name contemporary artists where if one had the talent and the cash and was willing to spend a decade climbing the academic monkey-bars, one might then be branded at some point in the future a viable investment.

Unfortunately, that came a bit too late for me to take advantage of. By then I was already deep into a real-life grown up soap opera, the challenge of basic survival crashing down upon my shoulders. Distracted from making art, instead I worked hard to perfect the art of hanging out and talking about art, art that seemed more and more beyond my reach as years paged by. Then whenever the topic of art gestating behind ivied walls came up, my standard pronouncement was already on my tongue. “Art is everywhere,” I’d declare with a smug grin and a sweeping hand. “You don’t need some art star to show you where it’s at, man. All you need is a frame to throw around it.”

Though cute, that quip didn’t hold much weight for very long, the concept’s foundation shaken each time I failed to respond when asked, “What do you mean by a frame?” And, “Is not this frame then the work of art and not what it contains?” So, I was like, huh? Because no matter how much I dug the analogy I was no longer serious enough to interrupt an evening getting comfortably lit at Kenny and John’s, or Puffy’s, or settled on a perch near the pool table in Magoo’s, or listening to Sinatra croon Under My Skin at the Beach Street Bar, to forever try to define something that was really never more than a lame excuse for being unable to make art myself.

To make this dilemma even more complicated, I’d gotten myself tangled up in photography, which just by the mechanics of framing a photo pretty much answered the riddle better than I ever could, and in a sublimely simple way. However, I was never very satisfied by the boundaries it imposed, squinting one eye as the other peered into a looking glass, hoping for that elusive white rabbit to appear. But in time I got used to it, even serious about it.

Then like that, twenty, thirty, forty years rushed by until the day a few months ago I found myself on Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan. Suddenly, as if feeling the cool breeze of the visitation from a ghost, I stopped in my tracks and for a few seconds I was smack-back in those days, standing in front a joint that had been the fore-mentioned Beach Street Bar, where my good buddy the bartender kept me loaded with Martell Cordon Bleu for a nominal charge and where a lady I knew well, danced for me from time to time up on the bar, keeping my interest peaked.

The contemporary joint still offers alcohol, although serving a much less colorful clientele, and no longer sitting at the edge the world where, beyond it to the west, had been darkness and danger and the gurgle of the Hudson at high tide and the skeletal remains of the Westside Highway. But that black magic now bloomed with glass and steel, where stick figures whose only talent was moving money around, streamed out of the palace doors to take lunch, blissfully ignorant of anything other than the size of their paychecks and bonuses or their next round of fantasy football.

I crossed the street, something I never had a reason for doing back then. Like wading into a wave I stepped up on the curb then paused as a gang of business-casual cats and chicks passed when something just down the street caught my eye. Now this something was not out of the ordinary. In fact, it was no more note-worthy than a fire hydrant or mailbox or lamppost. But that was the point. That was key, damn-it. There was nothing self-conscious about it! And there were more than one—five that I could see, one every twenty feet or so, twelve-inch diamond shaped portals cut from a plywood wall painted playground green, offering for anyone interested a peek at what was going on behind those walls. I stepped up to the first one and looked in. What I saw simply took my breath away. In front of me was a venue both expressly abstract yet plainly real, and if I positioned myself just so, a mirror mirage of me, all defined by the natural elegance of a wounded and worn sheet of plywood. It was nothing less than a miracle to me, at last an indication that the reckless bullshit of my youth may have actually been a credible observation. I had finally found my frame. 

Using Format