Thomas Chimes, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin, Part 2
MK: Thank you very much for continuing with this interview. I understand that you remember your first visit to an art museum?
TC: My family lived near the Philadelphia Art Museum, and my brothers and I used to go sledding down the hill behind the museum. I said to them that we ought to go into “that building” sometime and see what was in it—I wouldn’t have said museum, but “that building.” And that spring we did. We were in the Egyptian gallery, which at the time was in a room at the top of the flight of steps in the main lobby. There’s a wall there now, behind Diana [Augustus Saint-Gaudens], but at the time, that wall wasn’t there, and we went into the gallery.
The three of us were standing together looking down into a case, and we saw some white cylinders that looked like cigarettes, which we thought was very funny, the ancient Egyptians smoking. So we were laughing, really laughing hard. The guard who was in the room didn’t like it. He called for another guard to come, and we were told to leave, to get out. So we did. And that was my first visit. I told that story the night of the opening of retrospective of my work, standing at the stairs not far from where that happened seventy-five years ago.
MK: What role did the art scene in New York play in your education when you were at the Art Students League?
TC: It was absolutely crucial. By way of explanation, my reason for going to art school was to deal with technical matters, to learn about color and anatomy, for example. At the same time I went to the shows. At a few galleries—Betty Parson’s and Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century Gallery, The Sidney Janice Gallery, The Willard Gallery, and Kootz—I was amazed and challenged by what I saw.
MK: What artists did you meet, and how did they impact your thought and what you were doing with your work?
TC: I met Barney Newman, [William] Basiotes, and Larry Rivers at different places, different occasions.
My mentor Michael Lekakis introduced me to David Smith at the Willard Gallery. We talked about his ideas about the connection of the Abstract Expressionists to what had gone on in France before World War II. Many of the European artists had come to New York to escape: Breton, Leger, Chagall. Smith pointed out that both groups were concerned with distinguishing themselves from what had gone before.
Smith did acknowledge their influence on him, and I could see the influence of the distorted images of Picasso’s paintings on David Smith’s sculpture. But that was at an opening, and you know how that is, you don’t really talk long at openings. Still, it had an impact.
I knew Tony Smith much better. He’d designed a house on Long Island for [Theodoros] Stamos, who was part of Betty Parson’s stable. A group of us went out there, near Greenport to work on the house. I was taking a lunch break from putting a skylight on the roof. We were all drinking beer, and Tony Smith walked by me, reciting something like poetry. I asked what it was, and he said it was James Joyce’s Ulysses. I knew I was going to have to read something of his: Finnegan’s Wake became an important part of my work.
MK: A lot was going on then—as now.
TC: I listened to Clement Greenberg and [Harold] Rosenberg, talking about their theories on action painting, stressing the physical part of it: the most advanced issues of that time.
One issue that would have taken hold then, and which has taken almost a lifetime to deal with, was the relationship between the Abstract Expressionists and the Surrealists. I took philosophy at Columbia [Suzanne Langer, on symbolism], and I was thinking about what was behind the whole Modern art tradition, Goya, Delacroix to Cubism, and so forth.
There was the relationship of a very specific movement, such as Abstract Expressionism, the definitions and limitations, connected to the broad expanse of issues—by what we spoke of as Modern art. The connections were between New York artists in New York in relation to European traditions rather than growing out of regionalism in New York.
First were ideas of context, then broadening issues and how to deal with them, not only in my own work, but in my own time. The ongoing issues of considering European art led me to solutions that I found for myself, the four stages of my art in its context.
MK: Does this context of the history of art connect to your choice of oil paint?
TC: Almost from the very beginning, before I wanted to actually acquire oil paints and do something with them, I would draw at home using pencils, crayons and water color. In grammar school and junior high (from sixth to ninth grade) I looked at Maxfield Parish and illustrators like Norman Rockwell, [N.C.] Wyeth and [Howard] Pyle. They were accessible to me because they were what we were studying at school: the [N.C. Wyeth] illustrations in Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Parish’s early work was almost a lesson in how to draw. I studied his contour outline and how he would apply color between the lines. As he developed, his technique became more complicated, but his early work was almost a lesson. Thinking about it, I could see it was flat and opaque, something like a wall.
I was in high school when I became acquainted with Philadelphia artists and with Renaissance paintings. I saw the depth in the Venetian and the Dutch School; I realized that I was seeing through paint to a background or foundation. That’s how I became acquainted with glazing. Titian would use as many as forty layers of paint!
When I met Arthur De Costa I’d already become interested in oil paints, and I asked Arthur about glazes. At this point, I was fourteen or fifteen years old. Arthur told me that the best way to get a glaze was to use not only linseed oil but damar varnish. (At the time I was using pure color with brush-strokes; later we switched around.)
The Ringling mural represents the coming together of philosophical issues of what is essential in art. That painting made connections with the history of art, particularly Medieval and Byzantine art. I realized that what I was doing a kind of mural. After all, the origin of the word “mural” includes “mur” or “wall,” something that’s opaque: You can’t see beyond it.
Iconostasis. The screen in the Byzantine Church faces forward, separates the congregation from the altar, which is behind the screen. The priest goes back and forth through the opening. I experienced all this as a child. It intrigued me.
And in the Ringling Mural, I was working flat and opaque to get the impact of the symbol, not Tachist, but two-dimensional, a so-called mural effect, a wall that stands between us, as human beings, and what is beyond.
Art is the effort to penetrate that wall that separates us from eternity, from what is beyond, infinity…zero.
MK: Your portraits were of people whose ideas and work were important to you. The influence of Jarry was Pataphysics. What about Poe and Wittgenstein?
TC: After Baudelaire picked up on him, Edgar Allen Poe had enormous influence on French literature and art. And then it came back here. The main connection to Poe for me is through Jarry, who mentions Poe in the first of “Twenty-seven equivalent books.”
When I was asked to speak at the opening of the retrospective of my work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I said, about Wittgenstein—and museums:
“Ludvig Wittgenstein said that it is art that expresses the meaning of life. Art does not explain or define that meaning. It simply expresses that meaning. Museums provide a context for that to happen.”
At the time, I didn’t say more about that idea, but it’s very important to me.
We humans on this planet are imbedded in that eternal question of who we are, where we come from. All of us, forever imbedded! What we have available to us is art. Art gives us humans an opportunity to project upon reality that which we are able to conceive of and express.
Sometimes music and poetry are able to do this more than plastic arts. In The Odyssey, the king sees Ulysses, who is at that time dressed as a beggar. A bard sings the story of Troy, and Ulysses weeps when he hears about himself and tries to hide his weeping from the king.
I have a number of translations of the Odyssey, and my favorite is the translation of The Iliad by T.E. Shaw, Lawrence of Arabia. Do you mind if I read you this section?
MK: Please do.
TC: The Greek word for tragedy, tragos is made of the roots for “goat” and “ode,” or goat song, the bleating of a goat.
The king says—this is from book 8: “Tell me why you weep and lament deep in your heart, hearing the sufferings of the Greek and those of Ilion, the gods have wrought them with their own hands, so that for those to come, the song remains.”
The simple purpose of human existence is to pass something along, to make a song for the next generations. We are transformed from living organisms to something as transparent as a song.
That lifts the whole burden of living and dying, resolves the question of what is it all about. There is a song to be passed on to future generations.