Face to Face
by Theodore F. Wolff
We all keep mementos from our youth, and three of mine are drawings. One is a sketch of Abraham Lincoln (complete with log cabin) made when I was 9; another a copy of a Michelangelo figure I worked on for at least a week when I was 12; and the third, a charcoal self-portrait I did as a class project in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was 16.
Precious as they are to me (I still remember the excitement of solving the problem of drawing Lincoln's nose and the thrill of seeing the Michelangelo taking shape), I've paid little attention to them these past 20 or so years. They've been in a box with other items from my early days, and they'd still be there if I hadn't decided to haul them out a few days ago for a reappraisal.
'Self-Portrait at 16' (1942): charcoal drawing by Theodore F. Wolff
I must have spent a good half-hour studying the self-portrait and remembering where I was and what I believed and expected out of life when I drew it. I was particularly intrigued by the strong, positive impression it conveyed. Could that really be me, I wondered, and could I really draw that well in those days?
I felt curiously detached from, and yet somewhat intimidated by, the teenager looking out at me. What, he seemed to be saying, have you done with your life? Were we to meet today, would I like you, let alone respect you? Be honest, have you lived up to my expectations, fulfilled the promise of my talent, remained true to my ideals and dreams?
Responding was not easy, for the young man in the picture was a demanding and highly idealistic individual whose closest "friends" were Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, and whose idea of heaven was to stay up all night drawing to the music of Wagner and Sibelius. How could I explain to this intense young perfectionist that while his perception of art may have been good, his understanding of life and human reality were not?
Or was I only making excuses? Trying to divert a potentially painful confrontation by insisting that the unforeseen complications and temptations I had encountered during my lifetime were really beyond my control? Perhaps, but I rather doubt it, for I knew my younger self would see through such a subterfuge and would hold me accountable, no matter how I rationalized my life to date.
And besides, I felt rather good about myself. True enough, I might have some difficulty explaining to my young friend why I stopped painting in my early 50s to become an art critic, and why I did a few other things along the way. But all in all, I could look him straight in the eye and tell him that while things may not have turned out quite as he had expected, I had, nevertheless, remained essentially "on course."
Had I really wanted to divert his attention, I could easily have done so by describing all that's happened in art since 1942. That would have thrown him for a loop and taken up many hours of explanation. In 1942 modernism, after all, let alone Abstract Expressionism, hadn't as yet taken over American art, and in the Midwest, especially, painters like John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood were regarded at least as highly as Picasso and Matisse.
I had met Curry and Benton and had recently received short letters from both in response to my request for advice about where to study art. Curry had recommended the University of Wisconsin and had included a landscape sketch (another of my treasured mementos). Benton, on the other hand, scribbled that "any good art school will do. After you've worked hard for ten years, write me again."
I had just discovered the early drawings and paintings of Picasso, but the joys and mysteries of Cézanne were still two years off for me. And as for such modernists as Miró, Mondrian, and Klee, it would be another four or five years before I would catch on to what they and their colleagues were up to.
I would never, I realized, be able to explain Jackson Pollock's work to my 16-year-old self. He might like it, but he would never accept it as art. And if Pollock was difficult, I dread to think of what I would encounter were I to introduce him to Conceptualism, Earth Art, Body Art, Minimalism, or most of the other movements that erupted and then largely disappeared over the past 40 years.
His rejection of them all would be total and complete—and generally for good, solid, traditional reasons. He would represent an excellent case and would make a special point of reminding me that not everything new is good, and that novelty, "originality," and innovative procedures do not necessarily produce art.
For that and several other reasons—most particularly its ability to challenge me to remain true to my ideas and dreams—I've decided to have the self-portrait framed and hung over my desk. Not only will it keep me on my toes, it will also serve as a kind of "spokesman" for those of my readers who have the same difficulties with some of the more extreme forms of modernism and post-modernism my younger self would have today.