Most every Thursday evening when I was a kid, a guy named Henry Schwartz would come to our house to have dinner with us. Henry was my dad's painting teacher. I knew him mainly as this gentle giant, a 6-and-a-half-foot tall man with horned rimmed glasses, giant feet, a pipe in his mouth, and oil paint encrusted under his fingernails. We're talking late 1960's - early '70's. Henry would take the turnpike bus to Newton Corner from his Boston apartment across the street from Symphony Hall to Newton Corner, walk up the the hill on Centre Street, and come ambling up the walk with tiny yellowed earphones in each ear. He had a little transistor radio in his shirt pocket and had hand-wired the earphones in so he could listen to classical music on the radio in stereo. He kind of invented the Walkman, really.
Before dinner, he would sit on the couch in our living room puffing on his pipe and and I would bother him. For my amusement, he would take old copies of Newsweek magazine and with a pencil eraser, remove the eyes of Nixon and Agnew and draw in hideously funny eyes, snouts, and Dadaist speech bubbles. We'd also play flush the toilet, where he would pull and imaginary flush cord and I would roll off the top of the sofa on my way to the sewer. I was just becoming aware of Mad Magazine humor, so this was all very hilarious. Mom would then serve spare ribs, Henry's favorite. I was a bit crushed when I found out that he sometimes went to other people's homes for dinner.
After dinner my dad and Henry would drive down the hill to this slightly dilapidated late Victorian mansion converted into community rec hall called the Pomeroy House (I was awarded my Cub Scout patches there). Up on the 2nd floor in a haze of oil paint fumes, Henry would lead a painting class consisting of my dad and about five to seven other grey-haired types. On occasion when I got into my early teens I would tag along. I tried to paint once or twice but wound up making a royal mess. I had no idea what I was doing and wasn't all that good about absorbing sporadic composition advice.
One thing I did clue into early on was that Henry painted some awesome paintings.
Well, I got older I learned a thing or two, like how Henry was a respected, long-serving teacher at he Museum School, part of the Museum of Fine Arts. That Henry has other admires of his work and was considered something of an artistic genius. Peter Wolf, lead singer of the J. Geils Band, was on of his admiring students. That he was something of a classical musicologist (he would argue with my older brother on the merit (Rob) or lack thereof (Henry) of Jazz. That he'd often populate the orchestras he painted with his friends. That Henry had a troubled childhood and major episodes of depression at various points in his life.
In 1990 the Fuller Art Museum in Brockton, MA held a massive retrospective show of Henry's work. It was stunning, the full breadth and depth of his artistry on display. It probably also triggered a massive 17-year episode of depression. Unexpectedly, and right before his death in 1998, in an assisted living facility (a few blocks from the Pomeroy House), he snapped out of it. My mom and I went to visit him. He had started sketching again. Lewd nudes, apparently. He would not show them to us. I imagine them with the similar wacky lines that he used to depict ghoul snouts on Agnew.
It would've been cool to have had Henry as a painting teacher. The two bits of his advice which my dad used to quote were:
1. Disturb the surface. Just put something down. Anything. It can be totally abstract. Doesn't matter what it is; it will suggest a direction - what to put down next. I have realized that this process works with creating music as well as visual art. Probably even works with dancing. Good advice that could be part of an Eno Oblique Strategy card deck.
2. Your picture should look good, or rather should make aesthetic sense, from any angle, no mater which way you spin the canvas. This is the tidbit I have really tried to embrace with my pieces. I spin the canvas or paper around as I'm working on it and have a chuckle. and though I often have a preference for which side should face up, I don't want to be dogmatic about it. When someone acquires one of my pieces, I almost always tell them to display it however they prefer. You might like your own up better than mine. And if I got it right, all the ups should work. Or at least some of them.
You can check out a slide show of his art that his home gallery, Gallery Naga, has up. Also, the write-ups/obituaries like this and this are really something. Also, here's a neat piece on Boston Expressionism.
One of Henry's 1980's paintings is a self-portrait, which was displayed at the retrospective. He had glued a shirt pocket to the canvas and put an actual transistor radio in it, turned on, and tuned into one of the local stations. You could hear classical music coming out of the earbuds. I'm guessing the museum staff had to come by every so often to change out the 9-volt battery.