A Car Ride to the Palmer Museum of Art: Visiting The Fulbright Triptych
On December 9, Virginia Bonito, an art historian and former curator of the Seavest Collection, Marshall Price, curator at the National Academy Museum of Art, and Jhumpa Lahiri, a wise and gifted writer, accompanied me on the four and a half hour car ride to the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University. These three, along with about twenty other contributors including the composer George Crumb, the actors John Turturro and Alvin Epstein, and the art historian, Colin Eisler, will be taking part in a really exciting project. (Also participating in this upcoming publication are Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and the psychoanalyst/novelist Phillipe Grimbert, whose book, Memory, was recently made into the haunting film, A Secret.)
For the last few months, Milkweed Editions, an independent publisher located in Minneapolis, has been putting together an anthology of writing based on my painting, The Fulbright Triptych. In the book, this major, fourteen foot painting will be seen and written about from a variety of points of view: through the lens of an art historian, a novelist, a composer, a pianist, a critic, a psychologist, etc. Some essays that were previously published, including works by Guy Davenport, Rudolf Arnheim, John Russell, George Tooker, Tom Messer and Albert Boime will also be a part of this publication.
The car ride with these three bright, articulate individuals, along with the viewing of the painting at the museum, turned this visit into a long, intense, mysterious and richly rewarding day. We spent about three hours at the museum where the painting was set up in a special viewing room. I spoke extemporaneously, answered questions and met some of the museum personnel, including the registrar Beverly Sutley and the museum director, Jan Muhlert, as well as two Palmer Museum curators, Joyce Robinson and Leo Mazow.
I had last seen the painting in 1999-2000 when it toured the country as part of a retrospective exhibition. The triptych is a grand and highly personal work and has many complicated themes weaving through it, among which are those of memory and memoir. This emotionally moving visit brought to mind many thoughts about the mystical adventure of the three years (1971-1974), it took to complete this painting. I thought of the journey that led to this picture and my journey since.
I have often reflected on the many aspects of a work of art that aren’t always clear to the artist while the image is being worked on. Curiously, sometimes, this becomes clearer the day after the painting is complete! Sometimes, it is the year after. And sometimes many years go by, in this case thirty or more, when some unexpected light shines on your effort.
Just a few days ago, reading a wonderful essay by Alfred Kazin about Herman Melville, I began to realize certain secret and surprising themes that are present in The Fulbright Triptych. How curious and wonderful!