How did I manage to get to the great museum on the parkway, perched like a castle above the two rivers? Did the Reading Railroad stop at Market Street, or was it 30th Street? In any case, I could walk along the parkway, finding the elongated steps to the museum cluttered with seductive people playing guitars, reading poetry, smoking French cigarettes, always welcoming.
I would slip into the great halls, wandering through the amazing spaces where an Egyptian shrine would be next to a Medieval bedroom. There I could rub my hands along the sides of an ancient wooden bed before entering a room of sculptures and fetishes from Africa.
I wandered freely, the rooms seemed shadowed, full of subtle, shifting light. My anonymous voyage within sculptures, paintings, vases, tapestries shifted suddenly one day when I followed a staircase down to modern classrooms. I was following an intoxicating aroma. I have tried at many contemporary events to offer this enchantment. It filled me with an ecstatic excitement and I followed it to an open door. There I stood fascinated to see a group of people at easels all giving their attention to a still life of transparent glass bottles and piles of oranges and bananas. They were oil painting! My elixir was turpentine!
The teacher came to the open door and asked if I would like to come in. He set up an easel with a tablet and put out drawing pencils. I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe I had entered this sacred arcana. It was all I could desire and hope for. The teacher’s name was “Blackie,” Morris Blackburn. He invited me to come back whenever I could. One Saturday I managed to travel again. I followed the stairs back down to the painting class. The teacher asked us to come around and stand in a circle. He was holding a brown paper lunch bag. He tore the paper bag into many small pieces, which shifted between his hands and then he threw them on to the floor in front of us. And then he asked, “What is the purpose of these torn up paper pieces?” The adults looked perplexed. I actually raised my hand and said, “Is it to show the rhythm between all the pieces?” Blackie grinned with delight. He said, “Yes, this is gestalt.”
I saved babysitting money and took the train to the museum whenever I could escape from home. No one bothered a kid in knee socks and ballet slippers with a small rucksack. I discovered gallery after gallery of paintings, dazzled by impressionists, abstractionists, and –because the year was 1954 — the influences of European abstraction and American expressionism were raw. I fell in love with the paintings of Arthur B. Carles.
Over time, Carles sustained my initial excitement, then indeed he uniquely bridged traditional convention and the aesthetic dynamics that would be celebrated in the 60s and 70s. His near-disappearance from aesthetic history and discussion has always pained me. I felt I was alone within this visual realm of exquisite painting — vigorous, risky, luscious, and always enlarging a concept of gestalt.