In my memory the painting is titled, “Me and Joe.” It is small, maybe ten by fourteen inches.
I am looking at the painting from behind the backs of several classmates who stand clustered around it. Not only am I trying to be invisible but I am also trying to hide how much I like the painting. It is circa 1983 and not close enough to my graduation from Pratt Institute to make me feel like I can survive. Graduation is so far away. I have considered dropping out. What is the point in going to art school, anyway?
The artist whose painting we are looking at is Louise Fishman. She has invited her painting class to her studio in what was still, just barely, the meatpacking district on Manhattan’s West Side. I hadn’t wanted to come. Increasingly I had been unable to paint. What had once been so easy for me was now so difficult. I no longer had faith in myself. Everything at school was fraught. Every mark had to have a meaning. If it didn’t you were sunk. I could trace my despair to an earlier class when still fresh-faced, I had participated in a painting critique at which the teacher asked me, mildly, Why put red in the upper right corner? It was a simple question. I should have been able to answer it. Instead, feeling startled, I shrugged. Wasn’t it obvious? Didn’t the painting need red in that corner? Didn’t paintings express what couldn’t be said? I couldn’t understand how the teacher could be so stupid. He wasn’t mean; I avoided the mean ones; but because he was middle-aged and a man he was the authority.
I had been long enough at art school to learn that the only real artists were men.
The signs were everywhere, and because they were impossible to ignore, if and when an art teacher (male) asked a student (female) why she had red in the upper right corner of her painting, the only conclusion to be drawn from the question was that the painting stunk. It didn’t take long for my confidence to drain away. I cut my hair off in the bathroom that fall. My hair got shorter and shorter. I began to cut class. But nothing could save me from the dawning realization that because I was not a man I was therefore not an artist.
It was around this time that I remember being required for the very first time to visit a teacher’s studio. The teacher, a man whose name I can’t remember, was tall and white. His paintings were large, at least twelve feet high, and each of them was a primary color. One was red, one was blue; one was yellow. We were instructed to sit on the floor, cross-legged, in front of the blue one. The teacher stood before his painting and began to talk about it. I remember that the brushwork was important. It was a series of modulated crosshatches. The teacher was firm. He said that we were to sit before the painting for twenty minutes without speaking. When the twenty minutes were up we would be allowed to ask questions. It occurred to me to get up and leave, but I was too polite for that. Besides, there was a grade involved. Looking at the painting from the vantage point of the floor (crisscross applesauce, children!) was a requirement of the class, as was listening to the teacher. When finally we were allowed to ask questions some of the grade-grubbers raised their hands. I didn’t. I had learnedSet featured imageeverything that I needed to know. A man could paint an all-blue painting and get away with it. His authority would not be challenged.
As my hair got shorter and more asymmetrical that year, a day came when I couldn’t get out of bed. It was the start of the spring semester, and when finally I did get out of bed, I cut class. I got on the Myrtle Avenue bus, intent on going to MoMA. By the time I reached the A train at Jay Street, however, I lost my resolve. Back in my apartment I gathered my supplies: oil paints, turps, a palette knife, brushes. I was late. Painting classes were six hours long and I had missed the first three. The teacher, Louise Fishman, was a visitor that spring. I knew almost nothing about her.
I tried not to stand out. You never knew what was going to happen, and I had learned by then that if a teacher asked you something obvious it meant that you couldn’t paint. The stupidity of a teacher’s question meant that your painting was bad. But it was easy to hide in Louise Fishman’s painting class because she kept the lights low. We stood in the shadows while the subject (usually a model) was well lit. We used palette knives. Sometimes we were asked to imagine that we were painting the scene as if from the other side of the room. The class was soothing. Louise Fishman barely talked. She looked. She looked carefully. She looked at. I don’t know if she knew that I was a) shy and b) demoralized, but I certainly felt respected. Beyond that, over time, I was made to feel that I could paint, that I could paint well! Still, though, I wasn’t going to show my hand. Which is why I hung back in the studio that day. I wasn’t going to let Louise Fishman know how much her painting, “Me and Joe,” meant to me. Here is what I remember about it: 1. It was tiny. 2. It was mostly black and white. 3. It was abstract and yet somehow figurative. 4. It spoke to me.
I could wind this up by writing that this was when I stopped cutting my hair, and maybe that would be right. Instead, though, I’m going to write about how I saw Louise Fishman in the stairwell on the last day of school and how she said to me, Keep your chin up, and how I knew that what she meant was that I could be an artist, that I was one.