After breakfast, we sit on the porch in hot August sun, drinking coffee and talking about movies. The porch is wide, covering the front of the house, and as I sit on the railing, the sun beats down. Rudy, in the shade by the house, talks.
“Spinal Tap is a pretty good movie. So is Top Secret. I like some rock movies. In Top Secret there’s a great scene of girls acting like they’re excited at a concert. That scene alone was worth the price of admission. You say Tightrope is pretty good? I’m working on a movie right now with several scenes that each have three parts. Each part of the various scenes comes at a different time in the film. And each time the same scene comes up it’s changed slightly. Some music is like that, isn’t it? The same idea recurring in the same piece with variations. Bach’s keyboard fugues are like that. It starts out simply enough—you can see what he’s doing—then the left hand picks it up and it starts getting too complicated to follow all at once. Telemann was simpler. Bach was criticized in his day for being unnecessarily complicated.”
The mailman arrives, his car radio playing loud pop music, and Rudy continues talking.
“When Bach was very young, everyone loved Vivaldi and other Italians. They were simpler. That’s a spider fern,” he says, referring to a potted plant hanging at the front of the porch. Its copious stems seem about to envelope the observer.
“I made a film looking through it. I had Yvonne drive by, then all of a sudden this butterfly flew into the picture. Sometimes the best things happen like that, by chance.”
Below, on the porch, a border of bricks surrounds two flowerbeds on either side of the steps. There are pansies and Superb Lilies there, among others. It is a perfect day, crystal blue sky breaking to robin shell near the tree line, the air clear and fresh, but hot as August requires.
It is almost too perfect, as if we all know we must return to the city soon, yet are afraid to mention it, for fear of breaking the spell. This is a simple time, that three old friends can share together, before the exciting rush of autumn draws us forcefully back to the teeming, beautiful center and we are lost in the annual swirl.
Rudy explains that the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, which Yvonne is reading, had an effect like that of On the Road, in that people tried to live it.
“Young people started killing themselves.”
On the record player is Bach’s “Suite for Cello Solo in C Minor.” Down below lurk Haydn piano sonatas and “Death and the Maiden.”
Yvonne is on the phone. Rudy and Yvonne discuss the day’s business, joke about the accountant. In the living room, Rudy sorts through the mail again. Yvonne announces she will call Sam Ladd, a mason, about whether the chimney should be lined. “Yeah. It should be,” affirms Rudy. Wide, rich-colored boards form the floor of this narrow farm house. A breeze blows the white curtains inward. There is a relaxed pace to life here. No one scrambles to work. But then Yvonne announces with a smile she’s “going out to paint,” that I should come out when I want.
A stone fireplace’s wooden mantel supports a painting on black slate, a romantic-looking card from Yvonne and Rudy’s son Tom in Venice, one of an abbey cloister, an unsigned etching of a lakefront, Rembrandt’s Lucretia, another etching, of a Japanese samurai-type man with a camera around his neck signed “TB,” a monster’s head, a hawk feather, another etching, and a vase of dried flowers.
A red wagon supports a large wooden box with trays of pastels. Yvonne grabs the black handle and maneuvers it. Then she peels saran wrap off a pallet of dark paints.
On the three sections of her moveable studio wall are three large panels of a new work, a painting of night scenes in Minneapolis. It is a commission for the First Bank of Minneapolis West. The panels are about 5 X 6 feet and each has a different view of the city from a high vantage point. When seen together the three panels do not make up one continuous view and yet they make a continuous whole. The rhythms of nightlights, reflections off water and windows, even the building forms, which do not fit from panel to panel, combine to make one “view.”
Rudy has come into the room and wants to film Yvonne painting a little. She agrees to paint a lower portion of the panel instead of the upper, so he can film her.
She is applying dark green paint to the panel on the right, as trees. She works calmly, standing erect on a red plastic milk crate, or on the ground, with quick deliberate strokes, steps back to look at them, then goes over to a smaller pastel version on an opposite wall to check something. Rudy films that wall, which has three finished pastels of the Minneapolis subject, along with two others. Yvonne adds some brown to the tree she has just painted.
Seven seconds’ purr of Rudy’s camera. Rudy back up. They are working a few feet from each other, facing in opposite directions, each intent. Rudy purrs, then removes his tripod. Yvonne walks over to check, then paints more leaves in curvy swirls different from the short, pointed leaves she painted a minute ago.
Rudy is mobile now. Yvonne is accommodating. “This reminds me of ‘Autumn Expansion,'” she says (a mural she did in Bangor, Maine). Yvonne’s fingernails are bright fluorescent colors of pink and purple, both on each nail. “Kathy Porter came over from Vinal Haven to do them,” she proudly explains.
Yvonne’s studio is a large barn with high windows and a sliding door to give light. A few active wasp nests on the rafters, rough hewn beams. Rudy’s studio is behind the wall Yvonne is painting on. There, one finds Rudy’s paintings of forest scenes close-up, nudes in country interiors listening to the radio or reading. A droll but somehow slightly ominous bunch of bananas keeps cropping up.
Yvonne puts on a tape of Roland Kirk. She says she usually likes to listen to music when she paints and prefers tapes to radio because there are no interruptions.
“You’ll find my method very different,” Rudy says, as we leave the barn and start walking down the smooth, firm dirt road.
He’s right. His first venture is a search for currants by the side of the road. We talk of the detrimental effects of currants on pines and he recalls currants in his garden in Switzerland. Yesterday he made some syrup from choke cherries.
“It was a lot of work and you didn’t get very much,” he says, “but you know those are the pleasures that make life enjoyable.”
“Yesterday I was picking blackberries and I felt I was doing what I was meant to do.
You know? Those moments of maybe half-an-hour—and you can’t make them come—where you’re doing something and you feel happy and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
We enter the woods on the other side of the road where a farmhouse used to be—”See the elm stump?”—and come to a patch of blackberries. As we fill the plastic container that Rudy’s brought, we chat.
“Picking berries is something you feel is right to do—it’s not like killing animals or something.”
“It’s not even like picking flowers.”
“Yeah, someone said flowers scream when you break them. Kropotkin said all the animals really help each other–it’s not like the jungle. The jungle is a pretty boring idea anyway.”
We leave the container in the grass and proceed down a road into the forest. The “road” is covered with pine needles and has a patch of bunch berries down its middle.
“I prefer a hazy light to paint in. There’s too much contrast today between light and dark. I can’t get that in paint.”
We reach Rudy’s cache, an easel, painting supplies and a 2 X 2 1/2 foot painting under a large, plastic sheet. A tiny toad scurries away, too fast or smart to be caught.
“I don’t trust myself to finish a painting all at once. I’ve never wanted to do it. I take two days at least. It all started in school–I got good marks in Greek, Latin, and Math. But I flunked in singing and drawing. So I never thought I could draw. I became a photographer. Most painters draw like crazy, but I made photographs first. But that’s why I like to paint—it’s not instant, it takes time.
After a while you hardly look at the subject anymore. When you first start painting, you look at the subject about 90 percent of the time. Finally, though, you look at the subject only 10 percent of the time and you just look at the painting.”
The mosquitoes are voracious, but Rudy calmly paints in a white fisherman’s cap, painting on an easel, rag in left hand. He’s adding highlights since the light isn’t right today. He talks while he paints.
“Sometimes you just leave it to chance.”
He tells an anecdote about DeKooning, saying he did a lot of it on “fate” though he means to say “faith.” “I guess it’s the same.” Or Alex Katz painting a painting in Skowhegan years ago of Rudy, his first wife Edith, and their son Jacob. The painting was leaning on a bush, half in sun, half in darkness. “How can you see what you’re doing?” Rudy asked. “I don’t want to see what I’m doing,” was the reply.
Rudy’s painting is of some trees, their trunks mostly, against a forest floor, with a green background far away in the upper quarter of the picture. Dead branches crisscross the scene, some tilted, some on the ground. In the hazy light, Rudy says, it looks sort of like a battlefield.
Rudy changes from adding dark patches of bark to the standing trees to filling in green bunchberry leaves at the bottom of the painting. It is strange to see the painting directly in front of, and encompassed by, its subject. It’s a bit like the Magritte of the painting of the window in front of the window.
Down at the lake, Rudy meditates. By the water, a beautiful black butterfly with white stripes flexes its wings as if moist, the first time, on a pebble an inch from the water.
Rudy will be teaching two days every two weeks this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’ll be nice to get out of New York. As you get older you get to realize what you really want. You don’t want to go to loud bars and strain anymore.”
Rudy’s also working on a new film, a sort-of collage involving scenes of nude women vacuuming, washing dishes, etc. but also shots of a country fair in Maine. “The model will do almost anything I ask at this point,” Rudy explains. “I pay her a lot, and that helps.”
At the house—the same pretty butterfly—It’s four past two. Time for some lunch. Yvonne turns off the “afternoon concert”—Strauss—and puts on a Billie Holiday tape:
“You ought to go now,
because I like you too much.”
And a certain world that has become a part of art.
August heat; night hail; mute freshness
Moon stormclouds, purple, Turneresque
Delight Rudy; done in, still dressed
Sleeps Yvonne, in bed sleeps Jacob
Time passes; white moon-soaked mist
Solitary outdoors, book indoors
Dear careless moonlight, dear dead words
I know them near, feebly I drowse
My mouth hardens at your approach
Of happiness not reached and reached
Sleeping hunched upstairs, Tom-baby
Year old, when he despairs, rages.
After lunch—sourdough bread from Freedom Baker, Freedom Me., fresh basil, cheese and Rudy’s blackberry fruit salad, Yvonne smiles and says, “I’m going to see if I can find the bloodmeal.” (for the tomatoes).
Rudy relaxes with a book.
“There ain’t a man that’s man enough
to make me cry.”
Later, Rudy goes to pick up his lawnmower, which was being repaired. Yvonne and I go for a swim. We swim across the pond and back.
The shadows are getting long already. Although warm in the sun, the air is cool, a reminder that this day that seems to last forever in its light, can’t. Shade creeps along the petunias in front of the porch, deep pink and red-and-white ones. My father came over here at night to chop a huge hornet’s nest, the size of a basketball, into a bucket of water. I remember Edwin on the dark lawn with a flashlight. Only the poplars seem in motion. The maples barely sway. Singing of crickets.
Yvonne has gotten quite a bit painted. And although the image looks very interesting at this immediate stage—everything drawn in in a flat grayish brown with some highlights, reds, greens, yellows—the painting is far from finished. She is gone (for the bloodmeals one guesses) and her brushes lie unused, paint still on them, on a large moveable platform made by Tom.
What is the point of the aerial view? You can look at it and say, Oh, that’s an aerial view, but there must be more than that. There must be a reason this artist has become obsessed with this view of the world.
To me, a view from a plane, especially at evening or night, is very romantic. The pretty way the lights glow and all those lives. It’s a distant view, removed, and yet it includes an intimacy of looking into people’s backyards.
Back, she paints. A park springs up near a river, setting the buildings it surrounds into 3-dimensional space. What of action? Mostly in cars. But then one is looking at the view. It’s not really aerial this time. It’s more from a high building, hotel room or office, say. So one is in the action, the viewer, seeing these nightscapes, becomes part of what is happening, from the very special perspective. But you’re not usually part of the picture. Here, the specific view involves you in the momentum of the painting.
It’s funny how the pieces of one’s life collect over the years. They don’t tell you anything, finally. Edwin used to live here. There’s a special feeling in that.
But his book on the shelf here is a work, next to other works.