How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.
John Burroughs, the famed naturalist and essayist, once wrote “I have often amused myself by wondering what the effect would be if one could go on opening eye after eye, to the number say of a dozen or more. What would he see?”
An aesthete who shaped the thinking of the Golden Age, and a man whose influence was for a time eclipsed by the influence of the 20th century Modernists with their deconstructed prismatic glimpses at the broken world they saw before them, Burroughs’ words have come to have renewed importance in American culture—among Sierra Club types, hikers and other naturalists in recent decades—despite the fact that his legacy is under-appreciated.
But Burroughs’ aesthetics, and his personal history, might also properly be brought to bear, in a sense, when examining the artistry and personal history of Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu, two figures whose attempts to piece together a world view from the shards left them by the modernists are as vital as they are under-appreciated outside of the tight circle of appreciative devotees who have followed their work.
The weekend of May 31 was a new chance for the public to re-examine that aesthetic effort, and to discover how full of light and color, like John Burroughs’ beautiful leaves, are the recent works of the 84-year old Ms. Beach, and the last of Claude Pelieu, who died in December 2002.
A generous sprinkling of the curious joined some key figures in the alternative scene to help celebrate the recent work of Mary Beach—and the final work of Claude Pelieu—at the newly opened Enderlin Gallery on May 31 in a show that runs through mid-June, 2003, in the small Catskill town of Roxbury, NY.
The underground network produced a list of celebrants that would be envy of any up and coming avant gardist— such luminous figures as Charles and Pam Plymell, Grant Hart, Janine Pomy Vega, Andy Clausen were on hand. Pierre Joris and Tom LaVazzi, both of whose literary artistry deserve wider attention, attended. Jeremiah Newton, the cogent raconteur and acquaintance of Herbert Huncke, Marty Matz and Candy Darling. Philip Scalia. Laki Vazakas. Shiv Mirabito, from down the road where he runs the Woodstock Festival.
Interestingly, few on hand at the opening, aside from such local dignitaries as Mayor Gene Beirnes (“I’m from Brooklyn, but I moved up here after World War II and I’ve lived here ever since,” he declared), seemed aware of the connection between Burroughs—a friend and spiritual colleague to the likes of Walt Whitman, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford—and Roxbury.
Roxbury, as it happens, is the boyhood home and eventual retreat of the great Mr. Burroughs, to which he returned in his last decade to enjoy the simple joy of mountain spring and sweet shy gaze of columbine among the shield-rock and honeysuckle bush, or the sweet vista of an ancient apple tree set against tall grass and a backdrop of rolling dark mountainside.
This is not incidental. It is not just against Burroughs’ touch and go relationship with popular celebrity, but against the massive roll of Burroughs’ vision, the naturalist’s conception of the proper place of the aesthetic soul in nature, that the work of Pelieu and Beach achieves a singular setting.
All this was played out under the influence of an ongoing bout of rain and mist courtesy of the “North Atlantic Oscillation,” that natural weather phenomenon recently identified by the government as being the cause of persistent cold, wet weather, which has been wreaking havoc on the Northeastern United States of late.
“Hey, I like nature,” said one visitor to the show, who trekked through tall wet grass to Burroughs’ Muskrat Lodge on a ridgetop overlooking the valley where Roxbury lies. “But I don’t like it so wet!”
Good voyagers through this world learn to take nature as it comes to them—with all its seachanges, adversities and sudden benevolences. Good voyagers like Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu, inheritors of the modernist flame and yet influential actors in their own right in the world of art and culture.
The couple have been found, through over a half a century, at many of the critical junctures of art, and have been frequently central in efforts to sustain and move into the 21st century the underground body of art among which might be found such trace elements as surrealism, imagism, cubism and bohemian subculture—read here Braque, Schwitters, Duchamp, Warhol, Charles Henri Ford, Bob Kaufman.
The pair’s recent efforts, as shown at the Enderlin, to create collage works of aesthetic heft and power, are a continuation of that track record, though they yield diverging products.
In a sense, the pair’s individual products are unified in the Burroughs-like insistence that, by “adding on” vision, opening ourselves “eye by eye” to perception, we may attain a more forceful and distinct apprehension of the world.
“Some persons seem to have opened more eyes than others, they see with such force and distinctness,” wrote Burroughs in his essay Sharp Eyes. “Not outward eyes, but inward.”
In this modest new gallery in Roxbury’s Main Street Claude Pelieu and Mary Beach’s ability to do just that was revealed to a discerning cadre of friends and admirers.
Within spitting distance, that is, of the Pepacton River—headwaters of the Delaware River, where Burroughs learned to appreciate the intimacy of a mountain creek, the beauty of lilacs in the dooryard of a mountain lodge, and the pungent hum of honeybees across an open field, over and above what might be found before the majesty of the Hudson River or the great oceans of the world.
There is an austere charm to the store-front plainness of owner Mark Schweitzer’s Enderlin Gallery, and it has been skillfully handled by curator Anne Loretto (ably assisted by James Rasin) of the Pelieu-Beach show.
Of particular note is a display of some of magnificent books they have been involved in creating over the years, and the collaborations by Claude and Mary hung behind the vitrine displaying Claude’s books fascinate.
But the main show consists of small works of art. Marching eagerly along the lofty white wall to the left, mounted in plain black and white frames, were a series of impeccable collages by Pelieu, meticulously created as if minute oriental screens made up from razor-edge sliced segments of images drawn from fine art and commercial sources.
Making a virtue of necessity (Pelieu, before his death, had limited use of his hands due to circulation problems) seems to have used a paper cutter to create the fine bits and pieces sliced from images both fashionable and timeless. The arrangement of these pieces betrays a sense of nuance and discernment that transcends whatever physical limitations the artist was working under.
Here we catch a glimpse of a Renaissance figure; there a fleeting view of a piece by Leger or Lichtenstein or Braque. On occasion the images are stacked in a near-silhouette of the Statue of Liberty. From abstract bursts to goldfish-tail like constructs—read here triptych, playing card, Japanese fan dance—Pelieu maneuvers his elements with an adroitness and aesthetic judgment that astonishes.
These are cubist and futurist references, to be sure—but no staircase for a nude to descend. Rather they are escalators drawing the audience on an ineluctible and delicious voyage toward abstraction.
Beach’s work, on the facing wall of the main gallery, has a more playful tone. While there is less precision to the cuts, there is more concrete voice in her serene juxtaposition of images, more social import.
Here we find irony, passion and intensity of critique—from elevation to chastisement, and from elucidation to redefinition—as the artist unfailingly shines a spotlight on contemporary notions of sexuality, fashion, beauty and status, frequently pinpricked and pasted down for the world to see.
For all her wit and sense of comedy Beach—distant cousin to Sylvia Beach and a figure who was instrumental in fostering an appreciation for the likes of Bob Kaufman—demonstrates a keen and graceful eye, capable not only of deconstructing and critiquing the world of art and media, but through an enduring passion for exploration and invention, reinterpreting it with works of striking beauty and immediacy.
In their current show Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu demonstrate that they have earned the right to stand square in the spotlight which has to this point tantalizingly eluded them. By virtue not just of their origins but their passages, what they come to believe matters, matters.
“You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush,” wrote Burroughs, one of his most quoted epithets.
In this show, the Enderlin Gallery shares with us—through the works of Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu—superb utterances which can put the bird back in our hearts, and teach it to sing.