Reflections on a Friendship: Don Shambroom and Martin Mugar

Heidegger, Entropy and DeKooning

By: - Mar 21, 2012

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Charles Giuliano, founder of Berkshire Fine Arts and an art critic was famous in Boston for his lively series of interviews with artists called “Beer and Burgers” that appeared in  the now defunct blog Big Red and Shiny with which he was able to give a face to the names that populated the Boston art world. The interviews were not formal.

In my case he invited me out to Santarpio’s Pizza parlor and plied me with beers and somehow our conversation ended up in coherent form in print. With his editing I was more articulate than I remember.

Despite his reputation for going for the jugular in conversations there were no embarrassing surprises. I thought of his series when several weeks ago a good friend Addison Parks, artist and owner with his wife Stacy of The Bow Street Gallery asked several mutual friends out for lunch. Except for the free foie gras that the manager sent our way (She is Addison’s friend) and the exotic cocktails we sipped it was very similar to Charles’s luncheons in that the conversation revolved around the art scenes of Boston, New York, current and past, and our lives as players within those scenes.

The group included Larry Deyab, a New York artist, who has since moved back to his hometown Cambridge .He has a solo show currently at the Ziegler gallery in Switzerland. In New York he was the studio assistant at different times for Milton Resnick, Al Held and Bill Jensen, so is over brimming with stories of the New York of the '80s and '90s and in particular Resnick's stories of the Abstract Expressionists.

Since Addison showed in New York in the '80s as well as writing for “Arts” magazine, the conversation created a rich tapestry of who did what and to whom from that era. John Wronoski gallerist was also present.  In his role of gallery director of the now closed Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge he showed the work of an erstwhile friend of mine Don Shambroom whom I had met at Yale almost forty years ago.

I told John how this friend had appeared and disappeared in my life and recently reappeared after an absence of ten years by being highlighted

as someone I might want to link up with on LinkedIn. John, who is also an antique book dealer, said that my description of this relationship reminded him of the Anthony Powell’s (pronounced Po) book of twelve volumes ”A Dance to the Music of Time” that follows the lives of a group of Oxford graduates over a lifetime as their movements conjoin or move apart.
Recently, I decided to make the leap from virtual reality to the real world and actually get together to chat with Don. We arranged a visit at his home and studio on the banks of the Miller River in Massachusetts. One thing learned in our five hour talk is that there were other people whom we both knew who were participating in this dance, some, in particular art professors from Yale, others whom we had become friends with separately.

The first part of the dance started before we met. As aspiring young teenage artists we had both visited with Norman Rockwell at his studio in Stockbridge in the '60s. Interestingly enough he gave us both the same advice to go to art school and not college, which we ignored. My father who arranged the visit for me had hoped by some strange logic that he would discourage me from art. I still have somewhere a drawing  on which Rockwell wrote:” This young man has talent.”

I remember my father who always sold more copies of the 'Saturday Evening Post' as a newsboy when a Norman Rockwell illustration was on the cover was most likely more thrilled than I to be there. In Boston, Don and I met again on Bromfield St where he had a studio and I had my first show at the Bromfield Gallery in 1977.

Don would go on to some critical acclaim in Boston and New York with his work being collected by the MFA, the Met and the de Cordova. In the mid nineties he included me in a show of images of bones at the “Mercury Gallery”. Another mutual acquaintance whom we didn’t know as part of the dance is the poet Rosanna Warren whom I met in Paris in the late '70s. She wrote about my work in Provincetown Arts. Both she and Don are members of the Examiners club.

Our conversation touched briefly on my blog and in particular the piece on the “Humpty Dumpty Effect” and 20th Century Art (excerpted from my book on drawing that is in progress) and the entropic bias to it.

The historical movement from Impressionism to Abstraction left the art world littered with a variety of disconnected languages rooted in visual cognition.  It was my point in the blog that: ” All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again."

DeKooning’s name came up as someone who tried to put the world back together again. (By the way Don, a reader of BFA agreed with Giuliano’s opinion that the enormous size of the recent New York  deKooning retrospective made it hard to understand deKooning’s development).

Cubism allowed deKooning to tear things apart but the holism of the human body and the force of his gesture allowed him to tie everything back together in a way that the human body had never been subjected to before: centripetal and centrifugal are at each other’s throats like cats and dogs.

Last night I came across a book on Heidegger’s late writings entitled “Four Seminars” that are protocols of gatherings of Heidegger and his students in the South of France to discuss, in particular, some portentous Hegelian sentences. All of this was spontaneous dialogue. His references range from Wittgenstein to Marx and Norbert Weiner. A quote from Hegel becomes the source material for a long discussion, which I think, is relevant to what Don and I had to say about de Kooning.

The original statement by Hegel goes as follows:” A mended sock is better than a torn one”. Heidegger transforms it into his preferred form: ”A torn sock is better than a mended one.” His discussion revolves around unity.

When the sock is whole and being worn we are not aware of its unity. When it is torn we become aware or self-conscious of what holds it together in its 'being' as sock. Therefore the split points to a preceding wholeness. To mend it brings it whole again but with a self-awareness of an underlying unity.

Is this not what deKooning does? He takes the world apart and then tries to mend it. Hegel says that the scission points to a need for philosophy. deKooning, steeped in the Western Tradition of painting like no one else except Gorky, sees this need to mend what has been torn asunder.

I think that this bringing back together is explosive in two ways: #1 the effort to tie things back, the mending. #2 The force that resists this mending and wants to dissolve again. In the end deKooning’s work moves toward dissolution in the “landscapes”

Martin Mugar