Philip Roth – American Pastoral,1997

Orcutt had married the granddaughter of one of his grandfather’s law partners at Orcutt, Findley, the Morristown firm that he had been expected to join. After graduating from Princeton, he had declined, however, to accept a place at Harvard Law School—Princeton and Harvard Law had for over a hundred years constituted the education of an Orcutt boy—and breaking with the traditions of the world he’d been born to, he moved to a lower Manhattan studio to become an abstract painter and a new man. Only after three depressive years feverishly painting behind the dirty windows over the truck traffic on Hudson Street did he marry Jessie and come back to Jersey to begin architecture studies at Princeton. He never relinquished entirely his dream of an artistic calling, and though his architectural work—mostly on the restoration of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses out in their moneyed quarter of Morris County and, from Somerset and Hunterdon counties all the way down through Bucks County in Pennsylvania, the converting of old barns into elegant rustic homes—kept him happily occupied, every three or four years there was an exhibition of his at a Morristown frame shop that the Levovs, always flattered to beinvited to the opening, faithfully attended.

The Swede was never so uncomfortable in any social situation as he was standing in front of Orcutt’ss paintings, which were said by the flier you got at the door to be influenced by Chinese calligraphy but looked like nothing much to him, not even Chinese. Right from the beginning Dawn had found them “thought-provoking”—to her they showed a most unlikely side to Bill Orcutt, a sensitivity she’d never seen a single indicator of before–but the thought the exhibition most provoked in the Swede was how long he should continue pretending to look at one of the canvases before moving on to pretend to be looking at another one. All he really had any inclination to do was to lean forward and read the titles pasted up on the wall beside each painting, thinking they might help, but when he did—despite Dawn’s s telling him not to, pulling his jacket and whispering, “Forget those, look at the brushwork”—he was only more disheartened than when he did look at the brushwork. Composition #16, Picture #6, Meditation #11, Untitled #12 . . . and what was there on the canvas but a band of long gray smears so pale across a white background that it looked as though Orcutt had tried not to paint the painting but to rub it out? Consulting the description of the exhibition in the flier, written and signed by the young couple who owned the frame shop, didn’t do any good either. “Orcutt’s calligraphy is so intense the shapes dissolve. Then, in the glow of its own energy, the brush stroke dissolves itself. . . .”

Why on earth would a guy like Orcutt, no stranger to the natural world and the great historical drama of this country—and a helluva tennis player—why on earth did he want to paint pictures of nothing? Since the Swede had to figure the guy wasn’t a phony—why would someone as well educated and as self-confident as Orcutt devote all this effort to being a phony?—he could for a while put the confusion down to his own ignorance about art. Intermittently the Swede might continue to think, “There’s something wrong with this guy. There is some big dissatisfaction there. This Orcutt does not have what he wants” but then the Swede would read something like that flier and realize that he didn’t know what he was talking about. “Two decades after the Greenwich Village years, Orcutt’s ambition remains lofty: to create” the flier concluded, “a personal expression of universal themes that include the enduring moral dilemmas which define the human condition.”

It never occurred to the Swede, reading the flier, that enough could not be claimed for the paintings just because they were so hollow, that you had to say they were pictures of everything because they were pictures of nothing—that all those words were merely another way of saying Orcutt was talentless and, however earnestly he might try, could never hammer out for himself an artistic prerogative or, for that matter, any but the prerogative whose rigid definitions had swaddled him at birth. It did not occur to the Swede that he was right, that this guy who seemed so at one with himself, so perfectly attuned to the place where he lived and the people around him, might be inadvertently divulging that to be out of tune was, in fact, a secret and long-standing desire he hadn’t the remotest idea of how to achieve except by oddly striving to paint paintings that looked like they didn’t look like anything. Apparently the best he could do with his craving to be otherwise was this slull. Sad. Anyway, it didn’t matter how sad it was or what the Swede did or did not ask or understand or know about the painter once one of those calligraphic paintings expressing the universal themes that define the human condition made its way onto the Levov living room wall a month after Dawn returned from Geneva with her new face. And that’s when things got a little sad for the Swede.

It was a band of brown streaks and not gray ones that Orcutt had been trying to rub out of Meditation #27, and the background was purplish rather than white. The dark colors, according to Dawn, signaled a revolution of the painter’s formal means. That’s what she told him, and the Swede, not knowing quite how to respond and with no interest in what “formal means” meant, settled lamely on “Interesting.” They didn’t have any art hanging on the walls when he was a kid, let alone “modern” art—art hadn’t existed in his house any more than it did in Dawn’s. The Dwyers had religious pictures, which might even be what accounted for Dawn’s having all of a sudden become a connoisseur of “formal means”: a secret embarrassment about growing up where, aside from the framed photos of Dawn and her kid brother, the only pictures were pictures of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus’ heart. These tasteful people have modern art on the wall, we’re going to have modern art on the wall. Formal means on the wall. However much Dawn might deny it, wasn’t there something of that going on here? Irish envy?

She’d bought the painting right out of Orcutt’s studio for exactly half as much as it had cost them to buy Count when he was a baby bull. The Swede told himself, “Forget the dough, write it off—you can’t compare a bull to a painting,” and in this way managed to control his disappointment when he saw Meditation #27 go up on the very spot where once there had been the portrait of Merry that he’d loved, a painstakingly perfect if somewhat overly pinkish likeness of the glowing child in blond bangs she had been at six. It had been painted in oils for them by a jovial old gent down in New Hope who wore a smock and a beret in his studio there—he’d taken the time to serve them mulled wine and tell them about his apprenticeship copying paintings in the Louvre—and who’d come to the house six times for Merry to sit for him at the piano, and wanted only two thousand smackers for the painting and the gilt frame. But as the Swede was told, since Orcutt hadn’t asked for the additional thirty percent it would have cost had they purchased #27 from the frame shop, the five grand was a bargain.

His father’s comment, when he saw the new painting, was “How much the guy charge you for that?” With reluctance Dawn replied, “Five thousand dollars,” “Awful lot of money for a first coat. What’s it going to be?” “Going to be?” Dawn had replied sourly. “Well, it ain’t finished . . . I hope it ain’t. . . . Is it?” “That it isn’t ‘finished,’” said Dawn, “is the idea, Lou.” “Yeah?” He looked again. “Well, if the guy ever wants to finish it, I can tell him how.” “Dad,”said the Swede, to forestall further criticism, “Dawn bought it because she likes it,” and though he also could have told the guy how to finish it (probably in words close to those his father had in mind), he was more than willing to hang anything Dawn bought from Orcutt just because she had bought it. Irish envy or no Irish envy, the painting was another sign that the desire to live had become stronger in her than the wish to die that had put her into the psychiatric clinic twice. “So the picture is shit,” he told his father later. “The thing is, she wanted it. The thing is she wants again. Please,” he warned him, feeling himself—strangely, given the slightness of the provocation—at the edge of anger, “no more about that picture.” And Lou Levov being Lou Levov, the next time he visited Old Rimrock the first thing he did was to walk up to the picture and say loudly, “You know something? I like that thing. I’m gettin’ used to it and I actually like it. Look,” he said to his wife, “Look at how the guy didn’t finish it. See that? Where it’s blurry? He did that on purpose. That’s art.”

Philip Roth, born 1933                               American Pastoral,1997

American Pastoral is a novel of social documentary recounting the personal narrative of families in the succesful post-1945 American Jewish business community of Rimrock, New Jersey. The exhibition and purchase of Bill Orcott’s ‘modern’ painting indicates the unsettling veneer of education and aesthetic sophistication presented by modern art to people who find it’s coded language and images incomprehensible. Modern art is accepted as a liberal element of society, although the dialogue and framework of contemporary art, like politics, is established elsewhere in inaccessible institutions. The personal stories of social dysfunction underlying the American Pastoral, are set in the 1960s and 1970s against the background of the military involvement in Vietnam, and domestic issues of racism, radicalism and politic corruption epitomized by President Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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