For a few years I lived under a giant skylight in a windowless, basement level, 19th-century police truck repair garage on Mulberry Street. There, the city was far away. I slept on a convertible couch or, during my daughter’s visiting nights, she on the bed and I on a futon on the floor.
Certain summer afternoons, Herbie would ring my bell, unannounced. He was wearing checkered shorts, an old pair of sandals and a light non-descript shirt. Despite his having undergone skin cancer surgery a few times on his face, he never wore a hat. With his left hand he would carry a translucent plastic bag full of water in which swam a few rare fishes picked up in the store a block away. With his right he held a large paper shopping bag containing a couple of wrapped rectangular works of art. The subway stop to Uptown was around the corner.
He knew he had to wait for me to run up the ramp to open the door. The familiarity of our greetings was as precious as the years of our friendship and collaboration. No hugs, shouts or laughter, just a glass of water, and the tangible pleasure of sitting around the work table, plain talk about family and then words about the art of other artists and mine. When theoretical considerations would arise, Herbie was very quick in situating them in simple words in the history of contemporary discourse. Nothing escaped his passionate attention.
It was hopeless on my part to ask who the works in the bag were by or to see them. Only once he showed me a half-dozen drawings by Joseph Beuys he was particularly proud of having secured. On my walls he could see the many ventures I was engaged in—perhaps on the left a large oil painting containing human figures, in the center some plywood geometric polychrome acrylic cutouts, to the right a photograph mounted on tinted canvas. On a nearby table there could have been a landscape watercolor and a dotted gouache texture on paper.
His quick eye wandered in the space while chatting, like a fox exploring the night. He would then have me open the flat files of recent works on paper. When a group attracted his attention he took it all. Occasionally he also chose a small piece on canvas or on wood. Sometimes I disagreed about the relevance or quality of what he chose. His respect for the artist had him listen with grace, but we often ended up by his taking what he wanted and me adding what I preferred. Now that the works he had selected are shown to me by the museums that acquired them, I am stunned by how his eye and mind saw beyond my perception of my own work. I would say he was always right. As evening approached he would exit wearing a faint smile, that of a cat who had just savored a good fish meal. And I was left energized.
The art would have to fit the shopping bag or if too large I would deliver it to his home. On those occasions Dorothy and he either offered me an Entenmann’s cake and tea or, especially after walking had become difficult for Herbie, I would be invited to the diner across the street. He was very particular as to food. Never salad, no wine, yes chopped chicken liver and ice cream. Often also Dorothy came to the studio, but on those occasions the visit would be arranged ahead of time. We would dine in my neighborhood. Dorothy shared with her husband a fastidious concern for the correct handling of the artworks. She also is extremely thorough in cataloguing the collection. While looking at art, her comments would be drier than his, always very pragmatic, to the point, no flattery, few words being better than many. The discussions preceding their final agreement on what was being seen enhanced the conversations.