Rosemarie Beck is preparing for her next show, which will open at Peridot Gallery in March 1959. She’s been working with houses of the zodiac: the Sun, the Moon, Venus, and now Neptune. She paints her surroundings: a portrait of her husband surrounded by books. On the easel in her studio is an unfinished double portrait of her ten-year-old son, Roger. She’s already had success as an abstract painter—what will her collectors think? What about Clement Greenberg? She shakes the doubt. “I want to show the more ambiguous and protean side of my nature.”
She puts on an Antonín Dvořák record, lights a cigarette, and begins thumbing through Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. She opens her journal and writes: “Your present work has the air of a retreat or harking back to past solutions perhaps for rectification and growth.” She’s asking and telling. The statement reveals to her what she’s been doing in her recent paintings, and she thinks back to the self-portrait she’d done a few months prior, the one with the violin and the apples in the foreground, the one in which she emerges from an abstraction. She’s at the beginning of something. She picks up her pen again, “I had no project to ‘go back’ but began simply to look at objects as directly as I could and found them inescapably intriguing.” The thought comes to her, “I want to put my light on something.”
This moment in Beck’s career was marked by intense, self-questioning as she was laying down the stakes in her new mode. She was fond of writing letters and asking questions of painters. She merged these two impulses in this rhetorical questionnaire, which she wrote to herself as a means to uncover what it was she was after with her work. The exercise became the springboard for “In My Studio,” a lecture she delivered in May 1960 at Wesleyan University on the occasion of her first retrospective. The talk was structured as a series of ten questions she would ask herself as she entered the studio. In 1964 she began her “Letters to a Young Painter,” an epistolary lecture project she worked on for over thirty years. Fragments of this questionnaire appear throughout these projects, giving her words the patina of experience and reminding one that Beck always practiced what she preached.
ERIC SUTPHIN is a critic, artist and curator based in New York City. Publications include Art in America, Frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, and Artcritical, in addition to several exhibition catalogues and artists’ books. Eric has been a visiting critic at Delaware College of Art and Design, the School of Visual Arts, and Rutgers University. Rosemarie Beck: Letters to a Young Painter and Other Writings is scheduled for publication by Soberscove Press in 2017.