The last time anyone brought up Max Ernst in conversation was seventeen years ago at dinner. Amie and I had a friend in her early thirties who was very interesting, quick to participate in conversations, hesitant to insist upon her own opinions. We felt oddly connected and were very pleased when she invited us. One of her dogs looked like a small female Labrador. She was Al's littermate from the same cardboard box. Her former owners had neglected her. She darted about the neighborhood, tail between her legs, looking hungrier and hungrier. Our friend enticed her onto the couch by placing a bowl of food at the front gate and then moving it a foot or so closer to the living room each day. The big move was crossing the threshold into the kitchen. From there to the living room was easy. Once she found the couch, however, the next problem was dragging her off again.
We were startled by the interior of the house. It was filled with familiar pieces — paintings, sculptures, odd bits of things that seemed strangely meaningful. It was an oasis, a gallery of sorts in a rural outpost. As the husband warmed to us, he revealed that the works were his. The words "Dada" and "Surealism" crept into his presentation. He was excited to hear that I knew what he was talking about. As it turned out, I was something of an oasis myself. Yes, I knew the bottle rack, the Great Glass, the Traveling Art Exhibition. As we were eating, something odd was revealed. The decisive influence in his life had been his high school Art teacher. I poked and prodded and pieced together the year and place. I went through it one more time before telling him that he was a classmate of my brother. We were having dinner in a different county. Ah, yes. He remembered him… as being shy and, here he hesitated, uninteresting. That was all the proof I needed. It took us most of dinner to get past that coincidence.
This was a rare opportunity, he said. He talked expansively about Man Ray, Max Ernst, Picabia, Tzara, whom he adored, and others, including Dali, Brancusi, Breton, whom he knew well, but was less enthusiastic about. And… Marcel Duchamp. He was stunned that I had seen so many of the works in person and seemed so knowledgeable. He overestimated my knowledge, but knowing anything at all about Duchamp was an event for him. He told us a story about a huge book by Arturo Schwarz, the Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, that by the time he was old enough to read was out of print and no longer available. He did everything. He had used book dealers advertise. He even wrote to Duchamp's widow. She replied in a very nice letter saying that she had only one copy herself and knew of no others anywhere. So, he collected a pile of lesser books that he read and reread. After dinner he brought them out. An unforgettable evening.
In 1964, my grandmother bought a book for me from the dollar table at the Broadway department store. She could no longer drive — thankfully, someone had sneezed and run off the road into her parked car — so I picked her up from time to time in a 1951 MG and took her shopping. We started with candy and tins of cookies at JC Pennys and worked our way toward lunch at the Copper Kettle inside Broadway. Obviously, the gene for diabetes comes from my paternal maternal side. We also drove with the top down, which says something else about her. She bought the book to say thank you, but also because I stared at the cover so long. It was Man Ray's Self Portrait
, a first edition that had languished on the shelf for almost a year. If I made a list of all the books that have made me who I am, not just books that have provided me with thoughts and facts, but changed me in unexpected and profound ways, this book would be near the top, at the very top chronologically. Perhaps I will find time to write about that someday, but for now it will suffice to say that it provided me with background — background that lead to a long series of important experiences. One such experience was a mind altering afternoon in the outskirts of Frankfurt with what came to be, as I understand it, the core collection of the Max Ernst Museum.
After dinner, after Amie dropped me off at home, I unpacked boxes until early morning. I found the six hundred some odd pages in quarto of the Arturo Schwarz Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp that I had lugged around for a quarter of a century from house to house. It was all I could do not to mention it at dinner. I tried reading it many times, discovering each time that I just didn't know enough. They don't teach Alchemy in school. This book had also been a defining element in my
life. I gathered up some exhibition catalogs, a memoir, I think, an Art magazine from the early 70s, and wrapped them in a single bundle. The next day I lugged them down the hill for the last time and gave them to his wife. "I think your husband will want these," I said. She told me later that tears ran down his cheeks.
You might think this is a story about how wonderful I am. Well, I sometimes think that. I knew as I listened speechless to the story at dinner that night that the book had always seemed like it had been meant for someone else, otherwise I might have penetrated it, formed a lasting need for it. I knew as he told the story that the book was his. I had taken wonderful care of it, unusually good care of it. It wasn't some thought I played with, it was a very clear awareness. I had thumbed through it numerous times. I enjoyed the puzzle of it, the pictures, even the weight of it. In the end, I was merely its custodian. I was now free to to do something else.
These things happened to me
, so there's no reason they should affect you one way or the other. The dollar book table is etched in my
memory, but no quantity of words can transfer the essence of that experience to another or describe its meaning, even to myself. Yet, individual stories form the basis for the larger one that communicates the texture of seeming coincidence and fortuitous overlay that is the hidden structure of our lives. It is the nature of that story to be infinitely long, even if the nature of each individual story seems deceptively brief. Leslie Clagett
mentioned a chess set designed by Max Ernst in reply to some comments I made on her blog last week, something that amounts to conversation in the new millennium. That chess set was in the lobby of the show I chanced upon protected by a large glass box. It seemed unreal to be standing next to it. Her comment made me think.
The word "coincidence" is normally dismissive, and there are dozens of books on synchronicity that make coincidence their stock in trade. One almost expects Synchronicity for Fun and Profit
. What I had hoped to communicate, what you must inevitably find for yourself, goes well beyond that. Once you have felt the movings of this hidden, indefinable structure — not in your mind, but in your life — the unexpected shapes and contours like surrealistic chessmen taking hold of your individual life, a life ultimately connected to all and everything, you are never quite the same.