No 166 - 2001
In a True Light: Three Chapters
Sloane swopped seats with a disgruntled Swede whose legs needed the aisle even more than he. Settled in against the window, he gazed past the tip of the wing and looked down on a brief hatchwork of runways, toy trees, the neat clutter of suburban homes; before the plane banked again he glimpsed the upper reaches of the Thames curving steeply through flat fields and then they were in cloud. Blistery grey becoming soft, impossible nursery white.
When you find her, then you will know.
Taking his wallet from his pocket, he slid the smallest of the photographs into his palm. The way the dark hair wedged to a point above the centre of her forehead, fingers of one hand reaching for her mouth; the hint of worry in her already blue eyes. Connie. Sloane pushed the picture from sight. Head sideways, he closed his eyes and feigned sleep.
Only when the plane lurched Sloane awake did he realise he had truly slept. Turbulence over, the cabin crew made their way along the aisles with offers of refreshment, bottles of red wine just above ice cold, free booze; he lowered his tray table to accommodate a miniature meal nestling in foil and plastic, each item signally failing to live up to its lavish description on the printed menu.
Once this had been cleared away he stretched his legs past the Swede and pulled his duffel bag down from the overhead locker. Of the four newspapers he had bought, two had no mention of Jane Graham’s death and one carried a short news item together with a colour reproduction of a tall, slim painting that hung in the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. Sloane wondered if the picture editor had chosen it because he could fit it into a single column’s width.
The Independent alone carried a full obituary, illustrated by a photograph of Jane in what he guessed were her forties, head and shoulders, smiling, and another of an early painting which, in black and white, looked like a morass of blotches and squiggles, little more. He had already read the text so many times, parts of it were committed to memory. Draining the glass of his second whisky, he read it again.
Jane Graham, who has died of leukaemia at the age of seventy-three, was one of the foremost painters of the New York School. Identified with the Second Generation of Abstract Expressionists, a diverse group over which the brooding presence of Jackson Pollock cast a huge shadow, and which included disciples of Mark Rothko on the one hand and de Kooning and Kline on the other, Graham’s style leaned towards the more painterly approach of the latter.
From the mid-fifties her canvases, which had previously echoed the busy surfaces of Pollock, one of her strongest early influences, took on a degree of spareness and calm, and displayed an increasing interest in the effects on colour of natural light.
‘Pollock,’ he remembered Jane saying, ‘that great oaf. That ox in plaid shirts and cowboy boots. The first time I saw him, one of the bars down on Eighth Street, he pushed his hand up my skirt, feeling for my crotch. He was drunk, of course, looking to get laid, looking for a fight. Either way, there was usually someone ready to oblige.’
Pollock had died the year before Sloane had arrived in New York, having driven the Oldsmobile containing himself, his mistress and her best friend off the road and into a tree. All Sloane knew were the stories: the paintings and the stories. The paintings, the best of them, he loved. They were why he had wanted to come to New York.
‘I was at the opening of his wife’s show at the Stable Gallery,’ Jane had told him. ‘Lee Krasner, you know. She was nervous as hell about how he’d be, whether he’d even show. Half hoping, I think, he’d get drunk somewhere, stay away. Anyway, in he comes, wearing a suit and tie, stone cold sober, charming, couldn’t be nicer. Half an hour later he’s got me pinned up against the wall in a corner, asking me if I’d go out back with him and fuck. Tried to persuade me that somehow I’d be a better painter if I did. The asshole.’
She’d told him this story the third occasion they’d met and Sloane remembered thinking he’d never heard a woman say fuck before; not in the course of normal conversation.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Graham studied painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and with Hans Hofmann, taking up residency in Greenwich Village in the early nineteen fifties. Here, she quickly immersed herself in the then thriving bohemian lifestyle, which brought together artists and poets, playwrights, musicians and experimental film makers in a heady, often volatile brew centring on the Cedar Tavern on 9th Street and University Place.
When Sloane had first arrived in New York, pitchforked into the middle of that turbulent world, he was cocky, uncertain, garrulous, almost obsessively silent, ricocheting between the arrogance of eighteen-year old self-confidence and crippling self-doubt.
Stuart Hazel, a painter Sloane had known in Chicago, offered him floor space in a cold-water loft on the Lower East Side, a former garment factory between East Broadway and Delancey. Whitewashed walls, bare boards, a partitioned-off kitchen the roaches roamed at will. ‘Six months, okay? Whatever you can let me have towards the rent, that’s okay. But after that you’re on your own.’
Hazel, who chain smoked and listened to the classical music station while he worked, had already exhibited in a co-op gallery on West 4th Street and been well reviewed in ART news. There were rumours, mostly spread by Hazel himself, of a solo show on 10th Street, the Tanager or the Hansa. He was certain he had it made.
When Sloane ran across him, years later, loud in the bar of some midtown hotel, he was wearing three-button suits and big in margarine.
Graham was fortunate that the more misogynistic attitudes which had been prevalent a decade earlier, and had impeded the progress of women artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, were no longer as widespread. So she was able to find acceptance, and flourish, within a community which included, among others, such notable artists as Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher and Joan Mitchell.
Featured in Time magazine as one of half a dozen exceptional young talents, Graham had her first solo show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where, although attacked as over-referential by the formalist critic, Clement Greenberg, her paintings were strongly praised, notably by poet-critics James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara in the pages of ART news and Evergreen Review. O’Hara, who was Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, remained a powerful advocate of Graham’s work.
He had been with Jane once at a party at Joan Mitchell’s and O’Hara had read a poem he’d written for the occasion. All Sloane could remember clearly was the way people had laughed during the reading and cheered and clapped like crazy at the end, and that O’Hara, who had been getting progressively drunker as the evening wore on, finally fell asleep stretched out on Mitchell’s sofa, his head in the lap of a pretty young man in pale blue jeans.
In common with a number of other artists - Ellsworth Kelly, Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell amongst them - Graham felt the pull of Paris as an alternative art centre to New York and moved to that city in 1958. Brief visits aside, often made in conjunction with exhibitions of her work, she was never to return to the United States. In the seventies Graham moved to a studio near Montpellier, in the south of France, and although she continued to paint with the same clarity and vigour, her moment had passed. In 1988 she moved again, this time to the small village of Verrucole in northern Tuscany, where she lived and worked alongside her long-time companion, the Italian sculptor, Valentina Ceroni.
The canvases she produced during the last dozen or so years of her life, while still predominantly abstract, tend increasingly to reflect her natural surroundings, as if the term ‘Abstract Impressionism’, which had been applied, tongue-in-cheek, to her work near the beginning of her career, had finally become valid.
Jane Graham’s paintings hang in most of the major collections of twentieth-century art, including the recently opened Tate Modern in London, and in 1982 a major retrospective of her work was held at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Sloane folded the newspaper closed. Through the window the sky was a perfect, untrammelled blue. In another four hours, slightly less, they would be touching down at JFK.
The hotel on West 11th was cheap and clean, each room tailored to fit the basic accommodations, nothing more. Sloane showered and changed and put in a call to his friend, Jake Furman, letting him know he was in town. At the corner of the street, he took a window table in the French Roast and thumbed through the listings section of Village Voice, looking for any mention of Connie Graham. Afternoon traffic on Sixth Avenue was light, the sky a mottled grey. His club sandwich, when it arrived, would have satisfied a family of three, but even so, little remained on his plate when the waiter whisked it away and set down his coffee and the check. Ten minutes later Sloane was in a cab heading uptown to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art.
The painting was not where Sloane expected and for a moment he was turned around, confused, until he realised everything had been moved from where it had been for so long, the entire collection refocused, rehung.
Calm now, he moved through the interconnecting spaces, pausing here and there, until he turned the shoulder of one white wall and there it was, facing him, Jane’s painting, and the blood stopped somewhere between his heart and his brain.
A large canvas, exhilarating, clusters of orange, magenta and blue tumbling through white space, one over another, the edges indistinct, slippery, moving, the eye caught up, sent scuttling; each slab of colour in harmony, in collision, filaments of paint that spring up, spray out, finally drip and dribble and trickle down between.
Trinkle Tinkle (for Monk). Jane Graham. 1957.
Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he was able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.
Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across the shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed in the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focused, waiting his time.
Stuart Hazel had brought Sloane here first, only the second or third night he’d been in New York. ‘This cat you gotta dig. Monk. Thelonious Sphere Monk, can you believe that name?’
Sloane’s early years labouring over piano exercises, learning music, listening to his father practise, had been enough for him to know most things Monk was doing were foolhardy, next to impossible, kicking out against the commonplace, the rules.
Sitting, that first evening, fascinated, filtering out Hazel’s incessant conversation as his friend chattered, gossiped, pointed out each and every celebrity in the club. ‘Hey, Kenneth! How’s it goin’?’
After that he had returned alone. The same riffs, the same themes torn this way and that.
Ruby, My Dear.
And that evening, Sloane shifting in his seat, half rising awkwardly to let somebody squeeze past, and hearing a shout from a table near the side wall - ‘Jane! Hey, Jane!’ - turning his head in time to see a woman near the entrance, dark-haired and smiling at the sound of her name, a hand raised towards her friends in recognition, in greeting; time enough to see that she is beautiful, before Monk launches himself along the keyboard in a clattering arpeggio which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance, not falling, saving himself, miraculously, with an upward swoop and final, ringing double-handed chord.
I Mean You.
September 1957: the first time Sloane laid eyes on Jane Graham.
A party, Jane had said, University Place, why don’t you come? Sloane had shaved, applied deodorant a little too lavishly and borrowed a button-down Brooks Brothers shirt from Stuart Hazel without giving away too much about where he was going.
When he arrived, music and laughter were bouncing through the open windows on the third floor. On the first floor landing a couple were pressed into a hot embrace, the woman’s face tilted upwards, pale in the half-light, lips parted and eyes clenched tight. A small knot of people had spilled out into the third-floor hallway and Sloane excused his way between them and into the apartment, where he was enveloped in a fog of cigarette smoke and loud, overlapping conversation.
Men and women, mostly men, stood shoulder to shoulder, back to back, leaned against the walls. Courtesy of a gramophone near the window, alto sax and trumpet were chasing down the chords of ‘I Got Rhythm’. As Sloane squeezed his way towards the centre of the room, a voice close behind him rose above the rest: ‘All I’m saying, all I’m asking, right, imagine this is possible, you can have either Sal Mineo or James Dean, who would you fuck first?’
Someone had thrust a glass of wine into Sloane’s hand and he drank some of this before making his way towards what seemed to be an adjoining room.
Here it was calmer, less crowded, a couple slow-dancing to a tune that was only playing inside their heads. A small crowd of four or five was standing near the window, smoking and passing a bottle of brandy between them as they argued over the merits of a foreign movie Sloane had never heard of, let alone seen. And among the haphazard piles of coats strewn over the bed, several people sat or lounged, deep in conversation, one of them Jane Graham.
Seeing him, only moments after he saw her, she excused herself and slithered towards him, skirt riding high along her thighs.
‘You came.’ Happily, she took hold of his arm and then, not quite an afterthought, lifted her face and kissed his cheek.
‘Yes, didn’t you think I would?’
‘I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure.’ Her fingers squeezed his arm. ‘I’m glad you did.’ She looked at his glass askance. ‘Swallow that down, or, better still, use it to kill one of Frank’s remaining plants. Come over and have a real drink.’
Sloane followed her and perched, less than comfortably, on the edge of the bed while Jane introduced her friends in a blur of names which he immediately forgot.
‘They’re married,’ she added of one couple, ‘but what makes them so very different to most everybody else, they’re actually married to each other.’
Sloane saw an open face and friendly smile, brown hair that was brushed forward over the man’s forehead; his companion, Sloane thought, could have stepped off the cover of Vogue, her classic features framed by dark hair, her mouth the perfect mouth.
The man unscrewed the cap from a bottle of Dewar’s and tipped some of the scotch liberally into Sloane’s glass.
‘We were just discussing,’ Jane said, ‘who’s likely to get selected for the big touring shows now that Frank’s in charge.’
Seeing the confusion on Sloane’s face, she said, with a nod towards the main room. ‘Frank O’Hara, it’s his party. He’s responsible for what the Museum of Modern Art sends overseas. So far this year there’ve been shows in Tokyo and São Paulo and none of us have got a look in.’
‘And we’re his friends,’ someone added with a laugh.
‘That’s Frank,’ someone else said, ‘always bending over backwards to be fair.’
‘Not an uncommon position for Frank,’ another man suggested from the far side of the bed.
‘Bitch!’ Jane said, laughing just the same.
Smiling at Sloane, she caught hold of his hands. ‘Come on, I didn’t invite you here to spend all night on the bed.’
‘That,’ the Dewar’s man said with a wink, ‘is what she’d have you believe.’
There was live music now, saxophone, guitar and bass, and Jane, slipping her arms about Sloane’s waist, steered him round the room to a slow ballad and then a medium tempo blues. Sloane had swallowed down the whisky too quickly after the wine and things were beginning to move through a slight haze. A handsome young man, not much older than Sloane himself, fair hair falling forward across his face, came up behind Jane and, laughing, stage-whispered something about ‘cradlesnatcher’ in her ear. Jane elbowed him playfully away and pulled Sloane closer.
When the music finished she refilled her glass with scotch but Sloane, reading the warning signs, shook his head.
‘Come on,’ Jane said, ‘let’s get you some fresh air.’
If possible, the main room was even more crowded than before.
‘We ought to say goodbye to Frank,’ Jane said.
Cigarette in hand, wearing a pressed blue shirt, creased pants and grubby sneakers, Frank O’Hara was holding court in the furthest corner of the room. Seeing Jane Graham approach, he broke off his peroration on Orpheus and Eurydice to wrap her in a quick, warm embrace.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?’ O’Hara remarked, stepping away.
‘Not a chance,’ Jane laughed and, seizing Sloane’s hand, led him towards the door.
‘Larry,’ someone shouted in the hall, banging on the toilet door, ‘whoever it is you’re blowing in there, could you just speed it up a little.’
‘Cocteau,’ pronounced a young man on the bottom step, ‘understand him, you understand just about everything.’
‘I feel the same,’ his friend said, ‘about Judy Garland.’
Jane Graham led Sloane fifty yards along the street, pushed him back against the wall and kissed him on the mouth, her tongue pushing hard between his teeth
John Harvey is a writer and occasional broadcaster. His most recent work includes an adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter for BBC Radio 4 and the novel In a True Light, out this month from Heinemann.
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