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Speak Out: Capturing Artists

By Jeffrey Sussman
ART TIMES
Summer 2013

While still in high school, I had become an art lover.  I had posters of paintings on all of my bedroom walls. There were reproductions of works by Picasso, Degas, Homer, Eakins, Braque, Davis, Matisse, El Greco, Van Gogh, Wyeth, Sargent, Rembrandt, Ernst, Dali, Shahn, Marsh, and many others. There was hardly any free wall space.

Most of the artists represented on my walls were dead, but two were still alive. I had a poster of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and one of a seated nude woman by Moses Soyer. My tastes in living artists were obviously eclectic.

When I was in college, I taught myself photography and began doing black-and-white portraits of friends, neighbors, and relatives. On an impulse one day, I pulled out the Manhattan telephone directory and looked up Marcel Duchamp. To my pleasant surprise, he was listed as living on West 10th Street. I phoned and asked if I might photograph him. In a soft, French-accented voice, he invited me to his apartment the following day.

I arrived with my cameras, tripod, and lights, having lugged them all out of the subway on West 14th Street. Marcel lived on the second floor of an elegant old town house. His tall French windows faced the street. He was a slim man who seemed taller than he actually was. His face was old but beautifully sculpted with high cheekbones and vivid hawk-like eyes and a slightly aquiline nose. He had thin Renaissance lips that reminded me of paintings of archbishops and cardinals.

“Shall I sit or stand?” he gently asked.

“Sitting I think would be fine,” I responded. As I set up my camera, I noticed that there were no works of art in the living room, nothing by Marcel, nothing by any of his famous colleagues.

Having angled my camera on the tripod, I proceeded to shoot numerous shots of Marcel’s perfectly proportioned head. I took several extreme close-ups, then some head and shoulder shots.

On the table next to his chair was a chessboard, each piece looking as if it had been sculpted by Brancusi. One set of pieces looked to be in silver, the other in copper.

“Did you sculpt those?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“I read in an article by your friend Man Ray that you gave up art to concentrate on chess. Is that true?” I asked.

“I gave up art because there was nothing further that I wanted to do. I was not going to carry on like Dali, turning out works just for more and more money.”

“You almost single-handedly seemed to invent Dada,” I suggested.

“There were many others, such as Picabia,” he responded.

“Yes, but it was not only your paintings, but also your assemblages, the famous urinal which you titled ‘The Fountain’ and signed R. Mutt, and then taking on the persona of Rose Selavy.”

He laughed gently.

“I took a music course last year with a composer named Stefan Wolpe who told me that he participated in a Dada happening with you and some others in Paris. Apparently, there were a number of stuffy French academicians and others who were invited to a highly important gallery opening and they had to walk through a public bathroom where all the toilets were noisily in use.”

“It was very enjoyable, that time,” he said.

“You also stunned Theodore Roosevelt. I read someplace that he attended the 1913 Armory Show in New York where your ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ was exhibited, and he referred to it as ‘an explosion in a shingle factory.’ ”

“So I have been told,” Marcel said, smiling.

“Do you now play chess most of the time?”

“I belong to the Marshall Chess Club, right across the street. I enjoy the game and being there.”

“I read that you played chess with the composer John Cage, and that each piece when moved made a musical note.”

“Yes, we played for an audience in Canada, and it was written about in chess and music publications.”

No sooner than he finished the sentence, a female voice from another room at the rear of the apartment called out, “Marcel let’s go. It’s time.”

“Yes, Teeny,” he said in a soft, almost inaudible whisper.

 He stood up in compliance, then walked to a bookshelf and pulled out a large art book with a black-and-white cover.

“I would like you to have this,” he said. “There were only a thousand copies of this printed and it contains all of my work.” He took out a pen and wrote, “To Jeffrey Sussman, Avec plaisier, Marcel Duchamp.” He handed me the book, and I promised to send him copies of the photographs I had shot. It was the last time I saw him, for he died not long afterward.

Next on my list was the painter Moses Soyer, whose work seemed to be influenced by Degas, the social realists, and Thomas Eakins. When I phoned him, a man’s voice would not say whether he was Soyer or not. He simply told me to call another number, which rang in Soyer’s studio on East Third Street. “Call tomorrow afternoon,” he said and hung up.

When I called the same voice answered the phone, and I again explained who I was and what I wanted to do. “Come by the studio tomorrow at 2 p.m.,” he said and hung up. The following day, I arrived at the door to his studio at precisely 2 and rang the bell. No response. I rang it again. Still no response. Again and again.

I decided to wait across the street and see if anyone arrived or left the building. No one. After nearly an hour, I left. I phoned the next day, and explained to the voice that I had come at 2 o’clock, but that there was no one there.

“Come now,” he said and hung up.  

I finally succeeded and was invited into a large loft studio by a small man with a large head and large sleepy eyes. He reminded me of Peter Lorre, not only in his appearance, but also in his air of mysteriousness, as if appearing in a German Expressionist murder film of the 1920s or early 1930s.

“May I look at your paintings before I photograph you?” I asked.

“Go ahead,” he said. He sat in a chair, listening to classical music as he put the finishing touches on a large oil portrait of a nude young woman. I spotted a small oil of a nude couple, a Rubenesque woman recumbent on an unmade bed, and a naked man sitting on the edge of the bed, facing the viewer.

“Would you sell me that painting?” I asked.

“I could let you have it for $1,500, which is less than my gallery would sell it for. Do you really want it?”

“Yes, but I’ll have to get the money. I’ll be back with a check for it next week.”

I was so excited about buying the painting that I nearly forgot to take any photographs.

That night, I called various relatives and asked to borrow money to buy a painting. Some of them thought I was crazy, others were pleased to cooperate. I borrowed $500 from each of two relatives. I took the remaining $500 from money I had saved while working at part-time jobs. I called Moses and told him I had the money to buy the painting and would come by the following afternoon.

I handed him the check and he said, “I want to give you a present.” He handed me a sketch of a woman breastfeeding an infant.

I took a great deal of time developing, cropping, and printing the photographs I did of him. They varied from poster size to 5 by 7. I had them framed at a shop recommended by a curator from the Museum of Modern Art.

The following week, Soyer invited my first wife and me to his home on West Ninth Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. There, I presented him with the photos. His wife, Ida, who had been a ballet dancer in her youth, complimented me on the “drama of the photos.” I could have purred, I felt so pleased.

Unlike the apartment of Marcel Duchamp, the Soyers’ was a virtual gallery of paintings and sculptures. There were busts by Jacob Epstein, paintings by Milton Avery, Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Bellows, Reginald Marsh, Ben Shahn, Jack Levine, and many others. It was truly an aesthetic feast for the eyes. I walked around the living room, stunned and envious, as if I were in a museum. “What a collection,” I murmured.

As we were putting our coats on and readying to leave, Moses asked us to come by his studio the next week. “Call first to make sure I’m there,” he said.

After we arrived the following week, Moses showed us a series of nudes that he had done in the past few months. One of them was one of my former high school classmates. I was surprised, not because I had never seen her nude, but because I didn’t know that anyone from my small private school knew Moses Soyer, never mind would pose in the nude for him.

“I would like to paint the two of you in the nude,” he said. “Since you purchased the last painting I had done of a nude couple, I want to replace it. And what would be better than to have a nude of the couple who now own my painting of a nude couple.”

We were flattered and a little taken aback. We were not shy, but no one had ever asked us to pose in the nude before. “Let us think about it,” I said.

Moses smiled somewhat ruefully, then said softly, “Yes. Think about it. Your youth and beauty will be preserved for a long time.”

Alas, we never did pose for him. And since we divorced years later, I now think it was a good idea that we weren’t memorialized in a Moses Soyer painting.

Though he never painted us, I did manage to photograph the three of us, all with our clothes on. The photos have an “American Gothic” quality, vacant eyes staring off into space. In one of those photos, my ex-wife and I are standing beside a seated Moses Soyer, who is putting the finishing touches on a portrait of a woman. While the three of us have blank, vacant stares on our faces, the woman in his portrait is staring at the camera with a barely perceptible smile on her face.

We would see the Soyers once or twice a year. I had the pleasant opportunity of introducing them to my then-employer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winner, and his wife, Alma. We all had a vegetarian dinner together in my apartment. Singer had become a vegetarian not for health reasons of his own, but, as he said, “for the health of the animals who I don’t eat.”

My friendship with Moses Soyer continued until his death in 1974. He was a generous man, and when my son was born, he gave me another of his works of art: an artist’s proof of a lithograph of 12 contemplative and pensive faces. The gifts did not stop there: He gave me three autographed books of his works, including an instructional text, “Painting the Human Figure.”

I occasionally look at those photos I took of Marcel Duchamp and Moses Soyer and consider myself a lucky man for having known two such talented artists who brightened my life with their unique talents.

(Jeffrey Sussman is the author of ten books, president of a marketing/ PR firm in NYC; his website is www.powerpublicity.com)

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