David Bruce: Art Anecdotes

John Varley, a painter who was an acquaintance of William Blake, was generous—too generous. He gave much of his money to the needy, with the result that he sometimes found himself in debtors’ prison. He would simply take his painting supplies with him to prison, and then he would paint and sell paintings until he had paid his debts and could get out of prison. He was also an astrologer, and one day he believed that the planet Uranus was having an evil influence on him and he would suffer something bad before noon that day. A little before noon, he said that he was feeling well and that therefore the threat must not be to his person but to his property. Just then, the cry of “Fire!” was heard, and he rushed into the street and saw that his house was on fire. As it burned to the ground, he wrote a paper about the astrological influences of the planet Uranus.

Novelist Sarah Waters remembers a teacher who inspired her: Ed Tanguay, who in the 1980s taught art at the Milford Haven grammar school in south-west Wales. One day, he forgot to wear a tie to school, so he had his art students make him one—out of painted cardboard. Ms. Waters says, “He was everything a good teacher should be: stern at times, but good natured; clever, creative, and fun.” Not every teacher is good, of course, and some people have never had a good teacher. Artist Dinos Chapman said in a newspaper interview, “I hated every single one of my teachers and if any one of them are still alive, I hope they read this. They were horrible old fascists, convinced you could beat education into kids, and they threatened to cut my hair because I had lovely locks back then. It obviously traumatized me because now I’m completely bald.”

In 1968, on the streets of Munich, Viennese performance artist Valie Export engaged in what she called “Touch Cinema.” She would cut out holes in a box so that she could wear it around her torso: one hole was for her head, two holes were for her arms, and two holes were cut in front. Inside the box were her bare breasts, which were hidden by the box and by a cloth that covered the opening in the box in front of her breasts. She would tell passersby, “This box is the cinema hall. My body is the screen. But this cinema hall is not for looking—it is for touching.” She would then invite passersby to put their hands through the holes in front and touch her for 13 seconds. Some people took her up on the offer, and one thing that she noticed about the men was that they always looked her in the eyes as they touched her.

In 2010, graffiti artist Banksy paid a visit to Detroit, where he created works of art (without permission) in four places. His “Kid Draws his Garden on Cass Avenue” appeared on a wall of a vacant building on Cass Avenue, near the Curl Up and Dye salon, which specializes in punk-chic styles. The hairdressers there loved the Banksy, but they didn’t own or manage the building that the Banksy was painted on, and the powers-that-be had the Banksy power-washed off, despite the pleas of the hairdressers. Too bad. Travis R. Wright, author of the article “Banksy bombs Detroit,” writes, “That wall with Banksy was worth at least twice as much as the whole property’s asking price.”

David Byrne, former head of the Talking Heads, is a writer and artist as well as a musician. In 2009, he published The Bicycle Diaries, a book about his bicycling in urban areas. As an artist, he has designed bicycle-locking posts for use in New York City. Each is designed for the area in which it will be used. At the Museum of Modern Art, the bicycle-locking post is a blob. At the Ladies’ Mile, the bicycle-locking post is a high heel. Mr. Byrne says, “They were doodles I did for the amusement of the Department of Transportation [DOT]. Their response was, ‘We love these. If you can produce them, we have the authority to put them up.’”

Andy Warhol hated to throw anything away, and he solved the problem of what to do with his stuff by creating “Time Capsules.” He kept a box on which he wrote “T.C.” and a date, and each day he would drop stuff into the box: junk mail, gallery announcements, letters from famous people, and other odds and ends. When the box was filled, it was sealed with tape and stored. Then he began filling another box. Today many of the Time Capsules are in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA.

In 1969 and 1970, punk singer Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe used to live together in the Chelsea Hotel, along with many other artists and eccentrics. She often sat in the lobby, people-watching. One day she sat in the lobby after buying a stuffed black crow from the Museum of the American Indian. Salvador Dali, dressed in a black and scarlet cape, saw her holding the crow. He touched her shoulder and said to her, “You are like a crow, a gothic crow.”

Henry Fuseli was a teacher of art, and he was a wit. He once examined a student’s work of “art” and said, “It is bad. Take it to the woods and shoot it. That’s a good boy.” Once, his own painting titled The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes was criticized. Someone said that the boat was too small. Mr. Fuseli replied, “That’s part of the miracle.”

Fire inspectors in the world of dance can terrify art lovers. For example, fire inspectors test scenery for fireproofing by attempting to set it on fire. Ballet dancer Frank Moncion moaned when he saw the fire inspectors test the setting for the ballet Firebird—it had been designed by Marc Chagall.

Like many great actors, the great 18th-century actor David Garrick had a rubbery face with which he could create many different expressions. Once, as Sir Joshua Reynolds was trying to paint him, Mr. Garrick changed his expression each time the famous artist looked at him.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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