Memories of Tom Bostelle
A small nude, the color of mushrooms, sat on the floor beside his right foot.
Unreadable writing showed through from the other side of the paper the nude
was painted on. The effect of the sheet of paper was of a message from an alien
civilization, distant in space and time, and yet as familiar as the back of
my own hand. I concentrated on the nude and the illegible words, determined to
decipher their message.
"A crucifixion," Tom said.
"The nude?" I asked, pointing at the sheet of paper by his foot.
"No, the telephone pole," he said, pointing out the window.
This is the way visits to Tom's studio often went. We always seemed close
the revelation of some urgent truth, but somehow just missed it and the result
I sometimes think now that laughter was the truth we actually pursued. When
Gulley Jimson, the fictional painter in Joyce Cary's comic novel The Horses'
Mouth and one of Tom's heroes, was dying, a nun told him he should be praying
instead of laughing. "Same thing, mother," Gulley said.
Seeing a crucifixion in a telephone pole was typical of Tom. Without being
all religious in any traditional way--he could in fact be outspokenly and
ironically contemptuous of sanctimoniousness--he had the religious person's sense
of the world as an emblem, a sign or collection of signs rich with meaning.
One of the reasons he was drawn to shadows is that they are at once common and
neglected. He told me he wanted to do for shadows what Van Gogh had done for
sunflowers. By that he meant that he hoped his work would cause people to
notice shadows, to see them, and to stop taking them for granted. Shadows were for
him emissaries from another world who deserved our hospitality.
Hospitality toward the strange or alien was characteristic of him. It was
this reason that he was early open to influences that proved
fruitful--Christian Brinton's advocacy of modernist art and sculpture in a Chester County that
was up to its eyeballs in a realistic tradition, the quirky paintings and
humble personality of Horace Pippen, and the culture of the civilians of
devastated, defeated post-war Japan. He early collected a world of impressions that
lasted him a lifetime and beyond. He agreed with me that Hamlet's attitude
toward his father's ghost reflected not only the historical Renaissance but also
the personal Renaissance each of us is capable of by being (or becoming)
hospitable. When Hamlet's friends called the ghost a stranger, the Prince replied at
once, "And, therefore, as a stranger give it welcome."
Speaking of Hamlet for some reason reminds me that people who became familiar
with Tom's work before meeting him in person often expressed surprise. His
work led them to expect the artist to be a gloomy, depressed person rather than
the bright-eyed, grinning gnome they actually encountered. He was well aware
of this contrast and pointed to it as proof that he was lucky. "There are
always plenty of good reasons for gloom or depression," he said. "But I have the
good luck to be able to ward them off through my work, and so I am not dominated
by them in my life."
Work for him was a necessity, not just as a way to keep gloom at bay, but
also as a way to put death in perspective. His favorite line by Dylan Thomas was
"And death shall have no dominion," a line he delivered with all the rotundity
of the small Welsh baritone who had written it. Much of his work is made
poignant or humorous by a heightened awareness of the transience, the impermanence
of life. But at the same time his work represents an old-fashioned, heroic
attempt to preserve what is transient, to fix it with a form. In this way, each
human work--the mushroom-colored nude on the floor by his foot and the
telephone pole by the side of the road--is a kind of prayer, a protest against the
fragility of life and a reminder of just how much joy we can find in it.
Preface to Her first book on Bostelles work
There are those who believed that Tom Bostelle was more shadow than flesh and blood, so inextricably was he involved in the shadow world he created. Though the facts of his birth and early existence could easily be attained when he was in a nostalgic humor, his deeper preoccupations have always been with time, space, human character, and their depiction on flat surfaces. He was an artist. In his vicinity, he was considered controversial because of his disregard for the current fashion in dress and in idea. Indeed he had outright contempt for expedient compromise in any situation, whether it be to compromise with the “public” view of art, social behavior, history, or to compromise with his own demons. He had a deep respect for the spirit behind the best traditions of the past and the projection of that spirit into the present and future. One feels as though Bostelle had an almost friendly relationship with past masters, he spoke of them so intimately. Indeed, rather than say he was self-taught, one could say he was taught by Beethoven, Rembrandt, and Cézanne.
Early in 1947, Bostelle’s interest in the world of shadows (or obscure
born of his study of chiaroscuro, led him to experiment with shadows in a traditional realistic sense. It became evident to him after the first dozen “brick-wall”shadows that he should be able to give the shadow a life of it’s own, divorced from the need of a local background. The use of collage was bearing fruit in the best of modern painting, and Bostelle accepted the influence, which enabled him to visually project his flat patterns by casting them on surfaces of his own invention.
These works are marvelously sui generis. The artist described them as anamorphic patterns executed parietally. But this is a simplificatioin, for there is a quality about them, which defies description but impresses very strikingly the notion that these shadows, along with their creator, lived in a world of ideas. Bostelle’s teaching, as well, bore out this notion; for while he was generous in sharing his procedures with others, it was his ability to project ideas about painting and all the arts, which characterized his superiority as a teacher. In any association with the artist beyond the merely peripheral, one came away with a strong feeling of his authenticity.
The artist’s goal was to create a new world, his own two-dimensional
universe peopled with ubiquitous images. He, himself, did not know how his
world would look ultimately.
While he was confident that he was dealing with a viable truth, it was not likely that he would have admitted to having achieved more than the germ of a beginning.
"handout" for a show in 1998
For years he has been concerned with what he sees as an increasing emphasis on triviality in contemporary life and the tyranny of the innocuous. This led to a series of paintings and sculptures of dehumanized beings, and then to his ‘homo innocuous’. His ‘clones’ appeared on canvas long before science presented them in flesh.
Arrogant, egocentric, and charismatic, he has the personal magnetism of a
His fierce dedication to his work has made him an artist’s artist among his circle of peers and an admired teacher. It has given him the capacity to ask very little material gain or comfort of life. Thus he has been able to maintain his autonomy in every aspect of his work, from its creation to its dissemination, yielding to no interference and ascending to no judgment but that of time.
If the current state of art seems ‘confused’ to some critics it is inconsequential to Bostelle, who is still a maverick. But it may be a healthy state for art more than 100 years after the modern revolution—proof that even in this age of conformity artists who have something unusual to say are refusing to be told what words to use.
This sixty-year summary of Bostelle’s work reveals an evolution of ideas and imagery within the framework of an intensely personal perspective on life—an orderly growth and maturation of philosophy, of style, of reconciliation with his ‘place’ in art history.
If we are entering an era in which we will be listening to the multiplicity
of individual artist voices instead of a ‘Greek chorus,’ this
is not ‘confusion’ but diversity. Bostelle has written in his
note books: “I knew as a boy just discovering Cezanne that I must invent
a new way of seeing—emblems of my own—a manner of speech in paint.”
And later: ”it is not a question of Abstract Expressionism or Realism
or any of the small streams left to explore. Take your boat down whatever
stream will make you a river.
You say what you wish to say—YOU are the latest ISM.”
Quest Magazine Article
Here, late one fall afternoon, is the Brandywine River,sliding south under
the bridge at Lenape,Pennsylvania.Pause as you cross Lean on the parapet,
look down at your face trembling in the clear water below. A chain of bubbles
drifts through your eye socket; pale fronds of algae veil your temples;you
stretch out your hand, and the sun spills through your fingers, setting them
coldly on fire.
To your right, on the east bank, stands ,a silent, shut-down amusement park. Carousel horses rest paralyzed in mid-plunge, impaled on their own poles; torn posters hang in the motionless air. A barker’s box lies suffused in shadow—is that the deeper shadow of a man inside it, or merely a hole in the shape of a bowler hat?
To your left, on rickety piles along the stream sprawls an ancient dance hall It appears from this angle to be ruined
but as the roar of a northbound car dies away (you did not see the car—only a speeding shadow as it passed), you can hear Bach cello music floating out from under the eaves. You step off the bridge, follow a sign marked 'Aeolian Palace Gallery', and descend a path to step onto a long, creaky porch. The music grows louder as you approach a half-open door. You are entering the world of Tom Bostelle.
At first sight it seems to be a world of no color. To eyes still full of
outside glare, the cavernous space is a bewildering chiaroscuro of half—lit
objects. Huge frames soar toward the rafters, their contents screened by dozens
of smaller frames, awkwardly stacked. An upended canoe and an arm—chair
piled with boxes deny access to a triptych that has Fragments of other paintings
pinned to it. Cobwebs becloud an assortment of glassed-in sketches. A carved
wooden eagle, its head knocked off, lies in an old basketwork perambulator.
All these things are bathed in the eerie light-effects of a riverside room;
dapples through the doorway, blades of sunshine slicing between planks.
Only gradually as your eyes adjust do you realize that the Aeolian Palace of full of exquisite art - art made out of shadows rather than substance, planes instead of rounds, surfaces seen through other surfaces with no apparent mass in between.Here aagain, subtly distorted, are the floating faces and the ambiguous silhouettes of the Brandywine Valley
Some of those light-effects, it turns out, are not real but contrived. The pale refractions on a female nude do not slip off when you lift the picture up. The shadow cast across a blue green perspective is not your own but that of the artist, who “left’ it behind when he walked away from the easel. Judging from his profile, he seems to be a hulking man with an outthrust jaw and heavy dangerous shoulders.
Bostelle himself is nowhere to be seen, but the cello music, coming from a separate studio at the end of the building, indicates where he can be found. You knock on the door with some trepidation; such descriptions as you may have gathered on your journey up the Brandywine are not likely to put you at ease. “This is Wyeth country, you know—he’s always resented that. There’s a lot of rage in Tom, although he tries to be polite” “Just don’t get him on a bad day that’s all; he’s extremely temperamental.”
Today must be a good one, for Bostelle seems to welcome the intrusion. He switches off the radio. “That’s okay, come on in. I’m not working this afternoonin. But I am trying to prepare a lecture for tomorrow night, so don't stay too long if you don't mind. His handshake warns you that for years he had to work steel to keep from starving, yet his body is neither as big nor as threatening as his self-portrait suggests.
Tom Bostelle is a tough, medium-sized man of 59 whose unkempt hair and stubbly cheeks do not disguise the fact that he is handsome. He looks well washed and well laundered, yet his clothing is shabby even by the infamous standards of his profession It consists of a bulbous sweater vibrating here and there with loose knots of wool, a thrift-shop shirt jeans stiff with paint, and unzipped boots. In one hand he carries a bottle of beer, from which he never sips. He holds it at an angle precisely calculated at the point of spilling: its lack of head suggests it has been opened for an hour or more.
He is alert,as artists always are to the movement of his visitors eyes. “That’s
a portrait of my old army sergeant in Guadalcanal in 1944. Literature buff.
He loved to talk books with me, but when I switched the subject to painting
he began to look lost, like that.....Not bad for a kid! Of course my style
was realistic then.” The sergeant gazes wistfully down, a neglected
book in his hand. Thirty-six years , and untold refinements of style separate
this portrait and the unfinished nude on Bostelle’s easel. The latter
is little more than pale wash suggestive of opening thighs and arms, but a
woman’s face, heavy with desire, is already painted in. Her supplicatory
attitude is, odd-
ly, not unlike that of the scholarly soldier.
Both paintings, in short, suggest the presence off canvas of a man aloof,
and Bostelle, for all his boyish friendliness, is clearly that person. He is eager for intelligent response to his work, but as soon as it degenerates into mere praise his smile hardens and he looks away impatiently.
Even now, as he conducts a courteous tour of the studio, his voice frequently tails off as he contemplates this work and that, repainting it in his head. He actually whips out a piece of sandpaper and scratches at a landscape with it. “Hard edge here, soft edge there. You see how it makes the planes tilt? And look what’s coming out here. Lovely, lovely!” Ghostly remnants of some earlier version surface as the new paint sands away; image collides with image, a sudden chasm seems to yawn between hills half an inch apart.Bostelle backs off, chuckling with glee. He starts when reminded he is not alone.
“Ah, yes, The Pink Perambulator. One of my arrivals “Arrivals? “I call a painting that when it somehow arrives at the point I’m driving at. I look at it and shout, ‘Thats it!’" The terrifying shadow careening downstairs and backward tugs like all Bostelle “arrivals,” at recent memory. Of course! The old perambulator near the door. But this vehicle carries, instead of a headless eagle, a child—or an old woman?— screaming perhaps with an eagle’s voice. Above and beyond the blood colored silhouette, a series of lightly sketched heads, wearing such hats as were fashionable in the Aeolian Palace’s heyday, stare sightlessly out of frame. Older memories stir—of the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, of the second chapter of Graham Greene’s autobiography. Bostelle is willing to entertain such references (he is a passionate reader and moviegoer), but he will not be pinned down to specific comment. “My theme was simply indifference,” he says, shrugging. “You can see what you like in it.”
The studio tour begins to accelerate in the direction of the door, but Bostelle stops briefly by two epic works in progress. One, 11 feet high by 15, looks finished yet is unsigned. It represents seven months of knee-crippling ladder work, and (the artist admits proudly) 40 years of thought. Despite its huge size the composition seems to breathe air and light: a dozen or so translucent figures mix and merge in a silvery nimbus of white and blue, tinged here and there with terracotta. Something about the curve of a hat brim here, the thrust of a pike there, evokes vague memories of— what? “Rembrandt’s Night Watch,” Bostelle explains. “Actually this is a study in pentimento. There are at least five celebrations of Rembrandt buried underneath—you can see bits of them showing through.”
Celebrations? “Oh yes, all my paintings celebrate something. Art should be joyous.”
The other canvas, which Bostelle calls Local Journey, is patently auto- biographical in that it fuses segments of his earlier work, bodily cut from old paintings, with the images that have preoccupied him in recent years:
Christ like children on carousel horses, shadowy men in hoods, naked women glimpsed through screens or floating “panes” that gracefully distort their bodies. More tugs at the memory. Was it not Robert Frost who wrote of the hypnotic effect of gazing at reality through prisms?
I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.........
Bostelle scowls at the mention of Frost’s name. “He came here once—shaking hands at some reception’and said to me, ‘Do you also paint like Wyeth?’ I said, ‘No, I paint like Bostelle!’ and turned my back on him.”
He slides the door open, evidently anxious for solitude. Then, to soften the sense of dismissal, he asks, “Why don’t you come to my lecture tonight? It’ll mark the opening of my new show at the Chester County Art Association.”
Circulating in the crowd at an opening-night exhibition is a good way of picking up biographical information, along with stray glimpses of art. Bostelle, apparently, has been the enfant terrible of this wealthy and conservative corner of Pennsylvania since his days as truant West Chester schoolboy.Solitary, fatherless, and fiercely devoted to his mother, he would do nothing in class but paint. At 13 his talent was so precocious that a committee of local patrons took him to a school for gifted children in Philadelphia. Young Tom was back home, painting, before the committee was.
Quitting school at the earliest opportunity, he enrolled briefly at the Pennsylvania
Academy of Fine Arts,and, to pay his way, took the first of a 20-year series
of laboring jobs. His academic training was soon abandoned for obsessive private
study of the old. masters, and cultivation of whichever living painters, musicians,
and writers he could meet. Horace Pippin, the great black primitive artist,
submitted patiently to Bostelle’s youthful idolatry, and sat for a portrait
which ended up in the National Portrait Gallery. The artist gave a one-man
show at 17, won his first major award shortly afterward,and married just before
the army claimed him in 1943. Serving as an engineer in the Pacific and Japan,
he received a series of jolts to his artistic
consciousness, including a vision of crowds as dark waves of threat or suffering, moved by inscrutable forces.
His paintings grew increasingly somber after the war, as child followed child and poverty weighed upon him. Exhibits as far a field as Paris won him prestige but no money. Bostelle was forced to spend more and more time away from art: at one New York show he was billed as “a steelworker.”
Revolutionary ideas have a way of germinating in the midst of despair,and Bostelle was possessed, one Jamesian afternoon in 1947, with a concept of painting based on two dimensional shadow rather than
three-dimensional reality. His first triumph in this genre was Severance of Communication (1951), which so impressed the critic Lincoln Kirstein that New York’s Hewitt Gallery ordered a roomful of Bostelles for sale. But the pictures were too subtle, and the artist too uncompromising,for the fashionable clientele. Another New York show found only one buyer: Gloria Vanderbilt.
A measure of security entered his life in 1961, when the Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, D.C. began to sell his work at prices that escalated steadily for a decade. Meanwhile word got around that the unshaven “steelworker” was capable of amazingly elegant portraits, and a series of other Vanderbilt's, du Ponts, and Philadelphia Main Liners clamored to sit for him. Bostelle was forced to announce that he would paint only those people who interested him.
With success came growing intractability, reclusiveness, and stylistic experimentation. Bostelle became more and more his own man, to the point that he gave up all big-city connections. With the help of his fellow artist and business manager, Tania Boucher, he opened a gallery at the Aeolian Palace in 1969 and began to sell directly to the public. Since then he has become something of a cult figure, collected by a small but widening circle of connoisseurs.
Why, then, is Bostelle’s lecture“The Figure in Art,” so sparsely attended? Anybody surnamed Wyeth could pack not only the auditorium, but an overflow marquee as well. Part of the reason, one suspects, lies in the artist’s eccentricity. Garrulous, rumpled, and grinning, he paces like a cougar in front of a row of nervous matrons,sucking noisily at a Coca-Cola, and smacking at the projector screen with his pointer. “You, see how that line flows and repeats here! There! Here!
Hah!” Calm and articulate in private, he is a temperamental public speaker. At times his passion for art makes his words (enunciated with bizarre Harvard and London overtones) pour put in an incoherent flood; at others he practically chokes
with the effort ‘to translate sight into sound, and sympathetic listeners volunteer the word he is gasping for.
Eventually the rhythmic succession of slides on the screen calms him, and he becomes persuasive even moving, as he demonstrates the art behind the art of his beloved masters—the cave painters of Lascaux, “dear, dear Rembrandt,” Cezanne, and Balthus.(He caresses the last’s Golden Days with the tenderness of a priest fingering an icon.) But as before in the studio,his voice tails off too often for total communication; surrounded by ears that cannot hear, Bostelle is a man talking mainly to himself.
So too with his art. Perhaps those a hauntingly poignant refractions of inner emotion will always remain a minority taste in a world where the majority prefers the comfortable banalities of an Andrew Wyeth. (“There are guys around here who make a living painting the other side of barns painted by Andy,” Bostelle says, smiling wickedly.) Perhaps he should not have quit the big-city circuit when he did; there are signs now and then of resurgent ambitions that must burst the narrow confines of the Brandywine Valley. His latest works are too overwhelming for anything except a big museum.
Yet the images that linger when you leave the world of Bostelle are not his epic achievements so much as the elusive inspirations that make his “arrivals” unique. The spectral hands of shadow-passengers in a car that seems to be soaring toward the sun; the profile of a beautiful woman split into shards; those sleepy-eyed children riding carousel horses into space; such things do not fade, nor do the unpainted Bostelles that you will see for weeks afterward in odd win-
dow reflections, darkened doorways, or the ghosts of an unfocused television screen.
Once you have gazed through Bostelle’s painted panes, you will never quite rub the strangeness from your sight.