Joseph Diluzio Ph.D
This book is a provocative response to our post modern age where”reality” bombards us through ultrasophisticated media from all quarters—unerringly, like Bostelle’s ”peppering” shooters who don’t miss. His idiom is remarkably free of depressive (and oppressive) cynicism and rather optimistically shows what heights can be reached in an era to prone to quick shock and artless pastiche.
Bostelle’s images are just that—images or shades which give but a glimpse of the greater picture. They are anti-representational in the best sense, seeming to grow out of the spontaneous reflection of the unconscious.
The “unsaid” is even more telling than that which is represented.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that verbal commentaries are added to the artwork.
But their character is as elusive as the images they describe. As Bostelle puts it, “Fay, you don’t get much but when you get it, it’s even less.”
“Peppered” with wit, humor, irony, surprise and mystery, they playfully employ the linguistic pleasures of a pun and reversals of expectation: “She damned him with quaint phrase.” Some are accompanied by a paradoxical, if not oxymoronic, epithet: “his mind was crowded with alone,” and “He was the only disorder in family—altogether too psychological.” Through both figurative and verbal components, a larger reality is communicated, to which we react:
I saw a scene
that reflected me nothing
that told me nothing
and therefore told everything.
Tom Bostelle, an influential Chester County artist, died Thursday, Feb. 17, in his Pocopson home studio at the age of 83.
Bostelle was a painter, sculptor, and author whose works grace the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., the Delaware Art Museum, the Chester County Historical Society, as well as on the West Chester University campus. His artworkcan be found in Sykes Student Union, Boucher Science Center and Mitchell Hall.
Professor John Baker, Chairperson of the Art department, was a good friend of Bostelle?s and had the pleasure of working with him over the past 15 years.
Baker said, "Tom Bostelle was a true inspiration for so many. He was admired and respected for his commitment to his artistic values and philosophy."
Bostelle started his artistic career as a teenager and at age 16 he became friends with the artist Horace Pippin. He convinced Pippin to pose for a portrait and that painting is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Associate Professor of Art, Donna Usher, has her own fond memories of Bostelle. Usher grew up in Downingtown, down the street from Bostelle, and took art lessons from him when she was 12-years-old. Usher described him as being very poetic and said he was a "larger than life figure." She also said that he was "a heroic figure to the artist community."
Usher said that she remembers seeing him walking in the neighborhood with a dark cape and she always found him very intriguing. During their first encounter when Usher was showing him her drawings, she fondly remembers him going over them and asking her what she wanted to do with her art. She told him that she intended to be an art teacher and she still remembers his colorful response, which was "You?ll be the best little damn art teacher there ever was."
Bostelle, along with being a great artist, has also been described as a crank, a genius, and an egomaniac, as well as a maverick. At age 17 he had quit school to work as a self-taught artist for the rest of his life. He supported himself and his family by working a series of jobs including house painter and truck driver as well as teaching art students in his home. Most of Bostelle’s artwork contains what he described as "shadows" which are often life size or larger.
Bostelle said, "My art concerns the human condition of my time, the paradox of life. I see people theatrically as on a stage, fractured and distorted by the times, politics, technology, loss of individuality." Much of Bostelle’s artwork contains dark subject matter which has both garnered him support and alienated others.
His first idea for painting crowds came from his observing a huge gathering of Japanese at Osaka. Bostelle said, "They were soldiers being dismissed from the army, poor, wretched mass of humanity... there was no order, only an artistic order made by their grouping."
Bostelle has also described himself as having an ego. He has said "I don?t think you can work in the arts without considerable ego, especially when you are struggling to become [an artist]."
Bostelle, being largely independent, preferred to handle his own career as opposed to working with gallery owners. In the late 1960s he established his Aeolian Palace gallery and studio on the Brandywine Creek. For the last three years, his main exhibition space has been in the Garrubbo Bazan Gallery in West Chester.
Baker said "Tom was always a teacher, sharing his aesthetics with all." Those who have worked with him over the years have described him as being a true inspiration.
Although Bostelle has been battling with emphysema for years, his death came as a shock for many that knew him. He?s survived by a daughter Mary Heath, two sons, James M., Jonathon T., and five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
From Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, you can take Route 100 north and follow the meandering Brandywine River through the landscape made so familiar by Andrew Wyeth. Eventually you will cross a small bridge and suddenly notice people getting into their cars with paintings that they apparently purchased in what looks like an old dance hall. As you drive closer, you discover it is an old dance hall.
Aha! you think; an artist has set has himself up in the heart of Wyeth country and is capitalizing on the popular nostalgic realism of the Brandywine River School. But when you look more closely, the paintings seem to be shadows. Well, almost.
This phenomenon seems worth investigating, so you stop to inspect farther, and here is what you find: In front, in a separate building, where the ticket office used to be, is a neat little gallery. Behind that is the rambling 1920 structure once known as The Aeolian Palace Dance Hall, now the artist’s studio. Curious, you follow a long porch that tilts down toward the river, negotiating around an old Franklin stove, a litter of cats, the skeletons of a cow and a canoe, until you find the door. Inside you locate the artist himself, Tom Bostelle.
Make that The Artist Himself, because Bostelle epitomizes the concept as he paces about the studio in a baggy black sweater, wrinkled corduroys, and unzipped boots while talking nonstop:
“Ha! Hear that? (Mozart on the radio.) It never goes down without going up again. That’s rhythm: That’s what good drawing is all about.
“I am really interested in putting down rhythmic images that dwell inside me and that I have lived with all my life. My images are parietal. Do you know what that means? It’s an anatomical term that means the ‘inner wall,’ like the inside of a skull. The canvas is my inner wall. The paintings in the caves at Lascaux are also painted on an ‘inner wall.’ Maybe that’s why I feel so close to the artists who did them.”
Bostelle goes on to quote Shakespeare and e. e. cummings, read from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and imitate the walk of the old Japanese woman who did his laundry when he was stationed in Japan just after World War II.
All this might seem like so much artistic posturing, except that it rings true. It’s quite consistent with the picture of 14-year-old Bostelle laboring over his highly accomplished copy of The Night Watch, a copy that now stands against a wall of his studio.
It is also consistent with the way that Bostelle has “made it” on his own terms as an artist. Surrounded by a tradition of nostalgic realism, he makes paintings and sculptures that are “born of shadows.” He had little academic art training, preferring to study the old and modern masters on his own. And, though he has sold through dealers in New York and Washington D.C., his most important sources of income are his private classes and the work he sells out of his studio and recently-opened gallery.
Bostelle’s “shadow paintings” exhibit his primary artistic concerns. Describing them is not easy, even for Bostelle himself.
“Most artists look at objects as defined by full light,” he says, “but I am more aware of how objects look in dark rooms. The paintings are born of shadows that provide the initial image which stops in my mind. The distortion gives me the rhythm that I work with to create two-dimensional design that must fit on the canvas with total harmony.”
The shadow provides more than inspiration for flattening and distortion. Bostelle paintings have a brooding, slightly menacing, Gothic atmosphere.
“Rhythm” keeps coming up in Bostelle’s conversation, and it is perhaps his single most important concern. It is apparent in the way he works, especially in the early stages of a painting. Using a housepainter’s fitch – a giant brush – he steps rapidly into and back from the canvas, parrying and thrusting like a fencer. Broad strokes develop a quick, flat image with hard and soft edges and opaque (but thin) areas that trail off into space. He is enthralled by serpentine lines and short, syncopated rhythms and finds that the female nude gives the best combination of these. But other subjects – a pitcher and bowl, a vase of dried flowers, a crowd of children – run a close second. In some cases Bostelle works from a specific shadow; in others he uses his technique to “shadowfy” the object.
Bostelle’s shadow paintings are not simply flat designs. His nudes, for example, have a unique plasticity: they exist in ambiguous space that fluctuates subtly from near to deep, depending primarily on how thickly the paint is applied and how the ghosts of discarded images show through. The same subtle push-pull can be seen in the figure itself. A leg, painted totally flat, seems to slide imperceptibly into a torso of sculptural solidity.
Bostelle usually begins a painting with a very thin, flat, off-white oil wash, which he calls his “first thought.” The final colors will be subtly subdued and the color range will be severely restricted. (Bostelle almost always grays a color with its complement or with umber.) His palette is limited to eight colors: titanium white (which he has to buy in one-pound cans, because he uses so much of it), raw or burnt umber, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, permanent green, and ultramarine blue. For a true, flat black, he uses a mixture of raw umber and a bit of drier and then taps powdered charcoal into it.
Once the first image is put down, Bostelle begins what he calls “adding and subtracting, at all times on the alert for the single manifestation of the larger rhythm that will hold the image on the canvas in perfect balance.” He washes in new shapes, reinforces a contour, increases the bulk of the volume, makes an edge harder, or loses it entirely. He uses charcoal line to emphasize contours, suggest three-dimensional mass, or break up the space into angular planes. At the same time, he subtracts with a rag or sandpaper or steel wool (and, on occasion, Strypeze). Bostelle says that by wiping away he is trying to evoke the greatest range of tonal values possible. The ghosts of this process often remain to give his space its complexity.
Toward the final stages, the artist will often introduce a sudden note of starkness: an angular plane or shard of light cut into and behind the figure, harshly jumping the eye backward or forward. The shape may be a piece of blank canvas or paper pasted to the painting. “Its purpose,” says Bostelle, “is to jar the mind of the observer into submission to the unexpected variable.”
When working with oil, Bostelle prefers to paint on a good grade of bond paper laminated to heavy posterboard and primed. Only for very large paintings will he use canvas or canvasboard, and for some large works he will mount two or more sheets of posterboard on wood. “I invent my own surfaces,” he says, sometimes cutting a piece of posterboard into pieces and shifting them slightly to achieve a jagged pattern of line and plane.
Although he prefers painting in oil because it allows for “layers of thinking,” Bostelle chooses his media to fit an idea, not the other way around. His watercolors are done on buff paper and, if one needs a bit more overall color when it’s almost finished, he gives it an oil wash, which is coffee colored if the paper seems to “white.” After the wash, he does some corrective drawing and then may iron it to produce the look of old parchment.
Bostelle’s sculpture – he works in wood and cast bronze – also begins with the shadow. The bronze pieces are thin, almost two-dimensional, like shadows. But they are curved and twisted and roughly worked; the wood surfaces are scorched or painted. All this gives an impression of great monumentality, which hardly seems possible with such “paper doll” sculpture.
Comparing the paintings and sculptures is one way to gain an understanding of what Bostelle has achieved. In painting, he takes a two-dimensional subject, the shadow, and from it derives an image that exists in modern, ambiguous space. In sculpture, he goes the opposite way, taking a three-dimensional medium and using it to create a nearly flat image that retains a sense of sculptural mass.
Moving to Bostelle’s landscapes, the same concerns and methods can be seen, but the end result is different. In his paintings of the Chester County countryside, he is still intent on capturing the essential rhythmic pattern while indicating the inviting depth of the rolling hills. He will spend hours on the spot trying to put down what he calls the “emblem” of a view in charcoal or oil wash.
Bostelle’s palette becomes broader and brighter in most landscapes, but the technique of “adding and subtracting” remains the same. The surfaces are again heavily worked as Bostelle scratches through the top layers of pigment to find tree lines and shadows, which were laid in at the beginning. These accent the basic pattern of the flatly painted fields and hillsides.
“I have achieved a landscape procedure every bit my own,” Bostelle says, “but I am still dissatisfied with it.” I have not yet been able to bring the landscapes down to their ‘shadow existence,’ except sometimes, mostly in charcoal.”
On the other hand, the people who buy Bostelle paintings are not at all dissatisfied with the landscapes. They seem to be, in fact, his most popular works.
Bostelle’s portraiture is revealing because it spans his artistic career, and portrait commissions were once his main source of income. After a brief rest from portrait painting, he is once more accepting commissions.
“Portraits send me scurrying back to terra firma, because I do try to achieve a good likeness,” Bostelle explains. But the basic aims are consistent with his other work: “Beyond the likenesses, I seek the important rhythm and pattern and the gesture that reveals the subject as a special being.”
As Bostelle puts it, he tries to “bridge the gap between Velasquez and Utamaro” in the portraits. By reducing the number of planes and volumes in the face and by eliminating all but the essential shadows, he comes stylistically very close to Oriental portraiture. The paint is applied even more thinly than in the shadow paintings, and many of the portraits are mostly charcoal line and shading, with pigment used sparingly. Much of the work is done alone in the studio, after Bostelle has “summed up” the subject in what may be relatively brief sittings.
Bostelle got his first portrait commissions at the age of 16 in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Also at 16 he quit high school, started working as a gandy dancer on the railroad, and for two years attended night courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. That is his only academic experience. The lack of meaningful contact with teachers at the school made him determine that, if he should ever have the chance to teach, he would try hard to share what he has learned.
And he does just that. He began teaching private classes in 1960. In his classes he emphasizes his own fundamental principles, but students tend to develop a wide range of individual styles. Every seriously done student drawing gets Bostelle’s respectful attention, no matter how accomplished or unaccomplished the work may be.
In life drawing, he plunges new students immediately into the quest for dramatic arrangement of lights and darks. He advocates free use of charcoal to put down quickly the “sense of the model.” There is little emphasis on academic realism.
“Ha! Look at these repeats!” he will say, his finger jabbing a student’s drawing to point out a series of geometric shapes.
“There – that’s a shift!” he will exclaim, showing how a line or shadow is discontinued and picked up elsewhere in the drawing. He keeps hammering home that the “shifts” and “repeats” are the elements of an exciting drawing.
Bostelle did not achieve independence as an artist easily or quickly. After service in World War II, he resumed his artistic career in West Chester. There followed several years of ups and downs. Gallery shows in New York and Philadelphia seemed to alternate between near sellouts and financial disaster. He worked in steel foundries as a welder to support his family, and it was not until the late 1950s that he was able to devote full time to painting and teaching.
At first he had a successful arrangement with a New York gallery – and then the gallery folded. In the early 1960s he began a fruitful twelve-year relationship with the respected Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, D.C. While this was happening, Bostelle noticed something: financially he was doing as well selling informally out of his studio as he was in the gallery shows. It gave him the idea for studio shows, something no other artist in the vicinity had tried.
In hi studio – at that time an old carriage house – Bostelle exhibited both major works and sketches or “idea” paintings. Because of the way he works, he has many of the latter. They are usually charcoal drawings or washes of oil or watercolor. His purpose is to put down quickly a pattern, rhythm, distortion, or play of light that has caught his attention.
“They are not right for a major exhibition, but they are too good to throw away,” Bostelle explains. “They often contain the essential idea for a large painting.”
Bostelle priced these sketches low – in the $10 to $30 range. He stuck them on the walls and laid them on the floor and they sold well. (Today the prices run $100 or more.) Part of their attraction, Bostelle thinks, is that, seeing these drawings in the studio setting, the art buyer gets a real sense of the artist at work. To enhance this atmosphere, Bostelle always has his paints out, the easel set up, and works in progress standing around the studio.
His pricing scheme enables him to sell both to a broad market and to an elite group of collectors who can afford the major pieces, prices of which run as high as $7000. Some of his most faithful collectors began by buying the lower-priced sketches.
Selling this way means Bostelle must handle details such as mailing lists, public relations, and keeping financial records on purchases made on an installment basis. The contracts for these purchases, however, are always verbal.
“You must be able to cultivate those people who are – or who may become – important collectors,” Bostelle says. “It’s a special relationship. You must know when you can say to such a person, ‘I have just finished a very good piece I feel you should have, and I’d like you to keep it in your home for a while to see whether it is something you want to live with.”
To be honest, Bostelle admits, he would prefer to have a dealer who would take care of all these things for him. But the studio shows have become so important to him that he continues to teach himself how to act as his own agent.
In this respect, he has been his own best student. The evidence is the large number of Bostelle paintings owned by knowledgeable collectors, schools, and institutions such as the Delaware Art Museum. The important thing is, he’s achieved it all the way every artist would like to do it – on his own terms.
Works reproduced in article:
Her Time, 1974, oil on canvas, 66 x 48. Collection the artist. Bostelle works to capture “a new rhythm of a nude.” To develop a drawing where the ridges are sturdy but not fixed, he may draw into wet pigment with charcoal.
Pink Perambulator, 1974, oil, 6’ x 7’. Collection the artist. Here the surface is paper and canvas on prepared posterboard. Bostelle’s theme is indifference, and he did many realistic drawings to help decide the shape of his images before beginning to paint.
Woman on the Balcony, 1974, oil, 8’ x 12 ½’ and Sketch for Woman on the Balcony, 1974, watercolor, 11 ½ x 17. Here Bostelle’s sketch served to remind him of his idea for the painting but was not used as a reference once he started to paint. The large oil is on paper, laminated to sheets of posterboard that the artist has shifted about to achieve dramatic rhythm.
Dark Crowd, 1974-5, bronze, 25” high. Collection the artist. Using the lost wax method of casting, Bostelle develops bronze pieces that are almost two-dimensional.
McGeorge’s Landscape, 1974, oil on canvas panel, 20 x 30. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Arthur McGeorge. Bostelle’s palette is broader than for his nudes, but the surface is again heavily worked.
Blue Nude Dressing, 1973, oil on canvas, 66 x 48. Collection Delaware Art Museum. This “shadow” painting demonstrates Bostelle’s concern with flattening and distortion to achieve a dramatic rhythm as well as the monochromatic color he chooses for his paintings of nudes.