More Blek: Max Beckmann the Teacher

Max Beckmann Teaching at the Brooklyn Museum School 1950

"Evening with Beckmann. He has only three teeth in the middle, and his descending, rather rough features give him the air of a sad bulldog. His speech, too, sounds growling, laconic, somewhat vulgar. Under this shell one feels concentration, fatigue, impatience: an egocentric sensitivity. His eyes are wide-awake and alive. Strangely enough, in spite of this reserve, he doesn't appear cold, but rather sluggish and good-natured . . . An immensely complex man . . . It was the face of a suffering man, with deep shadows under his eyes, with the expression of tired nervousness on his head whose brutal proportions made this expression unbelievable and touching.

The defensive attitude, his second nature, was probably augmented by the fatal illness [heart disease] which he already carried inside."

--Professor Fred Neumeyer, July 20, 1950

It is Summer, 1950, and twenty-two year old Nathan Oliveira, an aspiring painter, has joined a motley group of about 30 students who have been drawn to Mills College by the presence of an art world celebrity: the German master in exile Max Beckmann. With World War II only five years distant, the American avant garde has begun it's love affair with abstract art, and on both coasts abstraction is the progressive style. Abstraction is also America's way of avoiding specific narrative content in art, and after the horrors of war, brought home in stunning newsreels and photographs, this avoidance provides a kind of relief.

Oliveira, who had been studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts understands that the terse, craggy walls of color created by Professor Clyfford Still in Oakland represent the West Coast vanguard of California Modernism. To be in the class of Beckmann who disliked abstraction and compared it to "nail polish" went against the current trends.

Not only did Beckmann's style, with its Gothic insistence on metaphor and storytelling seem to be past it's heyday, but his classroom performance at first seemed to be beyond tired. Beckmann spoke only a few words of English, and relied on his wife Quappi to translate his public speeches. Could this German in exile, an insomniac who saw every policeman as a Gestapo agent, summon the energy to inform and teach his students? His class at Mills must have been aghast as they watched a scene that Oliveira still remembers vividly:

"Once he was surfing the room and he came up to a little old lady who had no idea who Beckmann was, nor cared. She cared only for a small painting of a house that she had been working on for about two weeks, on a small canvas board. He just passed her many times but this time he stopped, and she stepped back assuming that he would add the golden touch to her piece, and then it would be finished.

Without asking her he stepped up to the palette, got the largest brush he could find in the dirty turpentine, and then splurted out a big goopy wad of black on to the palette. The dear little woman stepped back in horror when he splashed a puddle of turps with the brush into the black. She almost fainted when he then made huge black marks across the face of the little house with a rose entwined fence. He dropped the brush and went on his way saying to her:

'More Blek.'

I do not recall the woman ever returning to the class. "

The incident that Oliveira remembers hints at the way that Beckmann, so suspicious of conformity to anything but the inner self, had turned the sufferings of his life into an immense, awful artistic independence. Black, the color that had served as a metaphor for the absence of God since Medieval times, was the most essential color in Beckmann's own palette, and he would not tolerate paintings that did not admit the reality of life's suffering. His own paintings were meant to "reproach God for his errors", and for a man who had broken down after seeing the horrors of World War One as an ambulance driver, only to lose his career and his home to the Nazis, a painting without black was an insult to history.

Beckmann's apparent remove from the class could be so intense that Mari Lyons, who was 14 when she attended Beckmann's class at Mills, feels that at one level "none of the students existed for him."

She remembers the classroom feeling like a kind of circus, often centered around a costumed model. Quappi Beckmann would trail her husband, carrying their beloved Pekingese dog Butschy who their friend Perry Rathbone once described as a "vest-pocket Monster." If Beckmann needed translating help from his wife, he would sometimes whistle for her which the students found comical and annoying.

Despite or perhaps because of Beckmann's distance, Lyons found his presence electric, and remembers peering into his basement studio at Mills, watching him pace and smoke. Even as a teenager, she realized that Beckmann had suggested a world of new seriousness to her, and imprinted her with a lofty ideal of a fully committed artist.

The paradox of studying with Beckmann, as Oliveira and Lyons discovered, and which the poor older lady who had asked him to work on her rose garden canvas had not, was that the master's remoteness was there to guard his tremendous sensitivity and warmth. As Perry Rathbone described it:

"His students idolized him...they discovered what all his friends discovered: that Max Beckmann the stranger had a stern, formidable, almost overpowering image -- a man whom one met with some trepidation -- but who, upon personal acquaintance, was a warm, generous, compassionate, deeply understanding human being with a remarkable capacity for friendship."

William Wolff, who was also in the Mills class recalls how Beckmann was very enamored of the class model, Flo Allen, and asked her to pose in blue pumps. Wolff also remembers how Beckmann told another student to "put in the eyes" which he took to mean that the humanity of the subject was very important. Says Wolff:

"He was very sick, except we didn’t know it. He was Germanic and staid, one could say Prussian. Beckmann was a large in his self-portraits, but he was also a humanist. The more you got to work around him, the more kindly and sincere he seemed."

Richard Mayhew, who studied with Beckmann at the Brooklyn Museum School just months before his death, felt this warmth when Beckmann demonstrated directly on his student canvasses. Mayhew, who had been a prodigy trained in Academic art methods loved the loose, direct quality of Beckmann's brushwork, and welcomed the master's interventions. Once it was clear to Beckmann that Mayhew didn't mind, they established an unspoken warmth, and Mayhew feels that Beckmann did much to loosen up his style and make it more expressive.

Jack Bice, who was a graduate student at the University of Colorado in 1949, appreciated the fact that Beckmann did not patronize him. Bice, a former GI, had just left an Army hospital, and polio had left his right arm and left leg useless.

"Max Beckmann, regarded, as I did, my work -- not any annoying physical struggles -- as the supremely important factor to reconcile. He paid me no exceptional deference but was always clearly tuned in to my expressive intentions, and often added amazingly elucidating brush strokes, as well as comments through Quappi.

Once I was painting on an old, impasto encrusted canvas when he insisted I use paint remover to scrape the surface clean in vital areas."

In a striking way, Beckmann's inability to use language in the classroom forced him to rely on demonstration and essential comments. He often painted on student works, and Bice still has a photograph of a painting on which Beckmann reworked the image of an arm.

Painting by Jack Bice, with an arm re-worked by Beckmann

Although Beckmann's classroom statements could be blunt and cryptic, most of his students already had a very powerful idea about his history and inner life, which they had gained from exhibitions of his work. As Beckmann traveled as a teacher, from St. Louis, to Colorado, to California, and then finally to New York, exhibitions of his work loaned from the collection of his patron Morton May accompanied his presence. Even before meeting Beckmann in the classroom, Jack Bice remembers the stunning impact of the his Colorado exhibition:

"I had been relatively naïve regarding Expressionism before that summer; but seeing the exhibit of his works which had been brought to the University had a profound, emotional effect, and immediately charged my mind and my work with strange energies, attitudes and images. His paintings reflected for me the serious business I had recently experienced in the war; and his forceful, sensuous iconography, with its mystical overtones and Gothic directness, stripped away all of the meaningless platitudes of the day."

When speaking and writing in his native German, Beckmann made it clear that his intention was to let his art be his primary voice. As he remarked in his "Letter to a Woman Painter" written in 1948:

“To be sure it is an imperfect, not to say a foolish undertaking to try to put into words ideas about art in general, because, whether you like it or not, every man is bound to speak for himself and for his own soul.”

Beckmann's insistence on individual expression and story telling was a kind of time bomb for his students and colleagues, and his immense influence would appear in different places at different times. In the San Francisco Bay Area, artist David Park took his abstractions to the dump the same year that Beckmann visited. He had come to share the German's notion that abstraction had little left to say. Although Park did not study directly with Beckmann, his San Francisco exhibition must have electrified Park and those who later followed him to work in the "Bay Area Figurative Style."

Philip Guston, saw Beckmann's traveling exhibition, and then was replaced by Beckmann during his sabbatical leave from the University of Washington in 1948-49. Guston would go on to build his reputation in the 1950's on a group of painterly abstractions. Yet, when the crisis of Viet Nam blossomed in the late 1960's Guston would return to figurative painting. Guston's haunting visions of history warped by conspiracy and shame suggest that Beckmann's view of the artist as one who can expose life's dark spaces had affected him . It was as if the ghost of Beckmann had whispered in his ear:

"Art resolves through form the many paradoxes of life, and sometimes permits us to glimpse behind the dark curtain which hides the spaces unknown... "

Philip Guston, demonstrating at the University of Washington 1945

Guston's painting "The Studio" 1969

Guston took immense heat for his figurative paintings which at first seemed a betrayal to his Abstact Expressionist friends , but within ten years Guston's tough artistic stance, which critic Hilton Cramer had belittled in his article "A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum" became the crucial starting point for a new generation of figurative artists on the East Coast.

Jack Bice, later a painting instructor at the State Unversity of New York, College at Buffalo, would teach some of these artists including Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. On the West Coast, Nathan Oliveira, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown and others would become preeminent teachers all of them relying on the figurative means of revealing inner states.

Although it has been over fifty years since his encounter with Beckmann, Nathan Oliveira still feels the impact of his presence. Mari Lyons does too: she says:

"Once you saw him, you could never forget him."

Oliveira recalls:

"He came to me, and because I was painting the figure, he would simply say "Goot" and then encouraged me to press forward."

For students who were able to find their was past Beckmann's reserve, the reward was the discovery of a man free of posturing and hypocrisy. It was pure oxygen to them. With his gravity, his pride, and his ability to dream, Max Beckmann was America's most powerful teachers of art, and in a remarkable way his poor grasp of English was part of his power.

He didn't have to tell his students who he was. His paintings, his presence, and a few choice words could say it all.