HOW DO I GET TO CARNEGIE HALL?
I first met Claude Ponsot in 1957, when I was 17 and he was 30. This was in Jamaica, New York, where Paul Bowles was born and I grew up. At the time Claude was still married to his American poetess wife Marie. Who, as it happens, also grew up in Jamaica. And has since become somewhat famous. Marie Ponsot. I even recall visiting them the day before and the day after their sixth child arrived. Marie looked her same slim self on both occasions. Nor did she know the meaning of the word ‘rest.’ Whenever it was she dropped, Claude was probably out in his garage studio painting. A great lover of life, the eternal female, and good food & drink, he has always been first and foremost devoted to his art. That he is not better known, either in America or Europe, is one of the more damning indictments of the contemporary art world. And yet it bothers me much more than it does him. He just keeps on painting. Here is what he has to say about his calling:
My intent is to stay true to my work, not compromise or shift to more accessible subjects for the sake of a sale.
I respect creativity in its pure definition, and my experience and accumulated knowledge are the sources from which spring the confidence to create better works of Art. I don’t talk down to the audience, rather I strive to stimulate that audience to react to Art.
There was a moment in my life when I decided to commit myself to Art. Once made, nothing could break that special commitment, for it has enriched my life beyond measure. It is a full and wonderful life.
Forms change through time and space. You never see the same way twice. Every time it’s a new vision tempered by experience. Experience frees the mind to accept the visualization of the impossible.
Art is the search for the unexpected, discovery through forms; colors and doodles…very important, DOODLES…a simple idea and I have a composition. Again, this is life.
Claude Ponsot was born to French colonial parents on May 29th 1927 in Rabat, Morocco. After studying at Rabat’s École des Beaux Arts, as well as the École Industrielle in Casablanca, at age 20 he emigrated to Paris and his uncle’s apartment on the Boulevard Voltaire. A short while later he found a room on the Rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques, right next to the atelier of Madame Perrier. “It was she who taught me how to see and to measure,” Ponsot wrote in a journal 50 years afterwards. From there it was to the studios of René Jaudon, André Lhote, and in 1949-1950 Fernand Léger. At which point he also met his eventual spouse, then Marie Birmingham.
“We lived in Chatou, Vlaminck and Derain’s country…through L’île Saint-Louis…Blvd. St. Michel…L’Hôtel Cluny Square. Our meeting spot…next to the Musée Cluny…the tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, which I rediscovered.” The romance finally took him to the United States, where he immediately settled. And painted, exhibited, worked in graphic design (Art News magazine, art director for the Paulist Press), and in due course began teaching. Becoming a professor at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, and from 1977 until 1984 the chairman of their Fine Arts Department. His work is in numerous private collections.
Marie Ponsot’s debut poetry collection was one of the first five in the renowned Pocket Poets Series launched by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books. Entitled True Minds and published the same year I started hanging out with the Ponsots, it followed close on the heels of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Which of course Ferlinghetti had to go to court over. After 25 years of translating children’s books from the French, writing literary criticism and raising a family mostly on her own, Marie published a second volume of verse, Admit Impediment. It contains the poem “To a Divorce,” with the lines:
The state we made of love
that you fled out of,
I have enlarged
into a new mainland geography
where I move as if unburdened
where my burdens bear me
You said once I had
taught you human speech.
I am glad
I never taught you to dance.
When I joined the Air Force in 1960, and after basic training was sent to Germany for the first three years of my four-year stint, I gave Claude my diary for safekeeping. That because I couldn’t trust leaving it with my mother. She’d gone into once already and made ‘certain discoveries,’ mainly about an affair I’d been having with an older married woman. Also the prostitutes I’d been consorting with for some three years. Plus other stuff. It was a sizeable diary, one I’d kept since I was 16. Claude said ‘no problem,’ it’d be there for me whenever I wanted it. Which wasn’t in 1964 when I returned to the States for a final tour in Wyoming, got my discharge, and then flew back to Germany as a civilian to rejoin my (first) wife and our baby daughter. Nor had I mentioned the diary (it was safe, right?) in between times in Frankfurt, those few days Claude and I spent together (he was there for the book fair) and we had a mad spat over a lovely whore named Nicole with whom I’d spent an entire night and much to my annoyance he insisted on bedding the following evening.
“You’re crazy,” he yelled. “You fuck a streetwalker and fall in love with her? This happened to me before, ages ago in Paris. Another Catholic, like us. What’s going on anyway?”
No, not until 1976 did I seek to reclaim my diary. By which time Claude and Marie were long since divorced, they’d both moved, and neither had a clue as to where or how or in what shuffle of mutual belongings my precious ring binder full of musings and youthful memoirs had vanished. It was gone and that was that. Although in all likelihood it did end up in a dustbin (grrrr!), I prefer to think that it found its way into some literary voyeur’s collection of odd (and possibly anonymous) manuscripts. If only for its ‘pornographic value,’ given that many of the action narratives therein are quite explicitly vivid.
It was during that visit, my first to the US in twelve years, that Marie invited me to lecture her English class at Queens College and Claude threw a party for me at his home in Huntington, Long Island, to which he invited “three nuns”…who were in fact anything but nuns and one of whom I fell madly in love with, culminating on my final day in New York in a wildly sensual act of spontaneous combustion that neither of us has forgotten or ever will and in honor of which I shortly thereafter wrote a most passionate poem entitled “Ave Maria.” (There’s no end to the number of Marys in my life, starting with my mother.)
I penned another poem then, too. And it may be on its account that, apart from one phone call from her to me in the mid-1980s, Marie Ponsot subsequently dropped totally off my radar. Despite my repeated attempts to get in touch with her. Here’s that poem:
Green My Envy
for Marie Ponsot
Green my envy
sulking in a pool of rage,
wanting for my own ends
and all the wit
that ran with bitter ease
down Pope’s scarlet quill.
Let Buddha sit happily
turning his dharma wheel:
lacking Socrates’ tongue,
I would rather be the cat
a Zen monk sliced in two.
Did Aquinas laugh
when you first played the Summa
as a pleasant interlude
between lunch and afternoon tea?
Or was it Joyce I saw
tickling your fancy
after another quiet supper
of Finnegan stew?
If only you realized
how much of your hidden mind
my empty luggage carried
around Ulysses’ cape.
Not your face
but your unfathomable erudition
launched all those jealous ships
my intellect took to sea.
From beyond the deva worlds
a wise monk shakes his head
while my grey ego sets sail
on a voyage
that can only end tragically.
I may well lose my soul.
Only mindfulness is true.
My close contact with Claude, however, continued throughout. Only sporadically interrupted once he’d relocated to Paris and then the south of France for a few years from around 1985, sort of an extended working holiday after retiring from St. John’s. While the interview that follows remains as valid today as when I conducted it. In Paris, July 1981. At Delhy’s Hotel, 22 rue de l’Hirondelle. A stone’s throw from Place Saint-Michel and right around the corner from the erstwhile (and now legendary) Beat Hotel on the Rue Gît-le-Coeur.
Eddie Woods: You studied with Léger for…how many years?
Claude Ponsot: No, no, no. I must have studied with him for a period of at least six months, within one and a half years. But before that, I studied with Andre Lhote. His studio was open in the same way as Léger’s. He taught us Cubism. In fact, you had to go to Lhote first…
EW: Before you could go to Léger?
CP: Yes, before going to Léger. You had to learn the discipline, the structure of Cubism. And then, when you went to Léger, you’d throw everything out…into the garbage can, you know?…and start over. But you had a foundation.
EW: Was this one of Léger’s requirements?
CP: No, no. This was an advice given to me by Luc Bidoileau. Bidoileau was a painter I knew at the time but with whom I’ve since lost contact. He came to Morocco around 1948 and later we lived together in the same pension in Paris, on the Left Bank. Pension Famille, Rue des Saint Jacques…I forget the number. But he had done that; and he said to me, “Claude, go to Lhote first. Then go to Léger.” Because before that, I was with Madame Perrier, Pension Desmeur, Rue des Fosses St Jacques, learning the basics of drawing. We worked on half a page, 18 by 24, half a sheet, from Monday to Friday, every morning on that sheet, doing cast, you know, plaster cast. And this was the training. I was getting prepared for les art deco, les arts decoratifs. But I didn’t want to be a decorator, I wasn’t interested. Still I learned all the basics, and of course the structure of colors. In the afternoons we did color work, we did wash, we did watercolor, we learned a few techniques. Not oil, I didn’t touch oil. It took me a while after that, to get into oil.
So you had Madame Perrier, you had Andre Lhote, and then you had Léger. And before Madame Perrier, there was Claude Lavalley, in Morocco, who also put me on the road. Lavalley was a second Grand Prix D’Europe…un deuxième prix d’Europe…in sculpture, and a fascinating man. He encouraged me to do outside work. You know, I painted walls…I’m sure I’ve told you this, we went through it at some point in New York…and that outside work helped me a great deal. I will never forget Lavalley, he pushed me, he’s the first one who pushed me. And when I was working with Lavalley, L’école des Beaux Arts in Rabat, I also went to the industrial school, L’école Industrielle, in Casablanca. And there I met Jean Roche, another painter, who turned me on to the work of Cézanne. And Jean Roche had somehow touched, here and there, a little bit, on the work of Matisse. I’m not sure if he worked with Matisse, if he was a student of Matisse. But the research he was doing on Cézanne, the work he was doing on the value system of the painting, working with greys, with a maximum highlight, a maximum dark, opened my eyes right away, you know. That was actually the initial shock…to move on into art.
EW: Were you aware of Léger at that time?
CP: No, no, no. I didn’t even know Delacroix. I remember going out in Casablanca with my mother, and I had to force her to buy me two books. One was Ingres and the other was Delacroix. Because at home, you see, they didn’t buy art books; my father was interested in history. But for me to get a couple of francs to spend for a book, well…!
EW: So what inevitably pushed you toward Léger, and how did you get there?
CP: Paris. You came to Paris, right? La Grand Chaumiere was open, Atelier Jaudon was open, André Lhote was open, and Léger was open. And that was the routine.
EW: By open you mean it was possible to study with them, yes?
CP: They had their studios and they accepted students to work there. That was something I really respected about Léger. He was a teacher. I mean, so many of the others…Braque, Matisse, Picasso, all those people…I’m sure had very little contact with kids, with the younger generation.
EW: They kept it for themselves.
CP: They kept it for themselves, they were absolutely egotistical in that sense. I will never forget the heart, the heart of Léger, giving his time, giving his talent, giving so much patience.
EW: Do you think that this egotism, of the others, in any way detracts from their art, or that it somehow hurt their art?
CP: Well, if you do it like I’m doing it, for example, yes. If you teach the way I’m teaching, for money, yes, it’s very hard. The trick is, if your mind is set…you know that…if your mind is set to create, you don’t care where you are; you can be in a tunnel, you can be anywhere, you’re gonna work.
EW: But in terms of Picasso’s work, let’s say…Picasso, who kept it to himself…did his failure to share, to take in students, affect his own art to any extent?
CP: Picasso and the others. Because of the quantity of work he was doing…this man was working twenty-four hours a day, every day. So certainly, he didn’t have the time, he couldn’t, and that was his thing. He’s a painter, and he paints. I think it was somebody else who said…it was Monet. Someone asked him, you know, “Why don’t you teach?” And he said, “I have so little time to paint.” So in a sense, it’s not egotistic, it’s not selfish. But Léger did both.
EW: Léger did both. And there is also, from the what I know of Léger’s work, an awful lot in his paintings that speaks of his connection with ‘the people.’
CP: Yes, people.
EW: Is this what primarily attracted you to him, to his art?
CP: No. It’s because that was avant-garde. That was it, there was nothing else. I mean, we’re not trying to go back to the 17th century or the 18th century. We were in Paris with the master of the day, and that was it. It was not the time of Delacroix, the time of the Romantic artist, you know; it was a little different. Except we had a wonderful time, too. But it’s now that I realize how much this man, Léger, has contributed to the 20th century, or even the next century; the form that he has sort of spread around. Because that form, it’s not only aesthetical, it’s not only a line; there’s a spirit there, a spirit with a conscience, much more than Picasso. Picasso did it in Guernica and then he left the whole thing and said, ‘Okay, I’ve done it, wonderful.’ But the work of Léger…he has always had that parallel with the social comment. A peaceful comment, a peaceful idea of what society is about. The Bicycle, La Grande Parade, all those things which he did. But he had a relationship with the people. He didn’t want to divorce himself, he was not painting for a certain selected group. Picasso must have done this at the end. Maybe, I’m not sure.
EW: Concerning Picasso’s political stance, how did this reflect on his other work during that period?
CP: Aggressiveness of the time. Picasso had a comment to make against the war. Picasso was very strong there. He splashed the whole thing on that piece of canvas. He didn’t even think color, he didn’t have the time to think color, it had to be grey or blue or whatever, you know. This is another element that people don’t understand. A large canvas…he may have said, ‘Well, I don’t need the color, my form is stronger.’ Because the bullshit that you hear, by artists, when an artist analyzes the setup, he knows how it’s done, he can’t pull anything on me. I don’t think he had the time to think color. Now, if he had done a series on Guernica…. But that would have been redundant. You know, just do one, spit it out, and that’s it. Because that was a tragedy. But the tragedies after that were so close, one after the other, there was no room to do anything like that. So there is an opportunity, there is a time and space and the son of a gun does it.
EW: That reminds me of something Frank Zappa once said, when an interviewer asked why his recent work didn’t have the same kind of political edge that characterized many of his earlier recordings. To which Zappa replied, that once you’ve said it, that the people who make the laws are perverts and brown shoes don’t make it, why say it again? You don’t, you move on to other things. How influenced by Léger do you still feel yourself today?
CP: Oh, very much, very much influenced. In fact, what bothers me is, I tend to try not to move very close to Léger’s work, style, feelings, whatever you want to call that, because Photorealism is so strong, you see. I mean, how long am I going to wait? Jesus God, if I can’t…! Because the techniques, the know-how, the formulas, are easy to comprehend. After 30 years working in art, painting…it’s like a writer; if the writer doesn’t know how to put a story together by that time, you might as well forget about the whole thing, right? So painters are the same. You can execute artwork which will be in the vein that the galleries want, the shows want, you know. You can sort of do that. But I don’t want to prostitute myself to a point where I make art just so it can sell. And in New York, you’re successful because you’re selling, not because the work is good. I mean, it’s insane to believe that today in New York you have some people who dare think that they’re doing better than Vermeer, or Titian, or da Vinci. I mean, come on. What we can do better is to think better than them. Form, we can think creativity, we can think in new ways of trying to comprehend what we’re putting on that stupid piece of canvas…which is lines, surfaces, values, colors; you know, the meat of the whole thing. You’re playing with elements that to a lot of people seem to be disappearing. You can’t. They’ve tried. They’ve tried to stretch a canvas and paint it red. It doesn’t work.
EW: According to you, what is the best…and the worst…of what is currently in vogue in the world of art, particularly in New York?
CP: I guess I don’t know. I don’t know because that’s a very tough question, Eddie. And because you’re dealing with such a powerful group of people…the gallery people, the curators, the museums, the people that dictate taste. Just like the fashion industry, exactly the same way. It’s so complex. When you say New York…New York is touched by the world, the world is touched by New York. You know what I mean?
EW: Well, is there anyone in particular, or any painters today who you…
CP: Respect? Yes, I respect some people, there’s no doubt about it. A group of people. Even if I can criticize them. But Pearlstein, Philip Pearlstein, for me, is a painter, he’s working, he’s working a lot, he’s doing whatever he likes to do. James Rosenquist is a decent artist. In my book, he’s huge. Jack Beale is another one. Jack Beale, I’ve been following him, you know. He’s getting more and more expertise. And the formulas again…by repeating the same kind of techniques you’re going to paint better, there’s no way you can’t. They don’t take any risk, you see. Because all the schools, from 1900 on, they took chances. They broke their necks, they went up, they went down, they went up again. These guys today want their security. I don’t think art should be that secure.
EW: You feel yourself taking risks with your own work, then.
CP: I’m trying, every time I do a drawing. But no, I’m going back also. I’m going to be in the same mold, in a way. Because the form I discovered by myself, I’m continuing this. I’m feeling more at ease. I don’t have doubts anymore, not like I used to. You know…it’s not finished, it’s this, it should be that. That’s over.
EW: Yes, I can appreciate that over a distance of 23 years, having seen the ingredients then and seeing what’s happening now; and no matter which way it moves, it’s all very recognizable to me.
CP: That’s right.
EW: It’s a form that I welcome, and find very easy to embrace.
CP: But I accept the element of the page, the element of the format, the surface that I’m working with. I don’t like the imitation, the optical illusion. I want to give the person looking at my work authenticity of form, but a true one. Not the perspective that is essentially a trick. I can do it, but I’m not interested. A few years ago, I copied a little slide that I had done of a small Protestant church we have in Huntington. And that watercolor…my brother Léon says, “You almost got it.” I’m amazed to see that, you know, because I separated myself from it. And I come and here it is, nicely framed, you know; and I see my little church there. Well, I did it for them. It amazed me, because it’s the church, and that’s the gimmick. I mean the background, the trees, the highlights, the shadows, the details. It’s very easy to do, but it’s nothing.
EW: Can you give me an example of one well-known painter, from the past, whose work exemplifies this fantasy of form that is less true, less honest, than what you want?
CP: You’ve got to start with Picasso. I think you have to start there.
EW: Not before? Isn’t there at least one titan, say, who one can strike a blow at?
CP: No, no, no, because they also had what you call in French le feu sacré. The artist had to survive, they had to work a little harder. Now it’s a bit easier, they’re getting help in different ways. It’s still not that easy, but it’s better than with Rembrandt even. They had trouble, they had to convince, they had to fight. Especially with the sponsor, the patron, the guy who was asking the painter to do a scene, maybe a Nativity scene, and his head had to be there, he had to be painted, next to Mary and the child; things like that. And they had other difficulties, because it was also a question of size, of other practical matters. What you find within this kind of work, you find details sometimes that are really fantastic, because you know the guy had a sense of humor. And he was playing around, too. They couldn’t see it at the time, but we see it now. Romanesque is one very beautiful example. Romanesque is full of humor. I mean, what they did with the body, what they did with the floral motif, what they did with everything. When they sculpted, you know. They had the forceful faith to give to the people with their subject matter. But when you analyze the stuff, it’s very respectful. When you analyze, you find out that those people had wonderful times, they had fun, I’m telling you. And they were not paid very much. So a titan in that sense…go to Goya, for example. You’ve got thousands of people, millions of people, if we go to China, if we go South America, the Inca.
EW: Are you at all attracted to Oriental art?
CP: Not very much, no. I’m much more attracted by the Inca, by Mayan art, and by the Aztecs. Those three. Mayan art is for me…I don’t really understand it. And I don’t know exactly why, because I’m doing certain shapes, certain forms, which are very derivative of what those people did.
EW: Getting back to Léger and his feeling of connectedness with ‘the people’; by which I assume we mean the masses, yes?
CP: Yes, the masses. But you don’t touch them, you know. The masses go to the museum today, and they see the stuff. They pass by, and maybe not, without being affected by it, being touched by it. But this is an intellectual idea, a way of saying, ‘Yes, his work, for me, is that of a humanist. He’s a person painting pictures, and he knows he’s using people, he’s working with people, and he likes to do it for the people.’ Then again…is it really true of Léger, is it exactly what he had in mind?
EW: Have you ever had a feeling of contempt for the masses? Has that emotion ever arisen in you?…the masses, ugh!
CP: No, never, because they are earth people. We are earth people. I think when the artist separates himself, and becomes like Mondrian, Piet Mondrian in his little ivory tower, that’s deadly, dangerous.
EW: Yes, of course, the eventual Mondrian. A far cry from when he painted that beautiful windmill near Abcoude in the Netherlands. Which I’ve seen, the windmill itself. Cycled past it, in fact. I remember the first time I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, MOMA. I was maybe nine or 10, my father took me there. And I saw these Mondrians. And another painting, at the top of a stairway, by whom I don’t know…White On White, it must have been called. Just a large canvas painted white. And I thought, ‘This is art?’ Since that early exposure…a young, untrained mind coming face to face with the unexpected, the radically different…since then I’ve arrived at a better understanding, if not quite a deep appreciation, of Mondrian and his ilk. Would I own one? Perhaps, in certain settings, for its decorative charm. I’d rather wake up to Red, Blue and Yellow than The Scream, or a photograph by Diane Arbus, that’s for sure. As for Mondrian and his ivory tower, whether there was real genius at work in that rarefied intellectual environment, or even a spiritual underpinning of sorts, I’m not sure. What I can relate to is the need to move away from too close an association with people, with the masses, as a source of inspiration. I recognize this in my own work. Yet behind what may well appear as a kind of disdain, essentially there is love. I just don’t want to get too close, is all. I need the remove, the distance. Maybe it was like that with Mondrian.
CP: Oh well, I don’t say that he was a bad painter. He did what he wanted to do, in that way.
EW: What I’m trying to investigate are the conditions necessary to produce great work, and by extension establish a possible connection with the divine, with spiritual values.
CP: It’s a very difficult thing to believe that each artist should work in the same manner, in the same way…for the people or whatever else. No, that’s impossible. You know that there is no union in art, and that’s the reason. You put three artists together and they are going to fight. They’re going to fight for two or three years, and then they’re going to separate. They have to find themselves. So if it’s the ivory tower or if it’s the contact with people which I like to have…but that doesn’t mean that people understand what I’m doing, either.
EW: But this people thing, the masses, the common man…you bounce off this, right? You feel a communion with them; they’re your inspirational dialectic, so to speak.
CP: Yeah, but that’s not important, I don’t think so. No, it’s not important.
EW: But you get something from them, from their very existence. Artistic nourishment, let’s say.
CP: Oh yes, the street, the street full of people. When I see people…
EW: As I do with sex, for instance. Or the poet Jack Hirschman does with politics, in his case a particular brand of communism. There are all sorts of possibilities and combinations.
CP: Well, there’s quite a bit about that, and you can research it. Jesus, there’s people who have spent their whole life, you know, describing this kind of thing. Functionalism of the line, this and that. So Mondrian, I know his work and this is it. I’ve used it for commercial purposes. It’s an avenue, put on a pedestal, because they love that kind of stuff. But I like to have…on a piece of paper, on a canvas…I like to have a story. I like to have that, even if it’s completely like you said: don’t mind the words, just listen to the sound.
CP: Well, you gave me a poem.
CP: All right. Well, it’s the same thing with art. I want my eyes to be able to follow the map, maybe of my inner self. But when I look at a painting and I have a surface, and there is only a color, I’m not intellectual enough to say, ‘Oh, I can’t play with it, I can’t start.’ No, I’m not interested.
EW: You’ve been teaching for what, 17 years?
CP: Maybe 18 by now.
EW: There’s obviously a joy in that, despite whatever frustrations.
CP: Oh, yes, it’s good stuff.
EW: I’m sure you feel that you are getting as much from your students, even from them just being there, as they get from you.
CP: I think I get more than they do. It’s true, it’s too bad, but sometimes it’s like that.
EW: But there’s a harmony.
CP: Yes, it’s nice.
EW: It’s probably the best way of teaching, because there’s a constant dynamic, an ongoing give and take. How many students have there been, roughly, in total?
CP: Five hundred, maybe six.
EW: And off the top of your head, of those five or six hundred, how many will actually become painters, artists, or be doing something significant in the visual arts?
CP: If we’re lucky, two. If we’re lucky. Already I have five or six in mind who could, possibly.
EW: So few, from that whole space of time?
CP: The very idea of…well, starting in the morning as a painter, as an artist; you know, you get up in the morning and you’re an artist, and you keep pushing the whole day. You compromise, you have a job, you’ve got to make money, pay the bills.
EW: But you’re always looking at the world with the eyes of an artist. Like, even when I’m not actively putting pen to paper, I’m still writing. Though it took me a while to realize this.
CP: Sure, but then you start to compete, and to compete nationally, which is almost inevitable. And you begin to compromise with the insults thrown at you by the uninitiated, by people who have no understanding of what art is all about. Well, those I excuse, because they don’t know better. But not the professional critics.
EW: Ah, so this sense of connectedness with people, with the masses, is not necessarily at odds with a measure of…practical elitism, say? Seeing as how you speak of the initiated.
EW: Final question. Any advice for young, aspiring artists? Or maybe a great one-liner you’d like to lay on them.
CP: How do I get to Carnegie Hall? You mean that, right? I don’t know, I really don’t know. I’ve been doing it, I’ve been trying to talk to them, and I did write a book. And you? Any advice for young writers, poets?
EW: No comment, it’s your show.
This interview was first published in Parisiana.