Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lilly Fenichel: "I Don't Make Hemline Art" (1984)

  For a good many years, Lilly Fenichel was caught in the tense strait between the Scylla of being a fine artist, and the Charybdis of making a living. She was trained at the California Art Institute where she studied with some of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism and became infected with the ideals of contemporary High Art. During the '60s and '70s she formed close bonds with artists in the California avant-garde and painted steadily, though with little commercial success or critical notice. Unable to abandon herself to art, early on she steered a concurrent course toward a career in fashion and film. Fenichel worked on both coasts as a photographers' stylist (she got Cheryl Tiegs her first modeling job in an editorial spread--male readers might remember it, Tiegs in a fish net bathing suit in Sports Illustrated in the early '70s) and art director and costume designer for Hollywood movies.
            In time, the entertainment business proved to be as consuming a monster as fine art. Fenichel came to the conclusion that she had to go one way or the other. In 1980 she moved to Taos.
            We visited Fenichel in her cozy adobe house in Talpa, a few miles south of Taos. Of medium height and slim build, we found her an intense but friendly and open conversationalist, an active listener, and a very fine cook. She puttered in the kitchen as she talked of how she was born in Vienna, moved to Hollywood as a young girl, and first visited New Mexico in the '50s to visit artist Ed Corbett, one of her teachers at the California Art Institute. In the intervening years, she visited Taos occasionally, coming, as she said, "when there was a change in my life."
            Of her permanent move to New Mexico in 1981, she recollected: "I was going to get married and live happily ever after in New Jersey--a contradiction right there. I guess I decided to give up on the commercial world and take a chance on myself. I thought I was coming to visit friends--Larry Ball, Bea [Mandelman] and Louis [Ribak]. Larry said I wasn't a success as an artist in L.A., and I should stay here. And I've accomplished more than I could have in the city. I've had four show in three years here! I had only one in ten years in L.A. I don't know if that's Taos or me."
            Through most of her career, Fenichel's work has been characterized by an energized, gestural Abstract Expressionism. Then, about a year ago, through one of those lucky `accidents' that sometimes happen and propel an artist's development, she began to work with wood and fiberglass, creating three-dimensional pieces of striking, minimal form. The simple shapes and the glowing, soft coloring--deep layers of gray with pink or blue underpainting--combine to make rich but quiet statements about the sensual connections between mind and body, art and life, nature and ideas.
            "I think somehow working in these materials has been an emancipation," she said of the pieces first shown in Taos in 1983 at the New Gallery. "If I need to, these little Jewish hands can use a saw! Always before, I'd been terrified of working in three dimensions. Why? In the back of my head, I was not supposed to work with my hands. It was a class thing. The help does that, maybe. I wasn't taught to work with a hammer and nail. I wasn't taught to want to. When I moved into this little house, a friend and I put particle board over the brick floor in the studio. He showed me how to use a glue gun and a saw, and out of the scraps from the floor I made the first piece. Then this friend who has a body shop, Dusty Vallo--what a dear--taught me fiberglass. It became a game, totally unintellectual. But I really don't want to talk about this. Explaining art takes responsibility away from the viewer. It's like reading titles."
            A brief argument ensued about the value of biography in art criticism. We came to no conclusion, but our discussion quickly returned to biography as Fenichel served a delicious chicken cooked with herbs and wine.

I used to teach children at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Saturdays. After a class I could always get into the museum free. Mark Rothko was there one afternoon--I'd met him when he taught one semester at the California Art Institute. "What do you do here?" he asked. "I teach kids," I said.  "Maybe I should send my daughter here," he said. "That would assure me she would never be an artist." I guess he didn't think being an artist was so great. I do, because it's the only thing that interests me. First I wanted to be a dancer, but I didn't like the idea that you would quickly get too old for that, and then you could only teach.

When did you come to this country?
When I was small. Young. [Laughter] From Vienna to Hollywood isn't exactly an easy step, you know? I think my being here [in Taos] has much more to do with Vienna, my connection to the Austrian Alps, mushrooming in the summer.... I moved here three years ago, but I was always somehow from L.A. And now I'm no longer `from L.A.' What that will do in terms of marketing my work, which I have to.... All these years I earned my living doing something else, trying to keep it all pure. When I made the decision that I would no longer do this part-time artist's routine, and I wanted to be an artist and nothing else, it was because I just couldn't stand to do anything else. And I came here. My work grew by leaps, and I don't know if anybody else thinks so, but that doesn't matter. Generally, where I am as an artist, I've never felt...sure isn't the word, because one is never sure, but I've felt better and interested, and I know the other took so much away from me.

When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?    
At the California School of Fine Arts, that whole experience with those people at that time, and the energy.

And the focus there was generally Abstract Expressionism?
Yes. Clyfford Still was a teacher there, an inspired one--not my teacher. Hassel Smith and Ed Corbett were my teachers, primarily, and David Park and Elmer Bischoff. I think a lot of my aesthetic was formed in that period.

Formed by those strong personalities?
By the times, and by...yes. Hassel was a very strong personality. It was a mutual development of ideas. I went to New York about that time, but immediately I went to work at Macy's. Again, I was a fringe person.

Why did you do that?
Because my middle class background said that you had to go get a job. I had this terrible dichotomy of knowing I was an artist, and yet on the other hand the push that that was what I was supposed to do. The parents don't have any money, and Hitler saw to it that we didn't have any money. Plus, not only did I get a job, I went for a career when I already had one. You had to have a career or you were really out of it.

What's the dichotomy now?
None, really. Now it's the struggle of making a living, and that's getting old, but I think that's why the work was able to grow. Working in pictures [her last was art director for Lucky Lady with Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli] and so on, I didn't really have to worry about showing my work. I could be a fringe person, yet I didn't like that, either. I was in a place where I didn't really succeed in either area, because you have to hustle as much in the movies as you do in the art world. And I couldn't deal with either one, so I had this perfect way out. My mother had a saying, "You can't dance at two weddings with one ass." And I was really trying to do that, and the reason was that I couldn't commit myself enough to being an artist.

What kinds of work were you doing then, your painting?
I was an Abstract Expressionist, but with a lot of drawing in it. Quite similar to some of the things that I first showed here in the Talpa show [at the Taylor Gallery, 1981], that kind of mark-making. I did that when I lived in New York, and occasionally when I came here on visits. I had Louise Ganthiers' studio, Clay Spohn was still here, and Clay had taught at my school. Just the other day I found a formula for oil glazes that Clay had given me. Then there was a period in L.A. of work I've never shown. Someday I would like to, it's from the early '60s. I drew a lot, they were kind of surrealist, very personal, demon, abstract drawing and paintings. They were very odd and quite ugly. There was a progression from those into these minimal paintings that were in my first one person show, at the Santa Barbara Museum in the late '60s. And those are somewhat related to the last show, which is strange.

How did the work change when you moved here?
The first show I had here was Talpa. I had to become a landscape painter. When I was here earlier with Clay, the painting was still non-objective, but kind of landscapey, in a way that the Talpa show was. That seems to be out of my system for a little while, I don't know how long.

You're not still doing landscapes?
I'm making fiberglass. You think they're landscapes?

Of a sort.
I don't think so. I'm already into new ideas, but I'm going to continue making three-dimensional things, weather permitting, as they say in the movies. My friend has an unheated garage. Dusty, my mentor. He's wonderful.

            [We discuss a series of articles in the New Yorker on controversy within Freudian circles. Fenichel remarked that her uncle, Otto Fenichel, was a famed Marxist analyst whose book, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, is still used as a text book on the subject.]

Friends of mine who have been on orthodox and not so orthodox couches, have told me that they looked at my name on the bookshelf an hour a day. [Laughter] He was a fabulous man. He brought us to L.A. It was interesting--we were sort of shepherded by various analysts across Europe and England to America, and through America. We took the train, the Challenger, from Chicago to Los Angeles. We stayed with Bettelheim in Chicago. And Erikson, who I met again here in Taos, Erik Erikson. He was here for a summer when I was. He was a painter before he became an analyst, that's why he wanted to come here, to rub elbows. Bill Heaton knew him very well.
            I come from an orthodox Freudian background, and it seems like he's dead in Taos, or at least ignored, which is amazing! Here, you have your aura balanced, or go to a church. Freud was the church I was raised in. That anti-psychoanalysis attitude started in the '60s, and this is still a stronghold of that mentality. I have friends here, artists, who know nothing about Freud. The way they deal with their kids...! But I left the Freudian church and joined another one, Wilhelm Reich, who saved my life. He believed in the connection between man and nature--an organism's connection with nature is the wellspring of human happiness, in the big sense, the connection between the mind and body. Not up here [indicating from the neck up].... "Shut up for a while," I say to my brain. I really think when people are separate from their bodies, they're schizie, out of touch. You see it in kids, which is so sad. I'm here [in Taos] because of how it feel here. This body I live in feels good here.

How do you analyze your own work?
I try not to. I don't look at my work from any psychoanalytic point of view. I don't know if I really see my work. I don't know if anybody sees what they do.

What are you thinking about when you're making the work?
Well, I'm making choices, but when I become too involved in thinking about what I'm doing, I stop myself and let it go. I'm very suspect. It's like going to the movies. I worked in the movies and I'm a person interested in how a picture is put together, yet I know that if I'm in the middle of a movie and I'm conscious of how the camera moves and what clothes everybody was wearing, the movie isn't successful. I might do that the second or third time around. I feel that about what I make, whatever that is. It's not paintings anymore. They're things.

How about after it's finished?
Well, I look at it critically, mainly, what I feel right about, and what I feel not right about. Very rarely do I see something that I wouldn't change if I went back to it, if it still interests me. Usually it doesn't. I looked at some old drawings yesterday, erotic drawings to be exact, that I hadn't looked at for a very long time, and I was quite pleased with them, the quality of the drawing. There was a lot of humor in them that I hadn't remembered. Much earlier work I can look at more like the viewer.
            I had an interesting experience in L.A. last fall, vis-a-vis viewing the work. I took just a few pieces, and found that when I showed them--this happened over and over again, not to serious art people, but to your average, sophisticated buyer--that they would look, and then they would always talk about another artist and another experience, mention the names of other artists and other works, and at first I thought it was people's difficulty with what to say if they don't understand it, and even if they do. There has to be talk going on at all times, right? But I watched, and I think it also partially has to do with people having a hard time confronting a work of art, becoming engaged in looking. I think that's what titles are about. It gives the viewer another way to not really confront the image and become involved with really experiencing it.

Instead, many people become involved in intellectual exercises.
Yes. Talking. And I think titles help that along, to put it into another area where it shouldn't be. You know what I mean? It was fascinating to me, hearing them say, "Do you know Sally Schmuck? She makes work like...." Everybody wants to appear knowledgeable, especially if they're shaky in an area. But part of it is a way of talking away the experience.

Because I don't think there's much emphasis on really having a deeper experience, in any area of our lives. A quality response is not something you learn from 30 minute sitcoms. Really looking at a work of art involves a great deal of `bring to it.' It's a costly endeavor.

You give and you get.
That's right. Most people are too afraid to be open in so many areas. Art is just another one.
Do you think this is something new?
I don't know. I think that's a big choice to make in life--what is of real importance to you. When I was driving around Los Angeles and trying to flog my work to all these dealers, I was told my work was too minimal to be fashionable. Fashionable is my word, they said marketable. That was the usual response. I would say, "Well, I'm not involved in making hemline art." There would be snickering, and they'd say, "Oh, that's very well put." Everyone in the art establishment claims to be not involved with fashion. And now, after having been here, I have no clue as to what's going on and how it operates. It's beyond me. [Pause] I hope that I work it out in such a way that I don't have to be so invisible. If I was a little more of a hippie, I could say, "Well, if you think about it, it'll all be all right. Visualize what you need." I envy that.

This reminds me of a quote I read in the New Yorker recently. "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but living the examined life is only possible for a moment at a time." [Laughter]
Oh, is that true! Who can stand it? I saw a quote the other day from Braque that I thought I should take to heart, something like, "Containment of emotions is a true sign of nobility." Which is a problem when you've spent years believing that you dig up emotions, and I know that to make life easier you have to contain them.

March, 1984

1 comment:

  1. Love this story! I so "get" it. I am so glad Lilly persevered! Huzzah!