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Painted From Memory

Vera Klement's Prolific Retirement



By Mark Swartz

Vera Klement's paintings say a lot about her. Step in front of one, and you'll see how enraptured she is with the act of painting--each stroke seems to writhe on the canvas.

If her paintings offered nothing but intriguing brushwork, there would still be plenty to admire. But her brushstroke's allied with an ardent, compassionate intelligence.

Klement doesn't approach painting as an isolated discipline. A professor at the University of Chicago for 26 years, she often taught her subject by analogy to other arts. Duncan Webb, a former student, says she encouraged him to think of reading and painting as "separate but parallel activities." She didn't want him to make superficially literary work, he says, but to develop a deeper personal vision by enriching the cultural soil that nourishes him. "I asked her about classical music once," he recalls. "She wrote out a list of 40 albums."

Perhaps this approach to painting explains why every successive Klement exhibition seems to offer more to look at and think about. Since retiring from the U. of C. in 1995, she's surged ahead as a painter. This spring alone brought "Fusion," a show of new paintings at the Fassbender Gallery that closes this weekend, and a 33-year career retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center, which runs through July 18. Her willingness to experiment and grow might be expected from a younger artist just beginning to find her style, but in the case of Vera Klement, born in 1929, it testifies to a consciousness that grows more acute each year, refusing to settle for the achievements of decades past.

As a teacher, Klement saw the art of painting go out of fashion, come back, and go out again. Toward the end of her time at the U. of C., she says, she felt the pressure of being "a painter among people who no longer believed in painting. When I left, they didn't replace me. Right now there's no tenure-track painter on the faculty." Ben Whitehouse, who got his MFA under Klement's tutelage, acknowledges that "teaching painting is fraught with difficulty in the contemporary context," mentioning the ascendance of nontraditional art forms and the belief that painting can be just one of the tricks up a multimedia artist's sleeve. Klement's father taught her how to do watercolors when she was 11. "Back then," she says, "the word artist meant painter."

Klement's family were Russian Jews. Before she was born, her parents fled pogroms in Minsk (now the capital of Belarus), landing in a small resort outside Danzig, a place she recalls as "exquisite beyond belief, a medieval seaside town."

She spent her first ten years in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), a German-speaking independent city-state on the Baltic coast. In the early 1930s Nazis won a majority of assembly seats, and the Klements soon had to go into hiding. Eventually they managed to escape to the United States, leaving from the harbor of Gdynia, Poland, in December 1938. "In Gdynia, they were carrying signs that said, 'Kill the Jews.' It's a terrible thing to feel hunted. I'm still sort of paranoid.

"I keep a list of Jew haters from history. T.S. Eliot, for one. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a letter to his wife describing how he had to sit next to a Jew on a coach, how this disgusted him. After someone read to me a passage from William Gass's The Tunnel, I made a note to myself that I would never read him."

She has returned to Europe, but never to Gdansk. She doesn't want to tamper with her memories, she says, because she still draws inspiration from what she once held most valuable and dear: the sights and sounds that bind her to this place. "The memory is my muse," she explains.

Klement attaches an almost mystical importance to landscape. Her painting The Sky Was Red With Cockcrow contains eight of them. "I paint figures and landscapes, but the figures are never in the landscapes. This sense of expulsion is probably related to losing one's homeland and remembering it as exquisite."

The Klements ended up in New York City. Vera's father, who owned a lumberyard in Danzig, took a job working at one in Harlem. The family decided to stop speaking German, the language of the Nazis, and Klement found English to be a bitter barrier. "I didn't speak for two months because I was terrified of making a mistake," she says. "The only word I knew was 'what.'" Besides struggling with a new language, there was a general feeling of not fitting in. This sense of isolation has also left its mark. "Disorientation or illness, anything that separates you from your community, can send you into your interior and make an artist out of you. Making art is a way of ordering the chaos."

Klement never forgot the experience of being a stranger. A few months ago, she heard a couple speaking Russian in Carson Pirie Scott--"When I hear that language I just flip out"--and she promptly befriended them. She's now assisting the couple in the complicated process of attaining U.S. citizenship, even translating a practice test into Russian. "It's a hard test," she says. "I couldn't believe it. Those people will have a hard time." Klement glows when describing a party she attended with the Russian family. "It was the man's 80th birthday, and they had an emcee and of course an accordion. Everybody danced. The man's sons gave long toasts in honor of their father. It was so warm and lovely. I was in tears. It made me feel I was Russian."

She had considered a career in music, following her mother, who had studied piano at a conservatory in Saint Petersburg. But when she enrolled in New York's High School of Music and Art, she chose the latter. "I told my piano teacher I was quitting, and she wept," Klement says with a laugh. Later she earned a certificate from Cooper Union. She fell under the influence of abstract expressionism and met such figures as Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning before relocating to Chicago in 1964 with her former husband, composer Ralph Shapey, who had been offered a position at the University of Chicago. She says moving to Chicago was beneficial to her development because it forced her to rely on her own instincts. But she also recalls that her work was considered "too New York" at first.

Imagism held sway here, with its grotesque figures and lurid colors. She found solace in the counsel of art critic Harold Rosenberg, who was both a professor at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought and an art critic for the New Yorker. A fierce devotee of abstract expressionism--he coined the term "action painting"--Rosenberg was less enamored of subsequent movements, especially pop art, which he considered simpleminded and trivial. Once an interviewer asked Rosenberg, "How do you react to individuals who claim painting is dead?" He responded, "It's obviously dead for them."

"Harold was a good friend of mine," Klement says. "He could talk about art and aesthetics for hours, never gossip or what he knew about what this person or that person said."

Rosenberg's taste in painting has had an enduring impact on Klement. He helped her get her teaching job at the university. "I remember we were walking, and he said, 'I threw your hat in the ring,'" she says, laughing at how simple it was. "I had a chat with the head of the department, and that was all it took. Nowadays, there'd be 300 people submitting applications, and the decision would be made by committee."

Throughout her teaching career, she compared notes with her students, gauging their development as she herself matured artistically. These interactions were not always easy, however. She sometimes grew frustrated at their inability to relate to the literature and music she loves. "They didn't listen to the kind of music I listen to, and they didn't read, period," she says. "I'd mention Moby-Dick in a discussion of whiteness, and nobody had read it."

Klement has no use for theories that make a distinction between "word people" and "image people." She's always painted, and she's always read, and her passion for one only complements her passion for the other. "I remember reading [Thomas Mann's] Doktor Faustus when I was 19," she says, "leaving class and sneaking to the bathroom so I could finish the last pages. I was in the bathroom stall, reading it and weeping. Reading is different than a movie, which you forget 15 minutes after you leave the theater. Books bond with your memory until it's your own memory."

While her students often refer to her generosity, she has no desire to return to teaching. "Not for one tiny minute," she says, adding, "It was a great job. I don't have any degrees and they made me a full professor. I didn't go to college. Teaching was my education."

Klement struggled against the dominance of imagism in Chicago, forming a group in the late 1960s called "the Five," with Ted Argeropolis, Larry Booth, Martin Hurtig, and Larry Solomon. "I was totally bored here," she says, "and this group came along, and we supported each other." Several years later she had a hand in founding the cooperative women's gallery Artemisia.

She showed in New York, but decided that the artistic climate there no longer suited her, despite suspicions back in Chicago that New York was where she belonged. One New York moment has stayed with her: "In 1984, I had a show in a gallery, and some New York art types were looking at one of my works, and I could tell they just weren't getting it. I asked them what they saw, and they said, 'It's paint. It's just paint.' Then I found someone who wasn't art-educated, and I asked her, 'What is that a picture of?' She said, 'It's an old lady on a farm.' And that's how I knew I wasn't crazy. Because when you're painting you're not always sure if you're just imagining that it's there. You dream the image in there."

For years, Klement says, she tried to eliminate emotion from her work, concentrating on patterns and undulations to engage the eye and the rational part of the brain. Now she paints what she feels, even if she's feeling sentimental. "People are very guarded about their emotions," she says. "But if they were honest with themselves, they'd admit that they want to see a sunset."

Klement shows me a recent painting, not of a sunset but of a dead body. She had come upon an accident on the street; an African-American boy had been hit by a car. "It was the first time I'd seen a dead body, and I just knew immediately that he was dead--he wasn't just unconscious. I painted the boy first. Then I didn't know what to do. Something had to go there"--she points to another area of the canvas. "You have to wait before you know what the other image will be. The subconscious tells you." She added a mass of red paint suggestive of both spilled blood and a bouquet. She titled the painting Roses.

As with much of her work, there is more than one panel. This allows for divergent moods and styles to engage in painterly dialogue with one another. These juxtapositions are almost always thematic, rather than absurd or ironic, as is often the case in contemporary art. The second panel of Roses is much smaller; it hangs below the main canvas. While staying at her summer house in Michigan, she started an all red composition and left it in the sun to dry; then she forgot about it and the paint-and-wax concoction melted and dripped. The result was irresistible. "Another painter could have made an entire career out of that one technique," she says, laughing.

The rules of abstract art ordained that any literary references in painting lowered it to the level of mere illustration, so Klement respected the barrier between the studio and the library--but no longer. Recently, she completed two paintings inspired by Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz's Palace of Desire, though she quickly points out that neither one is "illustration"--that is, subordinate to the writer's imagination. She has also tried her hand at translating the work of the German and Russian poets that she reveres. The result is a manuscript titled "Born of Silence," which she hopes will be picked up by a publisher willing to run the poems alongside reproductions of her paintings inspired by them.

For each of eight poets, she translated 20 poems. "The process of translating led directly to the paintings," she says. "My translations are very accurate. If the original says, 'He hated it when children cried,' I don't want to read a translation that says, 'He hated bawling brats.'"

The writers--Nelly Sachs, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Paul Celan, and Rose Auslander--have been characterized in Donald Kuspit's catalog essay for Klement's 1997 show as "doomed modern poets, whose poems convey, in and through their fragmented, incomplete structure, the doom of poetry itself--or at least its precarious existence--in the prosaic modern world." But these poets weren't obsessed with doom--no matter how far it encroached on their lives. They believed in their art enough to continue practicing it. Witnessing the horrors of this century gave rise to their words.

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) persisted writing in the Soviet Union despite censure, the threat of expulsion, and an order that made him decline the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. A verse of his "Mary Magdalene (I)" reads:

The deathly silence is not far;

A few more moments only matter,

Which the Inevitable bar.

But at the edge, before they scatter,

In front of thee my life I shatter,

As though an alabaster jar.

Klement's four-panel Pasternak Suite, from 1995, reads from left to right like a poem. The first panel is a severed head, gory with caked-on paint but strangely restful. In the second panel, there's a smear of watery blue where the head used to be. The third is a narrow abstract composition bisected down the middle like a Barnett Newman painting. The final panel is the largest, a violet star shower that acquires both visual and poetic power from the spareness of the previous three panels.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was exiled for three years after reading a poem about Stalin aloud to a group of friends (it included a line about "the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip"). Later he was sentenced to a labor camp, where he died. The last verse of his poem "I Was Washing Outside in the Darkness" reads:

Star-salt is melting in the barrel,

icy water is turning blacker,

death's growing purer, misfortune saltier,

the earth's moving nearer to truth and to dread.

Klement's Mandelstam #2, from 1997, shows only the ghostly head, arm, and torso of a man and a black bird shooting out of an aperture in his chest. It's an image born of fear and release, and the words that best go with it come not from Mandelstam but Akhmatova:

You marked with charcoal on my left side

The target at which to aim,

To let the bird, my anguish, fly out

Into the desolate night again.

"I like overheated passion," Klement says. "That's what you find in Russian poetry."

Allowing herself to incorporate her emotional life and literary tendencies into her art was a conscious act of divergence from the rules of modernism. Paradoxically, she's replaced these with another set of rules to make the act of rebellion manageable. This time the rules come from Klement herself. Her adherence to them has led to a disciplined freedom--a frame within which possibilities are endless.

"The images in my painting have to be known by everybody," she says of one of her primary rules regarding subject matter. "A tree, a boy, a fish, a door, a field. And if I paint a tree, for example, then I can't paint another tree for six months. That way I don't paint by rote. I have to reinvent the image every time."

The pervasive whiteness in her work--leaving large sections of the canvas untouched--is a kind of restriction too. "The whiteness keeps me from changing my mind. If I put something here, I can't go back and decide it needs to be over there, because you could still see it through the white."

Klement says that when she was relearning German she made a rule that she couldn't read books in any other language for five years.

One day Klement calls me to make sure that I won't overemphasize her Jewish identity in this article. But that's already an indelible part of my perception of her. In conversation, she makes constant references to Hitler, the Holocaust, and Danzig. She admits to "the need to memorialize," but doesn't approve of explicit Holocaust imagery in art. "It's too easy to be exploitative," she says. Autumn Swimmer, which depicts a fire-scarred brick wall and mermaid-type figure swimming among gold leaves, is about the Holocaust, though you might not know that from looking at it. In Tzimtzum, a rounded silhouette stands for the door of an oven meant for incinerating bodies.

Leaving out the Holocaust imagery and eschewing obvious titles are perhaps the biggest rules in Klement's book. This simultaneous disapproval of and need for reminders of the Holocaust produces an ever-increasing tension between her thoughts and her artistic practice. It's also a source of strength.

Confronting Klement paintings, you don't necessarily have to know what they're about to feel something. She doesn't want to be an academic painter--she wants to communicate. "When I was a young artist," she says, "the important thing was not to be too obvious. You had to be obscure if you wanted to be taken seriously. So I was obscure. But recently I've allowed myself to be more direct. Beethoven has wide appeal, but there's something there for the musicologists too."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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