Reaching for a Star, 1978-79, oil on canvas
Come Let Us Light the Menorah, 1960, oil on canvas
Spring, 1972, oil on canvas
Thoughts on My Father
It's hard to write about my father. When asked to talk about him, I'm usually rendered speechless.
He was overwhelming figure, a spellbinding talker, if the audience was large enough.
Despite the optimism, humor, and joie de vivre that were so attractive to strangers and passing acquaintances, he wasn't very good at dispensing little pieces of love and caring to those who were closest to him.
What do I remember?
I remember the smell of oil paints, turpentine, and linseed oil. Canvases with an explosive, phantasmagorical geometry. Paintings depicting the dynamic optimism of immigrant Jewish community in the bleak streets of New York's Lower East Side, the poverty of mothers in tenements of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the energy of crowds in the Coney Island of his youth.
I remember stories told over dinner after the talk of art, philosophy, literature, and politics had dwindled. Funny stories, folk stories, off-color stories, stories with Yiddish punch lines.
The best he made up or embellished. About why he left Colby College (he was the furnace attendant and it blew up when he fell asleep on the job). About the smallest American flag (revealed during a burlesque show on New York's Lower East Side when he was a boy). About having to spend his last nickel to chase after his sister, who'd gotten lost in the house of mirrors at Coney Island.
Now I realize how poignant these stories were. The humor was in the descriptions and the gestures, in the voice and energy of the teller. But the underlying messages were tinged with the struggle of the immigrant full of hope, in an environment heavy with challenge.
The heartbreak in my father's own Horatio Alger story was unspoken but it is there behind the surface sweetness of the canvases. It is the heartbreak of the young man having to stop school at fourteen to earn money to support his struggling mother and blind father and younger sister. It is the heartbreak of the young man, who through sheer determination and love of learning went to night school and won a scholarship to study at Colby College in snowy Maine, yet who had to leave after only a year because the family needed the money he could earn at home.
It is the heartbreak of an aspiring poet and artist, having to work as an insurance lawyer and to suppress his dreams. It is the heartbreak of a young man, leaving the hospital where his first wife, Leah, has just died of breast cancer. He is carrying an armful of her hair. He has asked for a lock, and the nurse brought handfuls. He still spoke, nearly half a century later of the shock he'd felt and the grief upon being offered this mass of hair.
It is the heartbreak of an artist, still bursting with success of a purchase prize at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, only to be blacklisted during the McCarthy period and stripped of his job lecturing at a college and denied many opportunities to show his work.
Yet, he managed to survive, even to thrive. He was resilient, indefatigable, driven, a great salesman. But the painful moments took their toll.
It was not a sugar-coated life. He was not a sugar-coated man. And it's all there in the paintings. But you have to look, because the color and exuberance and humanism on the surface can disarm the unpenetrating eye.
I look at the paintings and see that they do contain mothers and children, flowers and birds, city streets, wonder wheels, carnivals. Behind that is a darker story, the one suppressed.
I see striving. The struggle of a painter to express optimism in the face of overwhelming difficulty. The struggle of ordinary people to succeed, to nurture their children, to reach for the stars, to soar like astronauts to the skies, to fly. And then, sometimes, come crashing down.
I see the crowds teeming in city streets, while dreams, nightmares, Freudian fears, and suppressed traumas fill balloons, billboards, and windows high above them.
I see the quality of the painting. The use of thick paint and color and dark lines to convey an intensity, an urgency, the maze we must travel.
I see the sad greens, earthy reds, muted golds and piercing blues, colors that one will never find in New York's tenements or Paris's Montmartre or Port Washington's suburban yards. Just as you won't find Gauguin's Tahiti anywhere but in his paintings.
His influences began with his own father, a difficult man, but a joyous one. Hyman Kleinholz, a Rumanian Jew, came to America in the 1880s and married Bessie Salzman. One of my father's earliest memories was of Hyman, before he went blind, dancing while coins jingled in his pockets.
Later, as an adolescent my father guided Hyman through the streets to the synagogue where the old man spent his last days in prayer and darkness. My father became his own father's eyes, describing the scenes on the New York streets, so that his father could imagine and see.
I believe that in his paintings my father is speaking to the viewer in the same way that he spoke to his blind father, telling us what we should see if it were not for our blindess.
My father was an insatiable learner. He could speak with authority about any period of art. He collected African, Indian, and meso-American art, as well as anything good he could afford to buy or manage to trade with his contemporaries.
A visit to the museum with him was a smorgasbord -- nibbles that ran the gamut, from theories of art and the influence of history and social movements on painting and sculpture, to changes in technique, materials, composition, and, inevitably, to gossip about the artists' quirks of character, money problems, drinking, love affairs, and tempestuous relations with patrons and art dealers.
The only style I ever heard him speak against was Abstract Expressionism. He had no use for anything that eliminated human beings from the story. For him the human was the be all and end all.
Suffering was part of the tale, yet he hid it, at least on the surface. It's there, if you look, in the quality of the paint, the brush strokes, the agonizing diagonals, the dusty figures floating in the murky background. And I think that's what makes some see sweetness in the canvases. Only in the face of tragedy do we savor joy. Only when faced with crushing burdens, do we yearn to fly.
And so my father painted tender moments, children flying and waving flags, and flowers in pots, and birds and balloons and all manner of things that took his mind off the darkness.
And so, I have found my voice at last. I have begun to talk about my father.
© 2003-07 by Lisa Kleinholz