MY FATHER HAD COME TO NEW YORK CITY ALONE, KNOWING NO ONE, WITH NOTHING TO HIS NAME, AND HE HAD CREATED HIMSELF. PAINTING INFUSED HIS LIFE WITH PURPOSE.
WHEN MY FATHER DIED, in September 2000, he left behind hundreds of paintings and sculptures in his rent-controlled loft on Greene Street. The work ranges from severe wooden constructions made in the 1960s to woozy zigzags crafted out of plaster, from icon-size images to rolled-up canvases of vast dimensions. My father’s art went ignored, essentially unseen during his lifetime. There were no career retrospectives, no solo museum shows, no fanfare. His artist friends were his only audience.
In the aftermath of his life, I find myself compelled to fight his battle for him: I think that my father’s art is late-breaking news from the last century. The work is probing and profound, abject and obstinate, luminous and eerie, eccentric yet true to its own internal logic. It revels in metaphysical doubt; it radiates the belief of its maker.
Is it simply too painful for me to relinquish his belief, to imagine that all of that effort was wasted? Or, to put a more positive spin on it, to accept that for my father the process was its own reward?
The universe as a vast garbage heap of matter, a constant recycling of elements, an indifference to their use or purpose (the universe as a pile of junk).
-Peter Pinchbeck, notebook entry, 1995
My family moved to SoHo in 1968, when I was two. My father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract artist who worked on an enormous scale, commensurate with his ambition. My mother, Joyce Johnson, was a book editor and novelist. SoHo was a failing commercial district of cheap lofts. We were part of a wave of artists moving into the area.
During the day, trucks rattled down the crumbling paving stones of the old streets. Laborers yelled to one another as they hauled crates from the trucks onto concrete landings. In the windows of small factories, steel cutters spun, shooting out sparks.
At night the streets fell silent. Time seemed to stop. Occasionally an alley cat screeched, or the footsteps of a lone passerby echoed against the buildings. When I walked with my parents at night, the stillness pressed down on us. Ghosts appeared to hover above the old streets. It is bizarre to recall now, but SoHo in my early childhood was marked by a strange emptiness.
The loft was an enormous cavern. Gridded windows at each end let in a dull gray light. In those days my father made large wooden constructions and painted colored rectangles that floated on vast sheets of stretched canvas. Most of the space was used for his studio. For my mother and me he built bedrooms out of wooden beams and Sheetrock and installed bathroom fixtures and a water heater.
When you are a child, everything belongs to a process that is both mysterious and essential. I didn’t separate the work my father did on his paintings from the world of the streets, the rattling trucks and rag bales, the laborers and spinning machines. I assumed my father’s paintings were necessary to the running of the entire system. I think I believed that most fathers spent their nights and days like he did, organizing colored shapes on enormous surfaces. To my child’s mind, his constant activity seemed to have a vital connection to the city’s mechanical processes. It was as if he were trying to distill some totemic essence from that confused tangle of trucks and streets and machines.
After my parents split up in 1971-their marriage destroyed by a lethal combination of the sexual revolution, Max’s Kansas City, and my father’s bad behavior-I would visit him every few weeks. He tore down the walls that created the illusion of a domestic interior to liberate the space. My bed was a small army cot set up in a corner of the studio. I slept surrounded by his huge icons, breathing in the sweet odors of turpentine and oil.
The neighborhood around us transformed like a slowly developing photograph. The factories and loading platforms vanished one by one. Galleries and restaurants and boutiques proliferated like new life-forms escaped from some laboratory experiment. Once SoHo was declared chic, the rich descended on the area. They bought out the lofts that the artists vacated or were forced to leave. “The zombies,” my father called them.
Possessed of a rare social generosity, my father was like an unappointed mayor of the old SoHo. He knew hundreds of people in the neighborhood, all the original settlers, and he would often be late to meet me as he stopped to hail each person cheerfully, then listen to their sagas.
In my twenties, when I passed through SoHo late at night after some party, I would detour by his block to see the light shining in his window. I would feel oddly secure in the thought that he was up in his loft working, revolving like a planet through his self-created cosmology of painted shapes and plaster structures. He kept working in his loft until his death, of heart failure, at the age of sixty-eight.
the need to believe
-handwritten note found on Peter Pinchbeck’s desk after his death.
My father did not like to talk about his past; therefore I know little about it. He was born on December 9, 1931, in the seaside resort of Brighton in southern England. His father, Gerald Pinchbeck, an Irish Catholic pub keeper, left his mother when Peter was small, vanishing forever from his life. We are rumored to descend from a line of alchemists and horologists. In the eighteenth century Christopher Pinchbeck, an English alchemist and clockmaker, invented pinchbeck, an alloy of copper and zinc that was used as false gold. In the nineteenth century the word pinchbeck came to mean “anything false or spurious.”
My father was trapped in London during the Blitz — he remembered emerging from the cellar after an air raid to see that the house across the street had been blown to bits. “After the war, everything seemed gray. It was like all the color had been drained out of the world,” he once said. He saw an exhibit of van Gogh’s paintings, then works by the Abstract Expressionists, at the Tate Gallery. Van Gogh inspired him to become an artist. He told me he wanted to put color back into the world. Lacking connections, he went to Paris, only to find that the School of Paris was dead. In the galleries he saw shows of the New York School and decided to move to New York.
He arrived in New York in 1960 to discover that the heyday of Abstract Expressionism was over. He worked as an orange-juice vendor in the Fourteenth Street subway, then as a carpenter. He found a cheap loft on the run-down Bowery. In early photographs he looks intent, handsome, gaunt, his work shirts buttoned to the top button (he couldn’t afford to heat his studio). His sculpture revealed the influence of the Russian Constructivists and the Abstract Expressionists. He found a group of artists who shared his concerns showing at Tenth Street galleries.
His best exhibitions came in the 1960s, when he was associated with the Minimalists. In 1966 he showed wooden constructions in the “Primary Structures” exhibit at the Jewish Museum curated by Kynaston McShine, which helped launch Minimalism. “I suspect that Pinchbeck’s work will shortly become known: it seems hard to believe that work of this authority and rectitude will go undiscovered for long,” noted a critic in the magazine Art International in 1968. In 1971 his one-person show at Paley & Lowe Gallery featured wooden boards of yellow, blue, and black, extending into space “with the equivalence of a gesture or perhaps a thought,” as Carter Ratcliff wrote in Art News.
During the 1970s he painted rectangles floating in colored fields. Despite his lack of a gallery he regularly painted works of outrageous size: fifteen feet or longer. The paintings were shown in some group exhibitions and in Barbara Rose’s “American Painting, the Eighties” (1979), at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Most of them were never shown at all.
The art world boomed and busted and then moved to Chelsea. New generations of artists rose to the top of the heap. My father kept working in his loft. He moved from rigid rectangles to biomorphic squiggles, flying cigar shapes, shapes that smashed into and interpenetrated one another. He stacked old paintings against the walls. Sculptures made from cardboard, wood, and plaster curled around each other on the floor-bulbous columns and amoebic entities. Art supplies rested on long tables: power saws and staple guns, plaster and chicken wire, tubes of paint piled into cigar boxes. His living area consisted of a desk and a bed in a corner surrounded by paintings-little canvases of spinning shapes watching over him like spirit guardians.
He never lost faith in his art. He rarely lost his good cheer. Despite his lack of success, he knew he had achieved a lot. He had come to New York City alone, knowing no one, with nothing to his name, and he had created himself. Painting infused his life with purpose. He eked out a living, teaching a day or two a week at Manhattan Community College, renting out part of the studio to a painter friend. Living in a huge loft in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world, he was always poor, his clothes baggy, his jackets smelling of mothballs. Today I remain amazed as well as shocked by his purity, his indomitable effort in the face of such total indifference.
Only the rich will survive.
-handwritten note found on Peter Pinchbeck’s desk after his death.
Over the years, I sometimes tried to imagine one moment in my future: the moment after my father’s death, when I would confront forty years of his obstinate activity-his forceful bid for immortality-my bewildering patrimony. What would I do with it all? I grasped toward this crisis and then pulled back. I was left with a blank, a mental short-out like a blown fuse.
In the last few years of his life I also felt put off, even aggrieved, by the titanic gesture, the seemingly pointless yet relentless activity of his incessant artmaking. His loft felt increasingly claustrophobic, crowded with paintings and papers. Struggling for my own survival in New York-not just a changed city, more like a different dimension of reality from the one my parents knew in the 1960s-I tried to distance myself from his doomed dedication.
Whenever I stopped to look at the paintings, I felt I was wearing a different lens over each eye-one brought the work too close, the other left it too distant, so that the combined effect was a vertiginous loss of perspective. His art had the eerie power of a fully realized obsession. It was a self-constructed universe, a raw cosmology of forms and totems.
He was fascinated by physics and philosophy. He read constantly-Blanchot, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche. Books on black holes and superstrings and chaos theory. His late works can be seen as poetic images of quantum weirdness, molecular transformations, the space-curving force of gravitational fields. He was seeking some primal stratum of shape and structure suggesting planets and atomic orbits, archaic tombs and menhirs, internal organs and Freudian protrusions.
While the early works were rigidly ordered and flatly painted, his later paintings include passages that break out, scumbled and scratched surface areas that to me suggest cosmic chaos, night-lit abysses, fever dreams, the existential confinement of the self in its prison tower. They allow for awkwardness and grace, radiance and revelation, mystical hope as well as mute horror. They remind me of Henry Miller in books like Black Spring, riffing for pages on any subject-on a walk he took as a child, on a long-lost friend, or a florid metaphysical conceit. Miller’s passages skate out toward the edge of collapse with seemingly careless abandon, then circle back to snare his meaning with precision. Scuffed, bohemian, almost abject yet oddly redemptive, my father’s late paintings have that quality of a crisis confronted, a disaster averted-but just barely.
As a critic who wrote about art for magazines like Art & Antiques and Harper’s Bazaar, I understood the forces that had condemned him to internal exile in the art world. I saw how the art system fed on new talent and youth-older artists who were not enshrined had to be pushed aside to make way for the next generation. Sometimes I see the work he left behind as an elegy to painting itself-a farewell to the dream of heroic abstraction. And sometimes I think that no dream is ever lost.
A blade of grass, the suspended flight of a hummingbird. We are travelers in a land where signs elude us, and everything we think or do only magnifies our sense of loss.
-Peter Pinchbeck, notebook entry, 1995
Unable to deal with his career during his life, he left the value of his work entirely for me to define — as I always suspected he would. It is up to me to find a place for the work. Or I can walk away, let the work sink into the void, that vast “garbage heap” of all that is unknown and forgotten — that gaping maw into which all celebrated enterprises eventually follow, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.
I feel myself being sucked toward the vortex of his project-his unrecognized gift and enormous drive, his helplessness. Some of the paintings even resemble naked beings crying for attention. It is like a dangerous gravitational pull tugging me away from my own work.
There is a pinchbeck quality to the whole endeavor: However I present his work now, in his absence, is a bit of a lie-like all texts, this essay is itself full of secret hedges, misperceptions recalibrated as fact. It is a deeply heartfelt yet spurious exercise. Some of our ancestors were, apparently, alchemists, and I am aware that to make of his career something he failed to make in his life requires a kind of alchemy. It requires storytelling, and storytelling, like painting, is an attempt to transmute the raw stuff of life into precious matter. With this task, whatever I do, I become the father of my helpless father.
He once told me an anecdote about an important critic. This is decades ago now. The critic was curating an exhibition of large sculpture. She made an appointment to see a piece he had finished. But the time came and she called to say she couldn’t make it. He was forced to put the sculpture out on the concrete landing. He called a garbage disposal service to take it away. From his fire escape he watched the men put the piece in the back of the truck. He saw the sculpture go down the street and out of sight. His whole career was stories like that one, repeated ad infinitum: so many slights, so many stings.
He never had his moment. In a profound and internal process, he made all the rejections fuel his belief. He continued to work without compromise for nearly forty years. Once, a few years before he died, I asked him if he would accept his situation again: If he could go back in time and alter his style, in exchange for exhibitions and attention, would he do it?
No, my father said. Looking back, he would change nothing.
In the end I think he was a happy man.