Tuesday, April 08, 2008

What's Drawing Andre to Manattanville?

Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

New York Observed
Her Drawings With André

Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Published: April 6, 2008/New York Times

From the concrete steps in front of Riverside Beer and Soda Distributors, you can look south across 133rd Street to the M.T.A. bus lot, and west through the steel vaults of the abandoned 12th Avenue subway line past the Fairway Supermarket to the Hudson River.

Tara Geer has had her studio there for nine years, and there’s something about the approach to it — the buses that she was drawing from at one period, the bare elevated tracks, the combined feeling of vigor and abandonment — that makes me feel I am in a certain era of the city’s life. It’s the same era you sense in the films and theater projects of the director André Gregory, who takes drawing lessons with Tara, and who has been doing my portrait now and again, which is the reason I was standing there on the steps on a recent Thursday.

On the door of the building are a number of buzzers — a dozen artists work above the beer distributor — but none of them reach Tara’s studio. I stand under the third-floor window and call: “Tara! André! Sorry I’m late!”

When you enter the studio, Tara’s drawings are on the long wall on the left. On the right, between the two windows, is André’s portrait gallery.

Two years ago, at age 71, André decided that he would like to take drawing lessons, and having moved rapidly through drawings of cups, cotton plants and wonderful, wonky typewriters, he has, for the last six months, been inviting people he knows to come to Tara’s studio to be drawn.

Among those portrayed, one sees actors, novelists, graphic artists and theater producers: a small gray man both confident and timid; a woman whose nose, forehead and hair all make a single, angular form; a woman trying to live up to her beautifully charcoaled scarf.

André has an eye for peculiar detail, and the people themselves seem both of New York and as if they had all met at a pawnshop in Dickens. Once, asked to describe André’s work, Tara thought for a moment and said, “Demented realism.”

When I arrived the other day, the two of them were standing in front of Tara’s 15-foot-high drawing “The Big Sock.” In this work, apparently abstract details, originally gleaned from close renderings, possibly of a sock or of the buses across the street, had been inverted, layered, textured, magnified, and made to float upward in black, white and gray. After 35 minutes of looking at it one afternoon, I had learned to see in it as many ideas of space as there are in the view from the front steps of the studio.

This time I wore a flowered scarf. When I sit for André, I look at a seam along the left shoulder of his shirt, usually a blue denim Carhartt. I had just spent a week in Paris looking at Cézannes and Poussins with a magnifying glass, but this time I noticed the four lines in André’s seam because in Tara’s studio you feel encouraged to look at things closely for a long time.

“The hardest thing about drawing is nothing technical in your hand; the hardest thing about drawing is looking.” Tara has said this often enough in their lessons that now André sometimes says it, too. Of course it’s quite close to André’s own philosophy of directing.

“André Gregory,” I sometimes explain to people. “You’ve seen ‘My Dinner With André.’ That’s André. He directed that beautiful ‘Uncle Vanya,’ too, that became the movie.”

André’s process is famous for its extensiveness (he has been rehearsing Beckett’s “Endgame” in his living room with the same actors for 30 years), and during much of a rehearsal he just sits, watching encouragingly.

WHEN André asked me if I could recommend a drawing teacher, I thought that he and Tara, whom I’d met six years ago at the MacDowell Colony, would have something in common.
“Tara Geer,” I said. “She does large-scale drawings, sort of between Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell and Arshile Gorky. I kind of think they might be among the great drawings of our time.
“Anyway, she got her M.F.A. at Columbia, and she used to teach there, and she says that anyone can be taught to draw.”

André goes up to the studio three times a week, and drawing, like all the things he devotes himself to, has turned out to be an activity of great joy and discovery. Sometimes he talks about rehearsing and drawing together: “You spend months going down a blind alley, and then in sheer desperation you try something that seems likely to be stupid, and suddenly you see the relationship between two characters, two lines.”

Tara, who sees this awareness in his art, says: “André is an unbelievably fine instrument. His perceptions of people are so acute. A woman will come in to sit, and she’ll seem very firm and even a little angry, and you’ll think, ‘There’s something else in her face; she’s fighting against something’ — and then you’ll see that it’s sadness. And when the portrait is done, somehow André will have gotten that sadness.

“Of course, the woman won’t like her portrait.”

There is something particular to the city in the work Tara and André make; maybe it’s not so much of an era as it is of a rare but perpetually recurring atmosphere. In the 1950s, I think you could have found something similar at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, where the Abstract Expressionists hung out and where there was no door to the bathroom — “Jackson tore it off,” the bartender would explain. When people come to be drawn at Tara’s studio, they feel that sense of art: raw and vital and patiently tended.

Next year the M.T.A. bus lot on 133rd Street is supposed to be taken over as part of the expansion of Columbia University. The artists across the street expect to be priced out of their building and are preparing to scatter. Just now, though, when you enter Tara’s studio, you still walk into a world in pencil, chalk, ink, charcoal, gouache, a world where on paper are the visages, the strange turning spaces of an almost familiar New York.


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