Like a lot of Australians I look at what is happening in America with sad bemusement if not alarm. Over decades I have spent many months in the US learning its history and wandering about; driving, looking and talking to Americans of all classes, colours and creeds. In 1972, I landed in LA and spent days on Venice Beach and generally soaking up the place. Because of film and television everything was strangely familiar. Maggie May was on a loop in every bar and the palm trees swayed in the sunshine.
In a San Francisco art college, I was very fortunate to attend a lecture by Wayne Thiebaud. His beautifully painted cakes and confectionery had made him well known as a west coast pop artist but he was much more than that and has now become a recognised international painter. I remember him very clearly, collegiate and upright, tall, warm, direct and very open. Using slides he talked about many of his well-known paintings. He then showed other works he considered imperfect or failures not suitable for exhibition. His reasons were subtle and involved failures of drawing, composition, tone, colour, etc. He was invariably right. This was a great lesson for me.
Denver was under snow with a freezing wind. I had noticed in California that Marcel Duchamp was having a great influence on the art academies, so I spent days reading everything about his work in the Denver city library. Duchamp is the man who exhibited a commercially available urinal, signed R. Mutt, in the 1917 Armory Show. It was in fact a sneering joke so common now in post-modernist work. Anyway the art ninnies of the period bought it and so began the rot. I didn’t quite understand it then and I don’t like it now. I can’t as I associate it with the stench on the freezing wind off the Denver cattle yards.
Lee Marvin and his wife Pam had become friends in Sydney on one of their annual fishing excursions down under. In 1997, I delivered a painting to their hacienda in the cactus-strewn desert outside Tucson. Lee and I hung the painting and in the balmy evening there was a dinner party in their south-western style dining room for about 20 people; family, film types and an actor or two. I was seated on Lee’s left and after imbibing some mule- stonking tequila, I demonstrated my interpretation of Alfonso Bedoya’s great lines from the Treasure of Sierra Madre, ‘says don’t I know you from somewheres ha ha’ and when Humphrey Bogart asked to see his badge, ‘badgies badgies… I don’t need no stinkin’ badgies’. I now realise that you can’t imitate Alfonso unless you have very large teeth and Lee had the teeth. After my pathetic mumblings Lee left the table and some moments later a cold object was pressed into my left ear and Lee growled, ‘oh yeah who is the actor around here’. It was Sam Peckinpah’s silver 45 and to this day I don’t know if it was loaded. He was quite right of course. I went and slept under the stars and at breakfast Lee was greatly amused that I had not been hit by a rattlesnake. High times in Arizona.
In 1991, I donated a painting to the Australian Defence Force. It was a presentation for the US Military. Driving to the Pentagon with Jerry Carwardine, our naval military attaché at the Washington embassy, we went through security protocols and were ushered to a waiting area by General Powell’s aide-de-camp. There stood General Colin Powell in a subtle open pose, welcoming, slightly casual but military; an American thing. His office was comfortable with a low ceiling, bookcases with family photographs, military trophies and models around a large desk. He had great charm and during our casual conversation he told me that what he really liked to do was renovate Volvos. In his 1995 autobiography, Colin Powell – A Soldier’s Way, he made the observation, that when his family travelled north from Jamaica, had they turned right he would have been in charge of a squad. They turned left and he became a four-star general in charge of the US military.
I am proud to say that I shook hands with this gracious American patriot. Watching the chaos and mayhem on media about events in contemporary America, the one group that doesn’t get a say is the large middle class African-American population – a little over 13 per cent of 328 million people. Why is this? They are part of the great traditional strength of America, her middle class. I wish them all well at this time of crisis.
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