Artists who work ALL NIGHT LONG
TWELVE years ago, the painter Susan Hauptman and I worked in an old office building on Lafayette Street in New York's SoHo district. Our studios were separated by the office of a Jungian therapist who complained about Susan's ``loud'' rock music. His patients, he told me, were starting to look like Elvis Presley. Angry notes passed between Susan and my Jungian friend. I paid little attention to this prolonged battle. I had books to write. And besides, how could a fragile, 4-foot woman who looked like a child be the source of such immense discomfort?
Eventually Susan and I talked briefly in the dark hallway outside our studios. It was about 5 in the morning, and we were the only people still awake.
``I work all night,'' Susan told me with the grin of a mischievous child who had stayed up long after bedtime.
``So do I.''
``Does my stereo bother you?'' she asked cautiously.
``Can't hear a thing,'' I said. ``My own music is too loud. Hope it doesn't bother you.''
``No,''she said, it didn't bother her in the least. In fact she sometimes stood outside my door in the hall and listened. ``Whose music is that?''
For six weeks it had been Alfred Brendel playing the Beethoven sonatas. I admitted this apologetically, figuring that people in their right minds don't spend six weeks listening to the same music.
Susan eyed me suspiciously. ``Ahuh.'' Then we went back to our studios and our night-long work.
A few days later, I gave Susan a recording of Brendel playing Beethoven. She took two weeks to respond.
``It's marvelous! Can't understand how I've never heard that music before.''
For the next few years, I continued to supply Susan with music. Now the dark seventh floor of our building resounded throughout the night with the stereophonic duets of her music and mine. She painted in her studio in the company of Beethoven and Mahler. In my studio I wrote books and articles to the sounds of Bart'ok and Shostakovich.
Susan and I became friends.
Every few months, she would put down her charcoals and erasers and vanish into India, the Near East, or Africa. I suspected that these solo journeys were attempts to avoid returning to her studio and the art at which she obsessively labored without the slightest attention from critics, curators, or collectors.
After spending months finishing one of her fantastically detailed drawings, she would put it away. Then she would disappear. Weeks passed. Just when I was certain that she had been murdered in some forsaken outpost, a courier from ``flowers-by-wire'' would knock at my studio door and thrust a bunch of gladioluses into my arms.
We knew each other during those most arduous years when Susan was evolving her marvelously strange visual style. During the same period, I was writing the majority of my books. She read my manuscripts and I gazed for hours at her drawings.
Our night-long labors were quests for visions of ourselves. I searched into the place in my mind where words are born while Susan stared into a brilliantly lighted, oblong mirror. She stood for hours in the glare of the spotlights. Sometimes she wore a funny, old-fashioned evening gown. Sometimes she was naked. In that mirror-image she went in search of herself.
At first she could not see, because old habits got in the way of what lay beyond her expectations. More drastic measures were required. She shaved her head. She marked the floor in front of the mirror, so she could return to exactly the same spot night after night, month after month.
These images by Susan Hauptman are haunted by a ruthless candor and a meticulousness for detail that is almost unbearable. Susan works entirely in black and white, using charcoal, pencils, and occasionally a subtle blush of pastel. She has gradually evolved a technique entirely remote from the swift, abrupt ``action painting'' that typifies most modernists.
Contrastingly, her preoccupation with visual precision is reminiscent of the paintings of the Flemish masters, who spent months perfecting their canvases. Susan's labor is equally prolonged and difficult. She begins by facing an elegant sheet of handmade paper. It is stupendously blank.
Time passes slowly - six or seven months. Eventually a luminous still life might be born upon the sheet. But Susan's most sublime achievements result when she creates a curiously magical vision of herself, standing there on the bright, white surface, stripped of artifice and beckoning us to see her truly for the first time.
Photographer Diane Arbus could have been speaking for Susan when she said of her models, ``These are singular people who appear like metaphors somewhere farther out than we do, beckoned, not driven, invented by belief, author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be.''
Susan was one of the earliest neo-realists who brought about the reemergence of the figure in art. Eventually, gallery owner Allan Stone took notice of her work and began to exhibit it. Then, early in 1988, Susan was given an Award of Merit by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Last May and June her art work was part of ``An Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Awards'' in New York.
A few years ago she married a mutual friend of ours and moved to the West Coast. I stayed on at my Lafayette Street studio for a long while, before deciding to transplant my massive library to rural Connecticut.
The silence of the hallway troubled me. How I missed those long-ago conversations in the dead of night, when Susan would tap at my door and we would talk about the elusive visions we sought behind the narrow door of the imagination where artists dream themselves into existence.