What do you do with your tributes, your grief, the flood of memory and clarion understandings that arrive when mortality claims a loved one, with the need for the comfort and community of the others left floating in his wake, when there is no memorial? I have struggled with that for almost a year now. My beloved mentor, Rip Matteson, died on April 22, 2011. Yesterday was the reception for his last exhibit at the Carmel Art Association—it is his retrospective, falling on the one-year anniversary of his death—and then the association will drop him from its ranks.
When I heard from Rip’s wife, right after he died, that there would be no memorial, that he had been insistent on the point, I felt my heart drop—like the last quarter in a vending machine that’s going to spit out something very bad. It wasn’t just the evaporation of that image of gathering loved ones, but what it told me of Rip’s frame of mind at the end that saddened me.
He had lived longer than he wanted to. He had been a vigorous man, in remarkable health until maybe six or seven years before his death, and he was intolerant of living compromised. When he first began having problems with his eyes, with sleeping, with balance, with his blood pressure, with swallowing, with driving and then walking—he absolutely hated the restrictions, the experience of himself as diminished–and I remember feeling certain he would simply opt out. I prepared myself for it. And then it didn’t happen. He adjusted: to each new medication, each new routine. He submitted to the tests and the solutions and the regimens, all of it growing more and more time consuming, more demanding of his attention, more intrusive on his life. The day he died, I realized with absolute clarity that he had taken this long road, this slow, painful decline, for us—mostly, I think, for Rosary, his wife—so that we could adjust, could see him disappearing, aid him in his exit, and truly know he was gone when he was gone.
But I also think forcing himself to take that long, slow, progressively humiliating journey took its toll. Rip was one of the sanest people I have ever known. His impulses were generous, his grievances were thought out and mastered. He was almost courtly in his demeanor; he was giving, liberal with his knowledge and experience, thoughtful in his interactions. His optimism, his ability to renew and reinvigorate his artistic vision, again and again, with the wonder of a child and the focus of an old master, was inspiring, wonderful. In the last years, I saw a fissure in his composure, a sort of resentment of his place in the artistic cosmos…and I felt that his decline had colored his view of his own work, his own place, made that too seem diminished. It seemed he judged himself not worthy of memorial.
Not that there isn’t every reason to resent the “art world”—it’s a ridiculous construct, and it embraces very few—but Rip never really pursued the approbation of the “art world.” He didn’t move to New York or Los Angeles, his work was not radical or game-changing or controversial or constructed of bold new materials or forms such that it would mark out unique territory for him. He was not a self-promoter, his ego did not overwhelm all obstacles in his path or demand a forum. He chose to have a family, partnership, a stable home, a career in academics—he chose to make absolutely beautiful “pictures,” as he liked to call them. He kept his inspiration close to home, creating beautiful relationships with a wide range of people as he either taught them to paint or seduced them with his genteel admiration into becoming subjects–in all his actions, he chose to be close to home, to make beautiful work and beautiful interactions that made a more beautiful world…maybe with a small reach, but an unquestionably worthy one. His approach was like an art version of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.
And yet he dreamed of ending up in the museums and history books. Every year or so, he would re-evaluate his work, examine his beliefs and tastes, write manifestos for himself, artistic to-do lists, establish new goals, find new ways to energize his commitment to his work. In my opinion, the work changed very little—it always came back to a very similar style, approach, subject matter, treatment. But what amazed and inspired me was that this frail old man never allowed himself to succumb to boredom, to go to sleep, to check out…even when he felt he had fallen into auto-pilot in his work…he would find a way to refocus, to challenge himself, to continue working, to face the tedium of repetition, the always-looming terror of inadequacy, of failing to meet one’s own dreams and expectations and potential, and he would get back to it. Over and over again right up to the last week of his life.
So there are many, many things I could—and should—say about Rip Matteson. They have been with me over the decade-plus of our exchange, they have been at the forefront of my mind, in my tears and silence over the last year. So I believe I will try to give them voice over the next couple of months, because I was given an extraordinary gift in this man. It was sheer dumb luck that brought a steelworker’s daughter from Montana into intimate conversation with this great soul, this well-educated academic, this remarkable vessel of knowledge and spirit and humanity. Our work was very dissimilar–oil paint was really the only bonding agent–but the very differences allowed me to come up against and articulate what I was, in contrast to what he was. My work with him as a model gave me an inside track to that experience, and supplemented in important ways what I knew about getting at character from theater with what it was to be a “subject”–and helped me to work out the approach to and relationship with the people I paint to create the experience and the painting that I want. His struggles with the limitations of his choices, the way he reevaluated and always arrived back at an acceptance and embrace of the life he had chosen taught me that there is struggle and compromise and reward, no matter which path you choose. So I will try to break out a few of the lessons I learned from him and share them here.
I guess I am now officially a member of the modern world, because, to answer my own question: what do you do with your tributes when there is no memorial? You blog.