Rosemarie Beck's "Letters to a Young Painter"

by John McIntyre

In the summer of 1966, the artist Rosemarie Beck (1923–2003) began preparing a talk she was scheduled to give at the University of Delaware the following year. Seven years earlier, she had made a similar appearance at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. The New York critic Hilton Kramer had published the highlights of that talk in his Perspectives on the Arts (Arts Yearbook #5), c. 1961. For the 1967 talk, Beck planned to adapt the much admired model that the German author Rainer Maria Rilke had established in his Letters to a Young Poet. It was a fitting choice. Beck’s still unpublished Letters to a Young Painter were dispatches from a perfect hinterland in terms of her career arc and artworld trends.1  

In a 1944 essay for The Nation entitled “Abstract Art,” the critic Clement Greenberg had noted that:  

Artists will do whatever they can get away with, and what they can get away with is not determined beforehand. Good landscapes, still lifes and torsos will still be turned out. Yet it seems to me—and the conclusion is forced by observation not by preference—that the most ambitious and effective pictorial art of these times is abstract or goes in that direction.  

And in a 1986 PBS documentary, Robert Motherwell and the New York School: Storming the Citadel, Robert Motherwell suggested that Abstract Expressionist painters had become the inhabitants of the art world’s citadel, rather than the ones storming it. For all her talent and insight as an artist, Rosemarie Beck might as easily never have joined the hordes storming the citadel, let alone imagined a place inside it.  

Beck’s earliest affinity was for music. She took violin lessons from the age of ten and played in a string quartet into her thirties, long after establishing herself as an artist. Late in her life, she compared her brushstroke to “a note of music.” In light of this extensive musical background, it is no surprise she painted several versions of the Orpheus myth. She undertook the study of art history as an undergraduate at Oberlin College in 1940 because the school lacked a studio art program. In 1944, she began work as an assistant to the influential Surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann, running errands and perform- ing clerical tasks in exchange for instruction. Her future husband, the writer Robert Phelps, was afraid she would become “a second Seligmann,” but Beck was drawn in a different direction. In an early 1945 letter to Phelps, she confessed: “I have [a] horrible presentiment that I may grow into [an] abstractionist. (Would you mind?) My own mother, I do believe, would most assuredly disown me.” Phelps did not mind, and her tongue-in-cheek fears of maternal disapproval were unfounded as well. Shortly thereafter, she came into contact with Bradley Walker Tomlin and Philip Guston, each of whom provided early encouragement. Of Tomlin and Guston in particular, she told the critic and curator Jennifer Samet in an unpublished 2002 interview: “They were my teachers—in the sense that I hadn’t been to school.”  

Her beginnings as an artist found Beck classed as an Abstract Expressionist, and her work in this vein earned her inclusion in Kootz Gallery’s “New Talent” show of 1950. A New York Times review of the offerings at Kootz concluded: “There is considerable authority in statements by several of the young painters if, as yet, most of them seem too near various sources.” Years later, in her Letters, Beck made a similar assessment of her development as a painter, noting: “Your true subject is often revealed to you very early in your painting life, but like Peter denying Christ, you put it down: it doesn’t work historically, it looks too perverse, too private, too slight maybe? It takes a whole lifetime of painting to realize this.”  

Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston and Bradley Walker Tomlin were early champions of Beck’s work. She had had her first solo show in 1953 at Peridot Gallery in New York. Her work had appeared at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Tate in London. She had had six other solo shows at Peridot by 1966, but by the late 1950s, Beck had moved toward figuration. “Be fearless of the unknown,” she planned to advise her imagined Young Painters. “You’re not an artist if you’re fearful—remember and chasten [yourself] with this truth.”  

Beck’s 1958 Self-Portrait was a bellwether in her shift to figurative subjects, though it gave no indication of what a rich colorist she would become. That aspect of her work became apparent in her Le Macquillage/Magdalen series of the early 1960s, her first foray into narrative painting. This change of direction had serious implications for her career. She was caught between two tides—Abstract Expressionism, from which she appeared to be a defector, and Pop, which seemed to devalue the effort and technique that artists like Beck employed. She held to her own particular vision, and trusted her instincts in choosing color, brushwork and subject matter. The break from Abstract Expressionism was not as pronounced to her as it seemed to observers, however. She said: “I call myself a realist (figurative is the official word) but essentially I think abstractly almost entirely in the sense that I never think of a real tree, a real apple but of interlocking forms.”  

Beck’s figurative work often dealt with literary and mythological subjects. In addition to her enduring fascination with the Orpheus myth, she completed paintings based on Apollo and Daphne, Atalanta, Icarus and Phaedra, as well as a series of works drawn from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This was perhaps due in part to her husband’s influence early on, but Beck’s motivations went beyond that. For instance, The Tempest, she told Jennifer Samet, “was very obvious. I carried that theme along in my head for a long time. And it was stimulated by reading the first line. And the writer’s aside "Enter Mariners, wet." I was fascinated by how one could paint that.”  

As a teacher, Beck did not have missionary zeal, though she gave freely of what she knew, both through her teaching positions at colleges in the Northeast and via talks like the ones at Wesleyan and Delaware. She had ideas and opinions, yes, but humility as well. The move to more figurative work meant confronting new problems in conception and composition. In May 1966, while preparing her Delaware talk, she confided in a letter to the writer Bernard Malamud her plans to finish two paintings which, she felt, were taking too long and were “both in crises of doubt.” Such misgivings are natural enough. (Think of Alberto Giacometti’s repeated expressions of uncertainty and frustration, chronicled in A Giacometti Portrait, when working with James Lord as his sitter.) Yet the fact that these misgivings so closely coincided with Beck’s decision to offer guidance to younger painters showed her recognition of the distinct stages of development they were about to confront.  

In Beck’s case, the early part of her career seems to have offered greater comfort with her work. “If you are talented, you imitate and you feel a sense of power that isn’t really your own,” she told Lorraine Gilligan in a 1978 American Artist interview. Just before beginning the Letters, she noted in her journal her tendency to follow Bradley Walker Tomlin’s example too closely as a young artist, to “[borrow] a hand,” as she put it, before concluding, “I don’t think he would recognize his hand now.” Indeed, she had planned to confide to the Delaware audience: “Talk about influence is much more comprehensive than merely having teachers or Masters.”  

She had moved beyond looking to her near contemporaries as exemplars. An extensive tour of Italy brought heightened affinities for artists like Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello. “It’s a question of looking at everything,” she wrote, “especially works of art. The formation of style is in this attentive beholding. In the very places where you seek comprehension the Mystery becomes your daemon.” Indeed, when Piero’s Resurrection proved to be off view, she decided to “see the land first and imagine the rest.” This approach tracked closely with one of her beliefs: 

Certain considerations are more imperious than making art. Whatever it is that summons us away from our studios, our desks, our music, paper, is what we must heed—the very substance of our art without which our making has no life, smelling only of the lamp. It’s in the denial of what summons. Though we unspeakably yearn, it’s out of this we fabricate, invent, substitute, sublimate—whatever you choose to call it.  

In time, Beck abandoned the Letters to a Young Painter premise, concluding: “My initial enthusiasm passed. I didn’t want to instruct or bear witness for the moment.” Some of her entries in the series are cryptic. Others read like aborted thoughts. Yet there is value in the best of these maxims, both for what they reveal about Beck’s process, in particular, and the play between the apparently divergent styles we associate with Abstract Expressionist and figurative painters.  

Years later, Beck revisited the premise. Perhaps she had accumulated knowledge and experience enough, had spent enough hours guiding young painters in classroom settings, to feel comfortable extending these lessons to a larger audience. In the 1990s, she presented versions of a talk drawn from the Letters to students at the New York Studio School, Swarthmore, Vassar and Wright State University, among other institutions. Her health faltered in the years that followed, but by that time Beck’s belief in the project was great enough that the artist Catherine Drabkin presented the talk a number of times on her behalf.2 As a whole, Beck’s Letters show an artist who has known some acclaim, completing a transition from one phase of her career to another with humility in the face of new formal and technical challenges. They are unfailingly forthright, and they provide a meaningful gloss on her work as an artist, and on the climate in the years after Abstract Expressionism had taken up residence at the center of the American art world.  

“How do you put the passion in?” Beck asks at one point in the Letters, just the type of question an aspiring painter might pose. “You can’t,” she responds.  “You stick to your sense of relations and if you’re passionate it will come through.” It is advice that Beck followed closely herself. Her paintings, like her advice, remind us she was an artist not only conversant with risk, but one who courted it.

<i>Self-Portrait, </i>1958<br/>COURTESY OF THE ROSEMARIE BECK FOUNDATION

Notes 

1. The “letters” referenced here are fragments from Beck’s journal, c. 1966. The journal spanned the entirety of her adult life, practically speaking. Access to these materials was provided by Beck’s granddaughter Doria Hughes, who serves as Secretary of the Rosemarie Beck Foundation and archivist of Beck’s writings and correspondence. Hughes’s husband, Curtis, a composer, adapted selections from Beck’s journals in 2005 and 2006 as The Beck Journals, Vols. 1 and 2.  

2. Drabkin and the painter Martha Hayden, who is also Vice President of the Rosemarie Beck Foundation, are at work on a book-length treatment of Beck’s Letters, entitled Letters to Young Painters.  

3. There were a number of Beck exhibitions this spring, covering a wide range of her work: Helzer Art Gallery, Portland Community College, Rock Creek, Oregon, “Drawings”(February 9–March 10); Broadway Lobby Gallery, Portland State University, “Paintings” (February 18–May 3); the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, “Embroideries” (January 14–March 22). 

 

 American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2015, Volume 33, Number 2