[Spring 2 (1993): 34-39]
Just by chance, one April day in 1972, I stopped by the Gotham Book Mart. The owner, Andreas Brown, showed me a pencil portrait Cummings sketched of himself in 1927. Andreas removed it from the wall and handed it to me. On sale for $375. Andreas told me that he had taken custody of Estlin's personal collection of paintings, first willed to Marion, and then to Nancy, who had no interest in keeping them. Nancy donated the collection to a camp in New England previously attended by her children. Not in need of so many paintings, the camp transferred the collection to the Gotham for cataloging, exhibition, and sale. Considering such ill-fated circumstances, the Gotham Book Mart was an ideal marketplace. The Gotham is devoted to literature and art and to the sale thereof. Andreas Brown told me his gallery would have an exhibit and sale as soon as the works were cataloged.
"How soon?" I asked.
"Soon," he said.My next question emerged from a few minutes of conversation but was charged with great concern. "Do you think I could photograph the collection as it is being cataloged?"
"Why not?" he said.The Gotham Book Mart is a large, bustling establishment. My presence would slow the cataloging process, but I doubted Andreas ever said no to a worthwhile project. When I began, I photographed with sureness and speed. Cummings' personal collection would soon be scattered to the winds, most likely never to be seen under the same roof again. Unfortunately, at the time of Marion's death, Nancy was still too estranged from her father to keep his paintings. But the outcome was probably for the best. Each painting is in a home [end page 34] instead of being warehoused or vaulted in an institution.
Had I not come along on that spring day, who else would have? Over twenty years later, no other photographer has made a pilgrimage in search of it all. Several years ago, I asked Andreas if he had a list of the people who purchased the paintings. Such a task, he told me, was beyond his staff's capabilities. Invoices were scattered through years of paperwork in the dead files. I was openly pleased. I didn't care. I envisioned no catalog. I was only happy that on an April day, my fate directed me across 47th Street to the sign, "Wise men fish here."
That evening I told my wife, Sally, of my plans. Sally had visited Estlin and Marion several months before we first visited them together. Sally, who also loved Cummings' poetry, was delighted to collaborate on the project, both eager to see what treasures existed in the back room of the Gotham's second floor gallery.
Cataloging had begun. Each day Sally recorded on caption cards whatever information there was for future reference, while I photographed the paintings, pastels, watercolors, etc. I wished to keep together the best of Estlin's collection, a matter of highest priority. Sally and I knew what this family portrait meant to Marion and Estlin. We dusted and cleaned the smudge marks as best we could. During this process of selection I conceived a family album, a book. Paintings and poems, together. Loved ones.
We labored for weeks at the Gotham to render 200 of the 400 to 500 hundred works. By then, I felt we had recorded the best of what was available to us. Pleased by what he saw, Andreas Brown suggested that we photograph certain small collections around the country. Our work at the Gotham completed, he steered us towards Hildegarde Watson's collection in Rochester, New York. Hildegarde had funded Estlin until he died. She owned the largest private collection of his paintings and sketches, including his famous Charlie Chaplin ink sketch.
I telephoned Mrs. Watson. She enthusiastically offered to let us photograph her entire collection. When Sally and I arrived at her house, the paintings and drawings were already in the largest room of [end page 35] Hildegarde's studio. As at the Gotham, Hildegarde trustingly allowed us to remove each work from its frame to reveal the entire image. Of the fifty works, I chose thirty to photograph. I could have photographed them all but decided it would prove as a disservice to the artist to neglect the editing process.
A hierarchy of quality exists in any collection of poems, and a good editor must reduce the many to the few. If Cummings were alive, he might suffer sleepless nights making such judgements. Words are things with sharper edges, but painting, the less structured, non-verbal side of his personality, provided him with a measure of relaxation. His paintings didn't have to hang in museums to please him with a measure of relaxation. His paintings didn't have to hang in a museum to please him.
When Marion died in 1969, years of accumulations and their disposition became the difficult task of her executor and longtime friend, Jere Knight, who already knew what it was like to be left alone Her husband, Eric, author of Lassie Come Home, died during World War II. Jere had had to ascend and descend the stairs of Patchin Place countless times, three floors filled with tangible memories. Some were easier to distribute because Marion had given Jere prior instructions. The clothes, the personal items, were the executor's decision. In the play, Him, the "acrobat" kicks three chairs out from under himself and stands on air. Where the chairs fall is not his concern. Years later when I visited with Jere Knight in Pennsylvania, she asked me if I realized how difficult had been the decisions she faced.
Irrespective of the value of Cummings' visual art to potential collectors and museums, each pastel, every watercolor and oil was a stepping stone in his development as a poet. Each effort brought him closer to intimate landscapes and friends, moments he loved. Of any painting, the worth is to look and listen a moment longer.
Edward Cummings favored his son's writing at a time when the Harvard graduate considered himself a painter. Widespread acceptance of his poetry in later years must have caused Cummings to privately re-evaluate his efforts. Scant recognition and the blunt criticism his paintings sometimes received did prompt the poet to be combative about this calling. But be that as it may, Cummings never [end page 36] stopped. Mentally, he lived in China. He had an oriental face and a mind to match. Hildegarde Watson's excellent pencil portrait of him superbly captures this quality. Cummings often placed the feminine in himself in a shadow. Given his high achiever's need to balance on three chairs in heaven, he feared both failure and success. But neither lasts more than a moment: love is the only measure of art.
People were what Cummings liked about cities. People sparked his humor. His face expressed intense pleasure when Sally and I came to visit. As poet and painter, his engine never idled for long. He used the word "neutral" only once in a poem when he took a brand new girl, or was she a brand new car, for a ride. How delightfully new, and he being careful of her, slipped the clutch and oiled the universal on the way to Divinity Avenue ("she being Brand / -new, " Complete Poems: 1904-1962 , p. 246).
Rebecca and Edward Cummings treated their son like a prince. Hildegarde and Sibley Watson valued Estlin as a friend, encouraging and financially supporting his art. In half a century, Cummings gave Hildegarde one painting. The other 49 Hildegarde bought, knowing that each purchase paid Estlin's rent and satisfied his need to earn an income from his creative efforts. Although Hildegarde and Sibley Watson highly valued Estlin's friendship, their cause was extended to other artists as well, to each artist's sense of accomplishment and self-worth.
Sibley Watson was a Renaissance man, devoting all his life to the arts and sciences. Like many of Estlin's Harvard friends, Watson could have played more. Instead, he put his talents and resources to good use. Immediately following graduation, he and Scofield Thayer convinced their parents that America needed a first-rate literary periodical. They acquired an existing journal, sharing responsibilities as co-publishers and co-editors. In January of 1920 The Dial appeared. Virtually overnight, new artists and writers of talent, Cummings among them, were in print. Watson and Thayer were as prophetic in their vision as they had been successful in convincing their parents. In ten years The Dial published, among others, T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, [end page 37] William Butler Yeats, Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Renoir, Amy Lowell Jean Cocteau, D. H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane, James Joyce, George Santayana, Bertrand Russell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Conrad Aiken, and Gaston Lachaise. Cummings was one of the early artists. In 1925 he received the first Dial Award, accompanied by the hefty sum of $2,000, a grant sufficient at that time to see him through a year of writing and painting.
Estlin was a favored contributor to The Dial writing book review as well. An entire issue was devoted to his poems and ink drawing. Such return for his efforts was the recognition he needed. The publication of the ink sketches in The Dial must have been of great satisfaction to him. Cummings excelled when he could dash off figure with only moments to catch the gesture. At such times, his keen observation, humor, and dexterity were alive. His humor was sometimes gentle, or at others more biting, but incurably Cummings.
Least moving of Estlin's visual works are his oil paintings, too often deficient in what he would consider his most important ingredient, aliveness. Many of his watercolors convey a mood of having been painted in oil, yet come closer to their intended spirit. His pastels are among many of his most enduring works, but when he picks up a pencil, the lines never waver. Cummings, like many painters, was most spontaneous when least encumbered.
While photographing at the Gotham Book Mart, I noticed that few paintings were the same size. Very few were large. It occurred to me that Estlin felt more comfortable with small formats. Comfortable within the fourteen lines the sonnet offered, or a notebook-size pen and ink, or oils on shirt boards. When Cummings painted on cardboard, he must have known the image was about as durable as paint on a cereal box. But he needed to express himself and not wait until a wealthier life came along. He drew cartoons of people on the backs of checks, napkins, tablecloths, indifferent to their fate. Waiting to buy expensive art materials would have dampened the playfulness of his life.
Like most adults and children, Cummings did not want to run so [end page 38] far away from home that no one would remember him. For all his rebellious behavior, his reasoned insults hurled at critics, scholars, historians, and the like, the Hansel and Gretel in him dropped many crumbs in the forest. Aware that birds might eat them before history immortalized him, he occasionally tempted the critics, the dissectors of a kiss. He wanted a few stamps of approval on his creations, but he preferred not to be around when it happened. At age 67, this poet and painter was still running a marathon for immortality, the only race worth the artist's time. He knew he would never see the finish line.
--New York City
[end page 39]
Back to Spring issue 2 contents
to Spring Contents Index