Kurt Vonnegut: This is about a man I never met and having read Jules Feijfer’s tribute to him, I wished I had known this man.
To prepare for this tribute I looked through a book on Esteban Vicente’s art the other night, and it gave me the same sense of serene pleasure and surprise that his work had always conveyed to me. I find that his collages are still a joy-ride for grown-ups: chips, blocks, and bundles of fast-moving thought disguised as shape and color, making quite a ruckus. But they’re in no way dangerous, they don’t run wild; instead they nudge at the borders of perception, invoking, at least in me an intense but happy calm.
The paintings, on the other hand, I think of as, primarily, meditations, contradictory in their mix of intimacy and distance. Quite elusive, never forbidding, but always a little out of reach. Perhaps they represent the old Spaniard in Esteban, while the collages reveal his absolute absorption in his adopted country; look hard enough at the collages and there’s George Gershwin’s New York, there’s Fred Astaire, there’s Gene Kelly.
Seeing these works, side by side, page after page, led me to marvel once again at the distinctively different and contradictory life forces Esteban always was. We met for the first time in 1972, introduced by my friend, the painter Susan Crile. She had given him quite a buildup; her teacher at NYU, her mentor, her role-model, her this, her that—old but wise but witty but elegant but profound—but, oh, was I prepared to dislike him. My preparation was to no avail.
On first sight, Esteban was someone you knew you had better know—or try to get to know—because one came to know Esteban slowly. He opened like a book, an old book. To a young Bronx-American, being around Esteban was like a trip to the country of the classical novel, finely wrought ideas served up in difficult-to-fathom prose, issuing forth from a man who looked part artist, part boulevardier, a real-life representation of a character out of Buñuel or Pirandello. Or old-time movies. There was that aged Hollywood leading man aspect to Esteban, as if he might have stepped out of one of those early talkies, dignified, erect, a roué’s mustache, a blazer, an ascot, a turtleneck, the image of Warren William or William Powell at ninety.
And you couldn’t understand a word he said. Well, you could, but you had to work at it. You had to listen hard. It was as if Henry James constructed those intricate clauses in a thick Castillian accent, forcing the listener to hop from one profundity to another, knowing that at the end of the conversation, one would be richly rewarded.
He was born in 1903 in a small Castillian town near Segovia, and was around as a counterforce for almost all of the 20th Century. An anarchist whose father was an army man, who expected his son to follow him into the military. Esteban followed nobody. “Prepare yourself,” his father warned, when Esteban declared his ambition to paint, a career his father perceived to be far more dangerous than the army. “You are going to suffer,” he said.
In a long life, Esteban managed to squeeze every ounce of pleasure that exists as a by-product of suffering. Optimism, serenity, even gaiety illuminate the work of an artist who has been admired, then respected, then misunderstood, then discounted.
And through it all, he put in a day’s work. He took a particular idea about light and space and color and developed it and remained constant to it throughout his life. He dug beneath surfaces and underneath, he found what was real; the realness of Spanish painting, solidity of Velázquez—abstract but not virtual—real light, real space, real color.
His biographer, Elizabeth Frank, quotes him this way: “Always in me the idea really is that when I look at paintings I disregard whether they belong to this movement or the other movement, any movement. I try to relate what I see to what to me is fundamental, which is to have something that is timeless and is related to this big thing that exists in the world which is the great, great tradition; and to be able to bring it to today somehow.”
And he was, by many accounts, the best teacher of painting of his generation in America. For him there was no conflict between the classroom and the studio. “What I do mostly,” he said, “is not have classes but … see the students and what they do, and have a dialogue about it and find out what they think and how they think and then I can say whatever I have to say.”
He had a lot to say. Sitting in a cafe or restaurant with Esteban and Harriet, his wife of forty years, as well as his caregiver, manager and consigliere—(the wife that every artist, male and female, wishes he had one of)—sitting there, sipping wine, trading stories, opinions. I was flattered to be welcomed into this small circle that felt like a conspiracy. We’d sit, hunched, the anarchist and the lefty, outnumbered but not outgunned. Esteban had the cultural apparatchik fixed forever in his cross-hairs. They weren’t a threat, they were conversation: a wry, elliptical, acerbic Esteban sort of conversation, making one feel especially good to be on the outside.
Esteban was outside even when he was inside. Among numerous other achievements, he was the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for painting in 1985, and was elected to membership in the Academy in 1993.
I own a Vicente: a large, dark green affair, grey-green, blackish green, a horizontal streak of light green, a slash of red, other colors that I can’t make out. It should be solemn, sombre, it’s so dark, but not at all. It’s airy. Space opens before you as you study it. Down below, a streak of green light indicates a door opening. Maybe not. What do I know? But a door seems to be opening; a light seems to be struggling its way through. Hard to tell, it’s all very distant. And the closer you get to the heart of it, the farther you have to go. It seems to be worth the effort. That was Esteban all over.