Last week, I had occasion to visit with James Carroll. I drove to Kutztown after my morning classes and parked across from the New Arts Program headquarters on Main Street.
I have written several pieces on James and the NAP. He is a wonderful literary character and simple description is all it takes to etch an accurate image of his presence in one’s mind. Here is what I wrote about him over a decade ago in Reading Lies.
“He doesn’t just look old. He looks ancient. His full beard is mostly gray. His glasses are held together by yellowed Scotch tape. And no one, except perhaps his wife, has ever seen him without the dilapidated canvas cap he wears pulled tightly over his forehead. For that matter, I’ve never seen him without the same pair of faded blue-jeans and gray sweatshirt he’s wearing today. As I gaze at him, bent over a light box, sorting through at least five-hundred slides that have been on the same table for years, I silently acknowledge his vitality and enthusiasm. Perhaps “ancient” is too strong a word. Dawn always refers to him as “timeless.”
Indeed, James has been an icon at the university for decades. He’s past due for retirement but he will probably hang on forever. He has created a contemporary art world here in the middle of nowhere. The procession of significant artists who have participated in his program is legendary.
James is a personal link to Keith. His presence was formative in the development of Keith’s awareness of the world of contemporary art, and more specifically, the New York art scene…*
*Our initial meeting was held at Global Libations, a nearby coffeehouse and organic restaurant. We met again later in James’ office. The agenda was set by an e-mail response I sent to James regarding a question he posed. It referred to the authentication process for the artworks purported to have been created by Keith Haring that are now in the hands of several collectors in Canada.
I indicated a need to set a few ground-rules regarding our conversations and that I would be requesting confidentiality on several points. However, most of what we discussed was historical, newsworthy, and not confidential. From that point the arc of our chat was quite mutually illuminating, I think. Afterward, I asked James if I might share the results of our meeting with my readers and he agreed. I will tell that story in installments here as part of my ongoing montage of memory and experience.
TFD: “So James, I want to start out saying I’m disappointed the first contact I received from the Estate and the Foundation was from a Madison Avenue law firm rather than a personal contact from someone whom I know among Keith’s family and friends. I mean, I’m only ten miles away.”
JC: “They didn’t know anything about it until now. It’s a big organization. I’m sure I couldn’t count on both hands the number of times this sort of thing has come up.”
TFD: “Not 300 pieces, James. That’s a huge number. And it came from me. I started writing about this here, in a personal way – a small way. For me it’s about a friend, a member of a family I respect, mutual friends, you know.”
JC: “They just didn’t know. I’m sure the letter just went out automatically. Really, I’m sorry about that.”
TFD: “Thanks. I understand. I do. But it points out something about what’s become of Keith’s legacy. It’s something I warned him about when he started to become famous. It was just too predictable. What started as a series of defiant acts by a young rebel turned into a big-money image-conscious institution.”
JC: “I know. He didn’t want it to be that way…but then…he died.”
For emphasis, James raised both hands in an abrupt gesture indicating finality and inevitability.
TFD: “Well, my interest in these works is personal, historical. In the very early ‘80s – when I first visited him – Keith’s studio was filled with work. I mean piles of it – on the floor, up against the walls, on every conceivable surface – cardboard, oak tag paper, posterboard.”
JC: “I know. He just worked all the time with any medium he could get his hands on.”
TFD: “Right. And where are those pieces? They haven’t been shown in anything near the numbers I saw there in his place. What happened to them? These pieces I saw in Canada have that look, James. That’s all I’m saying. It’s a fascinating moment right now. I can’t say how long they will be available for review. The original collection of three hundred pieces has been broken up a few times already. First, there were 189 between three collectors, then we had access to less than 100, and right now, there are just these forty-seven pieces. At some point, any or all of them of them could be sold and kept in a vault for another 20 years. This is a window of opportunity.”
JC: “Well, Just keep it open – as long as it’s in the form of a question.”
James leaned over in his chair, focused more intently on the conversation. He shuffled the papers on the desk looking for something to write on. He asked me some direct questions, which I answered directly. We decided to continue the conversation at a later date.
I begin anew to feel the reality and humanity behind this art-historical story. It is a personal, local, story for us. Here in Kutztown, Pennsylvania – where Keith grew up with his family; where he and Kermit Oswald went to high school, shared a studio; where they encountered James Carroll and the art of the twentieth century, where I first met Keith in his parents’ home – I feel compelled to convey the truth and lies of the relationship between real-life, small-town-America and the world of big-city international art and culture.
TFD: “So there was this amazing young genius we knew – as a friend first. And we had this experience of seeing what happened to him as he became a part of history.”
JC: “Well, he kept moving on. There was only so much for him here. He exhausted it and went on to this small school in Pittsburgh, then to New York – some time in school there – he learned some things but it couldn’t hold him. He went out from there to have a dialog with the rest of the world.”
TFD: “Yeah, by the mid-eighties I saw the influence Andy Warhol was having on him. I didn’t think that was the best thing, ethically, and I told him so. But that was just going to happen. Always underneath he was this different person – still the person we knew from here – he became a pop star but we knew him as this deeply feeling person.”
JC: “He was always quiet and reflective with me.”
TFD: “He was treated by the art scene as a pop phenomenon, a product, a money machine. But the Keith I knew wasn’t a wild party person. He was a deep-thinking private individual who was really very different from the people he was hanging around with. I saw him as lost in that world and that world just consumed him.”
JC: “And then when he was living with AIDS…he felt his body falling apart…from inside…and no one seemed to care about that.”
TFD: “I always felt a real sadness about what was happening to Keith…it was an amazing brilliant time but it was also – and ultimately – a time of tragedy.”
As I turned to leave, I passed on to James a very personal and private message from Keith that I hold very close to my heart.
It is a message of love.
Image: James Carroll, photo by Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2008