Houston artist Virgil Grotfeldt died on February 23, 2009 after a sixteen-year battle with cancer. He was 60 years old. An exhibition of his last works, Virgil Grotfeldt, 274296, is on view at the Art Museum of South Texas from April 17 – June 21, 2009.
by Meredith "Butch" Jack
The late Virgil Grotfeldt (a.k.a. Uncle Bill) was a mystery and an open book at the same time. I never saw him gamble, but he always said that if he was going to, he’d bet everything on a single turn of the card. He lived and died that way.
As an artist, he experimented with anything at hand. He did a lot of work in coal dust that his best friend Waldo Bien gave him. During his first bout with cancer, Virgil used the dregs of the medicinal tea that a shaman in Austin gave him; he said that it had iridescence about it as a pigment. He fashioned sculpture from the palm fronds and sticks that fell in his yard after a storm. And, although he complained about how difficult it was to stretch, he would use the finest linen canvas. The image was everything; the material was just stuff. He would only explain his images by saying that he had done too many drugs when he was young and didn’t know what the images were. I always thought of him as a “magic realist”; that somewhere in the cosmos all the forms he saw existed. Maybe he was just an accurate reporter of something that we couldn’t see.
Virgil was extremely supportive of other artists; while he was living in New York he would say that he “had to make it before he could help others to make it”. He never felt he had “made it” in New York, but his dealer would send him bolts of linen canvas to work with and younger artists, with careers that seemed to him far more successful than his, would come to him for advice. He wasn’t a social butterfly, but he made a point of attending openings to support young artists.
At the same time, he was extremely critical of younger artists’ preoccupation with the “market”. He complained constantly that nobody talked about the art, only the business. He was passionately interested in an artist’s intent with their work, but not with whether they could sell it. His son Andy was a case in point; he is an aspiring young artist who is often frustrated with the lack of support for his work. Virgil was supportive of Andy’s efforts, but Virgil questioned him the same as he would have any young artist about what he was trying to do in his work.
And family meant a great deal to Virgil— he was supportive and perhaps even too protective at times. He was proud of his children; he often told me stories about them, how his daughter Jessie had met so many people at a New York party that she introduced him to Frank Stella or that Andy had done a particularly good painting.
Virgil liked knowing things; he read for information from the art magazines or biographies of his favorite artists, but he didn’t read much for pleasure. He read the newspaper every morning and would quote stories from the back pages of the business section as well as the art reviews and front page. At the same time, he was a Luddite who wouldn’t check his emails and had the secretaries at HBU type up his syllabi because he wouldn’t write them on a computer.
Virgil could and would argue anything. He was particularly incensed about farm subsidies; he maintained that the farmers in the area of Illinois that he grew up in only worked a third of the year and then sat at the café and complained about how poor they were before going home in their new pickup trucks. He was equally aggravated that workers in the local tire factories, who made twice his salary, thought that he made too much when he taught college. As an avowed socialist, he could move through every economic strata effortlessly, but he categorized Marfa, TX as a gated refuge for the excessively wealthy, who were motivated by the fear that the proletariat would come after them when the revolution came.
He argued this and everything with a straight face, and you could never be certain when he believed something or was just arguing for the sake of arguing. You found out when he felt that he had won because then he would change places and argue the opposite. The only defense I ever found when he would become too outrageous was to just tell him that he was full of crap and to stop it, but even then he never smiled.
So, here was this man, a series of contradictions, and, even after playing pool with him most weekends for close to 15 years, I’m sure I didn’t know the entire person. There was always more, zigs and zags of behavior or interests, whatever was foremost in his awareness at the time.
In the PBS series Power of Art, Simon Shama opined that Picasso had peaked when he painted Guernica and had to spend the thirty-some years of the rest of his life knowing that he never made another work as powerful as Guernica. Virgil hadn’t peaked when he died; his last show of paintings on MRI scans at Houston Baptist University were the best things he had ever done and hinted at more to come. We’ll never know what astounding pieces he would have made.
If you never had the opportunity to experience the whole man, you definitely missed something; we’re all diminished by his passing. He’ll leave a hell of a hole in my life and yours, even if you’re not aware of it.
His nephew spoke of him as “Uncle Bill” when talking about the things he learned from him. And his wife has an incredible etching hanging on her wall that is inscribed to “Bill & Debbie.” I finally figured out that “Uncle Bill” was the alter-ego of the person most of us knew as Virgil Grotfeldt. His name was William Virgil Grotfeldt, but I didn’t know that until the week after he died.
The following is curator Jim Edwards’ catalog essay for the exhibition Virgil Grotfeldt, 274296. It is reprinted courtesy of Houston Baptist University’s University Academic Center Gallery
Virgil Grotfeldt: Scans of the Sublime
by Jim Edwards
It is every artist’s wish that at some point within their artistic production, they will produce a work, or a series of related works, that are so uniquely personal that it represents a summation of an entire artistic life. I am thinking of work that, in the originality of its composition and the emotional impact of its gesture, is a true reflection of the artist himself. Mark Rothko’s black paintings, in the Rothko Chapel at Houston’s Menil Collection, case in point. These moments can occur at any time within an artist’s career, early in the case of Max Ernst and the invention of frottage as a method of incorporating rubbings in his drawings for his series Natural History, or later in a career, as in Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings. What these extraordinary efforts normally hold in common is a brilliant melding of technique and expression that is so individual that it constitutes the core of an artist’s emotional being.
The sixteen oil paintings on X-ray scans that comprise this exhibition attest to Virgil Grotfeldt’s artistic ability to make the most profound human statement in a personal and original manner. They represent a continuation of a long career as a painter and have been completed under the most extraordinary conditions. Grotfeldt has been a cancer patient for a number of years and he has boldly asked that the title of this exhibition, Virgil Grotfeldt, 274296, acknowledge his patient number at Houston’s University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The patient number 274296 was first assigned to Grotfeldt in 1993. Additionally, the grounds upon which he has applied his oil paints are MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging )scans of his own brain, a record of his long battle with lymphatic illness. This gesture alone may be a first, since personal brain scans incorporated in the art of painting is practically unheard of until now.
Grotfeldt’s approach to painting, particularly over the course of the last twenty years, has been highly experimental. Early on, he found inspiration in the metallogallic ink drawings by the 19th Century poet, Victor Hugo, whose brown ink blots, stains and washes formed quasi-abstract land and seascapes. Grotfeldt has extended the techniques of Tachism by incorporating bronze and coal dust into his applied stains and washes. The originality of his process prompted Walter Hopps, Founding Director of the Menil Collection, to state, “Not since the early Pollock or the late Arshile Gorky have I seen the dimensionally modeled forms as in the biomorphic abstraction of Virgil Grotfeldt. Nature and abstract form define Grotfeldt’s art as well as sustain its value as a personal meditation upon essential life forces”. Like Pollock, who said that when he painted he needed to be in the painting (stating that he and nature were one), Grotfeldt’s work also encourages us to get into his paintings in imagination. It is our active participation as witness to these paintings that become so seductive.
What impresses in the works of these X-ray paintings is how the translucent white oil paint floats, cloud-like, across the inky black field of brain scans. Grotfeldt has created light-filled forms whose swift movement billows and folds, rendered as a breathing mass of energy. These forms as image are strikingly alive. They seem to be forming right before our eyes. In each painting there exists an ebb and flow, like airborne sea foam suspended above the dark, static grid of scans below. My impulse is to identify these elegant white forms as illuminated by God’s light, light and form as depicted at the moment of inception. The effect is similar to that of the great Chinese ink paintings of Taoism whose artists abided by the first canon of painting and the idea of Ch’i, the spirit of the breath of heaven, a force that stirs nature to life. Ch’i, as an eternal process of movement and change, was thought to reflect the vitality of spirit and the essence of life itself.
Grotfeldt first painted on X-rays in Normandy, France in October 1999, in collaboration with his friend Waldo Bien. The two artists worked side by side on X-rays that had been given to them by the artist Jacobus Kloppenburg. Using drip paint techniques with white enamel and manipulating the paint with their fingers they created haunting images featuring the light color of the paint played against the ghostly light of the X-ray plates. Eighty-two images in all were quickly produced, Grotfeldt completing 33. They titled their X-ray paintings; The End of Sorrow.
Grotfeldt’s untitled limestone sculpture comes from the same period as the Normandy X-ray paintings. He found the small chunk of limestone on the grounds of Chartres Cathedral of Notre Dame, when the famous Gothic church grounds were under restoration. Grotfeldt carved a small face into the soft limestone and when I asked him if his carving represented anyone in particular, he responded, “It is just a portrait”, human in its features, but anonymous as to identity. As I thought about this sculpture and how it related to the X-ray scans, I was reminded of the work of the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso, who worked primarily in plaster, wax, and bronze, but was during the late 19th century, strongly identified with the French Impressionists, in part, because of his intense interest in light. Rosso used to photograph his sculptural busts with illumination from electric lamps, and these dark photographs often have a diffused, X-ray-like appearance. Rosso’s sculptured heads also express a dream-like sense of emergence, as if the features of his figures are in a state of frozen immortality. Grotfeldt’s sculptured rock face resembles a work from antiquity, as if it has been dug from some crypt. If the carved limestone appears to be petrified in deaden expression, it is the trace of Grotfeldt’s paint upon the X-ray scans that is the most alive gesture.
There is a rich diversity among the paintings in this exhibition. Although basically of the same hue and related tonal range of white oil paint, the forms spew across the dark field of the X-rays in various states of fleshy translucence. In an interview with the art historian David Sylvester, the painter Franz Kline once remarked, “Paint never seems to behave the same – even the same paint…”Grotfeldt has successfully proven that statement to be true. There is never a point of duplication, and each painting remains distinct. The movement of Grotfeldt’s hand in the act of painting on his scans is a literal trace upon an imprint of his brain.
Although modest in scale (each scan image measures 17 x 13 ¾ inches), these paintings suggest limitless expanses. They are works that aspire to a state of the sublime through the exploration of the movement of the luminosity and the imagined movement of the forms and their relationship to the hard facts illustrated on the X-ray scans. What has been achieved in Grotfeldt’s art of the abstract sublime is a condition by which his paintings have created a life of their own. I am hard pressed to think of a more profoundly alive gesture than what these paintings reveal.
Jim Edwards is Gallery Director and Curator for Houston Baptist University’s Art Gallery as well as Associate Professor of Art. Edwards has curated and directed museums and galleries for more than 30 years.