Posts Tagged ‘biography’

“Memories of Herta”

January 6, 2022

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Photo provided by Herta’s daughter Vivien Kane

In the summer of 1975 I took a painting-studio workshop under Herta’s instruction at the University at Buffalo: from that time evolved the bonds of our friendship. Herta’s wisdom came from her own vibrancy; her curiosity seemed boundless. She would explore various new subjects, from computer art to Japanese calligraphy. All this enhanced her as an artist. As a teacher dealing with students, she had little patience, and many of them felt intimidated by her demands. Most memorably, she taught me that an artist had to evoke the meaning lurking behind every image. Art was not a progressive evolution; nothing was new: everything had already been done; the imperative was to make something of significance.

Herta identified with the stories I shared about my family, and especially about my mother. She also told me stories about her own parents, particularly about how much she admired her father. Through the years, Herta’s loyalty was constant. She was as nurturing as a mother. Being 26 years older than I, she wondered why I wanted to spent so much time with her. I responded people of my age bored me.

The last semester of my junior year, Herta invited me to lunch with her husband Ernest, a cardiologist at the Veteran Administration Hospital next to the university. That morning, some students had set a fire outside my door. I called the university police but I accused no one. Later I told Herta what had happened. She and her husband assured me every thing would be fine. That afternoon we listened to the music of Handel and Brahms, talked about the poetry of mathematics, and discussed the polemics of anthropology of art. That night I did not return to my dormitory room, but stayed with a Polish graduate student of architecture: Jurek Pystrak invited me to stay with him until things were sorted out. Little did I know how significant Herta and Jurek were to become.

While studying for finals, someone I didn’t know introduced himself to me. It seemed he had been my bodyguard since the time of the fire in the dorm. I never found out why he was surveilling me. Later Herta commented: “… the university must have taken stock of how lax its security system was.”

After I went off to Yale for graduate studies and Jurek had moved to Berlin, Herta and I stayed in touch. Sometimes we met in Manhattan and would go to museums and galleries. After having finished my studies at Yale, I worked as a stage designer in Manhattan. In 1988 I visited Herta in Buffalo. Her husband Ernest had died two years prior. Herta and I went to the opening performance of Abingdon Square by María Irene Fornés (1930-2018) at the Studio Arena Theater. That night Herta and I had the opportunity to speak with her (I had executed stage-designs for three of her plays, which had premiered in New York City). Again in 1989, I visited Herta in Buffalo; there we attended a retrospective by the painter Seymour Drumlevitch, who had been both of ours academic advisor, artistic mentor, and friend.

In 1992, Herta came to my first one-man show of paintings in Manhattan. Though I did not see her then, we kept in touch by phone. Jurek’s partner Karl in Berlin told Herta that Jurek had died of AIDS in 1984. This came to both of us as a shock; it explained why we had not heard from Jurek for eight years. Herta was instrumental in connecting us to Jurek’s past. Karl then visited my painting studio in Tribeca. Afterwards, he invited Herta to a river cruise for a night on the Rhine to commemorate his impending death (he had dismissed my optimism about antiretroviral treatments as a missionary sentimentality). I had told Herta his outlook was totally fatalistic.

When I firtst met Herta, I intuited that she was struggling with depression. I learned later much of her search for affection h
ad been uncorresponded. Her husband was also battling depression, having attempted suicide had it not been for his wife. Herta then looked after him through a long period of illness. After his death her circle of friends shrank. She thought herself unwelcome by other couples. In those years Herta was alone and riddled with guilt. Bewildered, she would knock at my door late at night, long past midnight, asking for support. Now in the 1990’s our roles were reversed: she was coming to my aid. Herta fed my optimism and helped me recover from the suicide of my partner of three years.

Then, in the spring of 2005, Herta met David, my partner of five years. As I walked to the avenue to help her catch a taxi, she told me that she only wished she had met some one like David for herself. Her statement did not surprise me, though we were touching each other’s past just on the edges. I understood that David reminded her of her desire to have met, during her lifetime, someone as sensitive as he.

In May 2008 David and I attended Herta’s 80th birthday party in Philadelphia. We met the entire family, including her grandchildren. Prior to that, Herta had often confided to me her insecurities about being a grandmother. She doubted how her grandchildren and son-in-law perceived her; whether she was accepted by them. She was self-conscious of her German accent, though she would glorify it as an appealing distinction. Although, these were significant years for Herta, the burden of a new life weighted heavily on her mind.

In 2011 my mother died from Alzheimer’s at age 84. During the preceding years I had mentioned to Herta that I used to call my mother in Venezuela to read to her “Don Quixote.” From time to time my mother would react with guttural sounds, which I took for affirmations of laughter. During these conversations, I began to become aware of Herta’s own difficulties in her perception of reality. She became easily agitated. She often felt misunderstood. She repeated past events, as if they were taking place now. I listened quietly, hoping she could regain her calm. I tried to interest her in other matters. Was this why she told me that it was important for us to be in contact? Thereafter I tried to call her until it was no longer feasible. After what seemed to be a long period of silence, her daughter Vivien called to let me know that Herta needed 24-hour a day care. David and I drove from Manhattan to visit her in Pennsylvania. In 2016 she was still able to talk. I thought she remembered me until our parting, when she said how nice it had been to meet me.

During our visit, Herta appeared alert. After we had shown her pictures of our place in Fort Lauderdale, she had made several whimsical remarks. Brashly, she criticized cushions that looked like doughnuts, and were completely out of place. Her wit was as sharp as ever. She even recounted her recommendations for graduate school, in which—to my horror—she had called me of the caliber of Leonardo da Vinci. The point is she relished being controversial.

The summer before her death, Herta was much more limited in movement and speech; she seemed listless, though she smiled often in what appeared to be simple resignation. In our banter with each other, she scowled and rolled her eyes mischievously glancing at everyone. We grinned at each other and she gasped with glee. Following this, Herta gestured, her hands around her mouth, as if asking why did I need a moustache. Then I showed her one of my geometric paintings. She looked at it, raised her brows, opening her eyes wide, and said “GOOD!" I was moved by her approval. She looked to be in command. As she continued savoring vanilla ice cream, she played aimlessly with her spoon, but she refused to let anyone help. When we said good-bye, we mentioned we would return in the spring, and she vouchsafed with the same facial expression, “GOOD!"

Memories about the loss of a loved one are painful, precisely because we have loved them. Accepting their past with humility is the one and only choice for their loss. It is an absolute; we embrace our existence through their memories. Grief is the time to endure suffering with forbearance.
1998

Written by Ricardo Morin and edited by Billy Bussell Thompson


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