It is a well known fact that the finest artists of all shapes and sizes from actors to painters and musicians adore their work and are driven to express their particular genius without devoting prodigious amounts of energy or drive to promote themselves. As long as they have audiences who appreciate their craft, they are thrilled to be able to work; they don’t necessarily seek the most luxurious lifestyle to support themselves. All they crave is the strength to continually surpass their own artistic brilliance.
This is true to a degree. The idea that the artist doesn’t mind starving or being “ripped off” is magical thinking on the part of those who prey off artists (agents, managers), and the Philistines (companies), who would give artists a small percentage while exploiting their work to accrue the greatest of profits once the debts have been paid. Playwright Lauren Gunderson examines these concepts in the engrossing and thought provoking biographic theatrical production Bauer, directed by Bill English currently at 59E59 Theaters.
Bauer is about a retrospective of modernist painter Rudolph Bauer, recalled to an audience perhaps unfamiliar with his work, his genius and the raw deal he received from Philistines of the highest order, the Guggenheim family. This retrospective of the artist’s greatness, Gunderson occasions by imagining a strange visit from a once important person in Bauer’s life, an individual with whom he had become bitterly estranged. For Bauer (an impassioned and darkly acidic Sherman Howard), and his wife (a mollifying and slyly supportive Susi Damilano), the visit by Hilla von Rebay (an excellent Stacy Ross), his former mistress and agent is shocking, unwanted, and painful.
As Bauer prepares for von Rebay, in a discussion with his wife Louise, we learn why he became estranged from this woman he once loved fiercely. Gunderson unravels the Bauer-von Rebay mystery and elicits our sympathy for Bauer, who was naive to allow von Rebay to hold him in her sway. From the discussions between Louise and Bauer, we come to understand why he would brace himself with defenses, yet leave a niche open to listen to what von Rebay has to tell him. Indeed, he anticipates von Rebay has come to apologize for seducing him into making a doomed decision by allowing Guggenheim into his artistic, creative, life-giving world.
Louise encourages the meeting with von Rebay so Bauer can come to some resolution at this point in his life as they are in want and Bauer is ill. Bauer knows little good will come of seeing von Rebay; however, it is his curiosity as much as his desire to vilify her to her face and “pile on the guilt” that has allowed him to accept this meeting with her. During the course of Bauer’s and Louise’s arguments about von Rebay, Gunderson has subtly weaved in the back story and has initialized the conflicts that are to follow between von Rebay and Louise, who was once Bauer’s maid, between von Rebay and Bauer as she loved him yet betrayed him to become Guggenheim’s mistress, and between Louise and Bauer, who argue about the direction in which his life and art are going: into the abyss. Their arguments intensify just before von Rebay arrives when it is emphasized that Bauer has not painted in the last decade. He has restricted himself and has snuffed out the candle of beauty and eternity in his life, his creative life. He has vowed never to paint again and has kept this vow. All is dull shadow and no vibrant art. Without a raison d’etre, Bauer is emotionally and physically dying.
Gunderson has placed us in Bauer’s corner to silently cheer him on in this confrontation between the great artist who inspired Abstract Expressionists and influenced modern art and von Rebay his agent and former love. Gunderson has prepared us to dislike her, which upon introduction we do. Yet, it is Gunderson’s imagining that softens von Rebay. Gunderson’s characterization allows a sorrowful von Rebay to explain why circumstances occurred with Guggenheim to doom them both, as it turns out. We end up being disarmed by her, wanting to believe that she, too, was consumed by the wealthy predatory class who manipulate artists and those like von Rebay who recognize their genius; to the wealthy they are ready prey; the best part is devoured, their remains like offal left for carrion eaters.
Gunderson’s recounting of how Bauer was the catalyst behind the creation of the Guggenheim Museum and how not one of his paintings ended up in the opening exhibit and dedication of the Frank Lloyd Wright apotheosis is heart wrenching. Gunderson makes clear a number of themes as she emotionally touches us and we empathize with this visionary. It was a great loss that the world was deprived of seeing Bauer’s work (the paintings that Guggenheim purchased), because the Guggenheims and Bauer were at war with each other. It was also a great loss for the upcoming generation of artists which were stopped from receiving Bauer’s ongoing influence.
Gunderson highlights the importance of Bauer’s choice to never paint again. His decision sent a powerful message to Guggenheim; he would not be a product of Guggenheim’s magical thinking. Bauer would not be preyed upon. With his artistic self-banishment, he uplifted his identity and his stature as a human being. He became his own advocate for justice and empowerment for artists. He did this at the supreme sacrifice of his beloved passion to paint; in killing off his expression, he slowly withered into the cold shadows of death. He would have it no other way.
The fact that Louise Bauer finally admitted publicly what her husband did to take a stand in a choice that he was forced to make, is a testament to what he is saying to the artistic community today. An artist has the right to work and receive the fullness of his worth, beyond the derivative value set by the locusts who swarm when they see “a prize” but often devour the creator in the process of making millions, or worse, apply such pressure that the creator turns against himself/herself. This is a crucial theme of the play; who owns the manifestation of artistic genius and the right to express it? Who, indeed, owns the “will” of the artist? The artist must never relinquish his “will” to create, for then his art is in fact, worthless.
Bauer was a spiritual visionary. Images of vibrant color are projected on the set near the play’s end. These images at once remind us of the uplifting revelation that Bauer’s work lives on in perpetuity. And there is the added sorrow that the paintings he could have painted in the last decade of his life, he took with him in his creative spirit and imagination, for they were never realized on canvass. It is an incalculable loss and a warning to the canker-worm Philistines that would suck artists dry. Don’t slough so low that the creator is demeaned and made to feel less of his worth; for to an artist, their expression ultimately is beyond price. Betrayal of artists is one of the worst kinds of betrayal. For art, as Bauer believed, uplifts the soul and connects us spiritually. Through artistic endeavor and appreciation, we can be free.
Bauer is at 59E59 Theaters until October 12.
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