Maine Masters Report by Richard Kane
“Feast your eyes on Carlo Pittore’s brilliant strokes” read the headline in the 9 May 2010 edition of the Portland Press Herald’s article by Dan Kany. After eighteen years since his untimely death at the age of sixty-two, his paintings and legacy are only growing in stature, understanding and perhaps controversy.
The latest entry into our Maine Masters film series, CARLO, has been more difficult than most to raise the funds to complete. We started in 2009 when I was asked by the Carlo Pittore Foundation for the Figurative Arts if we would like to produce a film on the artist. I knew of him as one of the founders of the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA), an organization that I was involved in through this film series and my friendship with Rob Shetterly. Through filmmaker Matt Ruskin (recently releasing Boston Strangler on HULU), a student and friend of Carlo, we received a treasure trove of miniDVs of Carlo painting in his studio, dancing and prancing about in front of several nude models, cooking in his kitchen (continuing to dance), being interviewed by Matt while eating a dinner salad, harvesting greens from his garden. It was wonderful footage and he was such an entertaining figure. So we almost immediately began cutting a five minute film pro bono to be shown at a Portland auction of Carlo’s works. This was four years after his death in 2005. The screening room was packed with his admirers and after the brief screening I witnessed one of his students crying uncontrollably on the brownstone’s front steps. I considered that a promising sign!
With a small grant we were able to supplement the footage we received with several interviews both in Maine and New York and made an eight-minute short titled The Raw Essence of Carlo Pittore and presented it to Maine Public for broadcast. They rejected it out of hand because of its nudity. Perhaps today’s ethos (and your calls for them to air it) will turn the tide.
These new interviews convinced us that a great film was possible. But without any further funding nothing more would come of it. So Rob and I decided we could be most efficient by filming a dinner party at Natasha Mayers’s with seven more of Carlo’s friends. Those sitting around that table included artists Natasha Mayers, Stephen Petroff, Rob Shetterly, Kathy Bradford, Pam Smith, art critic Lucy Lippard, along with his friend Herb Hartman who would reveal things like: “Did you know he considered becoming an Hassidic rabbi?” “I didn’t know that!” said Pam, who seemed to know everything else about him. I pulled in my son Jacob, a budding filmmaker/grip/drone operator now working in the industry in New York, to be my sound man. And on a shoestring we filmed what became a central scene in the film.
The scene at Natasha’s dinner party feels as if there is no camera, no sound man, no lights. I learned from the great Albert Maysles to go after “private moments.” To be a fly on the wall. And here I was, experiencing these eight friends and artists, really quite invisible, eavesdropping as each of these friends reveal memories of him as well as their deeply honest feelings about developing as artists in Pittore’s circle. The film becomes a story not only about Carlo, but about this ”merry band of artists” who deal with their own vulnerabilities.
It didn’t occur to me that the al fresco dinner would prove to be so crucial . . . and as controversial as it turns out to be. I saw it as an honest discussion of who Carlo was as an artist, friend and activist. But in a way, that dinner became a story about them, those friends who loved, admired, and sometimes felt slighted by Carlo. Perhaps it was Carlo’s way of encouraging, or forcing, another look at their art. Or a belief that there are no authorities who should criticize your work, including him. This was beginning to become a psychological journey into the minds of these artists.
They were all so grateful to Carlo about the positive impact he had on the arts in Maine. But they were also brutally honest about this vulnerable human being who often felt ignored, slighted, full of doubt. Stephen Petroff once asked Carlo, “What do you do with your doubt?”; he responded that he just worked harder. Natasha said that “in all those years I knew him, Carlo never said to me one thing about my paintings.” Pam follows by saying: “No. Me neither. He used to talk to me about my husband’s sculpture (laughter) which was really insulting.” Kathy Bradford talks about how she would be driving with Carlo and asked him to give his thoughts about her work. “And Carlo wouldn’t say anything.” Until she insisted and he said she needed to attend his Academy of Carlo Pittore to learn about painting the figure. Ha! If you know Kathy’s work, it’s anything but based on Carlo’s hero, Michelangelo. She was hurt. Stephen said, “He hated to lie about art.”
Pam Smith talked about how Carlo loved how he was treated as a painter in Italy. So it begs the question, how are artists treated in the US? Edgar Beem, who is also interviewed for CARLO, writes in this MAJ issue about the many things that the UMVA battled for with the Maine legislature to support artists. It’s quite an insightful article that I recommend reading.
Carlo attracted an astoundingly large group of young artists, telling them to follow their dreams, to not do what was expected, to strike out and “DO IT!,” as Rob recalls. While living in the Maine woods Rob Shetterly remembers how he taught himself to draw, questioning every day (as his parents were!) whether he was doing the right thing. Then he was inspired by Carlo, as so many others were, to pursue his art. Mentors like Carlo encourage us to follow our gut and become what our hearts tell us is right.
“He was a real rebel,” says New York painter Clarity Haynes who first met Carlo at fifteen. “He marched to the beat of his own drum. And that’s why I think he’s so original. I now understand more than ever why he was so fed up with the contemporary art world, because it feels like it has no integrity sometimes. It’s just about fashion.”
It wasn’t only female nudes that interested him. He boldly painted male nudes as well.
In making this new feature documentary, we were blown away by Jonathan Katz, a New York queer art curator/intellectual, who Rob and I interviewed at Carlo’s archive at Fort Andross in Brunswick: “The key word about the work is Eros, it is about the body, it is about the flesh, it is about the capacity of the body for pleasure. And what I love about the work is their investment in female bodies that transcends the narrow confines of what society determines is conventionally beautiful.” Katz goes on: “Sexuality is a defining and perhaps the defining precept of this work . . . a deeply conservative tendency to uphold . . . the grand tradition of Western art . . . suffused with a wildly not conservative sensibility that is alternatively erotic, homoerotic, that is suffused with surrealist sensibility . . . He wants us to find women masturbating erotic whether we’re gay or straight. And as a gay man I find them erotic pictures, which is a hell of an achievement.”
“The boxer series is . . . emblematic of some of the contradictions that animate the work,” says Katz. “They are highly masculine performances of male violence and yet they’re available as homoerotic totems. They’re often very beautifully built young men posing nearly naked. It allows him that perfect moment when you can look at it with a gay eye, right, and say, ‘what a hot guy.’ Or you could see it, in fact, as the very converse of gay.”
The boxer series was also an example of how Carlo’s work was sometimes celebrated, sometimes rejected. In the film, art author Edgar Beem says: “The best of the series was the very one that was first removed from the Seaman’s Club . . . A full front head and shoulders portrait of a badly battered fighter, an image of almost iconic simplicity.The artist’s lot is the fighter’s lot, the paintings seem to say. Pittore says it is his Christ.” After his ”Christ” was removed, Carlo took them all down!
He not only had a huge following of young artists but reached out for his own, older mentors such as Bern Porter, the nuclear physicist from Belfast, Maine who was involved in the Manhattan Project then turned anti-war activist, artist, and poet. Through Carlo’s friend, Mark Melnicove, we uncovered a 1991 video produced by Maine filmmaker, Vanessa Barth, of Bern Porter’s eightieth birthday titled Belfast Berning in which Porter, wearing wildly bizarre yellow robes and red hat, “baptizes” Pittore. An incredibly funny relic of the days of the “Happening.”
CARLO is the very latest in the series of Maine Masters films brought to you by the Union of Maine Visual Artists and Richard Kane. This feature documentary will be released this summer. Stay tuned for information about its premiere.
Image at top: Carlo Pittore, On the Boulevard, oil on linen, 72 x 36 in., 1998 (photo: International Artists Manifest).