I’m sitting in a radiology room at Kaiser with my left hand resting on a square metal plate that I assume contains film. The x-ray tech twists my hand to the left then flicks off the overheads. A box of light floats over the wrist, a cross-hatched shadow dividing it into quadrants. Beneath the focused beam my hand turns sculptural, the gracefully curving chiaroscuro of a photogram, where light transforms ordinary objects into mysterious geometries.
I first encountered photograms in the pages of Vision in Motion, a 1949 textbook for the Institute of Design in Chicago. Its author, Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. In 1935, like many other Jewish artists, Moholy-Nagy emigrated to London, fleeing Hitler. In 1937 he moved to Chicago to head the New Bauhaus. When the school lost its funding, Moholy-Nagy opened his own School of Design in 1939, which was renamed the Institute of Design in 1944—and which I would attend for one semester in 1978, as a photography student.
I was 16 years old when my art history teacher, Beulah Seckinger, loaned me her battered copy of Vision in Motion. Like most 16-year-olds, I was looking for something to change my life. I already knew I wanted to be writer, a sophisticated and cutting edge writer, but I had little idea what that would look like. I knew in my bones there was an avant-garde literature out there, a writing comparable to the subversive alterity I relished in the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. “Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.” I wasn’t finding the radicalism I craved in my high school English classes or in the novels of bourgeois angst reviewed in the Chicago Tribune book section. At Brentano’s I purchased Allen Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches, which I excitedly read without comprehension. Ginsberg—and the very existence of City Lights books—further convinced me that there was something out there I was missing, something vast. Finally, in Vision in Motion I received the creative heritage I’d been seeking. More importantly, Moholy-Nagy affirmed my adolescent certainty that artistic expression was the most important thing in the world:
It is unimaginable that, along with the economists, philosophers and politicians who advance suggestions for social changes, the most intuitive and responsive people in a society, namely, the artists, have no say. Tyranny and dictatorship, manifestos and decrees will not recast the mentality of the people. The unconscious but direct influence of art represents a better means of persuasion for conditioning people to a new society either by its projective or satiric-destructive means.
I studied Moholy-Nagy’s utopian spin on industrial design with the uncritical zeal of a convert, using it as the basis of my physics term paper, “The Influence of Physics on Modern Art.” Moholy-Nagy was a proponent of the integration of the arts, and the final hundred or so pages of his textbook offers a syllabus of “contemporary” literature. There I discovered Apollinaire, Mayakovski, the futurists, the Dadaists and surrealists, Franz Kafka, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Cocteau, Brecht, and the poetry of children and psychotics. I’d glimpsed the hind side of Western rationality and there was no turning back.
Despite the social upheavals of the late 60s that popped up everywhere in the media, the Midwestern rustbelt milieu I was raised in remained staunchly right wing. Out of all that dreariness stepped art teacher Beulah Seckinger, a raging flame of bohemia. She dressed too brightly, talked too loud, enjoyed embarrassing the tight-assed. Many saw her flamboyance as a joke, others thought she was crazy, but I adored her. Rather than the pinky beige sculpted carpeting that was ubiquitous in working class homes, Mrs. Seckinger’s floors glowed with plush gold. She allowed me to take my shoes and socks off and dig my toes into its deep pile. The walls of her living room were lined with books, like in a library. She taught me how to grill steaks on a hibachi, how to make caesar salad with a raw egg. She hinted at sexual adventures, said she once married an Arab man by simply saying “I marry you” three times; then she divorced him by saying “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” She gossiped about other teachers, invited my girlfriend and me to a barbecue where we stood bug-eyed, watching teachers get drunk and rowdy in her backyard. She crammed the three of us into her dark green Karmann Ghia and drove to the Chicago Art Institute. As we wandered through the museum, she lectured and prodded us. “Look at that line,” she said. “Look!”
And I did look, I looked until my head ached, I looked and I read and I perfected my caesar salad, I was a vessel of ignorance eager to be filled.
Jay DeFeo had a San Jose high school art teacher whose mentoring also meant the world to her:
But when I got to high school in the midst of this absolute cultural desert, I had one of the most fantastic teachers I would ever have hoped to have had. And that was Mrs. Emery. I still call her Mrs. Emery. She remained very close to me, even til the time she died, which was only about 10 years ago. . . . [S]he was just an incredible woman! She introduced me to people like Picasso and Matisse. (Oral history interview of Jay DeFeo, 1975 June 3–1976 Jan. 23, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Mrs. Emery, the “first essentially important person” in DeFeo’s life, took her to plays and on outings to San Francisco. I wonder how many women artists and writers have their Mrs. Seckingers and Mrs. Emorys, these public school saints who save misfit girls’ souls. When she taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, DeFeo paid tribute to her teacher by giving her own “interested” students special attention.
One summery evening Mrs. Seckinger drove my girlfriend and me to Ravinia, a park north of Chicago, for an outdoor folk concert. As we sat on the lawn swaying to Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, and Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia, I felt as if I’d finally entered the 60s. I wanted to spend the rest of my days listening to folk music and reading my poetry in smoky coffeehouses, my hair pulled back into a single long braid that hung to my waist. On the way home we passed an oil refinery. Mrs. Seckinger pointed to the brightly-lit, spewing mass, and proclaimed, “Look.” I was a girl surrounded by industry; many fathers in my neighborhood worked in the refineries and steel mills. Some of my earliest memories are of freight trains and factories with broken windows, which I was never sure were abandoned or merely in disrepair. In school they showed us a movie about how steel is made. It was terrifying—all that heat and sizzling sparks, goggled men trapped in hell besides lurid molten streams. I never thought of industry as designed, as interesting, but the more I stared at the oil refinery the more captivated I became. It arose out of the darkness like a many towered carnival, with glittering pink and orange and white lights, billowing clouds of smoke. In awe I said, “It’s pretty.” “Pretty!” Mrs. Seckinger shouted. “It’s not pretty. It’s dangerous, enormous, brutal.” Blushing, I slunk down in my seat and remained silent for the rest of the drive. Not long after that she lent me Vision in Motion. Clearly I had a lot to learn.