Herbert Gold - 1924 to 2023

saragoldntitledRecently, the world lost one of the most underrated authors of the last century. Herbert Gold, Herb to his friends, passed away at the age of 99. Not only was Gold one of the finest California writers of his time, but also a dear friend to William Saroyan.

Herb Gold outlined meeting Saroyan in the introduction to the collection of Saroyan works He Flies through the Air with the Greatest of Ease. He details running into Saroyan for the first time at the San Francisco Museum of Art (today known as SFMoMA).

One afternoon I was brooding alone in the San Francisco Museum of Art, then still in the Veterans Memorial Building on Van Ness, when I heard a voice booming, saw that strong-featured, heavy Armenian face, now with a bristling mustache, lecturing to two children about the meaning of the paintings nearby, and incidentally also lecturing – hectoring, nagging, informing, bragging – about the meaning of life and their proper place in the world. The children were his son and daughter. The rich baritone was that of a Personage, a father, a man speaking from the depths of imperativeness and soul.

                “Mr. Saroyan, I presume.”

From there, the two became friends. The two men had a lot in common; they both drank, they both enjoyed the company of women, they were both divorced, and they were both writers, though Saroyan was a widely-known giant of American Letters and Gold, while respected by his peers, never managed to achieve that sort of success. The pair enjoyed the San Francisco of the 1960s together, and Gold even visited Saroyan in Fresno and Paris. Gold details a visit to Saroyan in Fresno when he brought his nine-year-old Ari, now a comedian and filmmaker, with him. The two remained friends until the end of Saroyan’s life, and Gold continued writing about Saroyan for decades following his passing.

Covers208Herb Gold wrote more than twenty novels and four collections of stories and essays. He was active at the same time as the Beats, and in physical proximity to many of them, first in New York and later in San Francisco. Though he was working at the same time, and his writing featured similar themes, he never felt he was a part of the movement, though he was referred to as a “Beat-adjacent novelist.”

Herbert Gold passed away on November 19th, 2023 at the age of 99. He was survived by his five children. His final book, a collection of poetry titled Fathers Verses Sons, will be released on March 9th, 2024, on what would have been his 100th birthday.

William Saroyan & Morris Hirshfield

IMG 2235 copyOn September 6th, 2023, the Cantor Art Center at Stanford opened a new exhibit of the works of painter Morris Hirshfield. A Polish immigrant who worked in the textile industry, he began to paint following his retirement. He created 77 paintings in the nine years between finding the arts and his death in 1946, but they caught the eye of many in the art world, and especially those dabbling in Surrealism. Legendary painter André Breton was a major booster of Hirshfeld’s paintings, and his art was included in the famed show The First Papers of Surrealism in 1942. The one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art did not fare well with critics, but his work was well-known and he continued painting.

Oddly, more than thirty years after his death, William Saroyan and Morris Hirshfield’s paths would cross in one of the most beautifully produced books in the Saroyan canon – 1976’s Morris Hirshfield.

summer011Milanese publisher Franco Maria Ricci was a publisher of art books. He tended to specialize in artists that were not the biggest names in the world of fine arts. Ricci produced books centered around the work of artists like Tamara de Lempicka. He published both in Italian and English, often doing two or more versions of the same book. His books were instantly recognizable. The design began with a black box. The boxes were an important aspect of the design, meant to convey a sense that these were pieces deserving of protection, of keeping out of the harm of light and air. Open the box and you’re greeted with the book itself. A sturdy book with a black silk, hardboard cover, stamped with gold, or sometimes silver, lettering. The image on the cover would be glued on, an extremely high-quality reproduction of a work from the artist. These reproductions were glossy, and at a quality that few if any printed covers could match at the time. The resulting cover gives the sense that what is within is of the highest value, that to compete with the cover would require exquisite precision and design sense.

The interiors do not disappoint.

IMG 2318The paper is hand-made, tinted blue-grey. The textures and composition allow the ink to impress cleanly and produce an incredible crispness. From the endpapers, with their repetitive stylized leaves, to the straight vertical rule that runs across each page, the design is immaculate.

For Morris Hirshfield, Ricci used the words of three writers; the first was Sidney Janis, an acclaimed art dealer whose gallery in New York featured several early Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, and who would become the leading dealer in Pop Art. Janis was a major supporter of Morris Hirshfield.

IMG 2359Janis had collected an incredible variety of works from the Surrealists, including several that he would later donate to the Museum of Modern Art in New York while he was on the board. His attention to Hirshfield helped gain the painter acclaim, and this led to inclusion in significant Surrealist shows. His piece desribes Hirshfield as a painter and his interactions with him, how he discovered his work, and the impact it had on him.

The analysis of Hirshfield’s output is an essay by Oto Bihalji-Merin, one of the 20th century's most acclaimed and beloved art critics. The essay, Morris Hirshfield, Painter of Chaste Nudity, explores Hirshfield’s nudes and the ways in which they play less in the field of the erotic, instead transferring his attention to the details of the composition of every object, of which the nude figures are just one.

There are dozens of images by Hirshfield throughout the book. They are exquisitely printed on glossy paper, cut, then pasted into the book. This method, called ‘tipping in’ allows for that high-quality imagery at a lower price. It can also be difficult over time as the glue can warp the papers as it shrinks.

IMG 2232 copy 2The largest portion of the book, though, is the text by William Saroyan.

Saroyan never met Hirshfield, but Ricci apparently believed that Saroyan was the right guy for the job. Like Hirshfield, Saroyan was not the product of schooling, and his work was often seen as that of an outsider. At the same time, the sheer exceptional energy both men imbued their work with made the establishment take note. Saroyan’s two essays are fascinating. The first is an imagined interview, or maybe better termed a discussion, between Saroyan and a long-dead Morris Hirshfield. The two talk about the idea of painting, and of mortality and how it relates to their respective art practices.

The opening ‘exchange’ in the piece gives it all a fascinating perspective:

William Saroyan: Morris Hirshfield, I’m William Saroyan

How does it feel to be famous?

Morris Hirshfield: Famous? Who’s Famous. Whatever your name is I’m dead.

WS: I don’t know about that, but in any case how dead can anybody be? And who cares about that when whoever it is who has died has left behind something. Something.

MH: Something, something, so I’m dead but I’ve left behind something.

This piece looks at the idea of fame after one has died, and of artwork as continuance. It addresses the trap of thinking that fame is anything more than fleeting, and often misremembered, or even unseen. The second piece, “Morris Hirshfield Successful Manufacturer of Women’s Slippers of Unsuccessful Painter of Beautiful Naked Women?” is a fascinating bit of writing that mostly examines the role of fame, continuing or long-passed, and how it relates to the world of art appreciation. In many ways, this feels like Saroyan having an excuse to go into his own personal philosophy on his creative process and output, and square it by pointing at another artist and their output. It’s a smart read, and it feels less like 1970s Saroyan than like the Saroyan that hit big with the stories in Inhale and Exhale in the 1930s. Some of the techniques, like long lists of rhetorical questions, bring to mind Saroyan's writing in the 1937 work Three Times Three,  notably  "Quarter, Half, Three-Quarters, and Whole Notes." In fact, the 'interview' of Morris Hirshfield has similarities to the introduction of "The Living and the Dead" which also appears in the same collection, where Saroyan (as 'The Writer') interviews 'The Reader.' It even shares similar themes. Saroyan may be treading familiar ground, but it is ground he hadn't passed through in a good long while. 

Morris Hirshfield is full of incredible reproductions of the master’s paintings, about 2/3 of Hirshfield’s entire output. The images are beautiful, and they show an artist who was more interested in the ideas of the worlds he was painting than with faithful reproduction. Many of these paintings are featured in the exhibition at the Cantor Arts Centre.

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-Article written by Archivist Chris Garcia, September 2023, San Jose. CA

 

 

The Armenian & The Armenian

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William Saroyan's best-known words may be the last portion of the story "The Armenian & The Armenian," first published in the collection Inhale & Exhale. The story itself deals with Saroyan meeting a fellow Armenian in a beer parlor in Russia, and the two talking. At the end of the piece, Saroyan launches into his most famous passage, discussing the way the nation of Armenia has been conquered and beaten for centuries, though its people continue on with a resolute determination that powers the Armenian identity even when its members have never had their feet on Armenian-controlled soil. 

The work has been re-printed many times, sometimes the complete story, more often merely the final two paragraphs. It remains not only Saroyan's most quoted work, but one of the finest examples of the Armenian spirit in the wake of the Armenian Genocide and other atrocities that continue on to today. 

 

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered.

Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years later, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.

 

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