The Death of Posterity,
Reflections in a Nutshell

Paul Pines

Oh God, I could be bounded in a nut shell

and count myself a King of infinite space,

were it not that I have bad dreams.

Hamlet, II, 2


I open a contemporary American Literature class with an observation by Gertrude Stein that the 20th Century has moved faster in its rate of change than all of the centuries that have come before.

“Do any of you know what G-Force is?”

“Yes,” answers a young man who earlier confused Walt Whitman with Slim Whitman, but has no trouble with the science of Aerospace. “It refers to the counter-force astronauts experience when their rapidly accelerating rocket attempts to free itself from the pull of gravity.”

Does anyone know what the impact of such a force might be?

“NASA developed space suits that insulate the astronauts so they won’t be crushed,” chimes a multiply pierced woman in front.

“Or experience an insult to their skeletons,” qualifies the young man.

“You’re all astronauts,” I tell them. “It isn’t clear what the impact of the increased rate of acceleration has had on you, or what defenses the mind/body will produce to insulate you as the rate of change increases exponentially.”

This exchange takes place in 1999. We entered the 20th century on horseback and are leaving it with satellite communication and an eye on deep space. Few question the accelerating speed at which our new century, driven by the promise of nano-technology, might float infinite quanta of information on the horizenless sea of cyber-space.

I pose this question to my class and to students yet unborn for whom the names of Slim Whitman and Walt Whitman may be equally obscure: at what rate of change do we shed historical memory? How fast can we go before time collapses, and transforms what we refer to as Posterity, the destination of great works and deeds for future generations, into a present overwhelmed by cries for instant celebrity?


I watch Benjamin Benno stride down Bowery one June morning in 1973, white beard flowing, flannel shirt under red suspenders, paint-stained khakis belted by a rope. Well into his seventies, he stands over six feet, his carved wooden cane more of a deterrent than a support, his green beret a holdover from banquet years at the cafes of Montmartre. He stops on the corner of 2nd Street, where I hunker with a paint brush.

“What are you doing?”

“Sealing this tin with polyurethane.” I point to the wall I have framed with pressed ceiling tin to hide a fissure behind it from the building inspector. It has given me the name for the jazz club I will open in September: The Tin Palace.

“Can I look inside?”

I put down the brush, then lead him into the half-finished room.

Benno has been following my progress converting a derelict wino bar into a gathering place for the downtown demi-monde. For six months he’s looked around and nodded before continuing on his daily walk. Following my return from Vietnam in 1965, we occasionally walked together between Tompkins and Washington Squares. He liked to talk about his diet, and the periodic fasting that kept him healthy, the war with his landlord who threatened him with eviction. I was curious about his years in Paris rubbing shoulders with fellow painters like Braque and Leger, and the poet Max Jacob. Benno had described the studio Jacob shared with Picasso on Rue Voltaire where one slept in the single bed while the other worked. Later, Jacob had a vision of Christ on a wall of the Bateau Lavoir that changed his life, but didn’t prevent his death at the hands of the Gestapo in 1944. Benno’s voice cracked when he spoke of it.

He never invited me to see his work. If I mentioned it, he’d nod and tell me it was not a good time. I hesitated to violate the privacy he inhabited with the young mistress he often mentioned.

I wasn’t sure how much to believe or what he might be embellishing, until I discovered a piece by Henry Miller, “Benjamin Benno: The Wild Man of Borneo.” According to Miller, my friend had been prone to prophetic rants; the epithet was inspired by Benno’s travels as a merchant seaman to distant lands that alternated with his pursuit of art. Now he walked the streets of Manhattan like an Old Testament angel with an undelivered message meant for someone, somewhere. Thus Benno was revealed to me as one of many shamans, with names like Modigliani, Picasso and Soutine.

We stand in what will be the Tin Palace, wires hanging from the ceiling, floors waiting to be sanded and stained, half the rosewood bar waiting to be stripped of paint.

“What are you writing?”

“Nothing,” I answer. “I don’t have the time.”

He shakes his head. “Poets should not run bars.”

“Cocteau ran the Lapin Agile.”

“You’re not Cocteau. Besides, he was just a figurehead. Can you leave this place for a few minutes?”

Something in his voice compels me to nod.

We head for Benno’s rooms at The Colonnades, a complex on Lafayette Street across from the Public Theater. I follow him upstairs, realizing that after all these years he is going to show me his paintings.

The loft is furnished simply with a bed, table, chairs and racks that hold his life’s work. I ask about the young woman he has referred to as his “mistress,” and learn that she now visits to give him a massage and help him with his laundry twice a week. He pulls out a chair for me at the dining room table.

“I don’t paint anymore,” he confesses. “I worry about what I’ve already done. The thought of bringing more into the world is ludicrous.”

He starts removing canvases from the rack, displays them for my inspection. Suddenly I am surrounded by squares of glowing color, images redolent of Picasso, Gris, Matisse, Klee, Ernst—but filtered through a sensibility that is finally all his, messages alive with content, and in their way, sacred. I am shocked not only by their energy, but by the fact he can’t find a home for them. He wants to leave them to the state of Israel, has talked to the Jewish Museum, but received only a lukewarm reception.

“It appears that nobody wants them.” Benno returns each to its niche.

I leave his loft with paintings aglow before my mind’s eye. Regardless of his visions, daily walks and weekly fasting, his friendship with Max Jacob, or the words by Henry Miller, there will be no place for Benno’s work in the halls of Posterity. Kneeling again before the pressed tin on my 2nd Street wall, brush in hand, I wonder what prompted Benno to invite me home. What did he want me to see? Staring at the rosette stamped into the tin, it occurs to me that maybe this was the message he’d been destined to deliver, the revelation of a G-force that overwhelms even Old Testament angels.


I spent my apprentice years behind the bar at The St. Adrian Company, a watering hole for artists on Broadway, between Bond and Grand, in the late 60s early 70s. On the main floor of the Broadway Central Hotel, the establishment took its name from John Clem Clarke’s six by twenty foot reproduction of Franz Hals’ “Officers and Sergeants of the St. Hadrian Civic Company” that spanned the forty foot bar. The walls around the bar trumpeted the work of those who drank there, the plush Lyrical Abstractions by Ken Showell and Dan Christensen, and the harder edged Minimalism of Larry Poons and Ken Nolan among others. A vaulted ceiling was all that remained of last century’s elegance. On the other side of the wall, the hotel had become a haven for welfare families and drug dealers.

I started at the raw bar shucking oysters for painters, poets and musicians. Charles Mingus vacuumed the meat from his shells with an intensity that reminded me of a comment by Leo Stein: “…when Picasso looked at a drawing or a print, I was surprised that anything was left on the paper…” After a month, my hands were as raw as the oysters. When the weekend set-up bartender position opened up, I took it.

The Who’s Who of painters showing at MoMA and the Whitney became my regulars. Listening to their conversation, surrounded by their work, I formed my first impressions of the art world. I was standing on the duck-boards in 1970 when the G-force kicked in without warning: the Titanic of Abstract Expressionism struck the iceberg of accelerating change. The impact occurred under the constant gaze of the 17th Century Dutch Burghers in Clarke’s painting above the bar. They watched the artists below scurry about rearranging chairs on deck to provide some semblance of safety in the various niches of Super Realism, Post-Impressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Minimalism, Color Field (which included an abandonment of the brush altogether for the air-gun, roller and other industrial applications) and conceptual /performance ways of making meaning that required no painterly applications at all.

Clarke’s airbrushed replication of Franz Hal’s masterpiece incorporated all of the above: expanding the scale of the composition brought out Color Field relationships, perspectival Abstraction, and Hard Edge tensions. The Conceptual touch was rendered by Clarke’s only original contribution, a white line around the whole production which, according to a Time Magazine article, “Art for Art’s Sake” (02.28.69,) transformed the Burghers to figures on a TV screen. “Clarke thus suggests that TV’s ubiquitous eye has changed everybody’s way of seeing reality.”

As it became increasingly clear that the center would not hold, I served beer and shots to Larry Rivers, Larry Poons, John Clem Clark, Carl Andre, John Chamberlin, Ken Showell, Ken Nolan, Bob Indiana, Robert Morris, Al Held, Dan Christensen, Willem De Kooning (who at that time drank Ginger Ale), Barnet Newman, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, Marisol, and Clement Greenberg, the critic who called Christensen “one of the painters on whom the course of American Art depends.”

It was Dan Christensen who first complained about the sudden loss of his New York gallery. If things kept going the way they were, Dan said, he might be left with only the one in Houston. Larry Poons and Ken Nolan muttered in agreement. A week later, on my way down West Broadway, I bumped into Ken Showell who had been part of that group featured at the Whitney Annual in 1967. Now, three years later, Ken told me that he couldn’t sell a painting or find representation.

I can still hear the chorus of painters muttering at the bar. There was also collateral damage. Showell‘s wife and daughter returned without him to the mid-west. He seldom spoke of them, or his work. Except for an afternoon in 1972 when I met him on his way to work tending the Broome Street Bar. Before joining the melee inside, he observed through his long blond mustache that, until this century, a painter’s career spanned a life-time. The generation of the 60s, his generation, had fought to realize a viable decade. The next one might struggle to command five years. Ken predicted the viable life-span of an artist in the future would shrink to months, weeks or even days.  

The marriage of art to merchandising endured an extended courtship through the post war 50s and 60s; their union was consummated by the middle of the next decade. Changes came so fast that even Clement Greenberg struggled to re-form his canon. Pop, Op, High Concept, all the harbingers of Post Modern Deconstruction attended the wedding—at which the Best Man was Robert C. Sculll, the notorious collector of Pop/Op through the largess of his taxi fleet, Scull’s Angels. Their progeny in the 80s, meteors named Basquiat and Haring, burned brightly for a moment before crashing into a world no longer attached to the ripening dialogue between generations.

Prices soared.


Abstract painter Douglas Leichter, credited along with his colleague Richard Saba, for producing the first example of “earth work” at Skowhegan, Maine, in the late 60s, points to Giotto as the first painter to sign his own work. Of Douglas’ and Richard’s unsigned cutting-edge alteration of nature, New York Times art critic Grace Gleuk wrote that it “freed art from its gallery bound limitations.”

Douglas puts it another way: “We dug a hole.”

The pioneers of Earthwork walked away from their hole and perhaps a hammerlock on Posterity, leaving it to those whose names would soon become synonymous with altering the natural environment in the name of art like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Cristo. Leichter and Saba returned to painting, and so became a footnote to the “movement” they launched.

I first met Douglas in 1967at The Ninth Circle, on West 10th Street, among those displaced from the recently closed Cedar Bar. He bussed tables as I juggled lemons at the open grill and chili station. One evening he invited me to his studio, where I gazed in wonder at his luminous abstract canvases spread out before me on the floor. Shortly thereafter, I lost sight of him. When, forty years later, I hear his voice and name on the phone, I recognize neither.

“It’s Douglas, do you remember me?”

The voice on the line repeats the message; I struggle with the sense that something important is surfacing, the back of a whale, but tread water helplessly until he mentions the Ninth Circle. Suddenly, I am riding a wave of memory. I feel sensations not visited in four decades. Their undimmed intensity becomes a vortex in which I spin before I’m pitched back into the moment.

It is 2004. I am in Arizona to participate in the Tucson Poetry Festival.

“Are you there?” The voice I hear echoes in my mind.

“Yes, Douglas. I remember you.”

I flash on the poet Petrarch (1304-1374), the inventor of Posterity. His last letter, dated 1372, is addressed directly “To Posterity.” In doing so, he enlarges the term from one that points to a future generation, as opposed to “ancestry,” a past one, to a destination for works and deeds worthy of remembering, an ontological space, a highly selective collective memory, the whispered promise of immortality for the fortunate few. From a room full of mouse-eaten manuscripts, Petrarch calls out to Posterity in a tone that still quivers with longing and doubt: “Greetings. It is possible that some word of me has come down to you…


I meet Douglas at Pima Community College. He is thinner than I remember him. Lines etch his still boyish face. He offers pieces of his life in the few minutes between our encounter and tonight’s Poetry Festival. I learn about his Krassner-Pollock grant in 2000; living on the Bowery with designer Betsy Johnson when he was known and she was not; hanging out with his neighbor, Abstract Expressionist Mike Goldberg; wanderings in Spain, and Morocco; shipping out to Borneo in the wake of Benjamin Benno; but through it all painting, refining his life’s work. He has come to Tucson by way of Miami; tropical dampness is even more inhospitable to his painful arthritis than New York City winters.

It is a conversation we continue by phone, email, an occasional visit. Five years later, when Mike Goldberg dies, he calls to share the news. Mike’s painter-partner Lynn Umlauf cooked Sunday brunch at The Tin Palace. Douglas reports that Lynn is puzzled over what to do with Mike’s work, which is tied up in tax issues.

I tell him about Sotheby’s recent effort to auction off a piece by Ken Showell, one of the “crushed” canvas series he had not destroyed, estimated at between five and seven thousand dollars. Even at those prices, it failed to get a bid.

Douglas grunts, and then adds in velvet tones full of urgency:

“I remember hearing about an auction of Julian Schnabel paintings at the Park-Bernet, canvases with broken dishes glued to them. No one made an offer. The auctioneer called out again, but there were no bids. They waited several minutes before carrying out the paintings. Those in the audience clapped. The next day forty galleries closed across the nation.” 

So much for the Neo-expressionism of the 80s, and the painter who claimed that everything he did was art.

We are both baffled by the relentless unfolding of a tapestry that dissolves before our eyes. I tell him I am thinking about writing something on the notion of Posterity, what meaning it has (or doesn’t have) in our time. Later he emails me:

dear Paul , yes posterity: a number of years ago they  read [on the radio] the results of Nobel prize for literature. at first the names were familiar but as the decades receded the names were forever lost: so many stories, most of which border on tragedy like ken showell [gee how i loved him] a prolific artist whose life was so abbreviated. even his daughter, to whom as a baby he signed his paternity rights away was there to help sift through a life of art .i was there too. i have to this day some of his pieces . the ashes were dispersed from a bridge in central park one of his favorite places to paint…this posterity issue has been with me a long time.

Douglas might have written about his own place in this dissolving fabric. In Tucson he found little interest in his lineage, of which he could speak with the first hand knowledge of a Vasari, or in his own work—except for an article in the Tucson Star in which he cites his major influences as Giotto, and Dr. Hubert’s Flea Circus on Times Square where he spent time as a child.

While Douglas Leichter’s name has not been altogether lost in his own lifetime, he can feel it slipping away as he works furiously at the rear of a motel-like development off Speedway, one of Tucson’s main thoroughfares. Opening his door off a second floor balcony I am struck dumb, as I was when I first walked into his lower East Side loft in 1967, and then six years later, in Benjamin Benno’s loft . The scale and luminosity of Douglas’ canvases evokes a pointillist super nova, a Zoharic dance of luminous shards under a sacred arch, biomorphic life seen through an alien microscope. Next to these, in glass cases, his micro-sculptures of the universe in a match box are direct lines to the numinous which no local gallery is interested in displaying. He stands the way Benno did, shoulders hunched, surrounded by his life’s work, eyes gazing up, a human question mark.


“What happens to these people? “

Barbara Manning, a trim woman with close cropped silver hair, a gracefully aging Jean Seberg, puts this question to me in the Hyde Park studio of her late husband, the painter John Manning. We are looking at the remains of his life in art, so many canvases, most of them unfinished –evidence of the painter’s struggle in his later years to realize something that eluded him.

“John couldn’t find it.” Barbara considers a pair of abandoned nudes bereft of beach or horizon. “There was a limit to how far he could go in abstraction. On the other hand, he never felt comfortable working in the direction of Pearlstein, or Jack Beal, but felt hard edge minimalists like Stella were also a dead end. He went around and around.”

Two weeks earlier at John Manning’s memorial hosted by his daughter, Karen, in Rye, N.Y. I was startled by the brilliance of the painter’s early nudes, bell peppers and mysterious women trailing veils in paintings that floated above carpets on polished wooden floors throughout the house. Casually chic friends of the artist milled around a buffet in the kitchen. A Power Point presentation of Manning’s life played in front of the living room fireplace: John and Barbara in their funky penthouse on Bowery, across from the Variety Photo Play Theater. Baby Karen. Images of the 60s flickering on the virtual hearth of the computer screen encapsulated John’s teaching career at Cooper Union, NYU and Hofstra, and his shows at the Graham Gallery.

John graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1957. He met his wife shortly thereafter at an American bar while on a Prix de Rome. They returned to New York at the start of the 60s to find an art world John hardly recognized.

“From that moment,” said Barbara, “he was in this battle against the changing time.”

Wolf Kahn, a realist student of Hans Hoffman, got John a teaching job at Cooper Union, which lasted two years before the new director decided to get rid of the old and bring in the new. He had the same experience at NYU, and, finally, Hofstra. The Mannings found themselves in a professional no man’s land. In 1973 John accepted an offer to become the Director of the Munson-Williams-Procter School of Art. They moved to Utica, where John over the next five years transformed the school into a world-class institution.

The Power Point flashed on John with Clement Greenberg. The critic lived nearby and visited for academic discussions with students as well as informal ones over dinner.

“Clem once told John, ‘You’re so diffident.’ He meant that John didn’t promote himself as he should. But John couldn’t do that.”

Her husband was painting barns and columned porches reduced to planes of light and shadow which led to his last solo show at the Graham Gallery in 1972, reviewed positively by the NY Times. He moved on to images of farm tools and machinery. The next show a few years later didn’t go well.

“None of those paintings exist. He destroyed them all.”

Before he was fired from Munson-Williams-Proctor in 1982, John curated the exhibition, AN APPRECIATION OF REALISM. It ran from February through April and featured such painters as Jack Beal, Wolf Kahn, Philip Pearlstein, Raphael Soyer, Alfred Leslie, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Chuck Close, Philip Guston and John Manning himself, among others.

Three years later, Beal asked John to head a school he was starting at La Noupole, in the south of France, for which he had put together a symposium that summer called ASPECTS OF REALISM. By the end of the summer, John, Barbara and Karen moved to Hyde Park. At first they went into the city quite a bit. John was painting women in flowing garments based on photos of bridesmaids at a wedding celebration.

“He showed them to a few galleries. Ivan Carp said the work was too European. Robert Schoelkopf dismissed them because they were done from photos. John was crushed. It was the last time he showed his work to anyone.”

The power point documented the story in minutes, a G-force presentation of a life shaped by G-Force. At the end of it, John spoke in the cracking voice of one who has pushed the body beyond what the skeleton can endure: “The painter is an anachronism.

We look around the Hyde Park studio at the remains. Barbara tries to explain what we are looking at. John hadn’t been a part of any movement. He had tried to tag on to the Minimalists with his barns, but he couldn’t go any farther in that direction. At the end, his direction remained unclear. It is evident in the number of canvases started and abandoned around the same images, as if through repetition the shell in which he found himself might crack like an egg to reveal something newly born.

“Clement Greenberg changed everything.” Barbara smiles ruefully. “He said that painters were here to make new work. In America we reinvent ourselves. History is what we make in the moment. “

John’s moment past, the house is for sale. Barbara can no longer take the solitary existence or the winters on a dirt road beyond a horse farm. She faces the task of cleaning out what’s left in the wake.

“I see you’ve already started packing,” I point to the cases.

“Those belong to our friend Reginald Case, who died after my husband. His wife was moving and didn’t know what to do with his paintings. Are you interested in these cassettes? So, what do I do with all of this…order a dumpster?”


Fred Waitzkin and I sit in a triangular patch of concrete, trees and benches known as Father Fagan Park, bounded by Sixth Avenue and Spring Street. Our bench faces a basement antique store in a row of walk-ups. It is the end of May and overcast. Fred wears a hooded sweat shirt. With his high domed forehead and grey sideburns, people often mistake him for Larry David. I bring up the idea of “Posterity.” He recalls Sir Philip Sydney who talked about the writer as prophet, priest and king, the artist who creates for all of time something that can be passed down through the ages.

“As a young writer, I believed in it.”

“And now?”

There’s so much more product today, he replies. Fifteen artists for every place to show, four-hundred poets for every poem published. The desperation around this issue is profound.

“I can introduce you to five widows on each floor of the Chelsea Hotel with rooms full of art they don’t know what to do with.”

“Not very hopeful.”

“I think artists—and I mean this in a positive way—operate within an illusion. It’s hard to be a flat out cynic and create great art. You may take a step back later and articulate a more cynical reality. But artists have to hang on to this vision of speaking to the ages in some portion of their lives to do what they do.”

This describes his mother, the Abstract Expressionist sculptress and painter Stella Waitzkin who died in 2003. Fred wrote about her along with his brother and their salesman father, Abe, in his memoir, The Last Marlin. Abe sold lighting fixtures that lit the Chrysler Building and others that formed the New York City skyline. Stella left a bourgeois life in Great Neck, L.I. in 1968 to move into the Chelsea Hotel, and study with Hans Hoffman.

“Stella held that making art has to be more important than family, football and fun. If not, she shouldn’t be an artist.”

Even so, Fred notes, Stella was as ambivalent about what happened to her work after her death, as she was toward the pursuit of success. She often sabotaged opportunities that might have made her visible. Her ambivalence continued undiminished as she lay dying. She suggested her son take her work off shore in his boat, and dump it to make an artificial reef.

“Stella thought that was funny. It spoke to the hopelessness of the situation.”

On the other hand, she also explored the idea of a non-profit trust. Fred hired a specialist in art trusts to visit his bedridden mother at the Chelsea with the necessary documents. The lawyer looked so much like her husband Stella refused to sign them. Fred placed the book on trusts the lawyer had written on Stella’s bed. Abe had never written a book. She was impressed and signed the papers. Stella was fortunate that her son combined the intuition of the artist with the instincts of the business man. When an artist sells her work, he explains, the IRS has a record of the sales. His mother sold several pieces for fifty or sixty thousand dollars. If not for the art trust, the government could have determined the value of her oeuvre based on those few sales.

“We could have been hit with an inheritance tax of five to seven million dollars, and none of this would have been possible.”

The trust that Stella left designated two trustees, Fred, and Charles Russell, a Dean at Rutgers University and an art critic. Based on continued sales and acquisitions over the last six years, the trust has been self supporting. To date, they have placed sixty-five pieces in institutions like MOMA, the Smithsonian, the Corcoran and a number of small museums. The Kholer Collection in Wisconsin bought a huge installation.

“If I were going to reflect on why we’ve been so successful, I would say, first, and most important, the art is good. Unless it’s really good, you don’t have much of a chance to place it. Second, we had a great team.”

Russell’s knowledge of the art world complimented Fred’s gifts as a writer and speaker. A key selling tool has been their website, which opens with the apparition of one of Stella’s sculptures, a translucent face that emerges from darkness, followed by a documentary featuring the original installations “consisting of shelves densely stacked with her luminous polyester resin-cast books” in her rooms at the Chelsea accompanied by a narrative written and spoken by Fred to Coltrane’s version of Stella by Starlight.

Fred believes the trust has enhanced Stella’s reputation. It helps that she is not around to shoot herself in the foot by refusing a major show or a significant sale because the stars in her chart warn against it. A thousand people attended her New York show at the Robert Steele Gallery shortly after she died. Fred and Charles are currently putting together a traveling show complete with a major catalogue. Over the last six years, her work has spoken powerfully to many people. Thanks to the trust, her art resides in scores of museums.

What about the work of all those artists moldering in their rooms at the Chelsea mourned only by grieving widows? What will happen to the work of John Manning, Dan Christiansen, Ken Showell, Douglas Leichter, Mike Goldberg or the legion of painters whose names defy the space here allotted?

Fred points to a building across from us, talks about a psychologist who lived there with her father, a fine abstract painter. On more than one occasion he has seen the man’s work on sale at Joel’s antique shop for twenty-dollars or in the street because no one wants to buy it. When people at the Chelsea found out that he was setting up an art trust for his mother, he was besieged by pleas for help from people sitting on rooms full of art.

“There is a palpable despair when I talk to the spouse of a deceased artist. It’s really a marker of our own mutability that there is so much wonderful art out there and so little room for it.”

Fred recalls a recent visit to the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam. After a tour, his guide pulled out rack after rack of Rembrandt’s paintings no one ever sees. Most of the work at the Rembrandt Museum is buried in storage.


Post-modern technology has given us the power to record and reference every name that ever was. In so doing, it has also replaced the orderly sequence of real time with the unbounded space of collapsed time in a virtual world. The result has transformed Posterity into a digital event, posterity, even as it buries the conversation with future generations under the exponentially increasing weight of accumulated data. Don DeLillo alludes to this in his cyber-noir Cosmopolis: “The future is always a wholeness and sameness.” He is alluding to the absence of valuing, an unqualified sameness of objects adrift in a virtual sea.

If I Google Douglas Leichter, I find evidence of him scattered like shards. There is a reference to his Krassner-Pollock grant, the NY Times citation as a founder of Earthworks, his inclusion among artists in 1981 at 112 Greene Street, and in an entry about the façade at 222 Bowery, another in the Tucson Star shows him in front of his new painting, “The Rainbow Installation & Dream Storage Warehouse Company.”

Google “John Manning, painter” and you will find individuals by that name noted for being a Harvard Graduate, a tuba virtuoso, a basketball super star, an author of hard-boiled mystery novels, an authority on wild flowers, a jurist known for his analysis of the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, a designer of Infrastructure solutions, and an authority on Emblems. Finely parsing this display we arrive at John Manning the artist, as distinct from John Manning the house painter and interior designer.

Type in the name George McNeil, a painter who powerfully combined the image and abstraction and Google will direct you to a Golf Pro, a sprinter, a chef, an architect, an internist and a trustee of Contra Costa College.

A different result occurs when you Google Mike Goldberg. Mike had the blessing/curse of Frank O’Hara’s friendship. Google immediately links Goldberg to O’Hara’s often anthologized poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter,” in which the Curator of MOMA visits the abstract painter’s studio just as they both are starting work on a poem and a painting respectively. O’Hara is thinking of oranges and Goldberg has the word SARDINES on the canvas. By the time they have finished their work, there is no mention of orange in the poems or SARDINES in the painting, but let each stand as a title. The impact of this on Google Posterity is Goldberg’s name quickly gets lost in the name of the poem, “Why I Am Not A Painter,” and that of the poet, Frank O’Hara.

Someone in a future generation might well walk away from this believing that Frank O’Hara painted “Sardines,” shortly after Pierre Menard wrote “Don Quixote.”

This is, of course, hyperbole.


Petrarch, the inventor of Posterity, is also the inventor of Anteriority. Before his letter to future generations, he wrote letters to heroes past. “... I am trying to decide what to take with me,” he tells Socrates, “what to distribute among my friends, and what to throw into the fire.” To Homer he says: “Your Penelope cannot have waited longer nor with more eager expectation for her Ulysses than I did for you…” to Cicero: “Now it is your turn to be the listener.”

It just may be that what we are talking about when we talk about Posterity is a conversation that flows both ways. Eliminate one, and the other disappears, taking with it the mystery of a synchronicity in which the spirit is renewed. The paradox: “originality” contains what is old and new at the same time.

Perhaps this is the underlying conundrum that Clement Greenberg alluded to in his last essay written in 1979 in which he stated that what appeared so shockingly new is really an attempt to protect traditional esthetic standards against the corrupting effects of popular/industrial culture:

…the overriding and innermost logic of Modernism is to maintain the levels of the past in the face of an opposition that hadn’t been present in the past. Thus the whole enterprise of Modernism, for all its outward aspects, can be seen as backward-looking. That seems paradoxical, but reality is shot through with paradox, is practically constituted by it.

If, as Greenberg argues, the Modernist avant-garde is really a rear-garde action, what would a true avant-garde look like?

In 1979, even Greenberg may not have fully grasped that the evolution of art was no longer linear, processional, or precessional—that post-modern technology would collapse time into a virtual space. Resolving the conflict between the old and the new, past and present, rear and avant-garde can be compared to Hercules’s attempt to hold fast the ever-changing sea-god until he divulged the secret of his intention. Or one might ride creative energy back to its origin, unencumbered by the past, an impulse that drives physicists to recreate the instant of the Big Bang. Traveling backward faster than the speed of light, we find a Paleolithic Luminist painting animals in a cave in the Dordogne, a Neolithic Earth Mover building mounds in Cornwall, or a tribal Sculptress firing Venus figures in the Alps.

Failing that, a true avant-garde demands action in the present on the order of Mao’s continuous revolution to eliminate the past before it coalesces. Another analogy might be the ecstasy that accompanies the first rush of romantic love as the pre-eminent goal. In order to maintain it, one must continually repeat that phase; fall in love three times a week. Even when the experience ceases to be new, it simulates newness. The problem is that at this point the pursuit becomes an addiction to, rather than a realization of the experience.


“How can we measure time present when it hath no space?”

In The Confessions, the first book pitched directly to future generations, St. Augustine poses this 4th Century question to 21st Century readers. We have fallen from Eden into the relentless river of history that pools at the end in an eternally spacious present he calls The City of God. The Bishop of Hippo could not have foreseen that the accelerating speed of history might propel us out of the actual time-space continuum into the virtual matrix of cyberspace; our City of God, contains everything we put in it.

“It’s the great democratic equalizing of the field,” muses Douglas, the early Earth Mover. “At first the floodgates open and it feels good. But what follows is impoverishment.”

Everything floats in the cyber-sea. Fishing here one can pull up Douglas Leichter’s “Unemployed Dervish” as easily as Franz Hal's “Officers and Sergeants of the St. Hadrian Civic Company,” or John Clem Clarke’s scaled up post-modern version. John Manning’s barns float beside August Macke’s Tangier market, and Hans Hoffman’s volumetric tensions beside Fairfield Porter’s lawn chairs.

Of course it is not the Posterity of Petrarch and Sydney. The jpg’s have none of the textural or dimensional qualities of the real paintings. This is true even in a virtual museum filled with our own unpredictable selection of images fished out of the virtual soup. Instead of the highly selective ontological space of Posterity, the whispered promise of immortality for the fortunate few, we have the cyber-sea of posterity, an infinite catch-pool, flattened history, a random sampling of identities without comparative value, a chorus that cries out to future generations with the overwhelming presence of everything past geared to a digital present.


Einstein’s postulation that if we move faster than the speed of light we might out-run time is echoed by the simultaneity of past, present and future in cyber-space. We can go anywhere; locate distant people, places and events at a key stroke. It is available to everyone, a Merlin-like power that appeals to our populist politics. The impoverishment, says Douglas, which refers not only to the absence of selectivity, but a technology that becomes BOTH the tools and the object of art.

“At the Venice Biennial, I saw the work of post modern contemporary artists using the powerful technology of our time, the great colors, the swiftness of composition, and communication of what has been made. But after I sat with it awhile, it seemed like a lot is icing with no cake. All these ideas dressed up in the best clothes money can buy.”

The problem as Douglas sees it is not that art is produced to sell like fashion. Art is made to sell as well as to take the percipient beyond the narrowness of daily life. But art that becomes a social function in which a world of fashionable Electi becomes the primary product is a room full of Naked Emperors. We would like to believe that there might be a creature of childlike innocence near enough to break the enchantment. I am reminded of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus tells his followers that Salvation will not come at the end of time, but is here, now, in the things at hand.

“No matter how absurd the art market gets,” says Douglas, “people will always hunger for the authentic. There is an almost instinctive desire for authenticity. The species requires it to stay alive.”


Can a space that contains everything in a simulated present eliminate the problems of art widows like Barbara Manning and those on all five floors of the Hotel Chelsea?

If the destiny of the art is the jpg, we can fill dumpsters without remorse. Even museums will require museums.

The death of Posterity is daunting because it is the death of a way to avoid death. Posterity carries with it the paradox of a dialogue that runs both ways, suggesting that time, and therefore death, can be overcome. It is a Platonic meditation on eternal forms.

On the other hand, in a G-Force condition, what we may hunger most for are details lost to Posterity, the urgency that moved Petrarch to ask rhetorically, “Perhaps you have had some word of me...” and Giotto to sign his paintings. Men of their time, they may have intuitively grasped something about the qualities that speak to generations such as ours, swimming in a space that is neither inside nor outside of us: the call of our humanity lodged in what decays, the compelling expression of individual identity.

Embedded in Petrarch’s unfinished last letter “To Posterity” is the apprehension that he, too, will be forgotten. Even as a permanent record of accessible facts continues to pool at our fingertips, time continues to shape us, particulars vanishing as we go; posterity will not show us Cleopatra’s face in the instant she was bitten by the asp.

Maybe virtual-posterity is the best we can do in the face of the G-force.

I Google the work of John Manning, examine the images I saw in actual space. Perhaps there is something in the images suggestive of the inner struggle I saw in bold terms in his studio. Of course if this essay were posted alongside those images, there would be a more explicit record of his unmistakable attempt to find an authentic expression of the mystery that all artists attempt to realize. What is both unmistakable and authentic, is his struggle to do so. Manning was constantly at the bars of his cage. Posterity may reject this as an appropriate message to future generations; posterity as cyber-space will store it for anyone to access.

Even Benjamin G. Benno (1901-1980) is there. A two paragraph N.Y. Times obituary notes that he studied under Robert Henri and George Bellows. In an interview in “Anarchist Voices,” (1972), British born Benno tells Paul Arvich that from age two to five he lived with the princely anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Benno arrived in New York in 1912, by way of Odessa, won a Guggenheim in 1932, and in 1937 was included among American artists at the Jeu de Paume selected by Man Ray, Picasso, Leger and Braque. A later NY Times article states: “Probably only a few of the thousands of passengers who have been in a taxicab driven by Benjamin G. Benno know that he is an artist whose work has hung with that of Picasso, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali.” His work can be seen on various auction sites. Recently a painting dated 1933 sold for $3,500.

The Chilean poet Roberto Bolano commented to Larry Rhoter of the New York Times that the word “posthumous” sounded like the name of an undefeated Roman gladiator. When Bolano died of liver failure in 2008, his novel, 2666, won The National Book Critics Circle Award.” If the word “posthumous” describes an undefeated Roman gladiator, we might think of its cognate, “Posterity,” as a wounded one. I am most comfortable with this vision of Posterity. After a life of doing battle in the Coliseum of Culture, our Gladiator has received a mortal blow from the G-Force that has left him on his knees in the dirt, head raised for a last look at an audience on their feet, thumbs turned up to heaven.