Friday, September 6, 2013

Patron Saint #10: Deborah Remington - The Future Looks Back

Ackia -  color screenprint - 1975, Deborah Remington

“My work concerns the paradoxes of visual perception, the enigmas and quirks, and how it all forms the basis for our realities. The impact, excitement, and energies created by incongruity, juxtaposition and opposites all interest me.

The images are couched in paradoxical terms and must challenge the mind’s eye, must invoke opposites and hold them in tension. The work at times seems to refer to something in reality, but then the reference is denied. Identity; the fusion of so many experiences, so many inquiries, so many intuitions is also a primary issue.”

- Deborah Remington, from a quote found here.

"...Drawing doesn’t have to have color for me. The Japanese would always say, ‘Can’t you see the color there in the black and white?’ It’s implied, and if you’re a really good artist and if the paintings are wonderful enough and if they really sing, then the viewer gets a sense of color. That influenced my work a lot, mostly the philosophy of calligraphy.”
(via a 2008 interview with Nancy M. Grace)

"Anyway I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem "Wail" drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling "Go! Go! Go!" (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping his tears in gladness."

- Excerpt from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, 1958

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by 
              madness, starving hysterical naked, 
       dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn 
              looking for an angry fix, 
       angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly 
              connection to the starry dynamo in the
machinery of night, 
       who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat 
              up smoking in the supernatural darkness of 
              cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities 
              contemplating jazz, 
       who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and 
              saw Mohammedan angels staggering on
tenement roofs illuminated, 
       who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes 
              hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy 
              among the scholars of war..."

- The initial lines of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, 1955, found here (with audio).

“This was the time of the Rosenbergs and the [Estes] Kefauver hearings, the Hollywood blacklisting. It was horrible. The police were everywhere, and it was kind of a fascist country. This was the climate within which and against which we were working. We were trying to break all the rules. It didn’t matter: you just broke the rules. You rarely got anything substantial out of it, but by hit and miss we did.”

Deborah Remington, from Inside and Around the 6 Gallery with Co-Founder Deborah Remington (via a 2008 interview with Nancy M. Grace)


"It was a great night, a historic night in more ways than one..." wrote Jack Kerouac in 1958, for his semi-autobiographical Beat novel, "The Dharma Bums." He was referring to an actual event, a poetry reading that took place in a San Francisco art gallery - the 6 Gallery - October 7, 1955. 

In his thinly veiled account, Kerouac mentions a number of Beat luminaries on the scene that night.  Alvah Goldbook was, of course, the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who astounded the crowd with an impassioned reading of his definitive poem "Howl". "Old Rheinhold Cacoethes", on the other hand, was Kenneth Rexroth, while Kerouac's close friend friend, Gary Snyder, appears as Japhy Ryder. Earlier, he mentions a "delicate pale handsome" poet, Ike O'Shay, referring to a very young Michael McClure*. Of that night, McClure would later write: "Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America..."

Deborah Remington as an art student in the 1950s - Photo credit: unknown
Currently found: Remington's NYT (2010) obituary (click to enlarge)

Oddly enough, one figure who does not enter into Kerouac's fictional account - although, certainly worthy of a mention - was a six-foot tall, redheaded woman** - and one of the six Beats who owned the gallery - artist, Deborah Remington. (Her co-owners were artists, Wally Hedrick, Hayward King and David Simpson, and the poets, John Ryan and Jack Spicer.) Granted, Kerouac was loaded on California Burgundy - Dionysus being the god of lost histories - and focused on the Beat literati, but, it's hard to imagine that such a strikingly beautiful young woman would've fallen outside his radar. Then again, judging by her own brief account (via an interview excerpt included in this .pdf file), Remington fails to recall the presence of Kerouac and several members of his poetic posse that night. Go figure.

Born in New Jersey in the early 1930's (the actual date varies), Deborah Remington lost her father at an early age, before migrating west with her mother around 1945. She had just graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute months before the infamous "Howl" occurred. It was, according to legend, later that very same year, she would embark on her solo travels to the Far East (following in the footsteps of "Zen Lunatic" Gary Snyder), fearlessly hitchhiking across Japan and India, and taking odd jobs - up to and including that of a movie actress, and a translator - to support her adventure (her account can be found via this interview). Unlike the obligatory pilgrimage to Europe that many of her young artistic peers felt compelled to undertake (journies she would attend to later in life), Remington's intent was to submerse herself in an alien culture... specifically, the singular culture which elevated calligraphy to a fine art form, a discipline which Remington was admittedly influenced by, along with an Asian palette, which, with its predominance of black, white and red, would inform her work throughout her career.

Tanis - acrylic on canvas - 1974, Deborah Remington
(click to enlarge)

It was at some point after her return to San Francisco, however, in the early 1960s, that a sea change occurred, and Remington's technique and imagery radically - and mysteriously - changed. The painterly and expressionistic abstractions of her past suddenly morphed into the pared-down, futuristic and iconic structures she is best known for to this day (see an example of the breakthrough images - the "Soot series" found here). As to what inspired, and/or caused, this virtual quantum leap of creative display, we can't even speculate, but, suffice to say, there was no dismissing these messages from the muse. These were the real deal: visions as unswervingly precise as they were monumental, and as thoroughly enigmatic as they were genuine. Deborah Remington saw the future, and the future looked back.

Armed with her newly discovered imagery - graphic examples of "speaking in tongues" - she was propelled, once again, into an easterly direction, but, this time closer to home: New York City, where she lived, taught, and exhibited for the remainder of her corporeal life. Judging by her resume, this was a wise move, with all the bells and whistles of an intensely successful career. By all accounts, she was as successful in her social life, accruing numerous friends and entertaining many members of the New York artistic nobility, up to and including Patron Saint, Louise Nevelson - in her West Broadway, Soho loft. This, perhaps, mitigates the somewhat dire closing line of her April, 2010 NYT obituary: "No immediate family members survive." The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News (note: DR did own a studio in Pennsylvania), however, were far more gracious; citing an aunt, cousins, and close friends.

But, I knew none of this, when I first came upon Deborah Remington's work in a gallery notice on the back cover of an art magazine in the early 1970's. I can't even tell you the name of the magazine now or which gallery was represented. What I remember was what appeared to be a series of strange, blank mirrors - magical mirrors, as marvelous as alien artifacts - arranged like rows of gaping windows into another world. And, yet, even my memory of those images is skewed, because the images I remember were rendered in a psychedelic rainbow spectrum of color, when, in reality, the actual paintings were predominately composed of black, white and red. In any case - and that discrepancy might be explained by the second Remington quote which introduces this post - those empty mirrors ("Empty Mirror", coincidentally, was the title of an early book of poetry by Allen Ginsberg) had so firmly lodged themselves into my brain - despite having never seen them again, or knowing anything about Deborah Remington in the ensuing years - that, in 2012, while researching the artist, Judy Chicago, on the web, and coming upon an article about she and Remington which featured a Remington painting (Dorset - above - click image for larger size), I was dumb-struck with a jarring sense of recognition... and an epiphany: here was an image that represented a milepost in my own personal journey as an artist. It was, in fact, the place where I'd came from... in my endless search for Otherworlds.

And, yet, Remington's "mirrors" are maddening... featureless reflections as impenetrable as Egyptian false doors. It appears we're looking straight-on, but we're not. Instead, we're at all times glancing sideways, and allowed only a perpetually peripheral view. So, although we may see the overall dimensions, and the gradations of light that indicate a reflection, nothing is divulged. One gets the impression that, as if through a cloaked camera lens, it is this enigmatic future - this Otherworld - which silently looks back at us, scrutinizing its would-be intruders.

Encounters - Oil on Linen - 2007, Deborah Remington

That being said, the examples I've shown here, are not totally indicative of the body of Remington's work (see links at the end of the post), but, I think they represent the core of her genius, and represent what I refer to as Tranfigurativism (see definition on sidebar, or this post) at its best. As it was, in the last decade of her life, after a return to a more expressionistic (and chaotic) style, she had another epiphany, represented by the image "Eridan" (2001). One interpretation of this image might be, however, that it represents an evolved transfiguration of her "mirrors" (see "Encounters" above) - now shattered  - with the mysterious landscapes, once hidden behind their facades, slowly beginning to enfold.

In 1968, she said of her work: “The forms I invent become the natural elements of a landscape of an interior world, and it is towards a more intense awareness of that world and an increasingly sensitive depiction of that landscape that I work.” (quote found here) But, by "interior world" she was not referring to some strictly personal, narcissistic, introverted plane. Like Kay Sage, and a number of artists, she was capable of taking a nose-dive into her psyche and resurfacing with something transpersonal: artifacts that defy all concepts of dimension, while, at the same time, defining just how it is that the deeply Internal dovetails into the experiential Eternal.

In the last analysis, Remington's legacy is tied to the Beats, because she once ran with the Beats. But, was she just Beat? Oh no, daddio, she went way, way, further in... and way, way farther out there.

* Regarding Michael McClure (see video clip), in an interesting segue to this post, McClure became close friends with Jim Morrison. (see photo). In time he would collaborate with the late Ray Manzarek of The Doors.

** From a description by Ann Ruckert from her Remington memorial post: Tribute to a Great American Artist.


Deborah Remington Links:

Deborah Remington - official site presented by The Deborah Remington Charitable Trust for the Visual Arts. Many images of her work can be found here in chronological order, as well as one video. (recent newsletter .pdf)

David Richard Gallery's Remington page, and its 2012 Remington "Select works from 1964 to 1975" exhibition page.

This Art Business page features a 1961 Remington painting - "Mojo" art - in "The Luggage Gallery" section, that is notable for being possibly one of the last expressionistic pieces before the "Soot series" emerged.

The Annex Galleries' inventory of Remington works.

During a period from 1980's through the 1990's, DR returned to expressionism. This etching is from that period, as well as this lithograph.

A wonderful photograph of DR in her studio (1971).

San Francisco MOMA Remington tribute by Kevin Killian.

A video featuring Remington has surfaced here. (?)

More about the 6 Gallery, including a plaque that now commemorates the original location, can be found here and here. An interview with Wally Hedrick can be found here.


  1. Most intriguing....mirrors - yes, but also voids - shattered remains of light and dark that form portals to somewhere beyond the placid exterior.

    Had not seen her work before -- but it's powerful in form.

    1. Portals, yes - regular star-gates - and powerful for sure! But seeing them in a small format doesn't really do them justice. To get some idea of how forceful they really are, click on the second David Richard Gallery link (provided at the bottom of the post), and scroll down to some photos of an actual exhibit on that page.!