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Love Generation: Virginia Admiral Remembers Robert Duncan

By Virginia Admiral

There's a lot to delight in “The Opening of the Field”—the exhibition on the art of Jess, Robert Duncan and their circle now at American University in D.C. after a run at NYU's Grey Art Gallery. Thomas Evans's review here offers a pro's eye on the show. A painting by Jess of Pauline Kael and her daughter in a greeny everyday Eden “a mile from the bus” jumped out at this amateur. As did a gay Medieval-ish triptych by Jess, which shows a naked sinner bowing down to give head to his lover. The splashiest wall in the Grey Gallery, though, was one where a wild piece of kiddie/id-y wallpaper crayoned by Duncan was placed next to two ravishing interiors with Matisse-like colors by painter Virginia Admiral. Ms. Admiral is known now for being actor Robert DeNiro’s mother. But as an artist, Ms. Admiral lived up to her name: she was a commander. Her son has recently produced a documentary about his father—painter Robert DeNiro Sr. But his mother’s work seems more than worthy of rediscovery too. There’s material on her life available already, though images of her paintings are hard to find. (Warning: the colors in the virtual version of her "The Red Table" on our homepage now seem washed out next to the real thing.) First contributor Aram Saroyan has written a fond remembrance of Ms. Admiral that focuses on her days as publisher/nurturer of the New American Poetry which will soon be published in Convolutions magazine. And curator Christopher Wagstaff steered First to Ms. Admiral’s own remembrance of her glorious student days with Duncan whom she met in Berkeley in 1938. Back then, Admiral, Duncan and their buddies were practicing a politics of culture that had more in common with Beats and Hippies and the New Left of the Sixties “than the Old Left of the Thirties." Admiral remembers how her friends were disdained by campus Stalinists and elder Trots who regarded them as too dirty, arty and gay. Admiral is not a showy writer, but you can feel the shape of fun to come in this account of her crew’s artful good times (which was originally published in Wagstaff’s 1992 catalogue, Robert Duncan: Drawings and Decorated Books). B.D.

I met Robert sometime in February 1938. I had noticed Robert, Mary and Lili Fabilli, and Cecily Kramer earlier having a wonderful time dancing into and out of the small record concerts on the Berkeley campus, laughing hysterically, Lili with sandals and a flower in her hair (she was the original Flower Child). So when I saw my landlady turn Lili away from my rooming house on Bancroft Way I invited her to share my room. Soon after, she took that room and I moved back to the top floor, a sort of garret with huge dormer windows, which Mary shared with me.

My first memory of Robert—who was called "Symmes" most of the time—is of him sitting on one of the beds up there reading a long poem, probably his "Ritual." Robert wore horn-rimmed glasses, and one eye turned out a little which gave him an earnest, almost owlish look when he was reading his poetry. He had an apartment on the other side of the campus, but we never went there. From time to time, he would mention affairs he was having, but they were episodic except for an instructor named Ned, and, in fact, he spent all of his time with us.

The atmosphere of the campus was heavily political. The Spanish Civil War had just ended, and World War II was about to begin. My friends were Trotskyites. The Berkeley Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) amounted to seven to ten persons that year and was a voice crying in the wilderness, for the campus was almost entirely Stalinist. The Young Communist League (YCL) had been instructed not to speak to the YPSL. The YCL was to eschew all political deviation including homosexuality, and YCL women were to wear high heels and silk stockings.

The YPSL mimeograph machine was in the middle of our garret room. There were always a few people around, and Robert had a built-in audience. He was writing a great deal and read it all to us immediately. Sometimes we would go over a poem line by line, and I would ask him to explain every word. That spring Robert was reading Gertrude Stein (often aloud), St.-John Perse, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, and, I think, some Freud. I remember that then, or a little later, he was talking about Melanie Klein and the fact that so few children committed suicide. He mentioned shamans quite a lot but said little of his parents' involvement with the occult.

I think we were all English majors, but I don't remember kind words said about any instructors or professors except Ray Boynton in the Art Department. He had put some of Mary Fabrilli's drawings up in the hall of the Department, initially telling his colleagues that they were Matisse's. I remember his describing one way of drawing as looking awayt from the paper and drawing an arabesque. This was a revelation; the next was Robert's describing and advocating the automoatic drawing (and writing) of the Surrealists.

Robert and Mary were dissatisfied with the campus literary magazine, the Occident, so we decided to put out our own, having the mimeograph machine right there. Robert and I were both good typists and we did all the work. He wanted to call it Ritual; I wanted to call it Epitaph. I won. There were no other disagreements. We had no trouble getting it out, also doing whatever political leaflets were necessary. Robert and I took a few magazines with us on campus to sell, but I don't recall that we gave any to stores to carry.

The university was much smaller then. There was no housing shortage and we had few possessions so we moved like gypsies. In that year and and a half, from February 1938 to November 1939, I lived in, I think ten different places. I can't sort out all the sequences. And Robert visited Ned twice at Annapolis. Sometime that summer Mary and I both got on the Federal Art Project in Oakland, and with Lili we sublet Ida Bear's garden cottage below the campus at 2012 Durant Avenue. This began an idyllic period. Robert and Lili loved to cook. We listened to Robert's records: Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bach cantatas, Edith Sitwell, T.S. Eliot. In the evening Mary and I would be doing watercolors or drawing, and Lili had developed a way making crayon designs on cloth, then fixing them with a hot iron. Robert would be typing, listening to music, talking, none of it interfering with the poem he was working on. And Robert was very companionable, fantastically witty and, as someone once said about someone else, a Constant Entertainment. I don't remember any frenetic political activity during this period. It was a like a surcease, a very happy time. When my mother, a teacher of English and Latin, came to visit she was struck by our enthusiasm for one another. "What you have here," she said, "is a mutual admiration society." As if there were something wrong with that. But as time went on she became absolutely enchanted by Robert and Lili.

Sometime that next school year we met Pauline Kael and Ham Tyler. At one point, Robert, Lili and I took a garden cottage east of Telegraph Avenue. It was a real house with a large kitchen and four fireplaces, a yard and a basement. Robert was the only one with any furniture, so he moved in his couch, phonograph, and records and books. We had benches and a long table built for dining and working. The War was much closer now, and we were having meetings, going to demonstrations, handing out leaflets, selling literature. Although we were ready to overthrow the government, we wouldn't have dreamed of crossing the line at Sather Gate, of carrying a demonstration onto the campus.

Robert and Lili were doing the cooking again, but so many people were eating with us that we started charging everybody a quarter. My mother stopped eating with us because Robert used too much curry in everything, and my sister, who was visiting, disapproved of the whole scene. Robert's mother, too, came briefly at another point and asked me why Robert had to write about chancres when he could be writing about roses. I think she was referring to a poem that had received a very cool reception when he earlier applied for admission to Black Mountain College. I think he was reading Gide's journal at the time

The Trotskyites had become the Socialist Workers Party. The adults in Oakland called a meeting with the youth group at which time it was said that the Berkely YPSLs were "poets and dilettantes, not fit to form underground cadres." There had been a lot of joking about "philosophical anarchism," but the fact is that the Berkeley group was more like the New Left of the Sixties than the Old Left of the Thirties. There was also a great kindred feeling, even content, between Ginsberg's "Howl" and the wild satiric performances Robert and visiting YPSLs like Myra Tanner would improvise after dinners that summer at 1931 Hearst.

In November 1939 I left Berkeley hoping to become a waitress in Greenwich Village and go to the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts. This plan worried my mother who made me promise to live at International House, go to Teacher's College, Columbia, and get a master's degree in art education. For this she borrowed the money from my grandfather. When the first semester was over I visited Robert in Woodstock where he was working on an old Franklin hand press with J. P. Cooney, putting out Phoenix and Experimental Review. My grandfather's money was long gone, and I had no cigarettes. Robert was quite self-righteous about buying me cigarettes which he thought were not a necessity. He more or less gave in, but it was one of our first serious misunderstandings. Then I went to Maine for six weeks to teach in a summer camp.

When I came back I found a studio at 30 East 14th St. with huge front windows overlooking Union Square. It had been Kuniyoshi's, and the one below Kenneth Hayes Miller's, but it cost $30 a month which meant I had to get two friends to share it. Robert was basically living in Woodstock, crashing wherever he could when he came to New York. I persuaded Marjorie McKee and another friend to share the place. They were not too enthusiastic since it had no bathroom.

Meantime I had decided to forget the master's degree, and Hoffman had given me a monitorship. Robert bought a membership in The Museum of Modern Art, and we spent a lot of time in the library there. We saw "Harvest," "The Baker's Wife," "The Informer," and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" at least six times each. And we listened to records a lot in booths of the record stores and went to parties and openings. On Saturday afternoons everyone went to galleries on 57th St. The Pierre Matisse Gallery was usually our first stop. Along with Matisse and Miro, he showed a lot of Matta and the European Surrealists. European artists were beginning to arrive fleeing the Nazis, and soon there was a proliferation of galleries.

As far as I know, Robert's contacts with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown and New York in 1941 and 1942 amounted to being at times in the same room. I don't think there any conversations between them. Hofmann's crayons those summers were, as I recall, brilliant in color and explosive in feeling, many radiating out from a center. Robert's crayon techniques had been developed with Lili in Berkeley. These designs were often down on wood furniture, like waxing raw wood. They developed contiguously, each area growing out of the one next to it. He worked at these assiduously and deliberately, but they were totally unplanned. In color, he was probably influenced by Matisse and Bonnard, and as M. McKee said, "he used every color in the box. " To me, it was interesting that the way Robert did visual art, at least at that time, was without hesitation, self-doubt, theorizing, speculating, or calling it art. He seemed to believe that it was the thing to do and that he had every right to do it. "Delight" describes his attitude, and he was not critical of the result. Unlike poetry, he never revised or edited.

From June, 2014

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