featured gallery for March 2007

Camp Tales: The Art of Arnold Fern and Marc Lida

I have decided to focus on just two artists whose paintings are represented in the Visual AIDS Archive: Arnold Fern and Marc Lida. Both were close friends whose life and art had a profound impact on my life. We all met in 1972 when we were teenagers at Buck's Rock, a visual and performing arts summer camp in New Milford, Connecticut. Marc and I were bunkmates and quickly became best friends for life. Arnold was a few years older and was one of the counselors who taught painting. Not yet 20 years old, he had the courage to dress in the heat of the summer not in the camper's obligatory shorts and t-shirt, but in a kimono. Even more daringly, he insisted on applying gold nail polish to his toes and to the nails of any boy who was willing to risk aspersions to his masculinity. In this way we unconsciously learned from Fern the power of painting to transform the basest material and make it wondrous. He extended the message when he taught us how to combine egg yokes and ground pigment into egg tempera paint, a medium that had all but vanished in modern art. How strange to think of a group of teenage boys and girls in summer camp busy making small icons encrusted in gold leaf as if they were apprentices in a medieval workshop.

While we worked, Marc regaled us with the plots of old movies like All About Eve, Bringing up Baby, The Letter, Mildred Pierce, and Sunset Boulevard. He talked about Hollywood divas -- Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, and Katherine Hepburn -- as if they were personal relatives. But it was Arnold who convinced the director of Buck's Rock, who shunned conventional musicals, to allow him to produce an elaborate homage to Busby Berkeley, complete with a large chorus line made up of boys and girls singing By a Waterfall and 42nd Street. Arnold taught us how to really camp in summer camp.

Despite the kimono, Fern, with his obsession with old masters paintings and elaborate theatricals, seemed less like a Japanese gentleman, than a Western 19th century decadent. Indeed, Fern's obsession with everything Japanese -- he traveled to Japan several times and Japanese men were always a central focus of his romantic desires -- was mediated through the late-19th century aesthetic movement. His sensibility was close to James McNeill Whistler who clothed his models in Japanese costumes and famously decorated the Peacock room with his paintings surrounded by elaborate gold leaf floral and fauna motifs.

Fern's interest in the aesthetic movement undoubtedly influenced Lida's own fascination with fin-de-siècle culture. Lida began to read Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past while still a camper at Buck's Rock, and it became a life-long obsession. He reveled in the scandalous elements of Proust's plot -- Swann's social climbing, Albertine's supposed lesbian affairs, and Charlus' elicit homosexual encounters -- all of which became the subjects of Lida's Proust watercolors that he worked on for most of the rest of his life. To compare his early 1977 attempt at representing Swann's announcement of his imminent death to the uncaring Duchess de Guermantes with his 1989 version, is to follow Lida's maturation as an artist. In giving Swann the tell-tale lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma in his reworking of the illustration, he courageously represented his own disease while demonstrating how summoning the past can be the best means for confronting contemporary crises.

In so many of his Proust watercolors, the narrator, looking much like Lida himself, voyeuristically watches the events from the wings. Lida mimicked this role when he went out at night and sketched such famous 1980s night clubs as Danceteria and The Pyramid, or such gay hang outs as The Mineshaft and The Saint. For both Lida and Fern, the reinterpretation of past aesthetic forms was the means to exalting everyday experience -- a leather queen strikes the pose of a Ruben's Adonis in a Lida watercolor, or a street hustler recalls the face of Reni's St. Sebastian in one of Fern's icons.

Although they both exhibited their work widely, neither Fern nor Lida were ever able to support themselves exclusively through making art. For years, Fern designed textiles; later he became successful as a restaurateur (for a time Lida worked as a waiter at Fern's East Village restaurant, Everybody's). But Fern never stopped painting. His last pictures of enormous male heads, small flowers and birds were hailed by Peter Schjeldahl, who noted the way that for Fern, the art of the past "served to reassure him intimately of a vast continuity." Like Schjeldahl, I am particularly drawn to Fern's small flower paintings, which suggest the viewpoint of the hospital patient looking up in a haze at some delicate spray of bouquet brought by a friend or a lover.

Lida had some success creating editorial illustrations for several major newspapers, but this work never paid the bills. In his last brief years he worked as a social worker. He too had a famous champion in Maurice Sendak who wrote that Lida's Proust watercolors are a "most astonishing personal view that soars over and beyond the text," elevating the work "into high art."

It seems inconceivable to me that the art of Arnold Fern and Marc Lida are not better known. But as these two esthetes would have appreciated, such obscurity offers the lucky ones who cherish their work the honor of being initiates in a special club -- members of the cognoscenti. Indeed, I can imagine a day when two young artists meeting for the first time discover their shared sensibility by merely whispering the names Fern and Lida and smiling knowingly.