A Report on the Memorable Memorial Celebration of Bruce Kurland
Monday, April 7, 2014
The National Arts Club is located in an historic mansion once owned by Samuel J. Tilden, once Governor of New York State. It is on part of Gramercy Park, a full city block of gated park off of Park Avenue between 21st and 20th streets. It also is at the north end of Irving Place. A quiet respectable elegance pervaded the many rooms hung with paintings by famous American artists. There is also a gallery space for ongoing exhibitions.
"It’s too late in history to paint a still life where it’s all OK and the light is holy."
This was one of the memorable Bruce statements quoted by Victoria Munroe, who has represented Bruce since 1988.
Five of Bruce's paintings were on easels placed around the rooms. I was impressed with how dark these paintings are (They weren't well lit), but I wonder if the above quotation relates. As you can see from the attached program, Yetta spoke first about her father's idiosyncrasies, his unique qualities. Justine read a beautifully written description of her father's painterly perceptions. A most informative speaker was Jeffrey Kurland, Bruce's younger brother who spoke of growing up under Bruce on the North Shore of Long Island near Great Neck at a time when it was mostly tidal marsh, wetlands, just before the encroaching hand of civilization. He spoke of Bruce's connections with nature. That he was part of nature, in nature, clothes always mired with mud and full of burdock burrs, shoes ruined and dirty. That he fished and tied flies even from an early age, built his own models of military naval and air craft not from premade plastic parts, but from sheets of balsa wood cut with an exacto knife, hand painted. That he trapped muskrat in the swamps for the pelts to sell. That he skinned them and prepared the pelts himself, using only a single edged razor blade. That one day he heard his mother screaming, "Bruce, those are my best dress gloves." That Bruce had acquired from somewhere a falcon and brought it into the house mounted on his “best gloved” arm falconer style. That he left Farmingdale (Agricultural) College on Long Island after just two months in disgust and walked ( and hitch hiked) home to Great Neck (about forty miles?). That he subsequently (underaged with his parents' permission), enlisted in the US Coast Guard and served on a vessel named the Acushnet, which coincidentally was the name of the ship Herman Melville sailed on. That his favorite book was Moby Dick (You see?) And that his paintings reflect his childhood perception that the wilderness of Long Island was about to be destroyed by the encroaching hands of civilization (viz. also the quotation at the heading).
Lisa Jarnot (poet and close friend) related their travels through the China town markets of Oakland viewing dead squid, fish, ducks, sheep's heads, etc. She says that their life there was poor and lonely, but rich in the texture of their lives that fed their art.
Roberta Kurland (I believe) mentioned that Bruce loved the Nick Adams stories by Hemingway. She read the last paragraphs of “Big Two Hearted River.”
He washed the trout in the stream. When he held them back up in the water, they looked like live fish. Their color was not gone yet. He washed his hands and dried them on the log. Then he laid the trout on the sack spread out on the log, rolled them up in it, tied the bundle and put it in the landing net. His knife was still standing, blade stuck in the log. He cleaned it on the wood and put it in his pocket.
Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.
Eliza Rathbone, curator of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. & formerly of the National Gallery, read the John Canaday review of Bruce’s first show at the Washburn Gallery. She said that the brief paragraph-long review of Bruce’s first public paintings by the famous New York Times art critic expressing his admiration for this new painter & calling the show a “must see,” was extremely influential. Joan Washburn said that Bruce subsequently sold out all his shows, until (as she reported) he started painting dead birds. She related that she was forced to drop Bruce from the Gallery in the Seventies recession when he started painting dead birds. No one would buy them (which obviously changed.), but Bruce wouldn’t compromise.
Toni Lamberti spoke next to last, and related that Bruce said that after death, "There's just dirt."
She reported that she traveled with their three daughters to Buffalo, to see Bruce before he passed. After she returned home to Virginia, she noted that many things were disturbed and displaced in her house. She found a bird had died trapped in the house. She noted that Bruce considered birds as a symbol of the soul, and as if addressing him she shared, "Well Bruce, maybe there is something else."
The last speaker was Hannah's daughter, Bruce’s grand daughter, Vita, who recited a Richard Brautigan poem, "Your Catfish Friend," which Bruce had given her with a small pen drawing of a catfish.
After the speakers, not feeling particularly sociable, I said good bye to the family and good bye to Bruce’s formidable presence represented by his five paintings. I walked out to Gramercy Park and just sat for a while before driving home to Long Beach.
edited/revised by Ran Webber from an email Report on the Memorable Memorial Celebration of Bruce Kurland by Dr. Sidney Stiebel, Long Beach, NY