… about Wojciech Fangor, the Polish painter, who has died at age 92. UD knew him in the 1990’s, when he lived in upstate New York.
The interviewer turned out to be more interested in my describing our collection of Fangor paintings than in my memories of him; but in preparation for the interviewer, UD made some notes about Fangor, which she offers here.
FANGOR ON THE FARM
Back in the 1970’s, Wojtek Fangor and his wife Magdalena Shummer-Fangor bought an 1887 farmhouse with 105 acres of land in upstate New York, about an hour from Albany. It was a big white rambling house with a very large porch overlooking a pond.
Wojtek, who had been living in New York City, bought the farm and moved there not long after his one man show at the Guggenheim Museum.
My father in law, the architect Jerzy Soltan, was an old friend and artistic collaborator of Fangor’s, and when some acres and a house adjacent to Fangor’s property became available, nothing could be more natural than for Soltan to buy it. So our family now had a house down the lane from Fangor.
This is an area so remote – by American standards – that only in the last ten years or so did our houses have addresses. It’s a very beautiful place, with dairy farms, lakes, and rolling hills. Wild turkeys, eagles, deer, coyote, and bears live in the hills. There are not many people up there. The Catskill mountain range can be seen in the distance.
Fangor was a very big, very masculine man with a low gruff voice – though this gruffness had nothing to do with his personality, which was extremely warm. He was always adopting stray cats, giving them ridiculous names, and treating them like royalty. He called one of them – a black cat – Stalin.
Fangor loved working with his enormous hands. The house had originally been a summer camp, and Fangor first tore down all the little cabins, and then got to work gutting and re-doing all of the rooms in the house. One of the biggest rooms became a studio for his artwork.
In the studio hung enormous paintings in progress – I remember heavily dotted images inspired by the television screen. I remember he also had gymnastic equipment in there – swings you could climb onto, and hang upside down from.
Fangor liked to sculpt the land as much he liked to design artistic canvases. He enlarged the pond in front of the farmhouse and shaped the hills around it.
One warm sunny day he took a bunch of paper towels out to the banks of the pond and twisted them into the form of an enormous rabbit. He had a wonderful sense of the absurd, a wonderful sense of humor. I remember one evening going to Wojtek and Magda’s room to say goodnight, and they were lying together on their bed laughing their heads off at some stupid American beauty contest.
Fangor’s most amazing building achievement was his observatory. This area of New York has true dark skies, with incredible views of planets and stars, and Fangor was fascinated by astronomy. So he simply built himself an observatory and got a telescope and spent many evenings gazing at the galaxies.
Magda, a superb cook, would prepare delicious meals for all of us in her kitchen overlooking their back acres, and after dinner Fangor and other guests at the table (Jerzy Soltan, my husband Karol Soltan, and visiting artists – I remember Jan Lenica, and various American artists who had houses in that area) would walk and talk together along the beautiful lanes around his property.
Fangor’s generosity was immense. I spent ten days alone at our neighboring house one year, reading and writing, and it was an excellent break from my routine. I had no car, however, and was quite isolated. I expected occasional visits from the Fangors and nothing more. But from the moment I arrived they took me into their lives. They brought me along with them on their many trips to country auctions in that area (this is where they found the fantastic old American furniture in the farmhouse), they fed me dinner every night, and they visited constantly to make sure I was okay.
From that time I got a very strong sense that Wojtek and Magda were at that point in their lives living an extremely happy, balanced, and enviable life. They loved each other deeply. Fangor owned so many acres that he was able to think of this portion of the earth as truly his, and he used his skill as an artist and a builder to make the place exactly what he wanted. Magda at this time was working on her own remarkable art, and it was delightful to watch them both, in that beautiful setting, engrossed in their craft and their visions.
Fangor knew what it was like to live in a politically unfree environment; here, he was radically free.
The main problem with life in the hills was the winter. Winters are long and harsh up there, and Fangor had to spend a lot of time chopping wood in order to have enough heat during the very cold days and nights. He shoveled the snow himself. He got too old for these tasks, and I think in general life became too difficult up there for him. He was such a strong man – he planted a long row of evergreens for us, for instance, on the road leading to our house there – but his strength was not as great as it used to be, and the rigors of country life were beginning to get to him.
After the Fangors left, we kept our neighboring house – we still love to go up there – but the feel of this beautiful corner of the world was very different. Less laughter and love.
This morning, UD asked her sister-in-law,
who is spending time at their house in
New York, how things are. In response,
she snapped a picture.
The New York Times remembers UD‘s upstate neighbor, Yasuo Minigawa. He and his wife bought the Fangor house (constant readers know that Les UDs inherited their upstate house because Mr UD‘s father, Jerzy Soltan, was a very close friend of Wojciech Fangor’s, and Fangor asked Soltan to buy some acres adjacent to Fangor’s place).
UD‘s sister-in-law starts her summer stay in
the upstate NY house she shares with Les UDs.
She sends two pictures.
Our neighbor – the guy who showed UD
how to shoot a gun – cuts the front field.
Click on the images for a bigger view.
Longtime readers know that UD has a little house in the wilds of upstate New York. (Here’s the area of the house, in all its glorious back of beyondness.) Not much you’d call an event ever happens there. On the evening of July 4, you can sit in the front field and watch silent fireworks pop over the Catskill range. On other evenings, you can watch galaxies and satellites and shooting stars in a true dark sky.
Soon, maybe, you’ll be able to see and hear drones.
The new central NY drone test area doesn’t yet reach as far south as our place; but it’s not that far, as the drone flies.
UD understands that “all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life, a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.” She is in fact very interested (as is her hero, Don DeLillo) in the fate of privacy generally in postmodern America. She’s old-fashioned enough to find it strange, thinking of herself stepping onto the side deck of her country house of a morning and looking up at a little whirlygig that might be transmitting to Fort Drum the number of chips in her chocolate chip scone.
God knows I’m a good target. There’s nobody else around – just Les UDs on the top of their hill, in their house at the end of a driveway edged by evergreens planted by our long-ago neighbor Wojciech Fangor. (“At the beginning of the ’50s, he started to work with architects such as Stanislaw Zamecznik, Oskar Hansen, Zbigniew Ichnatowicz and Jerzy Sołtan.”)
Les UDs hope to be there in August. Maybe it’ll be The Summer of the Drones.
In a few days, Les UDs leave for their summer stay at – oh, we’re intimates now; I’ll tell you the place’s name – Budy (Polish for shacks). Budy is their little house in upstate New York. Here they sit around reading and avoiding the hellishness of August in our nation’s capital.
In the middle of August, they go to the Bear Cafe in Bearsville (a pretty ride through Catskill Park) to celebrate UD‘s birthday.
I’ve already mentioned that upstate neighbors have warned Les UDs about more bears than usual this season, and here’s a story about bears in Bearville.
This guy, a mentor at SUNY Empire State (I think mentor means professor), keeps getting his house trashed by bears.
Following their first bear invasion… the Knowles family locked the windows and doors and left home for a dinner gathering.
They returned a few hours later to find a kitchen casement window had been torn open, its lock twisted into uselessness. Their home had been trashed all over again.
The family cleaned up their home and went to bed, hoping they’d have no more visits from bears.
But the next day was the worst. Knowles and his family returned home at 7 p.m. to find the house completely ransacked. The bears had trashed 7-year-old Takemi’s bedroom, rummaging through his closet, even defecating on his bed.
Two guys from the Department of Environmental Conservation showed up, with guns.
“I’m feeling terrible, about to witness an execution,” Knowles later wrote in an e-mail.
But the shots missed their mark. The bear scampered off into the woods behind Knowles’ home. Thirty minutes later, the DEC men determined that both shots were “clean misses” and the bear had not been injured. The trapped cub was released.
The experts now hope the mother bear has been spooked enough to stay away from homes in the area.
A commenter on the article writes:
I feel much safer now that we know 2 DEC officers can’t hit a standing bear.
In Garrett Park, Maryland, UD lives under heat and huge trees – a jungle setting, with the branches of a derecho treefall pressing against her windows. The treefall has brought wildlife closer as animals explore the dead limbs. Loud animal noise deepens the jungle feel.
Here in rural New York, it’s about big sky and cool air, a bowl of blue-and-white swirl above, and, around your shoulders, a morning breeze that almost makes you tremble.
The only tea in the house is green. UD puts two bags in her cup in a vague effort to make it taste more black, but basically she’s after the warmth of it.
Of course you could argue it’s wilder here than in suburban Maryland – Garrett Park doesn’t have bears, and Summit neighbors warn us to make loud noises when we take walks – but sitting on the gray deck of our house on top of a hill overlooking small green mountains sloping into farm valleys, you’d think this the more settled place. The dawn chorus is pips and clicks, not the shriek of grackles. We’ve kept the front acres of our hill down to Seven Ponds Road a wildflower field, so no trees press against our windows. A sweet smell comes off the field.
And it’s almost silent here, without the trains and planes and people and dogs of Garrett Park. Down the hill in back of me, past our pond, the Sousias have a lumber yard, and you can sometimes hear them cutting. But for miles around it’s thinly settled. We see no houses from our deck, and are ourselves invisible from the road.
You could say Garrett Park lacks hunters and guns, but, precisely because of this, herds of deer live inches from our houses, while, at least in this part of Schoharie County, the population is under control.
The only wild part of my immediate setting is our little house, empty almost all the time, and so host to hordes of critters. They make themselves scarce when we turn on lights, but they come back when we leave.
While Garrett Park’s always protecting itself from the massive development of boom town Bethesda, Summit New York is a particularly depressed part of generally depressed upstate. The tiny main street has since our last stay closed the general store, a restaurant, and a church. Four miles from town, the Summit Shock Facility, a long-shuttered juvenile detention center, is one of many pieces of local real estate the state is trying to unload.
So here is a woodpecker, which does shriek a bit coming in for a landing in the maple next to me. It taps a central limb for a few seconds and flies off.
In the evening and early morning you hear pond frogs.
There’s tree removal to be done here too – some dead cypresses (I think they’re cypresses) and a grouping of firs that blocks part of the view. Planted decades ago to give a sunning platform privacy, these got so big they dominate the foreground.
It’s late morning now, and with the sun comes the sleeping problem. The setting is so tranquil – butterflies in the grass, only a faint wind for sound – that life becomes variations on light napping. “You need amphetamines to stay here,” I said to Mr UD. “Even if I had the world’s blackest tea, I don’t think I could stay awake.” I sketch an entrepreneurial future in which we retrofit the place as a yoga lodge. Deep in the most distant part of our view – the blue tips of the Catskills – lie many spiritual retreats.
We have calming the mind down to a science at our house; but what about awakening?
Maybe ours could be the place where you calm your mind, and then you’d move on to one of the Catskill retreats for the next step.
… where readers who’ve been reading UD for awhile know she’s got a little house. No internet connection, however. This place is way, way out of the way.
I’m in a cafe at the moment. So there won’t be much blogging for the next day or two. I’ll be in Boston soon – serious blogging will resume there.
I met this guy, Antonio Tapies, in the Spanish Pyrenees, when I was, what, fifteen? My parents had arranged a summer for me in Barcelona, the Pyrenees, and Ibiza, with the family of a Catalan colleague of his. The family lived in all three places.
These people had been very close to Joan Miro, and on a wall near their Barcelona apartment’s dining room table was one of his canvases, squiggly black objects against a lot of emptiness.
Tapies came for an evening visit to their Pyrenees farm (their acres of strawberries were gathered by villagers and then put into pies for us). I remember thinking it odd or pretentious or whatever that he wore sunglasses all evening, sitting on the dark patio and talking softly. I remember being told by the family what an honor it was to meet this eminent man, but his name meant nothing to me.
And as long as I’m writing about Artists I Have Known:
An exhibition [at the National Museum in Krakow] of the works of Wojciech Fangor is bound to strike a chord with a multitude of devotees. Set to run from 12.10.2012 to 6.01 2013 in the Main Building, the concept of the show is tightly linked to the artist’s biography. 2012 sees Fangor’s 90th birthday. The first of his pieces to command attention in studies of his work was created at the easel whilst he was a pupil of Tadeusz Pruszkowski. He was fifteen years old at the time and the exhibition will thus also celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the working life of one of Poland’s most significant 20th century artists.
UD knew Fangor when he lived next door to her little upstate New York house. His house was big, with a big studio in which hung big unfinished canvases. A substantial man with a booming voice and enormous hands, he spent a lot of time, those summers (we only go there in the summer; he and his wife lived there all year), chopping wood for the winter. He loved his many cats, all of them strays. He built himself an observatory, in which we’d gather to gaze at the amazing sky. In the evenings, he and Magda curled up on their big country bed and laughed at American television shows.
… from UD‘s house in Summit, is under water.
… that UD spends her Augusts in Upstate New York, where Les UDs have a little house up on a hill in a town called Summit. Down the hill is Lutheranville, “once called Tar Hollow due to a tarring and feathering incident.”
If you followed my series on guns at Inside Higher Education, you may recall that UD shot off her first rifle just down the hill from her house, courtesy of a neighbor who likes guns.
Every year, in preparation for rural life, UD checks out regional news articles.
Here are a couple.
… she monitors the news coming out of Cobleskill, New York, the closest town to her houselet in Summit.
If you’ve been reading University Diaries for awhile, you know that almost every August Les UDs (sans La Kid, who finds their way-nowheresville place, and the coyotes who bark around it at night, boring and alarming respectively) drive north and then west to what used to be called the Leatherstocking Region (New York State has decided the name’s a dud), but which is basically an area between the Adirondacks and the Catskills, with Cooperstown the best-known part of it.
There they read, write, go to a Glimmerglass opera, go (this year) to Stageworks Hudson for Imagining Madoff, visit with friends, take long walks, scythe their way through the overgrowth on the path from their teeny houselet to their absurdly teeny other houselet on their little pond, take day trips, and, in the middle of the month, eat dinner at the Bear Cafe in Woodstock to celebrate UD‘s birthday.
The SUNY campus at Cobleskill is sleepy, and architecturally unappealing; but lookee here. It just made National Public Radio.
… It was lamb day recently at the State University of New York’s meat lab in Cobleskill, a little town near Albany. Guys in white smocks and hard hats haul carcasses out of the cooler. They slaughtered the animals the day before.
… The local food movement is driving more farmers to raise animals for meat. But between farm and table is a bottleneck — a shortage of small slaughterhouses serving small farms, especially in the Northeast.
“What we need is for that smaller operator who may have 100 acres or 150 acres — he would like to have the opportunity to take and raise a few cattle or a few hogs and be able to slaughter them and sell them locally. To do that, you have to have an infrastructure,” says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack…
Summit, New York, for UD readers not yet privy to every detail of UD‘s life, is the upstate town where Les UDs have a little summer house. The house sits high on a hill all by itself, on twenty acres, with views of dairy farms, forests, ponds, and mountains. The night sky – dark, vast, and full of Perseids (we’re there in August) – is spectacular.
After decades of summers in Summit, we have our traditions – an opera at Glimmerglass; afternoons in Cooperstown; country walks to visit personal landmarks, like the small observatory our friend and neighbor (before he moved back to Poland) Woytek Fangor built. And there’s my birthday dinner at the Bear Cafe in Woodstock…
Among the oddest places on our seasonal itinerary is Sharon Springs, a constantly shifting valley town — sometimes it’s a gay resort; sometimes it’s an artist’s colony; sometimes it’s an outdoor reading room for ultra-orthodox Jews, who sit on peeling porches all day and squint over what I take to be religious texts… Sometimes it’s on the upswing, sometimes on the down. It’s like a stage set. From summer to summer, you don’t know what Act and Scene you’re going to find.
According to this, it’s gay again. These guys, who have a mansion and a farm near Sharon Springs, and who have their own reality show, call the place “the Provincetown of Schoharie County.”
We’ll be in Summit early in August.
… know that UD spends part of the summer at her little house in the wilds of Upstate New York. As the academic year ends and August seems less distant, she begins to follow the news in the Leatherstocking Region — which is what her part of the state calls itself.
But maybe not for much longer.
The name has mystery, history and romance but tourism leaders say the name Central Leatherstocking Region doesn’t attract tourists.
After long discussions and a virtually unanimous vote at a recent meeting tourism leaders in that area agreed to now call the region ‘Central New York’.
The Central Leatherstocking was named for James Fenimore Cooper’s literary works ‘Leatherstocking Tales’. Cooper’s father founded Cooperstown and 4 of the 5 ‘Leatherstocking Tales’ were based out of the New York area.
“Of course Natty Bumppo was a prototype of the American frontiersman, wore leather britches. He was referred to as leatherstocking. He was Cooper’s hero in all five leatherstocking tales” says Paul D’Ambrosio who serves as chief curator for the Fenimore Art Museum.
Stephen Elliott who is the president of N.Y.S. Historical Association says the name Central Leatherstocking Region didn’t attract tourists to their area. “When people plan trips the practicality is that they know where it is so they know if they want to go there. While we may have lost that great romance connotation the fact of the matter is people know where [Central New York] is.” says Elliott.
A UD reader long ago pointed UD in the direction of Mark Twain’s essay about Cooper, which says everything I’ve thought about Cooper ever since Harold Kaplan, at Northwestern University many years ago, assigned Deerslayer in one of her American literature classes.
There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now… Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of “Deerslayer” is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.
I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that “Deerslayer” is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that “Deerslayer” is just simply a literary delirium tremens.
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.
(UD‘s house is in Summit, New York. She’s therefore introduced a new category with this post: SNAPSHOTS FROM SUMMIT.)