The Aesthetic of the Ruined Garden

He loved our corner of the deep country, and with his framing hands he set about creating one bounded garden after another on his big sunny acres.

After his death, they’re
still beautiful –
still bounded – barely –
in ruined abundance.


He, the prior owner of the gardener’s
acres, loved their massive true dark
skies, and he built himself an observatory
in the field across from the house.

UD’s friend, the painter Paul Laffoley, has died…

… and the New York Times (again with UD‘s help – she most recently provided the same writer, William Grimes, with information about the Polish painter Wojciech Fangor) has written a good obituary about this odd and complicated man who painted elaborate metaphysical, visionary works.

UD found him too odd for close friendship (her sister-in-law Joanna – who was also consulted by the obit writer – understood Paul with far greater depth and sympathy), but year after year, when they met at Soltan Christmas celebrations, UD would watch Paul with special interest, and with compassion. She was not interested in his impossibly convoluted and at the same time rather shallow and adolescent (he never got over the science fiction of his youth) theories of consciousness and the universe. She was interested in the man himself, his pale face and bald head and strangely serene demeanor out of place in the hectic business of gift opening in front of a fire. He stayed chilly amid that warmth, a wanderer above the mists down from altitude for a day, his pale face and labored breaths (in his later years heart failure made it hard for him to breathe) somehow conveying his inability to adapt to temperate climates.


Or not a wanderer above the mists — a Rocket Man above the mysteries, an icon, for UD, of the terrible human desire to know everything. Aliens, Paul believed, had implanted something in his brain that made him a conduit of cosmic truths, and his artwork was the materialization of those truths. There was no irony that I could see, no humor or teasing evasion or bet hedging here. Either his flatly literal messages from beyond beguiled you with their astonishing plausibility or they made you draw back somewhat from the man and the canvases, unsettled by their Bartleby-like remoteness from the human realm.

The human realm, after all, is where – far from knowing everything – we know shit, and where the vocation of the artist, usually, is to reconcile us to knowing shit by aestheticizing both our cloud of unknowing and the suffering and beauty it generates. For UD, people like Paul represent a refusal of the human condition.


Paul, Christmas in Cambridge.

pauljerzy 001

Jerzy Soltan in the background.

UD in the New York Times obit for Wojciech…


Les UDs are off to Middleburg Virginia to meet friends and have lunch…

… So blogging will be later today.

The New York Times has contacted UD for more information about Wojciech Fangor, the Polish painter who died last week at 92.

So who knows. Maybe some of her memories will appear not only on Radio Poland, but in the NYT. UD would like that.

You can listen to UD’s Radio Poland interview…


Click on the soundicon icon.

Polish Radio Interviewed UD This Morning…

… 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.



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.

“His interests, in addition to his upstate garden, included high-diving, a pursuit he took up when he was in his 40s, practicing every day and even winning a national competition when he was around 60.”

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).

A German Filmmaker Working on a Feature About…

Wojciech Fangor will interview Mr UD. Details as the project proceeds. Put fangor in my search engine for my Fangor posts.

Drones with my Scone

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.

Snapshots from Home

UD‘s neighbor in Summit, New York – just a bit further up Seven Ponds Road, in the house Wojtek Fangor used to own – is Yasuo Minagawa. He’s featured in today’s Wall Street Journal.


UD thanks her sister-in-law, Joanna, for the link.

UD’s father-in-law…

… Jerzy Soltan, shows up (painted) at 4:42 in this film about the Polish painter Wojciech Fangor. Les UDs have inherited some Fangor paintings (including a number of his famous circles). UD has great memories of summers in upstate New York at the Fangors’ farmhouse.

The excellent website features a good biography of Woytek, as well as a series of photos of his work, him, and his wife Magda.

Funny, the stuff you remember.

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.

Snapshots from Home

“Wow. Fangor really churned out the propaganda in his younger days,” said UD to Mr UD this morning over breakfast. “There’s a big exhibit in Warsaw of tons of his commie posters.” She showed Mr UD this one by their old friend, of the yearning big-eyed woman with the fraternal nations of the world around her neck.

1955 World Festival of Youth and Students,” he mused. “You know, I think I learned to read during that festival. They gave out posters with national flags on the front; and on the back, for each country, little descriptive paragraphs. I think that was the first thing I read.”

The Provincetown of Schoharie County

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.

Longtime UD Readers Know…

… that Les UDs have a little country house with big Catskill views near Cooperstown, New York.

They own this
house, its twenty
acres and its
pond, because
this man —

Wojciech Fangor,
lived up there
and asked his
friend, Jerzy
Soltan, to buy
some land
adjacent to his.

Fangor has been back in Poland for years (he said he got tired of spending most of his time chopping wood for the winter). Mr UD visited with him not long ago.

Fangor, among others, is featured in a new documentary about Polish poster art. The film’s producer is an art professor at Oregon State.

He looks a little gruff, doesn’t he? He’s enormous — very much over six feet — with a barrel chest and an insanely deep voice and the big rough hands of an outdoorsman who can build anything. But he’s sweet and affectionate and hilarious. He adopted every stray cat in Schoharie County and let them crawl all over him.

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