William Beckman, Self Portrait (Orange Shirt), 2003,
oil on panel, 18.5 x 16.25 inches
By Carl Belz
You likely remember a time when you were told you’d have your day in court, your chance to set the record straight, bask in the light of truth, see justice done. Well, I actually had my day in court, it must have been at least 15 years ago, down in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I appeared as an expert witness on behalf of my friend, painter William Beckman. An expert witness! Wow, just think how that one fed into my fantasies about my life as a Hollywood movie—coming to the rescue, making clear what nobody else had understood, swaying the jury toward our cause at the moment our cause had seemed lost.
We were in court because Bill had been involved in an accident back in 1978 when a tree-spraying device he was using malfunctioned and seriously injured his right hand—his painting hand—leaving him unable to grip firmly the brushes he customarily used for close, often exquisitely finished details in his figure compositions. He was working at the time on “Double Nude,” a frontal, slightly larger-than-life, three-quarter length portrait of himself and his then-wife Diana that referenced, while modernizing, Albrecht Durer’s iconic “Adam and Eve” from the first years of the 16th century. The painting was already six months in the making, which meant it was probably a couple of months from completion, but the accident extended its gestation to nearly a full year.
Which didn’t mean Bill went on the shelf until his hand healed enough for him to resume his practice, far from it. What he did instead of taking a sabbatical from the studio was to take up a new medium, which was pastel, and a new subject, which was the rural landscape around his home in upstate New York. Pastels were soft, yielding their rich color without requiring a pressure grip, and Bill was thereby able to expand his creative arsenal without missing a beat while his hand was at the same time allowed to heal. As a bonus, the subject of landscape was already familiar to him—from growing up on a working farm in Maynard, Minnesota, to the daily runs he made on the roads around his home and studio in preparation for the marathons he’d annually run in New York, Boston, and elsewhere in those days.
A lot happened between 1978 and the mid-1990s when a trial took place in a Poughkeepsie courtroom to determine how much income William Beckman had lost because of the malfunction of the aforementioned tree-sprayer, to wit:
Bill finished “Double Nude” by the close of 1978 and sent it to Allan Stone, his New York dealer, who sold it the following spring—I believe the price was $35K—to Herbert W. Plimpton, a private collector living in Boston, Massachusetts.
Herb Plimpton was a friend of mine who was in the process of forming a collection of contemporary realist-type painting that he envisioned would one day belong to a college or university museum where it would serve the institution’s educational mission. In the interim, all of the pictures he acquired, including “Double Nude,” were kept at the Rose Art Museum, where I was director, on what was known as an extended loan basis.
Bill called me in the spring of 1979 and asked if he could come to the Rose to see “Double Nude.” The picture had left his studio immediately after being completed and had quickly sold, which meant he’d had virtually no time to live with it, absorb it, and see how he felt about it. In any case, he came to the museum, we met, and a lasting friendship began.
In 1984 I mounted at the Rose Art Museum—and afterward sent to the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art—an exhibition of paintings by William Beckman and Gregory Gillespie, a mid-career survey of two artists I had come to admire deeply who were themselves close friends and, as such, constantly pushed one another to their artistic limits.
I wrote the catalog essay for the Rose exhibition. A couple of years later, I wrote an essay about Bill’s new work for an exhibition he was having at the Frumkin-Adams Gallery in New York. And following that, I wrote an essay on Bill’s paintings of couples—there were four or five at the time, spanning a decade or so—that was published in Art in America. Thus was my expertise established.
Somewhere along the way, the manufacturer of the tree-sprayer did a recall of their faulty product, thereby acknowledging their liability, and they offered Bill $100K in compensation. Which he was advised to decline by the law firm that through the years had kept a suit open on Bill’s behalf, but without ever pursuing it aggressively, which Bill himself never did either. For his part, he was above all committed to going about his job of work in the studio, which he did successfully and, for all intents and purposes, as if the accident had never happened.
And so it was that we arrived in court where Bill’s lawyer sought to employ what I’ve always referred to as the Tommy John Argument. Tommy John was a Los Angeles Dodgers power pitcher who tore up his arm, had it surgically rebuilt, and returned to the mound as a finesse pitcher. According to his lawyer, Bill Beckman was an artist who could paint every hair on his sitter’s head, had an accident that injured his painting hand, and returned to his studio painting more broadly, meaning you could no longer count the hairs on his sitter’s head. The economics of the argument, presumably, were that power pitchers make higher salaries than finesse pitchers; likewise, tightly painted realist pictures are more valuable than loosely painted realist pictures. In any case, that seemed to be the lawyer’s argument when we rehearsed it the night before the trial.
Sad to say, Bill’s lawyer never got very far with the economics argument, not with me on the stand, because every question he asked about the art market got objected to, with the objection sustained, on the grounds that my expertise was limited to art, it didn’t include the art market. Not that that mattered when the defense lawyer took over, which was even sadder. I can still see him approaching me, he’s holding several magazines…Oh, one’s the Rose catalog of Beckman and Gillespie, and there’s the Frumkin-Adams brochure, and even a copy of Art in America, and he identifies each one and asks me if I wrote the words there, and I say Yes, and he notes the dates when they were published and asks if they came after the accident, and again I say Yes, and then—and here’s the crusher—he starts reading aloud excerpts from the essays, sentences with words like “masterpiece” and “compelling” in them and phrases like “one of the best artists of our time,” and he asks if I meant them and—starting now to lose it, as my pride is expanding just to cushion my humiliation—I once more say Yes, adding for emphasis, I meant them then and I mean them now!
So you’ve been told you’ll have your day in court, but you’ve also been told you live in an unjust world, which makes for an ironic combination, right? Not for Bill Beckman, whose high ambition for art, coupled with his disciplined talent for its practice, rendered moot the question of whether an accident with a tree-spraying apparatus negatively affected the success of his enterprise. He received not a cent from the Poughkeepsie jury, but justice was his before he even set foot in the courtroom—not because he made some entitled demand for it, but because he’d morally earned it where it really counted, which was in the studio.