Artists I Know: Jeffrey Keith (and our dinner with Robert Ryman)

When I asked Jeffrey Keith, my friend, mentor and former professor, if I could interview him for my “Artists I Know” series, he acquiesced, on the condition that I keep my boring interview questions to myself. Instead, he had a special request:

Write the story of that time we had dinner with the reknowned artist Robert Ryman and his wife, Merrill Wagner.

I moved to Brooklyn in 2002 to attend Pratt Institute for my Master of Fine Arts in Painting. In the days before social media, when MySpace was still a dream, and many people still did not have a cel phone, much less email, Brooklyn was an island. It was a time when I buckled down and focused on making art, and finding my voice as an artist. I spent a lot of time in the studio and a lot of time alone, doubting myself, and feeling like a moron.

When Jeffrey Keith came for a visit in the early Spring of 2004, just as I was finishing up my thesis, I was thrilled.

I should first explain who Jeffrey was, and is, in my life. At the University of Denver, where he has taught for decades, he was my first art professor. He taught a class called “Creativity,” which showed us how to approach artistic problems with creative solutions. Of course, this was my cup of tea, and I drank up every word.

It was in this class, and the many other classes I took from Jeffrey, that I began to understand what art was, and what kind of artist I was. He imbued even the most boring still life project with meaning. By the time my senior year rolled around, I was a full-fledged abstract painter, even if my paintings completely sucked sometimes.

Of all the artists in my life that I know, Jeffrey is the one that always saw through bullshit. If I was making a mess of my work, he would put his face in his palms and shake his head, and offer some needed insight. If what I was doing worked, he would say, “That’s nice. Now go make 20 more.”

Jeffrey made big, beautiful, elegant, earthy, colorful paintings. He called himself a “master painter,” which he was. He got what art means: Art is the manifestation of the artist. The art is the embodiment of the artist. The art must be made.

When I was about to move to New York, he told me to fully embrace the experience. He said, “You will never again get this chance to completely dedicate yourself to your work. After this, there will always be something else you need to do.” Those words came back to me in the dark moments in graduate school, when I would sit in my studio, stumped by a painting, angry, and frustrated that art did not come easy for me. I would try to remember that this was why I was here, to learn and immerse myself in this experience. It wasn’t easy, but it helped.

When Jeffrey showed up on an early Spring day in Brooklyn, emerging from the subway stop down the street from campus, he was practically glowing. He was so happy to be in New York. Talking a mile a minute, he told me all about his trouble getting on his flight from Denver after a blizzard had just hit, and the cab ride from New Jersey to Manhattan while we wandered down the street towards campus. I took him to my sad, dilapidated little studio, and we talked for a long time about my work.

We went to the Guggenheim museum together to see the Arshile Gorky exhibition. As we moved from painting to painting, we stopped at a work on paper, and Jeffrey said, “This is like the work you are doing. You are doing very important work. Keep going.”

We had dinner that night at a restaurant near Washington Square. I remember that the leaves on the trees were finally turning green, and it was a warm night for that time of year. I ordered filet mignon, and he ordered the swordfish. We talked about our lives. I felt alive; for a few short hours, I did not feel like New York and graduate school were slowly sucking me dry. For the first time, I liked New York, and saw the magic that lives there.

But I digress. I am supposed to be telling you about our dinner with Robert Ryman, which was the next night.

Jeffrey had met Robert’s wife, Merrill Wagner, at an artist residency in Wyoming some years before. But at this time in the Spring of 2004, Jeffrey was curating a show for the University of Denver, and was thinking of including Merrill’s work in it. He found out that I had been studying Robert Ryman’s work in my art criticism classes, and invited me along to their dinner. For an art student, meeting Robert Ryman was like meeting Robert DeNiro. He was consequential, a part of the art history canon. I was worried I would swoon. Or embarrass myself by saying something inane.

Robert and Merrill lived in a walkup in Manhattan. I cannot remember which part, unfortunately. Their home was a typical Manhattan home, like something out of a Woody Allen movie. Great kitchen, big windows, lots of books and art. We ate dinner; they talked, and I listened. Jeffrey, Merrill and Robert gossiped about the art world. Merrill took us down to the studio to see her new work, and show us the work she’d done at the residency in Wyoming. They asked who I was studying with at Pratt. I talked about what a great program it was, even if none of the professors were art-world famous.

I was stunned to be there and very shy. I did not know what to say to Robert Ryman. I know what I wanted to say:

“I saw your show last month, and I sat there for 30 minutes in the gallery watching the light change on your paintings. Then I got up close and I stared at the colors that are underneath the white paint on the top layer. When I am in the studio I think about your white paint, painting over all those colors. How must that feel, to lay down such bright colors, and then cover them up? Does it feel freeing? Or like you are erasing your work? And why do you use textured brushstrokes?”

Instead, I asked the man no questions. I am not sure I said five words together that evening. I just listened, and absorbed, while Jeffrey, confident and comfortable in his own skin, laughed and talked and joked.

After the dinner, Jeffrey went back to his hotel, and flew home the next day. I went back to work on my thesis, battling with my professors and dealing with daily panic attacks.

The dinner with Robert Ryman was cool, and I still cannot believe I got to meet him. But honestly, it was the visit with Jeffrey that had a greater impact on me. With his encouragement, I made it through that thesis, and returned home to Colorado stronger and more confident as an artist.

What have I most learned from Jeffrey over the years? It is simple.

Insecurity, doubt, and fear are all just distractions. Feel them, then move on.

Do you work. Make your art. Ask your questions. You have a voice, and a place in the world; use it.


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