Ars Poetica at the Café de Paris.
This place was dark, cool green, and charcoal, and reddish black under it all. Small candles on each table spread a circle of syrupy light on the white tablecloth, the glare of the flame hidden by a mini lampshade. It was a kind of light that hides creases. It was an orange-brown balm to the skin washing time away, in a time of quiet restaurants, and places like this quiet place where food was expensive, where celebration was discrete. The maitre d’ was no glad-hander, no inquirer into health and happiness. Seating you at a good table was a kind of communication and recognition born of frequent association. The utensils were weighty, silver, signifying Rococo splendor. Significant in the hand. The waiting people were trained to be invisible in the archaic European layering of class. There was never an exchange of names. Fresh flowers filled niches, variety, and wild color, a counterpoint to the muted softness.
There was precision in the movement through the meal. Each thing arriving at the time just before you noticed you wanted it. The rules for the game were clear and its execution was flawless. The art of eating. It had food so good that on my first visit as a 12-year-old, I took notice as its multilayered flavors revealed themselves, slowly. There was duckling Belasco and better, duck in orange sauce, Canard a l’orange. The sauce was meaty and reduced wine with orange sweetness in the background. I was the kid who wanted to eat the thing he’d never had, so on came the escargots; garlic butter and parsley morsels that came with holders and a long skinny fork, the snails all nestled in deep juicy holes around a plate made only for snails. Sweetbreads. Crepe Suzettes, which I was, allowed more than once but always with some amount of begging for they were an extra expense cooked flaming and sweet. Crispy thin pancakes floating in butter and syrupy brandy, folded to quarters three to a plate. We would turn and watch the chef make them right in the elegant room, flames brightening up the dimness for an instant.
One side of the Café de Paris, its dark green walls, bright white trim, was a raised cooking station its back to the street and a window. People strolling by on a sultry moist-air night in Chicago could look in and see the chef making a show of flaming wine and the athletic carving of ducks and chateaubriand. Knives and copper flashing. Down the block on the other side of the street was Hefner’s Playboy mansion, a promised land of cool; jazzy pajama party cool, the magazine girls in their underwear with devil Heffner holding a shadow mirror up to Puritan hypocrisy in his eternal wet dream. His bachelor pad mansion, a city place, surrounded with stiff, upright four-story townhouses all softened by big sycamores. At night the streetlights made smokey shadows of the treetops.
We went to this restaurant for two reasons. My parents were of the church of high pleasure; we’d drive the hour and three-quarters from our small town to Chicago seven or more times a year to go the Art Institute, then to Orchestra hall for a “Great Performers” concert. I saw Arthur Rubinstein and Andres Segovia. After the concert, often a dreary torture, we’d be given the treat of a fine meal. My brother and I were being inducted into their church. Attendance was mandatory until the time came when we asked to go. The second reason we’d come to this elegant place was to give the exchange students, who lived with us every summer, a high-class meal after the flatness of small town living. My mother and father were the organizers of these groups of twelve kids spread out to families in Kankakee. Our party was a great and attractive presence in the restaurant, cosmopolitan with Indians in Saris, Iranians with dark mustaches, Frenchmen, Italians, Japanese.
One meal I remember as a place keeper dog-earing a new chapter. I came into the Café de Paris to join my family. Four of them already at the table my father and cousins, business partners and of complementary character-introvert and extravert, sipping icy whisky. The wives with pink compari and soda in tall glasses. Everyone was dressed up and most people smoked. I had taken a bus to meet my folks for dinner after my visit to the Giacometti retrospective at the Art Institute. Its 1964. I felt at home at the museum, my mother had briefly gone to its school. It was part of our family’s known world, introduced by parents who defended Jackson Pollack when the kid-mind in me rejected those swirls, unskilled and therefore unworthy. I was shown the progression of modernism from Monet to Matisse to Picasso to DeKooning as a kind of canon of progress and invention. I was pretty bored with modern stuff, and was drawn to the weird medieval northland panels and masks and statues from Asia and Africa. I could gaze at a book of Dürer for hours. I was encouraged in my interest in primitive art and masks and when on a trip to Vancouver in 1962 I purchased a Kwaquital mask—sent $5 a month to the shop keeper, an anthropologist during the school year, who took a liking to my questions, sent me the mask after I had sent him $50. We were on a car trip from Illinois to Yellowstone to the world’s fair in Seattle and back.
Walking into the cool green of the restaurant that night, I joined the table goofy with excitement. At the museum, that day, I had seen the whole vision of a man stretched open. Some latent thing in me was busted loose. I learned what retrospective meant. I had seen living proof that pure life was possible. Maybe he’d been romanticized for his collectors, but the image projected was the über-existentialist doing the only thing you could do in a meaningless world: Follow your nose. Shape reality, try to find reality. Giacometti found it first in the geography of mind and automatic actions; matchsticks tossed randomly to make the composition, letting the unconscious fill in the blanks. He’d been a card-carrying surrealist, washed with Freud and dealing with the doublespeak of mechanized war brought to a mechanized world, Giacometti made dream dollhouses with sticks and carved figures that could have been made by Inuit Shamans. He clubbed it up with Andre Breton and his surrealist curmudgeons. Breton demanded you hold the line of his manifesto. Leaving this cadre in the late thirties and making a club of one, Giacometti began to work with a model; a heresy to the Surrealists. Giacometti both painted and made up in clay, wraith-like figures that became post-holocaust, post-Hiroshima emblems of existential angst. In a dramatic letter to Pierre Matisse, his dealer in New York reproduced in facsimile in the catalog, was so full of futility, then moving to action, then moving to great statues and pictures. Small paintings, swirls of grey and white with black, heads on necks sitting in space as time passes slowly through them. Could reality be as full of alone as this; expressed in towers of people, isolated, the mystery of being unexplained but posed as a fact. “I recognized the sculpture only after I had finished it,” he said in that letter to Pierre Matisse. I stared at his sculpture of Annette, really feeling the isolation, that at first, then the feeling of the artist’s hand moving across the shape of it, thumbprints caught in the bronze, then finally the color of the dark bronze catching the light. All so composed and beautiful and sure and stunned, all at the same time.
It may have been marketing the power of a true artist, but the description of a simple dedicated daily life was well described in a book for the museum show. It was a description of the dressed-down counterculture life, we would come to emulate. We learned of his austere material life, poverty, and the daily ham sandwich and glass of wine he had for his breakfast mid-afternoon after working all night. And, we had Alexander Lieberman’s voyeur-eyed love book-The Artist in His Studio. He lived in the same simple studio in Paris for years,, and we were shown the accumulated debris of art-making in a living space. The dried paint tubes, the crusted palette, and wads of clay and sculptures in progress wrapped in damp cloths. It was clear this was an ascetic, living a life that cared for little except that delicious garden of self-creation. He knew what he wanted and it sure wasn’t what most people wanted. Especially in the money and easy-living Eisenhower and Kennedy years. Giacometti’s calling to the monastery of art in poverty and dedication was a contrast laid out for me in the sea of high living where I found my self that night in 1964.
I had walked into the light of a pole star for my life that day, a seventeen-year-old. The feeling was akin only to the feeling I’d had of falling in love. Everyone and everything was shinning with its own light. The world seemed only a place of potential. That night, I stayed with a friend in Chicago, and lay listening to the sound of city traffic and stared at a crack in the ceiling and watched it become faces dancing then reforming into a 3D line shooting through the open space of the smooth paint, an empty field. I felt like I’d been given a fine thing and wanted to live up to it. I knew I didn’t want to be working a whole life to lift a burden of demands, piled on, then retire. I wanted to be authentic, a person who worked from inner navigation. Finding truth and sniffing hypocrisy were the order of the day.
Sitting at the table that night I was giddy and twisted around by opposing forces of beauty; formal, ritual, lush beauty, sensuous, expensive, and class layered. A stage set for the new American aristocrats. Contrasting a head filled with the work of a man who had given everything to the beauty all in a quiet, esoteric, Spartan life. He created things that pointed to a righteous way, costing everything without the great distraction that the pursuit of money could so easily evaporate. Here in this costly stage set eating food fit for the royal class, every bite of the duck its crispy skin and fruity succulent meat making me drunk with satisfaction and reeling with the simultaneous gift of being offered a simple and true way of things. In my mind that night the conflict of money and art dissolved for a time for I was truly happy. The adults were not authority figures but companions on the wave of happiness I was riding. Two things, multilayered pleasure with the food and the deep knowledge that there was a shining point, a high value that the world would esteem without money, met together.
A few years later, in New York City, years that carried a deepening resentment to the decadent foolery of the spoiled rich; I met my father at a diamond merchant. A private dealer who would wholesale to friends of his family. I fussed that this was a stupid thing to do; to buy a diamond for a 25th wedding anniversary, but went along, cajoled by my father, saying that as an art student with a trained eye, maybe I’d be of some help in the choosing. He was forever a great salesman. He wanted my company and an audience for his largess. We sat in the little spare shop and onto a black velvet square bright-lighted, the diamond man poured out of a skin bag a tiny waterfall of quivering flashing light caught in stones. I give I said, caught thunderstruck by the little shimmering things. They were stars they were minimoons they were beautiful, they weren’t money, they had no class, they were beautiful. It brought to mind the night at the Café de Paris when beauty sat with beauty and the world opened a little wider.