When the Long Suffering Husband and I were in graduate school, we went to dinner at the home of a couple who were more affluent and more culturally sophisticated than we. I remember being amazed to learn that they actually bought wine by the case. Over their mantelpiece was a large oil painting of rowboats tied up to a dock. When I admired it, they said that they had bought it for $400 at a time when they had very little money. It was a struggle to pay for the painting. But they never regretted it.
This was a valuable lesson. I have never regretted buying a piece of original art. Even pieces that didn’t speak to me at first have found their voices over the years. Art is difficult to appraise. Most works by famous contemporary artists leave me cold (Jeff Koons is my favorite example). The astronomical prices they realize have to do with passing fashion and perceived status. If everyone wants something, the price is driven up. But all of us can afford art that is just as precious as a Van Gogh. What is it worth, to lay eyes every day on an object that brings you pleasure?
Robert E. Wood passed away in February, three years ago. He was a local legend, a man with a vivid personality whom most people found difficult to interact with. Some said he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. Others said schizophrenia, or perhaps obsessive compulsive disorder. He habitually paced the streets, picking up trash from the side of the road, and treating passing motorists to a raised third finger. This trademark gesture earned him the name “F.U. Bob” around town.
But when you met him in person, he was gentle, articulate and intelligent. He liked a good vigorous discussion and could become argumentative, but he was never rude. A few times, he told me he wanted to “sit in” on one of my courses. To this day, I don’t know whether I’m more relieved or disappointed that he never did.
Robert created art in many styles, but what interested me most were his watercolors on mythological subjects. He was fascinated by mythology, and he liked to paint goddesses. We own two of his Minoan goddess paintings. Robert didn’t work with galleries much. He used to sell his paintings at art fairs. When he saw us coming, his eyes would light up. Ka-ching! He knew we were suckers.
Buying a painting from Robert was an arduous process. He priced his work according to a complex calculus, which took into account the size of the painting, whether it was executed on expensive Arches paper, how much he liked it himself, and how much he thought you would pay (this part went unspoken but was obvious enough). We gave him anywhere from $50 to $400 per painting, which seems very little now. Sometimes he had trouble deciding whether he could part with a painting. I don’t think that was a sales technique. I think it was real.
This goddess hangs in my office. She may be my favorite Wood painting. He gave her away to an artist friend of his. Perhaps he thought she wouldn’t sell at a fair, because of the blotted face. And she was not painted on the all-important Arches paper! When the friend found out I loved his work, she generously presented me with the goddess. I look at her every day.
My other favorite is a tiny watercolor that changed hands for $50, one sunny day in the park. I remember how exciting it was to buy one of his paintings. As soon as we concluded the arrangements, I would feel a thrill of relief and of anticipation. This one is a reclining woman, another of his “Classical” subjects. It hangs over my dresser.
We own quite a few paintings now by many different artists, but I never get tired of looking at Robert’s works. I can’t explain why I like them so much. Usually I prefer beautifully drafted, precise drawings, things with detail and precision, but Robert’s style is messy, loose, open, intuitive. Maybe it’s the energy in his paintings, or maybe when I see them, I think of that strange, Beautiful Man and his devotion to a life of profound ideas and vivid images.
That’s why I buy art.