Leonel Góngora: The Artist, the Teacher, and the Friend

Timothy Harney, "Gongora with Mask and Dead Roses," 2004, acrylic/canvas, 30" x 30." Courtesy of the artist.

Timothy Harney, “Gongora with Mask and Dead Roses,” 2004, acrylic/canvas, 30″ x 30.” Courtesy of the artist.

One of the highlights of being an art historian is when you come across people who share a kindred spirit to the work you’re devoting time and effort into researching. Talking with these like minded individuals affirms that while the Rhino Horn group (and their humanist counterparts) remains relatively under represented, they made a substantial impact on the humanist discourse in art. Many of these artists supplemented their art sales with distinguished teaching positions. For example, Jay Milder taught at the City College of New York; Andrews taught at Queens College and created a prison arts program that became a model for the nation; Ken Bowman taught painting at the Black Hawk Mountain School of Art (summer school), in Black Hawk, Colorado; and Leonel Góngora taught at UMass Amherst. I had the good fortune of being introduced by a friend of mine to one of Góngora’s students, an artist named Timothy Harney. Harney is a distinguished painter and teacher in his own right and is currently an associate professor at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA. I recently caught up with Tim and we have been having a dialog through email correspondence. Below is Tim’s wonderful and very informative (in depth) recollection of Góngora’s mentorship and friendship.

Often in these relationships – particularly in the art world – the student can, over time, down play a teacher’s significance, perhaps still give them lip-service, but, in fact, truly forget how much they actually got from that teacher (or, just be outright dishonest about what they took from that painter). I preface my remarks in this way, because I’m keenly aware that I run that same risk in recalling Gongora’s importance to me when I was a young art student. And in reflecting a bit on my years working & knowing Leonel, it dawns on me that, really I have to make some distinction between my relationship with him when in 1974, as an undergrad at UMass, Amherst, I first met him and then later when I returned for my MFA (1983-85) and my relationship might better be characterized as one transitioning from student to being a colleague and friend.

Gongora and Timothy Harney in front of some of Gongora's recent work, likely around '83.

Gongora and Timothy Harney in front of some of Gongora’s recent work, likely around ’83.

We first connected for a few reasons, I think. While my work was nowhere yet and stuck in a kind of purgatory of linear work verging on illustration (no real painting), there was, however, figurative imagery & the political….And I did already have a serious dose of art history. So, when I first met Leonel, he recognized immediately, that we had some key heroes in common – what I often stress to students as “touchstones”  –  specifically in our case: Velazquez, Goya…Rembrandt,  Picasso, Munch & German expressionists, Bacon, Balthus among others.

(what we shared in this regard, naturally evolved and the number of references between us multiplied to where it was the major aspect of our conversation & relationship when I returned to Amherst in ’83. During the six years I had been away from Amherst, I was back north of Boston just painting, making work & showing. Of course, I continued to be preoccupied with the great lineage of painters… masters, modernists and contemporary. Ironically, in these years apart from Gongora, I became more acquainted with the work of some good painters that he had connections to. Among those painters, of primary importance to me was Peter Dean – whose imagery & heavy handling of paint fit my sensibility much more than the use of glazes which I learned from Gongora.

I would have to say that, in addition to being excited about the invention & mystery of Gongora’s work on first seeing it, I clearly was attracted to the “idea” of him: a fascination with the “other”…something exotic and international, this Colombian painter who was: passionate about painting & history, well-read and a poet, passionate about women (and no getting around it, also a lecher), truly leftist, completely distrusting of this government and any other government, for that matter….All these qualities appealed to me and despite the differences in our backgrounds, we somehow agreed on a great deal.

As a teacher, it was his seriousness about the life of a painter that came across, as I said, passionately.

But I can’t say he really imparted much in regard to formal or structural ideas…for me, those qualities, to the extent they were there, were things I got through his actual work and a kind of osmosis there as a consequence of our relationship. The classes I had with him as an undergrad were run more like an open workshop (and as someone who has now taught for over 30 years, I recognize now, what an “easy” route he took).

But I did mention “working with glazes” -the glazes on Gongora’s work of the 70’s were incredibly seductive and effective…and they weren’t all over, like a varnished table or museum piece -but instead, their application was selective & sensitive, often connected to flesh). …Gongora introducing me to that way of working was certainly very important and crucial to my first feeling some kind of real freedom in the painting process. My memory is good, has always been….and though UMass in the 70’s could obviously obscure & cloud some of what I recall (particularly with how I went through it!)….in fact, most of it is very clear to me. Still, when I think of key exchanges or moments working with Gongora, perhaps not surprisingly, the day my ability to move & get on with the paint, simply because of the way in which he articulated the process, stands out in my mind vividly. Significant enough at the time (and in light of the struggles & dis-satisfactions I had felt prior to that day)  that I recall everything about that day: the studio room I was in, where I was standing, which way I was facing, and what the movement of oil paint felt like all of a sudden with a little mix of the mediums….as well as, for the first time, a visceral empathy & recognition with a kind of painting logic (I felt like I had been let in on a very special secret). This process & mindset would sustain me for a number of years….and, as I suggested, only changed as I discovered Peter Dean…revisited my deep connections for Van Gogh, Soutine, Bacon…the weight of Tapies, Fautier, Tamayo, Hofmann, early Golub, Oliviera, Lester Johnson, Grillo, Jan Muller…and Leonel’s heavier things for that matter -and recognized an empathy that had always been  present, but not physically taken on by me in my own painting. ( I realized that the uses of glazes didn’t suit my temperament / sensibility or means of expression).

Gongora and I exchanged works (he took a painting, I got a pencil drawing of his) as I “finished” undergrad, left Amherst in ’77.  We kept up some correspondence over the next few years. And actually it was due to these occasional letters, that I found myself back in western Massachusetts (1982) -and considering the possibility of grad school (once back in the valley with Gongora’s house as a base, I started taking steps to get my MFA, do grad school and reconnect with Leonel and especially John Grillo). Leonel had invited me to come visit and “house sit” his home/studio in Pelham while he went away for the winter to Mexico (by this time I began to recognize that Leonel did very little without there being some ulterior motive…like everyone, I suppose – but Gongora really had a case of: “the world revolves around me and why are these things being done to me! Of course, there was a great amount of self-mythologizing with Leonel….and in truth, his ego & paranoia are crucial to the mystery and the fantastic in his work – its quality and magic. As he would come to call himself: “the Secret Painter”…. somehow, this still holds strength for me, despite anything else I might say in retrospect. The painting: Gongora, Mask and Dead Roses on my website that you may have noticed is in someways about these things. I was actually living with him when he had come to the conclusion that the Mexican masks in his house, were haunted & bringing him bad luck. No big deal, I guess, but when this “reading” was extended to his belief that weather was happening to him: snowstorms or rain-outs, etc. landed on the dates of his openings (once or twice maybe, but he was convinced it was directed at him!). So I house sat and did it again for him a later time when he returned to Colombia…and didn’t realize until it was almost too late, that he left me in his house with no heating oil for the winter (his house & studio were cavernous),  and every oil company in the area knowing only too well where he lived and what his hill was like in the middle of the winter. Because I was so concerned with his pipes bursting and the potential damage to his work…I stayed on the phone until one of the oil companies agreed to deliver enough oil to get me through. Truly nerve-wracking…(I had even called Vita Giorgi, Leonel’s ex in New York -which he had suggested if anything whatsoever came up – Of course, she was astounded that he would even leave her name as a reasonable contact. She responded as though I was out of my mind and needless to say, knew her former husband was! Vita’s a very interesting painter and printmaker in her own right, if you’re not familiar with her).

Well, what the hell, he used me and I used him.

The irony is that I was more interested in Rhino Horn & all those painters when I returned in in ’82-83 -when really if I had been more aware about this particular group of painters as an undergrad – in other words, the period when Gongora was actually involved with Rhino Horn, perhaps I would have asked more questions.  But it also dawns on me, in retrospect, that Leonel didn’t really relate very much concerning these other painters and “the group” during that time (maybe my relationship with him as an undergrad, just was what it was).

So, when I returned, really as an older painter to house sit and work in his studio for the winter months – I knew how to take advantage of the studio time he was giving me and I also had a better idea of the many things I wanted to talk to him about. I did a fair amount of painting in his studio during that time that he felt strongly about – two of which ended up in a show at the Museum of Fine Arts later that year, 1984…and one he wrote about & published in a collection of his poems, the poem titled: Regreso A Pelham... Staying at his house was wonderful & worthwhile even if I hadn’t done any work –  especially when he was away in Mexico I essentially treated his home like a private museum, snowed in (much like today) up on an impossibly high hill, approaching each day as an opportunity to uncover something…discovering books, objects, paintings & prints (his own, but more importantly to me, others he had collected -especially other Latin American artists who were significant to me, Gongora’s close friends: Francisco Corzas (great), Cuevas, Antonio Samudio, the Nueva Presencia …and of course Baskin, Grillo (an artist that, for me, would take a whole other letter….needless to say, Leonel’s friendship and debt to him as a painter was substantial)…an early painterly Alex Katz (the late 50’s early 60’s stuff wasn’t so stylized so quite good..and an early Lester Johnson…and on and on. And of course, I was a sucker for Gongora’s show announcements / booklets, which, like the surrealists’ ephemera constituted pieces in themselves….(much like the “Personal Interiors” piece for Rhino Horn). So, I was often digging through this materials and asking for any duplicate copies when I could.

All of this said…it was really me at that stage, that would press and inquire about some of these painters I was interested in and knew that he had known.  Of course, by this time  Barry Schwartz’s  book: The New Humanism” (1974) had been out a few years… besides Dean, Sperakis and the other Rhino Horn painters, there were literally dozens of painters who would have fit easily in the Rhino Horn group – considering their vocabulary, attack w/ paint and politics.  So, many of these painters were part of our conversations. As for the Rhino Horn painters, again, in response to me bringing up one name or another…he always expressed some brotherhood and empathy..a fondness and respect for Dean, Benny Andrews, Milder…Sperakis too.  Perhaps that sense of “other,” in addition, obviously, to their expressionism, politics and anti-formalist stance, – the fact that, in many ways the painters in Rhino Horn could all identify themselves as outsiders in one sense or another… connected them in a way that may have not been true of others in the New Humanism book or New York in general (wouldn’t Robert Beauchamp have made a great member!?).

I regret that I only recall one specific “Rhino Horn” story…and that involved Gongora helping Sperakis transport work. According to Leonel, as they carried a large painting they passed by the back bumper of a parked car and Sperakis’ painting was knocked against the car and a few layers worth of paint (and because Sperakis mixed shit in his painting for all that extra texture, coffee grounds, sand, whatever) – cracked and fell from the painting to the street. I always figured it was like knocking a layer off a Tapies…I’m sure there was a whole other history beneath! Well that was Leonel’s story…who really knows?

As I mentioned, our relationship changed during the 80’s. I still worked with Leonel, but I really came back to Amherst to finally take advantage of working with John Grillo. John, of course, is one of the truly great post war painters (he just passed away at 97 over Thanksgiving)…And as I suggested earlier, Grillo and Gongora were very close, best friends at times and each others’ ally when under attack by the department, university or students (all of which, happened at one time or another). Despite their connection and friendship, Gongora always had a little difficulty with how close John and I became…both on a personal level and in regard to painting concerns. As I would find out later, this was really a kind of cycle with Leonel…he had a habit of undoing friendships or sabotaging relationships….and people out there, in western Mass. just were use to it and knew that, over time, he usually came back and reestablished the friendship. We did manage to stay close but with a little tension underneath the surface.

When I leave some of the bullshit out (which you may have preferred!)…I really can think of a lot of good times just hanging out with Gongora  – that was part of the dilemma, however, because that was the nature of our relationship when I was a grad student: we went out to eat, we’d hang around and drink – great amounts…then go to Grillo’s studio on campus where we would find him painting & Leonel would hound him until Grillo would agree to come for a drink or somehow weasel us all over for dinner at Grillo’s (whose wife was never exactly pleased, but both she and John were incredibly generous with their home & food & drink – with anyone who happen to be coming through town or Leonel!).  So, it started to dawn on me during this period, that not only was Grillo someone who could tell me things formally and structurally that I hadn’t yet understood, but perhaps, more important to me was the recognition that one of these guys was working all the time – and it wasn’t Leonel…as I tell my students now, with Grillo it was like he had 48 hours each day to our 24! Blew my mind…still does.

Screen shot 2015-02-10 at 1.08.07 PM

Grillo goofing, putting a brush up to Gongora’s face, around ’84.

But I should point out too, that some of my all time favorite memories include being with Gongora, Grillo together….and you could sometimes get a glimpse of the depth of their friendship and respect, but best of all, there were more than a few occasions where we all may as well been 15 years old! – that goofy, that ridiculous! Both of them could be very funny…in their own way.

I did take a figure class with Gongora during grad school…and for someone who was a marvelous draughtsman, albeit, very linear in his understanding & conception of form, he somehow taught a really old- fashion, fairly academic approach to the model….we drew, essentially life size figures on hollow wooden doors – measuring & sighting relative proportions, lengths, widths, etc. with a yard stick (perhaps it had been done to him in the past…I was never quite clear where it came from in his history: Colombia, Italy or St. Louis – I hated to think that it came from his days of study with Beckmann).

I can’t say there was no value in the experience or in discovering one could do it, but,  in fact, to this day, I describe the approach to my students as wrong-headed and for the most part, its unfortunate lack of empathy.

Gongora and I continued to meet every couple of days through my final year in grad school,  Leonel, along with Grillo and an art historian I was close to served as my thesis advisory panel for my MFA.

Both Gongora and Grillo came to my wedding out here on the north shore in ’84 (I actually curated a show of paintings as part of the back drop for our wedding reception -about 50 pieces by our artist friends, some very good painters, Nell Blaine, my colleague, Thorpe Feidt who had studied with McNeil – including great large scale pieces, two each from Grillo & Gongora…– though the involvement didn’t exactly endear me to my new in-laws, – we didn’t give a shit obviously. It was likely the best painting show ever seen on the north shore.

On my wedding day, Gongora gave me a wonderful suite of prints…got embarrassingly drunk, gave me shit…and then my wife and I spent the rest of our wedding night trying to, at first, find him after he left the reception, because he had called from some location, in dire straits and was trying desperately to get back on the highway to drive home to Amherst. There was one more call, him still lost, asking for help, but failing to help us find him…we never did. We went back to Amherst later that night…checked in on him the following morning: he was fine, told about being off the road once or twice, being sick -but got home safe & sound and looked at my wife and I dumbfounded by our expressed concern ( I should point out that the phone calls from the night before sounded like a weeping child in the forest)….Ah well, that was Leonel – good painter, but difficult person to be friends with. I miss him.

Timothy Harney is a painter, teacher, and curator who lives and works in Beverly Massachusetts. This recollection was from a letter sent to me on February 9th, 2015. Published with his permission.


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