X is for MaX Hendler
from California A-Z and Return
The Butler Institute of American Art
Youngstown, Ohio. 1990
For my money, no make that half my money, this is an especially fine painting in the exhibition. Reproduction doesn’t do much for it. Hendler has painted this one the way he did the whole show of these legends which I saw in Los Angeles the other year. That is. he painted it right down to the weave. You should stick your nose into this painting and into all paintings by Hendler. The nose has no olfactory function here. Reason you put your nose in the paintings is to see them. Infallible detector of quality, the nose.
When Hendler works on a rough grade canvas you can actually see the paint climb up the nubs and slide down the other side. Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain, hill made low. The possession of them! You start to feel wild. Your nose twitches, you’re in this guy’s grip. He’s crazy! and he’s taking you with him.
There is an old Testamentary zeal to Hendler’s work of whatever sort. Here he’s lavished what must have been the ultimate pains on a completely absurdity, achieving ultimately, absolute quality. For a painting like this will melt down anything else in its neighborhood. It’s mad.
The obsession here ties Hendler to artists in the exhibition like Richard Jackson and Phil Makenna who deliberately place themselves outside the conventions of the art world. They have all in their own ways understood that being an artist requires an almost insane commitment to staying completely yourself. This involves them with obsessive behavior but it’s the only way, not so much to establish
their identity (which they are firm about already) as to protect it. So they do this by going to great lengths, by going where no one can follow, or at least where no one in his or her right mind will bother to follow. Now they are free. Let the sheep huddle in art world safety.
Our painting is not a completely free object: it must be hung on the horizontal, and not upside down, either. It has a shape that can’t be ignored. It has a couple of colors. The 3 parts, Word, Sign and Number, are in regular face. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They mean something, in fact a number of things. When I broached the matter of the show to Max he wanted to be (X) the known quantity. The fundamental problems and ambiguities that enter whenever naming begins and prediction is implied are, well, ambiguities and fundamental problems. Max wants in on this. The painting as question.
50% OFF begins to look intricate and rich. Mainly, though it is an asseveration of freedom- the artist’s. We are permitted (but not encouraged) to go and do likewise.
The legend of Max Hendler was known to me long before I eventually met him. That’s the nature of legend. It walks before. Max was said to have worked 7 years on a single small still-life before his wife finally came in and kicked over the setup. Probably 7 here is a biblical number, as in, 7 years of plenty. He is in any case a great eye-ball realist. I remember his little watercolor still-lifes of beach detritus. Perfect. Built up additively, with an infinite care. Perfect.
People were always telling me, Max Hendler is crazy. This was interesting. One year, when I visited a painter in
los Angeles without a name. He lived in an apartment building near an elevated freeway. “Max Hendler, he’s crazy, you know.” Rock and roll was coming in loud, through a wall in the next cubicle, drowning out the freeway.
Yes? I didn’t realize! Where is he, Napa? I will visit him.
“No,no he lives in a tipi on the beach.” Dead cigarettes were overflowing the ashtrays, there was a beer smell. Here in L.A.? Whereabouts? I should meet him. “No, no. Up along the Mendocino coast, someplace up there. But you don’t want to see him, he’s totally crazy.” I stared out the window. It was 11 in the morning. I couldn’t see the freeway.
Even Max Hendler’s friend say he’s crazy. I talked about Max with Ed Carrillo down at Santa Cruz where he is Chairman of the University’s art dept. We were in his studio there. “Max?” Ed was painting the beautiful Denise, longtime companion of some lucky man. “Uhhh M-a-x,” Ed was away on on the area of the knees. “Max, he’s ..uhh...crazy!”
I knew that Carrillo meant this as the highest compliment he could give. As I’ve said before, it takes one to know one.
Lance Richbourg told me the same. That’s Ed’s once upon a time brother-in-law. They married sisters long ago, who gave them children. ”Ah knaw y’all lak Max, Lance said. ”Max’s ral crazy.”
Here again, though, you have to figure in that Richbourg was wild from his salad days and kinda crazy too, now I think of it.
I talked to Lance just the other day and he told me he’d shared time with Max Hendler the past weekend, in Massachusetts and N.Y. Lance has two sons in college and so he drove over from Vermont (where he teaches) to Dartmouth to visit the one and was headed to New Haven to visit the other and look in on his niece, Juliet Carrillo, who’s at the Yale Drama School. On the way he stopped at Amherst to see Hendler, who was attending his daughter’s graduation. Then they all headed down to N.Y. for Tony Berlant’s show. Another crazy guy. They stick together.
Is Max Hendler crazy or not? Well, he plays poker every Friday night with Garabedian. That’s not really insane, but it’s unwise and can prove costly. I wouldn’t do it. Be crazy to the max, we say here.
So exactly how crazy is this Hendler? You want to know. OK. He’s crazy as a Max.
That’s an evasion? Alright, since you press me, I called him Wednesday morning early and took a reading over the phone. Max is 50%Off. Exactly.
— John FitzGibbon