A Chance Encounter
I was delighted to bump into my old friend Harold in Grand Central last Tuesday, literally, as he was busy staring at the celestial ceiling. Not surprising, given his proclivity to look up at the moon. His intrepid nocturnal adventures—as chronicled by Crockett Johnson in his book Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)—were a source of early inspiration to many young minds, my own included. I had not seen him since childhood and had lost track of his career recently, but I vaguely remembered hearing he was living upstate and coming in once a week to teach as an adjunct at Pratt. We found a spot on the steps, with a view of the heavens.
Rhona Bitner (Rail): Harold, what have you been up to?
Harold: You heard my gallery closed? After 15 years and six solo shows? I was at an impasse so I packed up and stumbled back to the old orchard… We still grow heirlooms, Cortland and McIntosh, and just had a successful crop of the Black Oxfords, you know, the purple ones?
Rail: Purple apples! [At that moment I noticed he was wearing one blue and one red sock.]
Harold: They’re a hit with the city folk moving into the area. Anyway, we’ve got an old barn out back that I use as a studio. It gets great light although it does get pretty cold in winter… not that I ever had a heated studio anyway. And no more subways!
Rail: So, what are you working on now?
Harold: Well, I would have liked to keep working with the mathematical principles I used in my paintings,1 but there’s little interest in geometric abstraction right now… so I’m drawing again, using representation in a way that keeps the space expansive. But now I try to fill it differently, with the physical line as itself and also what it describes.
Rail: Sounds intriguing. But there was an innocent bravery in your old drawings… you discovered uncharted territory with only your wits and ingenuity to guide you back to your room. How are you using that now that you are grown up?
Harold: Oh, I suppose there’s still some of that sense of exploration I had when I followed the moonlight with the purple crayon. Looking back, it felt more honest and closer to the essence of why we make work… if naive. But I’m wiser now. I want to navigate that unknown space between representation and abstraction. The figurative had a concise and clear meaning in the old drawings, and then abstraction became a solution in the paintings. Remember what Klee said, that a line is a dot that went for a walk? I think my practice, at its core, really is all about that one resilient line and where it takes me.
Rail: Are you still using purple?
Harold: No, I’m done with that.
Rail: I always wondered if the early drawings were about dreams?
Harold: Yeah, so did most of the critics at the time. Have you read Etel Adnan’s writing about the logic of dreams being superior to the logic of our waking state? “In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare. It also creates: from nightmares to fantastic calculations… In dreams we swim and fly and we are not surprised.”
Rail: You’re being evasive.
Harold: [Shrugs] Why impose an interpretation? Everything you need is in the drawings.
Rail: Any shows coming up?
Harold: I seem to be more interesting now that I’m older. A few dealers have come to visit… it’s the standard non-committal response. When a conversation wanes, I walk them around the orchard.
Rail: Just like in the original book when you drew the dragon behind the apple tree? But who is the dragon now, you or them?
Harold: Ha! [He chuckles but does not elaborate.] Being out in nature shifts the mood, allows me to laugh and take it all, myself included, less seriously. I don’t want to become cynical.
Rail: Counting on you not to! Your unique explorations have left an enduring legacy.
Harold: [stands up, bows politely, and smiles] I’ll do my best. Well, I should draw up the covers and get going…
1 Crockett Johnson, the author of Harold and the Purple Crayon, made over 100 mathematical paintings inspired by geometric principles and mathematicians. 80 are in the collection of the National Museum of American Art, along with his library and papers.