Editor's note: The following essay was published on November 21, 2012 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author at this web address:
Lily Spandorff's Charmed Life (Until Now)
by Brett Busang
I have a creaky affection for mediocrities. There is a well-known play about one -- though he was a destructive character and inspires nothing so much as a sense of creepiness. Malignant mediocrities -- which are a small, but significant, minority -- can wreak havoc from time to time, but their function is to console the talented while providing a perspective without which we would all live in chaos.
Some mediocrities pass through life without attracting much notice, glad (in their heart of hearts) to escape the ridicule that is lavished upon their more outspoken compeers. The outspoken ones, however, are judged both for who they are and who they would very much like to be -- which is a double whammy. Some manage to get by in smaller, less discriminating communities who are grateful for their presence. But in the wider world, where the rough-and-tumble is conspicuously present, they go as far as they can and, in most cases, hold on for dear life. The middle of things puffs out, so it's easier to get a purchase and keep it.
Because I operate on a childish frame of reference and filter almost all of life's complexities through it, let's start with baseball. A mediocre hitter is statistically capable of a batting average that rarely exceeds .250 and may dip as far as twenty or thirty points below that. When mediocrities have "bad" years, they burnish their reputations. If a player has to be bad before he can be good, this bad phase might be a harbinger of great things to come. A mediocre player can be bad, but he gets scarcely better. Mediocre players can last a while, but they blend into a kind of mediocrity landscape that absorbs them as a shoreline absorbs water. When special distinctions are hard to come by, there isn't much to hold onto and the lot gets washed away.
A pity that good and earnest people are forgotten, but it's a mean old world out there. And it doesn't make room for nobodies.
I want to cite a mediocrity whose work has real distinction. It isn't just mediocre. It can veer from the comfortably acceptable to the insufferably dreadful. Most mediocrities operate within a small range. That .250 batting average will dip a little, but is a reliable touchstone and will come back again and again. But there are borderline mediocrities who can be spectacularly bad. And such a one -- as old Benedict might say -- is Lily Spandorff.
A little background: Lily Spandorff was born -- as the U. S. Senate bio tells us -- "around 1910", possibly from Viennese burgher stock, but possibly not. (The Senate is mum on that question.) She came to America before the world as she knew it broke apart and made a niche for herself as a fashion illustrator. In 1960, she became a staff artist for the now-defunct Washington Star, where she toiled until 1981. She achieved national recognition for the drawings she was hired, presumably by Otto Preminger, to make of the creative process surrounding the movie, Advise and Consent. Preminger apparently liked these drawings enough to insist that they be shown at the movie's premiere here in Washington.
Yet Lily Spandorff was not content to bask in the shades of commercial success. In her spare time, she roamed the streets of her adopted city with a drawing pad and an assortment of sharp utensils. That is all one needs to know about her, except that she was accounted a nice person. (The Senate bio offers us a picture of her, which doesn't reveal very much except that she was a spare-featured woman who was not intimidated by the camera.)
As I said earlier, Lily Spandorff could be both good and bad. Average out these extremes and you get mediocre. To speak fairly, she hewed to that dull middle-ground -- which might be regarded as respectable -- for the entirety of her existence. Yet I cannot regard it as such. Her bad work was -- and is - so terrible that one wonders why it has been saved at all -- let alone coveted by collectors and museums.
Yet the lady had her moments and could whip you up something that sang a sweet little tune. It wasn't an opera and it didn't have the catchy beat of a swell hit song. But it wasn't without charm and you could hum along with it for a while. Yet the lady's baseline talent was such that she would have to be labeled -- these cheerful aberrations aside -- a palsied instrument of the gods, the wandering minstrels -- or whatever muse was trying to reach her. Yet she is remembered by deluded Washingtonians as The Premier Painter of a Lost World.
I'm not going to cite specific examples of her work because so much of it is of a piece. Why single something out when one thing is just as good (or bad) as another?
But I will talk about how she did it.
She generally started out on a sheet of colored paper -- often pink -- and she'd do a little sketch, which she'd articulate with pen-strokes that made her pencil-lines visible. Then she'd add a bit of gouache, scratch around with her ink-pen over that, hit it with some final balminess, and the thing was done. The effects she created were tied to the theatre whose backdrops and scene-paintings had to make an impression from far away. The fin de siècle style -- which must have made an indelible impression upon the young artist -- was not geared to the wandering eye. All a set-painter had to do was make something big and keep it simple. An adventurous laborer might invent a signature style --- or deal in subject matter that would titillate audiences and keep their eyes glued to the stage.
Lily Spandorff attempted that very union of interesting subject and dashing treatment in her paintings, but could never quite lash one to the other. As pen and ink drawings, hers were no better or worse than the fashion adverts she cranked out during the day. She could paint relatively skinny women glued to a stole or chemise and stuck -- because fashion required it -- with that. She had a pretty little command of her quill and was confident in how she used it. Her city squares and ornately carved brackets are as decorative as you please; her fountains ejaculate streams of spectacle-water; and the occasional person accents a street-scape very nicely.
You could see such paintings on a hatbox or a theatre program. The best had a pink-tinted charm that seemed to chase rudeness out of one's life and evoke a fantasy world that made -- and still makes -- for very comfortable viewing.
Her admirers are like all admirers; they view her through the rose-colored glasses that minimize faults while leaving everything else in an appropriately roseate blur. They believe that her minor flourishes and competent curlicues have special properties. They think that just because she was attracted to a subject that she could make it come alive. Gone, to their minds, are the ghastly colored papers; the stingy-looking lines, and the acutely decorative mentality that converts solid form into cake-batter and potential pathos into purest treacle. For them, she is an Interpreter worthy of other, better-known voices outside of her own land. For them, she was the Winslow Homer of the city park; the Caravaggio of the fancy cornice; the Titian of the townhouse; and the John Singer Sargent of Second Empire trim. For them, she has captured the Long Ago and the Faraway; she is the poet of a past that cannot be recovered; and, with her ink-pens and colored papers, she provided a gateway into Lost Worlds that are as enchanted as our waking dreams.
I'm glad she sat out on busy street corners -- or haunted the occasional demolition site. Without her paintings of postwar Washington, photographs of similar places would not look so good. I'm always hoping that some basement will yield a body of work that will fill the gap. I want a painter to come along and challenge the photographers -- or at least collude with them to find a synthesis between fact and poetry; the lyrical and the low-down; one's subjective view of something versus what a mechanical lens can see. But she was the only one and, as such, we can admire her for her effort, but be glad that there are photographs to show us the physical layout of things. Lily Spandorff reminds us of how much we owe to her photographic brethren, who followed behind her with bated breath and, hopefully, a dollop of skepticism.
She most certainly could draw, but her sensibility never permitted her to create believable objects. All she could manage was a kind of fantasy rendering again, more proper to the stage than to one's eyesight. Her Washington might host a forever-musical comedy. And if one endangered property goes missing, her buck-and-wing dancers can repair to another one. The World of Lily Spandorff exists within a musical comedy framework, with spun sugar columns, pink-tinged perspectives, and good men and women who just want to save all of these beautiful places. Lily Spandorff gave us a Washington we might not only dance to, but dance inside of. And that is an accomplishment.
As to all of the graces that have been attributed to her work not to mention its time-obliterating portrayal of a vanishing city -- all I've gotta say is: Are you people kidding? At best, she gave us a superficial nod to a place that was seething with contradictions and breaking apart under the influence of competing notions of what a city ought to look like. She seems to have sided with Washington's more vulnerable creations, but she did not create a very good argument for their preservation. She cuted them up so much that they managed to live independently in her work -- as withered specimens and over-boiled fondue.
I have mentioned her redeeming qualities. Her bad ones are so legion that I hardly know where to start. In fact, I may cease talking about her. It is more interesting to consider the relationship between her work and the work that lionized, condemned, vignetted, and probed New York City -- which has had so many laureates that one voice does not suffice to evoke it. Because of its size and grandeur, New York requires a babel of voices to tell its story. But Washington's no slouch. And what did it get? Lily Spandorff. That is all. There are no other paintings of the cityscape that flourished between the big wars. And that's a bloody shame. Washington may be a hick town compared to New York, but it once had beautiful squares; to-die-for buildings; and a commanding presence -- which it has retained in the graceful perspectives one sees while driving. Yet we are startled, rather than assured, by such sightings. When will the next one go? asks our unconscious minds. Rather than deal with the question, we drive on.
Yes, all Washington, DC got was Lily Spandorff, a mediocrity's mediocrity; an earnestly hard-working sort who left a body of work like no other because there isn't anything else. Shame not so much on her, but a major American city that could not attract, or support, an interpreter comparable to Everett Longley Warner or Colin Campbell Cooper-- to name some of New York's lesser lights. Robert Henri and John Sloan never gave Washington a thought -- unless to condemn its politics. Edward Hopper may have glimpsed it out of a Pullman car or two-door sedan, but he never stopped. Raphael Soyer might have found comparable stories to tell in Washington, but he was completely absorbed by the life he knew around Union Square. Hughie Lee-Smith's surrealism is entirely dependent upon New York City while Harvey Dinnerstein's idylls could not be set anyplace else. Washington has Lily Spandorff -- who is its pride as well as its infamy.
Go ahead and like her. I can almost understand it. In a field that was never assembled, she stands out because she bothered to show up. Her inadequate talents aside, at least that's something. At least the lady saw that Washington needed an interpreter -- and tried, in her way, to provide that function. That she didn't measure up to it might not be important at all.
But it is. Our nation's capital, which is known around the world and is a mecca for museum-goers, should have inspired better work. It really should.
About the Author
Brett Busang is a respected American realist who has exhibited
at such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York; the Everson
Museum, in Syracuse, NY; the Greenville Museum of Art, in Greenville, NC.
His paintings are in numerous corporate collections (Capital One, Krispy
Kreme, Media General, Wheat First Union, among others), though most of his
work is in individual hands. An heir to such uncompromising voices as Edward
Hopper and Charles Burchfield, Mr. Busang interprets "his own backyard"
with a combination of personal lyricism and rigorous objectivity. His writing
has appeared in American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, American
Arts Quarterly, the New York Press and New York Newsday.
He writes a blog through his website at www.brettbusang.com and has begun
to contribute reviews to Examiner.com, an entertainment website with a nation-wide
following. He is also a satirist and playwright. He was born in 1954.
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