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THE PILGRIMAGE TO THE SHRINE OF BEAUTY (My memoir as an art student in the 70s)

In my youth I went to America looking for an art teacher who could tell me the truth about Art. “What is Art?” was the simple question in my mind. I thought I could seek enlightenment in a less barbaric place than modern China.

I had met many people in the past who claimed to have that knowledge, but wretchedly none had been able to look the question in the eye and give me the answer straight up. Yes,–to answer with certainty,–like pointing to an apple and say it is an apple, or stop at an orange to say it is not. My curiosity in art was therefore a sublime thirst waiting to be quenched!

Thirty some years later, when that episode of my life was revisited, I realized that I had been asking for the moon! Well into my adulthood, I realized that it was truly a rare thing indeed for any youngster on earth–especially today,– to find an art teacher who could, in all certainty, tell him what Art is. If he does chance upon such a wise man, ninety nine point nine nine nine,….. percent of the time the dude is selling snake oils. If the guy can be real, then he must be an Alpha Seer, i.e. one who is awakened to beauty. By Alpha Seer I simply mean the Buddha himself in the specific guise of an artist! And the Alpha Seer is an extremely extraordinarily enlightened being! So when I first met Knox Martin, and he put art on my palm and said, ” Look, kid, and I can say this is art!” I was incredulous and rather skeptical and thought the guy too good to be true,”–Probably another one of those decrepit snake oils merchants, . . . ” I remember saying to myself. And it was true that they were all, well, almost all, snake oil merchants there at the Art Students League, including the Director herself, by the name of XXX, a rather stern looking lady. And if fabulous truth were to be told again,–it is definitely no more different now than at any other time, past or future!– Oh, but with the exception of Knox, of course!

With Pablo Picasso dead for several years by 1975, my hope for meeting with such an extraordinary person was dim. DeKooning was entrenched in his castle in Long Island and could not be reached. Miro? I could not even speak Spanish! The guy probably knows a few things but he had tiny eyes and those eyes could keep secrets under Sadam’s torture. and why do I mention those masters? Very simple: only an Alpha Seer holds the key to true art! I was more precocious than I originally thought of myself. I was damned young, but evidently not a fool! Any trained monkey can hold up a brush, and with the correct program, can also splash paint on a canvas, in primate strides and rythmns! I would keep a close eye on the deals that I would sign myself into,– very protectively, and seriously weigh the pros and cons. My dad, a former soldier turned- pig farmer, had to work pretty hard to send me to school abroad, so squandering away the old man’s support would be unforgivable.

Little did I expect then to chance upon a brighter star proven to outshine them all! That star was Knox Martin.

In the summer of 1975, a lazy afternoon sunbeam had directed my gaze upon a most beautiful painting on display in a showcase window upon the facade of the ASL*building in New York City (Figure 1). * ASL is short for Art Students League

Awesome Knox Martin
Awesome Knox Martin “Smiling Woman”
As if my spirit was suddenly awakened and its long lost passion recaptured, my attention frenzy-fed on it like sharks in froths of fury and in just a few moments the Armageddon got into the painting’s very bone marrow… . For many days thereafter, I could still not resist its charm nor withdraw my eyes from that revelation. I must admit this: never before had I seen a work more beautiful, more worthy of looking, and more often of such integrity coming from within the power of Cezanne, Matisse or Picasso! A perfect enchanter to the soul! Even though I could hardly be called “enlightened” at that stage, my intuitions told me I was staring into something, some one-hell-of-a painting! Then its signature told me it was by the guy who tried to “sell me snake oils” the other day.
“Snake oils my butt!!!!!” Almost screaming at my own stupidity! In a flash I got myself enrolled in his class. Anyone who could do that pot of honey, are you kidding me?– had got to know what art is!!!!!! Had I not come all the way, put the Commie killer (my Dad) in heavy debt and all, to find just such a teacher? And my eyes looked back at the Pacific, then the Atlantic,– scaled Heaven and Earth, then Earth and Heaven again,– and I asked them if they had already found one million such teachers beckoning at me solicitously, but those sullen things said no. So I had no choice but dart right back to the “snake oils” dude whom I almost insulted with my secret rude Cantonese, actually what Thunder God badly misunderstood!

Intuitively, I knew I had come to the end of my search: I had found the teacher who could give me an apple and point to it and say A-P-P-L-E, then put art on my palm, pointing to it and say A-R-T ! At Jasper Johns, then explode, ” M’FOCKING SHIT!” in nuclear fashion!
How often in one’s lifetime can a young fellow be favored with such supreme good fortune? I sought, I found and conquered! I sought for Beauty like a pilgrim, wandered to world’s rear end and saw Holy Land! Conquest bigger than any chunk gorged out by the Commie Killer.The Shrine of Beauty was standing right there all in one marvelous mystical magical afternoon! I was confident I found “Mr. Snake Oils” the same guy who could truly tell me what Art is, with certainty–and “snake oils” no more,– but St.Peter in his full glorious regalia ,–all Halo, all Bach, and sweet soft perfume to gently massage the fatigued fibers of your soul,–The snake oils- turned thunder god suddenly poured forth from his throat such impeccable, sweet music, sweeter than the Persian Songbird, and Maria Calla far less charming,– right there in the dark forest deep of Concrete Manhattan!

Oh Manhattan,– and all along I thought the sun never rose from its dragon belly! How wrong! Such terrible misunderstanding!
How in the world could all of that have come within my grasp then and there? Let truth be told: I was not exactly a blind bat then. Admittedly I was insolent, audacious, and a young chinaman redneck bull full of anger and angst and all,– but this slanting eye Asian could still go back three generations of great calligraphers in the genes. So there!

For two fabulous years hence, I studied painting the fabulous thunder god, Master Knox Martin! In time, he had become my mentor and a virtual father whom I often looked up to for spiritual guidance. Knox Martin, a great genius was he! and the greatest teacher I have ever had! His generosity in dispensing Sublime Knowledge in composition and Poetry was inexhaustible and he was so modest and passionate, a man of great humor, a man for all seasons!
Two years later, Master Martin took me aside and told me merrily, but firmly that I could return to China if I chose to because I had learned all about art. Other students within ear-shots of that joyful tiding might have wondered what was afoot with this curious duo who often seemed to have prospered from their relationship with each other as mentor and protege… . I alone, to this day, am privy to the secret that he meant what he said about my enlightenment, and in all sincerity too, since I could even touch that said bliss with my own bare hands, then as now!
That is Knox Martin at his best: kind, generous, gallant, honest, full of humor, modest, unpretentious,and sincere–singularly one of a kind!

However, Knox Martin is, above all, far above all, currently the greatest painter on our good Planet Earth! Even with all the splendor and glory of Egypt and Greek, the brilliance of this supra nova remains undiminished!

Please forgive me, Ladies and Gentlemen, if I have seemed to you somewhat flushed with enthusiasm in reporting my own good fortune because I had been blessed with such privilege to be in association with a godly giant,– yet in fact no amount of enthusiasm can fully gauge me, or aid me, with the verbal expression for that joy… You truly have to be me, or be able to borrow an Alpha Seer’s vision , if ever possible, to be fully appreciative of that happiness.

Ben Taishing Lau 2006 Spring

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