“I have lived on Ohayo Moutain in the same house for nearly 70 years,” William Pachner says on the eve of his major latest art exhibit, opening on January 7 at the Tampa Museum of Art. “I am very ancient now and I lack the American gift of brevity…”
Pachner, 96 and blind for the past 30 years, will be showing a selection of 17 works painted in his Woodstock studio during the 1960s, when he was splitting time between here and Florida, where he had been working winters as an art teacher since being asked to come south in 1951. The works are abstract on the surface, and yet narrative in the ways the artist uses his mastery of the medium to relate internal stories and experiences that are less emotional outbursts, as seen in classic Abstract Expressionist works, and more like psychological essays, or spiritual contemplations in paint.
The Museum, which has been regularly showing Pachner’s work since its opening in 1979, is calling the artist, “one of the major forces in the development of the Tampa Bay region’s art scene during the postwar period of the 20th century…For a generation of art students and afficianados, Pachner symbolized this region’s growing connection to the art world of New York, and his full embrace of abstraction pushed many to explore the many facets of abstraction that was taking hold within the art world.”
Returning to the origins of his statement about his inability to speak in sound bites, Pachner explains how he ended up in Woodstock, what the town gave he and his art over the years, and a host of other topics.
He begins by describing his arrival in New York City in March, 1939, on board the Queen Mary, where he learned about the German invasion of his home city, Prague. Having studied fashion illustration in Vienna and worked for some of Central Europe’s top magazines, he quickly took off for Esquire Magazine’s offices in Chicago upon his arrival.
“Have you heard of that great train, the 20th Century Limited, and its club car, which traveled up the river en route to the Midwest,” he asks. “Through its windows I saw the panorama of the Catskill Mountains across the great Hudson, and this one mountain — Overlook — seeming to loom over the others. I said to myself, ‘There is the place where I want to spend the rest of my life.’”
Pachner tells of his old friend, the novelist, playwright and screenwriter Manuel Komroff, who helped him find his house on Ohayo, bought from the then-director of the Whitney Museum of Art. He speaks about the years he spent creating illustrations for Esquire, where he eventually became art director, and the work he did for the advertising industry to support his family, as well as his growing interest in a more personalized form of art. He jokes about the use of the term “fine” in defining one sort of artmaking from another.
“There is a potential within us whose extent we do not know. There are infinite possibilities, resources of imagination, of creativity, that we cannot find out until we apply ourselves,” he says. “In my lifetime I had one love…An artist is born, he does not go to school and get a certificate. That’s bullshit, except if one wants to teach. My work as a painter only became clear after I gave up what is known as the applied arts. My time at Esquire, all that illustration work, made it possible for me to acquire my Woodstock home, which has been everything to me.”
Pachner talks about the difficulties any artist faces trying to make a living in Woodstock. Similarly, he notes how he never much appreciated the ideal of Woodstock as a colony of the arts, and how most who knew him in town dismissed him as “a goddamned snob.”
“I found the peace and tranquility which is essential to contemplation and conscious, intense observation,” he explains. “Much of my work involved landscapes, of a sort…Most of the artists I met talked about trends. They were shmearers. And when I started spending my winters in Florida, I could no longer be as involved in the Artists Association, or town politics.”
Among those in Woodstock that he respected, and became friends with, were the painter Philip Guston and the historian/philosophers Will and Ariel Durant. Otherwise, he stayed “away from the herd” the better to concentrate on his own work, his own ways of seeing, thinking, and dealing with the specifics of his own life, which included the extermination of his entire family back in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust.
“You are given a loan, a life, that you must eventually return,” he tells me. “You are given a piece of time, you make what you can of it. It’s within one’s power to realize oneself to the greatest extent…”
William Pachner notes how he kept painting, in black and white, for many years after the onset of his blindness. But eventually, he had to stop.
“Now, I paint in my head, and I paint in my dreams always, always,” he says. “Then I wake up in the morning and see nothing. I do not embrace this, but I do not turn from it. I still love life. It’s like death…you acknowledge some things, but don’t need to embrace them.”++
William Pachner’s one-man show at the Tampa Museum of Art, for anyone wishing to see it, will be up from January 7 to March 11. For further information, and images, visit www.tampamuseum.org.