Spring 1974 — First Mural Commission

by Alden Cole on September 18, 2014 · 1 comment

Rapture1WPRapture • watercolor on paper 18″ x 24″ • provenance unknown. In early spring of 1974 Elizabeth Lamkin and husband David Griffith, professional opera-singing friends of Harold Stover, approached me about painting a small mural in their two-room apartment on West End Avenue at 95th Street in Manhattan. To save space they had constructed a Murphy Bed in the living room that could disappear during the day behind the doors of a simple wooden box approximately 7′ high by 56″ wide by 18″ deep. At night when the doors were opened a full-sized bed could be lowered into sleeping position. The couple wanted to commission a painting to cover the stark white wall that was exposed when the bed was down, something pleasant to be surrounded by while drifting off to sleep. I set to work on some ideas, eventually submitting the design above, which wasn’t exactly what they had in mind for dreaming and drifting off to sleep to, so it was back to the drawing board, challenged to come up with something non-figurative, with suggestions for a pleasing landscape that could evoke pleasant fantasies. And this is what I came up with…

ValhallaWPValhalla • acrylic on plaster wall ca. 68″ x 56″ • painted over. Inspired by a combination of influences – Disneyland, Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria built by Ludwig II, and of course ‘mad’ Ludwig’s musical idol, Richard Wagner, and specifically Das Rheingold with its expansive musical ending signaling the creation of a Rainbow Bridge connecting earth to Valhalla, the newly constructed home of Norse gods Wotan and Fricka, with their rather rowdy and rambunctious friends; and you thought the cost of a MacMansion was high?? The finale of Wagner’s first opera in The Ring – that enormous act of genius – was the direct inspiration for a sketch, now long-gone (how i would love to see it today) that was the precursor of this painted mural – a visual tribute to the master’s musical magic – painted in three, possibly four, sessions during May that year, while the Griffiths were in town. If I remember correctly I received $300 for the painting. I was thrilled. I’d never had as large a surface to paint on before; and physically working on it, making an image appear out of nothing – a white wall – was exciting, despite whatever reservations I may have had about the actual quality of my work. I’m remembering that the tape running through my head at that time, the litany planted in my head since youth, may not have been as negative as “it’s just not good enough” but there was definitely a hefty portion of “it could have (and should have) been better.” Now that I can see this old work with new eyes I’m right pleased to recognize its youthful naive genius.

MuralCompositeWPThe mural grew over time. First stage was painting the back wall and surrounding 18″ frame for an agreed fee. The second stage – extending the mural onto the inside of the doors that enclosed the Murphy bed, an expanse of approximately 150″, well over 12′ – was technically gratis, although I did have the benefit of living there rent-free temporarily. During the month of December ’75 I apartment-sat for the Griffiths while they were out of town fulfilling seasonal singing engagements. I’m not sure where the challenge to enlarge the mural came from – whether from a friend or possibly from within, but I rose to the challenge with startling results, producing an extension of the earlier painted landscape to include a lush garden, peopled with two figures – a man and woman, left and right – which I re-painted the following summer (as seen above in the right half) when I once again apartment-sat for the Griffiths while they were out of town on tour. Given the opportunity to live with and reflect on the figures painted, I decided to ‘improve’ them. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photographs of those figures before my summer alterations transformed their mythic simplicity into rather cartoonish complexity. It was a lesson learned too late about not overworking a good thing when you’ve got it; but since I didn’t recognize my ‘good thing’ at the time, I mistakenly tried to make it better. Is that called Living and Learning?
Just before the Griffiths returned home that summer to the surprise of an altered mural, I held a small Sunday afternoon party for a group of friends to unveil my ‘magnum opus’ of which I was quite proud. A number of Weiser-connected friends had heard me talk about the ongoing project, so it seemed the perfect way to show all of them what I’d been up to that summer. When they arrived the Murphy bed was closed. After some preliminaries of food and folderol I got down to business, talking briefly about the painting, its inspiration, the circumstances surrounding its creation. Then I started the music, to set the stage and the mood, putting on the last disk of Georg Solti’s classic London recording of Das Rheingold. I found the point in the music where it builds majestically to the climax I was seeking – the striking of Donner’s hammer which creates the rainbow bridge. By that point I had slowly opened the doors and gradually, provocatively pulled down the bed, exposing the mural in all its colorful glory. Everybody – all twelve or so people that were there that afternoon – applauded, and one or two even cheered, the only time that has happened to me so spontaneously. And through that experience I developed an understanding of why people are drawn to the footlights, why they go onto the stage: once you’ve know clapping and been applauded into silence, there’s nothing quite like IT.

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David Griffith November 14, 2014 at 7:30 am

How wonderful to be in contact after all these years. We have continued to wander the world and now live in France near the sea. Fine and grateful memories of life with the mural and of the problems of what to do when we moved from the apt. The main painting on the wall could not be moved and the side panels were big and separated from the main picture so what to do. The memory is there and we treasure that and are particularly glad to be in contact after 40 years. We hope to see Harold this May, do you ever get to France?
felicitations; David & Elizabeth


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