Bette Alexander
by David Berger · April 04, 2020
Bette Alexander, Mama Violet, oil stick, ink, crayon on paper, 2018
Bette Alexander, Mama Violet, oil stick, ink, crayon on paper, 2018

Art Critics on Emergency is a real-time collective diary by AICA-USA members about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on art critics, artists, arts institutions, art education, and the arts at large. AICA-USA members are invited to submit journalistic reflections and critical observations about this moment as it unfolds.

My mom lives in New York City and is an artist. She’s going to be 88 soon and naturally we are worried about her. She lives alone in a loft building in Chelsea just off 7th avenue. When she first moved in the area was lined with stores selling wholesale electronics, and around the corner was a wholesale flower market. There were no art galleries. This was long before the area was cool. Now the streets are jammed with folks and there are tall hotels and apartments all around since the area was rezoned. She’d move if she had the energy, but she says she just doesn't have it in her for yet another pioneering move. She’s always been a pioneer. She backpacked in South America in the 1970s before it was hip and Machu Picchu was so off the radar that she was able to camp among the ruins. She spent four months in Papua New Guinea working on a master’s degree centered around ideas of creativity and she loved traveling to Ethiopia and Mali. She still has plenty of energy for artwork, though, and gets up and down the subway stairs. As an octogenarian she finds NYC convenient because the grocery and pharmacy are right downstairs. Once a week she bundles up her sketch pads and charcoal and trudges to Minerva’s drawing studio, that New York institution, to draw from live models. She navigates the subway steps with care and approaches the open subway doors as if they were Scylla and Charybdis. People get up to let her sit down. Before she didn't like it when people tried to carry her groceries or offered up their subway seat. Now she laughs and accepts. She’s taken a more relaxed view toward aging and mortality in recent years. Not that many in the ‘hood know her name, Bette Alexander, but her mop of of gray hair and gait are recognized. She’s a familiar sight on the street after three decades and the occupant in her building with the most longevity.

She paints nearly every day in her studio, which takes up half of the loft. Over the decades her style has changed. Long ago she painted abstract canvases, some mural-sized, then took a turn to thick textures with tiny figurines and primitive-like constructions. In recent years she has returned to the figure, depicting “women of a certain age,” workers of places like Walmart, and joyous dancers. She also represents Jewish themes such as the holocaust and the long-destroyed wooden synagogues of rural Poland, many painted with saturated, light-emitting reds and yellows, a sharp change from the earth colors of earlier works.

Bette Alexander, Waiting for a Minyan #1, oil paint on paper, 2005
Bette Alexander, Waiting for a Minyan #1, oil paint on paper, 2005

These days she paints on paper using fat oil sticks, making both abstract and figurative work. It’s not uncommon for someone in her drawing class to ask for a drawing, and she is generous. She’s had gallery representation and openings. She has received grants and taught. But none of that now. She’s at that age where she is happy to feel free, happy just to paint.

A short while ago she was in the bathroom and saw a couple of black hairs sticking out of the overflow drain in the sink. She reached to remove them. The two hairs slowly pulled back. Not hair. Antennae. New Yorkers are tough and used to things living around them. She stuffed some paper in the hole, pretended everything was fine, and after a couple of days removed it. Then a few days later she saw two black hairs again sticking out of the little hole, like a living mystery from nowhere. She approached and gently blew on them. They receded into the dark. Then nothing happened for a few weeks, until she went into the bathroom and saw a water bug that looked like a giant mutant cockroach in the sink. They don’t move if you approach them slowly, my mom explained. She crept forward and saw long blond antennae. Not black. Typically she lets a book drop from on high and that’s that. But this bug was in the round sink, so a book wouldn't do. She brushed at the bug with a roll of paper towels but it ended up falling to the floor. She chased the bug with a scrub brush as it scurried round. Finally she cornered it. She jabbed but the rounded brush didn't quite fit. Then the bug grabbed the brush. That was its big mistake.

Since then she’s had no incidents with water bugs or hairs sticking out of the drain. All of this happened right before the COVID-19 outbreak. The story seemed funny to her at the time, but now it does not. I can understand it. That sense of an antagonist, invisible, pervasive, present even in the bathroom, is unnerving. A little funny when it’s part of city life and you ultimately have the upper hand, even some agency chasing the thing around. It is less funny when it’s a global affliction, when you don’t have the upper hand, when the thing is really and truly invisible, and deadly, and you don't have much agency at all in the face of it.

With the shelter-in-place requirements Mom is trapped in her building. Normally that might be a joy. She loves to paint and play her shakuhachi flute. She resents the time the demands of technology and the interrupting phone calls, which take away from those activities. As things have slowed she has had more time to paint, but she has a harder time motivating herself. The weekly flute lessons for half-a-dozen students that she hosts at her loft are over. Drawing class is canceled. She goes nowhere on the subway and her outings are limited. “I miss the energy of the city,” she says. “I didn't realize how I needed that energy to keep myself motivated.”

Bette Alexander, Dancing Zydaco #2, Oil on Canvas, 2008
Bette Alexander, Dancing Zydaco #2, Oil on Canvas, 2008

She thinks the current affliction is biblical. Society has too much money, too much nastiness, and too much climate change, she says. The world needs to be healed and somehow this affliction may be part of it, she tells me over the phone. She practices vipassana meditation and is fond of quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk who helped popularize mindfulness meditation. Suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud. And, The next Buddha may take the form of a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. And the practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation. Healing people and healing the Earth, hand in hand.

Meanwhile she continues making some terrific artwork. Egon Schiele died from the flu in October of 1918, not even thirty years old. His generation bore the dread of WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic, dark assaults that reshaped society. In the midst of the current pandemic I can better understand the psychic pressures that engulfed artists of that era. My mom loves the German expressionists from that time period. She loves going to the Neue Galerie and seeing their artworks. I live in Seattle but visit the East Coast regularly, and we sometimes go to the Neue together. We both saw the Alexei Jawlensky show there, though at different times. One room was devoted to his final paintings when his septuagenarian body was riddled with arthritis and he had to grasp the brush with both hands. The drive to create and express is so strong. The museum describes the works as spiritual paintings stemming from his Russian Orthodox piety. They were small and notably tended toward abstraction—sometimes just a few strokes of rich, oily paint. They were haunting and commanding. A final kind of insight. Special.

I hope my mom isn't swept away by this virus. When I call her on the phone, and she doesn’t answer, I panic. I imagine her crumpled on the couch decimated by fever. Most likely her hands are full of paint and she’s preoccupied, or maybe she’s in the bath. I’m so relieved when I finally hear her voice. She has already had a rich and long life, and I trust her life trajectory will continue like that of Jawlensky. She has a lot of art making in her still. I don't want a couple of invisible viral hairs poking out from a dark nowhere to take that away.

Alexei Jawlensky. Meditation: My Spirit Will Live On, Oil on cardboard, 1935. Museum Wiesbaden.
Alexei Jawlensky. Meditation: My Spirit Will Live On, Oil on cardboard, 1935. Museum Wiesbaden.

David Berger is an artist and writer. Persimmon and Frog, My Life and Art, a Kibei-Nisei’s Story of Self-Discovery will be published in April (by Fumiko Kimura with David Berger, Chin Music Press).

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