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Heather Bellow
Jonathan Baumbach in the Baumbach Gallery, a guest house dedicated to the paintings of his father, Harold Baumbach.

The Baumbachs: Three generations of creative life

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By Wednesday, Sep 16, 2015 Arts & Entertainment

Housatonic — Jonathan Baumbach was giving directions to his house.

“It’s a long driveway,” he said. He didn’t want me to be confused, especially since the mailbox on the main road says “Grant,” his wife Annette’s last name.

The mention of a long driveway rekindled an old reflex stimulated by the thought, Serious Writers At The End Of Long Driveways. It happens somewhere in the stomach region, where anxiety and adrenaline begin to burn a hole that somehow renders me dingbattish.

Jonathan Baumbach, at his home on North Plain Road, with Beaux. Photo: Heather Bellow

Jonathan Baumbach, at his home on North Plain Road, with Beau. Photo: Heather Bellow

I ramble down the back roads slowly, nearly in panic to find a way to write about a family of gifted artists, one generation after another, without penning a fawning ode to success, fame, celebrity. It hits me somewhere near that farm on the Williams River, the one with the scarecrows: I want to know more about the art/fame axis, and what it means to a man whose father, a painter, repelled fame, and whose son, a filmmaker, has it, try or not.

Baumbach, 82, is the man in the middle who says he never quite got there himself, his fame quotient perhaps neutralized by his father’s resistance and his son’s embrace of it. His son Noah Baumbach, the filmmaker, is the only one of the three with a Wikipedia page.

“I haven’t tried to avoid it, but it hasn’t come to my door,” Baumbach said.

Maybe it’s relative. The New York Times reviewed three or four books, but Paris Review didn’t come calling. “That would have been nice,” he told me.

The Brooklyn born father of four is author of 16 books, and known for his “experimental” or “surrealist” fiction. In Babble, for instance, the narrator is a baby. “The only infant hero in American literature,” as Esquire put it.

Another work of fiction is on the way, the result of a manuscript written “some years back,” rescued during the move out of Brooklyn five years ago. This one might stir things up in the fame department: Ho Hum is a “riff on Lolita,” narrated by Lolita instead of Humbert Humbert. There have been a few cheap attempts to take this kind of stab at Nabokov’s novel, but this one, Baumbach says, is “serious.”

The Pavillion of Former Wives, a book of short stories, is coming out soon. The Edge published two stories from the book, and will run a few more.

Baumbach also taught writing and literature at colleges over the years, and had tenure at one. He ran the MFA program at Brooklyn College where he had a number of students who are now successful writers. Writers never really retire; he’s contacted Bard College at Simon’s Rock about teaching a writing seminar for serious writing students only — those with manuscripts ready to be honed.

Harold Baumbach painting from his 'van Gogh' period.

Harold Baumbach painting from his ‘van Gogh’ period.

The driveway wasn’t as long as I had imagined. I manage to hold it together; it appears the reflex has mostly vanished with age. Mr. Baumbach had driven down from the house and was getting out of his Prius when I arrived at the gallery he and Annette, the former New York Times arts editor and his fourth wife, built near the end of the driveway to warehouse and display his father’s paintings. They’ve been coming to the Berkshires for twenty years, and settled here full-time after selling their Brooklyn home.

I had never heard of the painter Harold Baumbach until the Baumbach Gallery, which doubles as a guesthouse, opened last May. Born in 1903, and a close friend of Mark Rothko, Adolf Gottlieb and Milton Avery, Harold Baumbach stayed his own tight course, never veering into Abstract Impressionism like many of his contemporaries.

Edge artist and art writer Robert Ayers called him “the greatest artist you have never heard of.”

Harold Baumbach was only about the art. He kept up representational painting when the trend moved to abstraction. He was a man “who managed to avoid fame,” his son says; a man who moved every year for the first six years of Jonathan’s life “looking for a new place to paint,” who thought academic tenure — like his son’s — was a “corrupting” sell out, and who kicked potential collectors out of his studio if their remarks were “stupid.”

“He was a difficult man,” Baumbach says.

I tell Baumbach this description of his father makes me think of the artist in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters — the one who throws a fit when a nouveau riche pop star wants to coordinate the paintings with décor. Baumbach smiled — he knew exactly the character. Baumbach used to review films for Partisan Review, and has a book of film criticism coming out called Shots in the Dark.

Film is where the Baumbach name got its flashing lights, perhaps something he didn’t know would result, in part, from all the movies he showed a young Noah Baumbach.

Noah Baumbach, on set of 'Frances Ha.' Photo: Interview Magazine

Noah Baumbach, on set of ‘Frances Ha.’ Photo: Interview Magazine

“Noah saw The Wild Child when he was three,” Baumbach said. That is the Francois Truffaut’s classic about a pre-adolescent boy who had never had human contact. Then there is the matter of Blue Velvet, shown to a teenage Noah. “Probably inappropriate,” he admits.

Noah Baumbach is responsible for a handful of acclaimed films, most notably The Squid and the Whale, which digs deep into the preoccupations and narcissism of artist-intellectuals, and the children’s suffering when the divorce plays out. His father has a cameo in that film, and it is no secret: the father in the movie is modeled after the man sitting opposite me. I steer clear of this territory, as it has been thoroughly dissected elsewhere. Plus, I am feeling weak, and I hadn’t seen the film since it came out 10 years ago. His latest film, Mistress America is now in theatres, and his father thinks it’s “one of his best, if not his best.”

Harold Baumbach’s cranky purist rigor may have created a program that sent some messages down the DNA chain. Baumbach’s oldest son, David, is a photographer whose work his father describes as “painterly.” His youngest, Nico, is a film theorist who teaches at Columbia University. Both Noah and Nico have partnered up with accomplished artists, as well. His daughter Nina is a New York state social worker who likes to make comic videos in her spare time.

Jonathan Baumbach, with shelves of his books. Photo: Heather Bellow

Jonathan Baumbach, with shelves of his books. Photo: Heather Bellow

All four of Baumbach’s children have their grandfather’s work on their walls.

Baumbach gets up from the Victorian settee that came from the Brooklyn house. We head for the basement to get some of his books after I was forced to admit that–and I said I was very ashamed of this–I hadn’t had a chance to read one before the interview. He took this lightly, and reached into a box for a few copies of his fiction. I hold his books — the art he believed in — and I look at the long bookshelf, packed with the works of the exalted, wondering why he didn’t reach the pinnacle he says he fell just short of.

“I lived a reclusive life,” he said. “And my work grew more and more experimental.” He says this swimming out of the mainstream into “metafictional” writing caused, for instance, the Times to largely ignore him.

Art is tangled up with fame in thorny ways. I think of what Sting once said about how complicated the fame equation is, how much of it is about timing. In a short essay about his father’s work, Baumbach says his father “has been determinedly out of phase from beginning to end, never quite belonging to the period which chronology assigned him.”

Stacks of Harold Baumbach's paintings in the basement of the gallery. Photo: Robert Ayers

Stacks of Harold Baumbach’s paintings in the basement of the gallery. Photo: Robert Ayers

I stand at the bottom of the basement stairs, looking at Harold Baumbach’s canvases, stacked against each other. I think of the time and mysterious process that went into each one. Most were never  properly dated and organized, perhaps part of this self-taught artist’s just-do-the-art paradigm. Some may soon come out of hiding. Lauren Clark, of Lauren Clark Fine Art on Railroad Street, has been out to the Gallery to discuss a show this coming year.

Harold Baumbach’s own father was a Lower East Side upholsterer with “an evil temper.” Jonathan’s mother, Ida, was a schoolteacher who made “most of the money” and lived through her husband in the “wives of painters” tradition, Baumbach says. Harold Baumbach’s disdain of tenure resulted in one-year appointments at various schools like the University of Iowa, where tenure was offered, but refused.

He was “allergic to fashion, even to success,” said his 2002 New York Times obituary. He died at 98.

Harold Baumbach’s father did not want him to be an artist. But he in turn was proud of Jonathan for writing. Jonathan started young, by writing plays. He also painted in his father’s studio alongside him, in the 12 to 15 years before his younger brothers were born. At some point he stopped.

“My father would not have had competition,” he says.

He was also a father figure to those brothers, whom his mother “suckered” him into taking care of. By the time the younger two came along, Harold Baumbach “felt less like fathering.” Despite a mother’s manipulations, the three brothers are close, even with an open wound or two.

“My middle brother is a therapist — he hates my father, will have nothing to do with him, won’t even take a painting. He was my father’s favorite son.”

Jonathan Baumbach's mother, Ida, at age 21. Drawing by Harold Baumbach.

Jonathan Baumbach’s mother, Ida, at age 21. Drawing by Harold Baumbach.

Baumbach drives me up to his circa 1850s house. He wants to show me a drawing his father did of his mother when she was 21. The place is relaxed inside; his desk is chaotic. His Standard Poodle, Beau, follows us around. He shows me his son David’s photography, which hangs near family photos. A breathtaking landscape from his father’s “van Gogh period” is in one bedroom. Downstairs I see a dramatic black and white headshot of Baumbach taken some years back. But mostly I see a lot of family photos, a lot of family art. On the fridge: pictures of Baumbach and his children.

I have an unempirical moment there at the fridge, thinking about these three generations of Baumbachs and the other art-blessed families I know, including my own. This desperate need to create can at times feel more like a curse to artists and those around them. The human soul doesn’t mess around, and it can brutalize as it forces its host to stick with the program. But it makes me consider the lighter hand of the artist-parent’s approach that allows the child’s predispositions to unfold the way art must, to go the way of the soul.

Baumbach drives me back to my car. We stand around in record-breaking heat chatting about the weather and our Subarus — he’s a real New Englander now.

“I was laissez-faire with my children,” he says as we stare at a nasty scrape on the front of his Prius. “Whatever they wanted to do was all right with me.”

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