4.11.2014

3.18.2014

What I learned about art at the boxing gym

Long before I committed myself to photography and art, I was briefly but deeply involved in boxing in New York. I was never a boxer. Not really. But like a million curious kids before me, I'd wandered into Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn while taking a long walk around the neighborhood not far from Pratt Institute, which was something of a base for me. Before I knew it, I'd been adopted as an assistant trainer for Billy McNeece (essay on Billy to come), a former middleweight well into his autumn years. I worked for him three or four summers, helping him train Polish kids who had come to the United States on athletic visas.

Bert Sugar (1937-2012)
I fell in love with Gleason's. Long before the gentrification of Brooklyn, it was a run-down gym where the best of the best went to train. It smelled like leather, sweat, new dreams and old, hopes beaten into the ground. I made friends with former featherweight champions Kevin Kelley and Tom Johnson, met "Poison" Junior Jones, and talked briefly with former heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe. I spent many hours talking to Al Gavin, the so-called "cut man to the stars," whose sense of humor kept everyone in stitches.
I was in my early 20s. I wanted to be a writer and boxing was my muse. I sent unsolicited manuscripts to the Times, the Post, the Ring magazine, and Boxing Illustrated. I was young, cocky, and ready to conquer the world. Of course, I was far from ready for any such thing. But I was impetuous, ambitious and figured there was nothing I couldn't do. Anyone who really looked at me would agree with that obvious truth. Or so I believed. 
What I want to say in this post is that the world of boxing embraced me as if I were a family member and I am better off for it. I learned more within the walls of Gleason's than I had learned at any other place in the world. But it didn't have much to do with boxing. 
As far as my submissions to newspapers and magazines went, Steve Farhood was in charge of the Ring magazine in those days (and may still be for all I know). He was kind enough to send me a brief, hand-written note thanking me for my submission and urging me to read the "great chroniclers of the sport," men such as A.J. Liebling, whose work I later devoured, memorized, re-read, and could quote by heart. The Post and Times didn't seem interested in my work. Go figure.  
The man who really blew my mind and changed my outlook on life was Bert Sugar, a self-made icon of boxing. Bert, who died in 1988, not only called me, but invited me to his office (in Midtown Manhattan if I remember correctly) and spent several hours just talking to me about my dream of becoming a boxing writer. He was an eccentric, a gentleman, an extrovert, and a character in every sense of the word.
But he taught me, as no teacher ever did, the value and responsibility of sharing time with younger people, and if nothing else, encouraging them to pursue their dreams. Bert Sugar was no small figure in boxing. If you have ever paid attention to the "sweet science of bruising," you know who he is. He had no reason, beyond a sense of social responsibility, to so much as give me the time of day. But he did. We talked, went out to lunch, came back to his office and talked some more.
He didn't have to tell me, "You can do anything you want in your life son, if you just set your mind to it." The fact that he loaned me a few hours of his time was enough. I suspect he knew that. He never contracted me to write a single story or cover a single fight. It didn't matter. He did what we who have had experience in life are supposed to do - lend time, guidance and love to those who are just "entering the ring." I have modeled my life after people like Bert Sugar, Teddy Atlas whom I met briefly but does not remember me, and others who do their part to raise society's children (most of whom, like me, are relatively clueless at 20).
A few months ago I gave a very poorly organized (not by me) talk about my photography at a railroad museum in Oaxaca, Mexico. The director of the place didn't bother to show up. The projector and screen I was promised, so that I could share and discuss photographs, never arrived. There were 20 of us in an abandoned passenger train car huddled around my laptop in the dark.
I was not paid for the talk. But I felt that the kids (most of them were young folks) had been ripped off, again, not by me. We talked a bit, and afterward, I told them that I would be walking around Oaxaca the next day taking pictures and that all of them were invited to attend. I'm not a saint. I wasn't thinking about Bert Sugar or Billy McNeece. I was thinking about Willem de Kooning, who loved to talk to other painters, particularly young, up-and-comers like Robert Rauschenberg.
It's axiomatic for me and part of my character. People - including poet and artist Joolz Denby, my family, and many others - have given me more than I can ever repay. I have learned, however, that the responsibility we have is not to pay back, but to pay forward. Anyone who wants to go out and take pictures with me can do it. Hundreds have. It's an open invitation. It's an honor that people want to do so. It's a debt and a pleasure.
I don't do it because I'm a saint. Nor is it easy to make time to walk around different cities for hours with young photographers. Nobody achieves anything alone, in art or in boxing. My love of art implies a passion for moving it forward, beyond my own accomplishments. 
Unfortunately, I have learned that there are few, if any, Bert Sugars in the 21st Century art world. Art is dirtier than boxing and more selfish. There is no sense of camaraderie. This stems from the Saatchi-type market manipulators trying to create superheroes out of painters and conceptualists who have barely reached adulthood. But Charles Saatchi, and the behavior of the big two auction houses are only the dirty by-products of an era of greed and crass, selfishness that began with Ronald Reagan and continues today.
In art I've met a number of great, lifelong allies and people who have pulled me away from the brink of disaster at the last second (they know who they are). But more than anything, I've met back-stabbers, overly competitive, egotistical dilettantes, and people in their 40s and 50s who are as cocky as I was when I was a kid, but far less sincere in their endeavors. Of all the arts, photography seems to have the most of these self-centered people, who contribute little, if anything, to society.  
This is extremely idealistic, I dream of a world in which photographers and other artists help each other without fear of being "defeated," passed up, or whatever it is that scares them. I dream of helping artists who are both older and younger than me. To the extent that I can, I already do so. I envision a world in which painter-teachers like Robert Henri and Hans Hoffman are seen as role models, as opposed to people like Pablo Picasso, in love with his own self-promoted, and for decades of his career, very questionable genius.
So where are the Bert Sugars of the art world? 

3.04.2014

Photograph by Jesus Afane


From the youngest participant in the weekend workshop in El Salvador, a fine portrait by Jesus Afane. More student work to come.

Photograph by Ligia Cerna Pineda


Yet another lovely photograph, this one by Ligia Cerna Pineda, also taken during last weekend's workshop.