In Memory of Robert Von Neumann 1888 - 1980

by William Schulman

Robert Von Neuman was a prominent Milwaukee artist and teacher and an early member of the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors. ‘Vonnie’ was one of my artistic mentors . Just like all of us act as mentors for all our creative students. As an art teacher he never failed to encourage, to support, to fire my artistic imagination. We remained close friends until he died .My last visit with him is described in the poem “The Visit”...A paean from one Art Teacher to another.

The pilgrimage is set.
A broken voice describing a dying philosopher..
...Do you remember me ? I ask..
Oh sure...Mr. Schulman...
the heavy German pronunciation
rolling the phone in my ear..
..How do we forger ?
...Where are you calling from ?
...Are you in Milwaukee ?
...Yes, I am staying in town over night
before I journey home.
how is Robby ? I ask...
(knowing what the answer will be ) is too bad you could not come
to see Robby..he
likes to visit with you
..Will you be leaving in the morning ?
..Are you up as early as nine ..Oh sure..
..Well..could I stop by at nine-thirty
before I head home ?
..Please do..
..yes, I will see you in the morning.
In case I can’t make it. I shall telephone, yes?
..Yes, yes, good night..
Good night, Mr. Schulman.

The robust eyes are now half-glazed
by thoughts that somehow spring out as yesterday.
His switchboard is cross-patched
and messages can be heard between callers.
There are so many bad connections now.
Thoughts and images jarred out of context
jump into the existential struggle for now.
Listeners have a hard time following
because his imagination still burns.
His wax is no longer in the holder
but spread and dribbled across the mantle.
His light still flickers,
fights, and sputters...almost gone.

How does an Artist die ?
How do you turn off
a mind and an eye
that burns with a billion year search ?
Robby, what can I say ?
I’m listening...Talk to me..Robby

His collar hangs loose like a tube
forgotten to be filled.
The neck, jugular, and shrunken
suggests dieting and dying are roommates.
His black suit, well lived in,
hangs loose, Chaplin style.
His smile of pleasure,
and the smokey eyes of the philosopher,
are still the same.
He seems pleased to see me,
as I am him.
Conversations are difficult
because answers mean particularizing
a capacity that is now gone.
So I try to listen
and not misuse his switching incapacity.
His body is almost drained of energy,
walking is a heavy chore
especially since one leg has been leathered
by the Great War seventy years earlier.
he shows me a sketch of the French countryside,
near the trenches. It is dated 1917.
...Robby, did you carry watercolors with you ?
Sure, he smiles
and gestures with his veiled hand
as to their tiny size.
(amidst the carnage Alizarin Crimson for a pastoral)

His portrait, executed right after service
hangs above his head.
He sits, almost in profile
with head turned inward-
shirt and vest pulled taut
in Germanic overdress.
In his hand, a long stemmed pipe
(Old Chum tobacco comes to mind).
His face is tight, virile, young.
Steel-rimmed glasses frame intensive eyes-
a young warrior has preserved,
leaving only part of one limb behind.
The eye, and the hand, and the mind
come through sound- the eyes frame that-
Robby takes notice of his self-portrait.
..Ja..I didn’t have much time to do that one.. all tumbled out in one sitting.
He talks to the portrait like he is talking to a stranger.
Memory stitches circumstances to the act,
but he is now a stranger to the image depicted.
His aged body somehow too far removed
from the smooth wash effects of watercolors.
as he reminisces about its creation.
There is deja vue rather than memory at work.
I have a difficult time looking at him.
His gaze never leaves my face.
His eyes seem to burn in all images,
as if to last eternally , including my lifetime.
All this time Hilda, his wife
has not stopped talking.
What a life force.. Eighty-four, also ill,
but driven to take care of her Robby.
...He’s not the same Mr. Schulman.
His mind wanders...
( I wish mine could wander as easily).
I ask about silly things...
Her anecdotes tumble forth in a steady stream.

He wants to see his daughter.
Twenty-four years have washed her Majorca beaches since they both climbed up and down their mountain.
He shows me a recent catalogue of her husband’s work.
Their Palma studio, white and ready
for artistic scumbling is sparse.
No furniture to detract a searching inner eye.
In the corner, a single bentwood rocker,
keeps silent vigil near a window and muses about two large paintings
leaning against the opposite wall.
One is a heroic sized portrait, the other ,
a twisted verge of foliage.
Both are well crafted totalities
created by an artistic eye
caressing gesso and nub of tightly woven linen.
He tells how her husband’s reputation spreads,
a slow moving stain across difficult years.
Commissions arrive now, important works
called upon to capture important people.
Hilda has asked them both
to come and see Robby- but the distances
are too great, the expenses too stifling....
...And what about your son Wolfgang ?
..You know he is divorced...
I never did like his first wife..
Her nose pointed too high in the air...
Yes...he still teaches and has just remarried.. Ecologist...they travel together
to far of places monitoring the world’s condition....he comes so seldom...
...Does your son drive yet, Mr. Schulman ?
We have yet our car...but it only sits now...
...Robby cannot drive...
Meanwhile the smile has never left his face.
His hands anticipate gestures of my mind.
Hilda continues unabated....His voice
enters in whispers now and then..
I ask some questions; shallow senseless ones,
but he shows no impatience...
I thought I had said something about Lithography, that I was trying to get back to it.
Next time, I lamely add,
I shall bring some prints to show...
That would be nice Mr. Schulman...
Hilda turns abruptly to Robby.
He has begun to speak.
As his voice works his way upward
from a soft whisper, his hands animate..
Gesture enters his artistic thoughts.
He attempts to tell me how he has
always loved Calligraphy:
With ten fingered and ninety year old
sensitivity he begins to describe the slant
the pen must maintain
as it cautions down a page.
Hilda has become a bit agitated
and continues at rapid pace with
powerful Germanic pauses..nicht..ney?
to complain that no one asks about
her own paintings.
..Would I like to see some? she pleads.
I strain to listen to Robby.
He speaks so softly, swallowing phrases,
working each word out of the short circuit of his faulty switchboard..nicht..
Come...Mr. Schulman ...would you
like to come upstairs ? Hilda, can
Robby make it ? Shall I help him ?
...Ney...He’ll come...He doesn’t like
to be helped....

The house is much the way I fondly remember
it, except it’s now a bit seedier.
(where former housekeeping has had to slide )
As a student , I remember helping
to paint the outside.
The house now is not really dirty,
but it is evident that thinning energies
must leave well enough alone...
As we mount the spiral staircase
Hilda asks...Do you remember what hung
in that place of honor above your head ?
...yes..Hilda..It is from that spot that Shirley
and I decided to lay claim to that powerful
painting which we made our own.
It must be a good place..Mr. Schulman
two others have been sold after hanging there.
Every wall is still gorged with works...
They used to be all Robby’s,
now I notice more and more of Hilda’s
work is visible. Each work we gaze at is a child. Anecdotes spill forth from every frame.
We proceed slowly...My eye has caught
that simple, classic vase of flowers
filled with chrysanthemums. It
sits serenely on a table: two books rest nearby.
What a glowing, inspired sense of
reds and yellows. It is an early work
deftly painted by young hands and sinzanting is magnificent!
..Is that watercolor available Hilda?
...Please save it for me, will you ?
An early portrait of himself
has also caught my skim, but I feel too
embarrassed to ask about it.
Knowing he has possessed it so long.
I feel carrion, hovering, hovering
over the minion of his Life’s work.

Their dust now gathers more boldly,
Carrion rays slant midst a heavy sun.
They stab at their windows.
His blood craves thinners
to help ease its restricted course.
He is exhausted from the climb.
There is a sense of thinness in the air as well. Their carpet echoes rather than muffles sound.
Their woodpeckers develop Piarreah in mid-winter and scratch painfully
with bleeding gums at their tree.
His shovel, I noticed , is badly bent
at the corners.
It stands subjective in their hall.
Everyone who enters now
seems stranger, even
who rang yesterday,
and carried his own shovel.

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