Alfred Hoos: An Autobiographical Note
Being from my youth, perhaps because of the particularities of my upbringing, inclined towards the great questions (“What is man”, “Why does he live”, “What is life”, “Is there a God, a Hereafter”, etc.) I decided early on to pursue a career in the arts. To my way of thinking back then, an artist had increased access to these high matters, an artist was a practitioner in the transcendental.
As a young man I wrote poems, dabbled in paint and also began work on a film, all with the aim of portraying the inner life of the soul, beyond external appearances. Very soon, however, I became increasingly disappointed by what I saw of almost all the art (so-called) being produced around me and almost all artists.
Feeling suffocated by the so-called ‘artistic’ climate of New York, I travelled extensively in the South and in Mexico, coming into contact with older, saner cultures. When I returned, I suffered a breakdown of sorts and was put in an asylum, where I remained for a little over a year. There, I wrote a series of poems, by the general heading of The Renfield Elegies… In these, as I re-read them now, I perceive a desperate lust for affirmation, for positive values in life. While a mental patient I also did some paintings, far removed from any idea of realistic representation. They were violent, idiosyncratic depictions of my inner chaos – the stuff of my delusions and nightmares and in these two there was some meaning, I think. These I called the Winterreise, representing as they did for me the long winter of the soul.
Back in so-called ‘normal’ society, I began to associate with a group of painters that were later to be labelled ‘abstract expressionists’ or the ‘New York school’, Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee, Barney Newman, later Mark Rothko, Bill de Kooning and a few more. I felt them to be kindred spirits as their work was in the same amorphous but very energetic idiom which I had employed while painting in the asylum, obeying an inner need. Although generalized acceptance of this ‘school’ was to come much later, by the end of the decade there were already the first signs of endorsement by museums/critics/galleries and the rich ‘art-lovers’. Since, however, this new form of painting represented to me a revolt against the deadening embrace of precisely these museum/critics/galleries and rich ‘art-lovers’ circuit, the prospect of assimilation by it was to me extremely revolting. I saw the works, which I considered until then sincere and revolutionary, gradually become accepted with the same kind of mindless, senseless ‘interest’ and ‘admiration’ that characterize the Western ‘art-world’. This made me realize at last that the practice of what goes by the name of ‘art’, any art, in our modern era is pointless and shameful. My disgust became total when I screened my work-in-progress (pork belly dream, the film I had worked on for years) for some friends, and realized that their inner organs for appreciating any form of art had degenerated to the point of total atrophy through the influence of an ‘aesthetic’, i.e. shallow and inane, conception of art.
I left America, never to return. For the rest of my life, I’ve been a cultural refugee.
While still in New York, I had heard of Jean Dubuffet and his interest in the art of the mentally ill – in fact, I had first heard of him from an Austrian doctor at the asylum. As soon I arrived in Paris, I sought him out and made his acquaintance. At last, I had the feeling I was talking to someone who was on the same wavelength as I, who shared not only my disgust with the established ‘art-world’ and the accepted concepts of what constitutes ‘art’, whether academic or so-called ‘avant-garde’, but also the positive belief that there was still true art being made, outside this deadening enclosure. Further, I was favourably impressed by the fact that any ‘artistic’ credentials I may have had – he had heard of my film, etc. – did not interest Dubuffet as much as the fact that I had done time in a mental home.
At our first meeting, he lent me two books, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, by Prinzhorn and Madness and Art by Mogenthaler. These two enlightened psychiatrists had recognized the tremendous potential and interest of the art of mental-patients. Particularly the second book contained the work of Paul Wolfli (a schizophrenic) which to me appeared more important than all the fashionable ‘abstract’ artists – myself included, of course – put together. What was so important here was not aesthetics, but vision, the existence of a concrete, totally enunciated view of the world. I travelled to Bern, where most of Wolfli’s work was kept and had the opportunity to examine it at greater length. The works of the Western painters I knew seemed insignificant, provincial and puny by comparison.
My search for the Positive had begun, without my realizing it. Already, I knew that a great change had taken place in me, that I would never again associate myself with the official art-world, a world where the crucial, basic questions that had first brought me to painting (“What is man”, etc.) were either totally ignored or, if not, were put at the same level as the usual, purely aesthetic considerations that have little or nothing to do with the real essence of art.
The meeting with Dubuffet and Wolfli’s art however was only the preamble to the meeting with the man who would change me for good, the great theatre director and visionary Antonin Artaud. The year was 1948. Artaud was now back in Paris after almost ten years of internment in mental asylums, at Rodez and elsewhere. He was living in a private convalescence home of some sort in Ivry-sur-Seine. This was his home (he had no other), but he was free to come and go as he pleased.I had read his book of essays, The Theatre and its Double, almost ten years earlier, but now that I made his personal acquaintance, I was even more impressed than by his words-on-paper. Here, I thought, was a great man, a true artistic seer. Here was the kind of spirit I hungered for, a real creative genius (in the old sense of the word, of spirit) who regarded art in a totally serious way and had no doubt of its potential to address itself to man’s deepest longings, to offer answers instead of questions, valid solutions instead of more problems.
The contact with Artaud’s ideas and the extreme intensity of his presence changed my life for ever, filled my soul with the strength to begin the pursuit of his vision – which was also mine – the search for a truly necessary art, an art that is as necessary to human beings as bread, as oxygen. A search, however, would certainly be needed, as Artaud – this I discovered to my dismay – had not managed to put into practice the ideas that he preached in his theoretical writings. The poetry he had written was interesting but not outstanding – on a par with other ‘insane’ works I had seen – and his pre-internment attempts to apply his theories in theatrical productions had been, from what I had heard, rather disappointing.
But this did not matter to me at all: the Truth being “ανεξερεύνητον και άπορον” what mattered was that someone was at last orienting the search in the correct direction and, what’s more, declaring that the eventual discovery was feasible. Artaud had been in the Promised Land, if only briefly, in his soul. Now, the task was to make an actual material journey there, a journey that we could reproduce as artists and offer as a gateway, to an audience.
Antonin Artaud died in 1949. I decided to devote myself to the study of his legacy, his work and its premises, not – God forbid! – in the manner of a scholar or bookworm, but with a practical aim in mind, in order to find ways that would lead to the actualization of his vision. It did not matter to me that my experience until that point was primarily in painting and poetry and film, whereas Artaud had been concerned mostly with the theatre. I considered (I always have and still do) myself an artist in the most general sense and, anyway, I had almost despaired by that time of the possibility that the usual art-forms could affect people’s lives in a significant way.
To learn more about Artaud’s vision I had to find more about the Balinese theatre, which had been his first and most basic inspiration, as well as his archetype for a spiritually authentic art.
Having no money at that time, but being quite well known in Paris (some of my so-called ‘abstract expressionist’ work had recently been shown in Paris, together with that of Pollock, Still, etc.) I painted and sold some paintings to finance my travels – these I called The Madman’s Glance as these were more or less influenced by the work or Wolfli and other ‘insane’ artists but also, of course, the ‘insane’ element in myself, which I considered much healthier in essence than other, socially acceptable personae. I painted in a new way, although the road to it had been opened by my sketches while at the mental home. The ‘art-lovers’ of Paris appreciated those paintings – for the wrong reasons, no doubt! – and I managed to sell them at ridiculously high prices. I soon departed, Eastwards.
From the Bestiary paintings by Hoos
My travels lasted seven years. Needless to say, my initial capital was not enough for this duration, and I often had to paint more paintings which I sent from deepest Asia to be sold in the galleries of Paris and New York, and of course also do odd jobs during my travels. I travelled widely in Asia, but spent significant periods of time in India, Tibet, Indonesia and Japan, with my longer stays being in Kerala, in southern India and also Java.
During this time, I came into contact with hundreds of artistic traditions, in the visual, musical, theatrical and narrative arts, both of the priestly or social elites and the lower classes or tribes (‘high’ and ‘folk’ art, in the usual parlance). Some of these, like the Pad religious theatre of Rajasthan, or the shadow theatre forms of Kerala and the great Indonesian shadow-theatre, Wayang Kulit I studied in greater depth. Especially in the Wayang Kulit I spent a three-year, unlikely apprenticeship, travelling in the Javanese countryside on the side of an old dalang, i.e. a master practitioner of this ancient art.
Very soon after my arrival in Asia I discovered what I had already begun to suspect: that the search for a Holy art cannot occur in vacuo. You can’t make the omelet without breaking the eggs. To have a Sacred art you also need a Sacred tradition. This, by the way is the central fallacy of Artaud, as it is also the tragedy of the abstract expressionists and many modernists, like Wassily Kandinsky or Kasimir Malevich and others too: they aimed for a transcendental art without the supporting belief in a concrete transcendental truth. From now on, my search was two-pronged. I was looking both for the art-forms and for the metaphysical ground from which they spring forth, the plant and the water that sustains it.
After seven years, I returned to Europe a much wiser man. From my old acquaintances I stayed purposely away, with the sole exception of Jean Dubuffet, a man whom I respect immensely and with whom I still associate and correspond. From him, I learned that Gallimard had begun the publication of Antonin Artaud’s Complete Works, and so I got to read some unknown-to-me material of his that confirmed the opinion formed on my journey, that Artaud had misinterpreted the form and function of Balinese and, more generally, Far Eastern sacred art. This however did not diminish my estimation of him as his main function – like that of ‘abstract expressionism’ of my youth – had been that of Destroyer, a most necessary function in the history of art, but also of life. More than any other person, in my mind, Artaud had exposed the established hypocrisies and cast away the dead and obsolete concepts of art that the bourgeoisie has imposed on the Western world, from the so-called Renaissance onwards. Such movements are often necessary in the history of the spirit: someone often has to cast out the money-lenders and the merchants from the temple before the high priests can move back in – others who played this function in the history of the arts are Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, etc. The problem is that this expulsion, in order to be truly useful, has to be followed by the positive, by the filling of the void with the truly necessary. Artaud had failed to provide the positive, as had the abstract expressionists. This was natural, as he missed the most basic element of the equation: belief in a traditional metaphysical dogma.
I must mention here that during my stay in India, I had also come across Leo Tolstoy’s monograph What is Art?, which influenced me greatly. In it I found, expressed in sharp, crystalline language, some of the ideas that had also began to form in my head about the meaning and future of art, a more concrete corpus of results than Artaud’s. Now settled in London, and motivated by Tolstoy’s example – above all by the clarity of his thinking, and his indifference to the widely-held opinions of the aesthetes of his time – I too decided to put on paper the first, tentative conclusions of my search. Since I wanted my essays to be action-oriented and practical, addressed primarily to artists and not to scholars or ‘art-lovers’, I went for short exposition. My basic ideas on art spread in five little booklets, or ‘pamphlets’, as I call them. They are organized by subject and they are purposely short and dense. Their titles are: The Death of Art, Art Lives – but not in Museums or Galleries, What then must we (artists) do?, The Two Basic Principles of Art.
These texts do not contain merely ideas but proposals, they are not analytic but synthetic, not just diagnoses but therapies. They culminate in my last pamphlet The Future of the Arts: a Project in outline, where I attempt to put on paper the general outlines of the Project that I propose as a general context, to inspire and guide the artists of the future – a history of art in the past centuries, the chronicle of its decline from its true function to its present, decrepit form. With these, my theoretical writings, I believe that I have concluded my search and returned to the position from which I departed in my youth – my mind then brimming with doubts and worries – the questions that I had initially put to myself now answered to my satisfaction.
Looking back, I think my life has not been entirely misspent.
|1916||Alfred Hoos is born Alfred Hoosier Jr. in Lowell, Massachusetts, the youngest of the three children of Alfred Hoosier, a butcher and Leonora Hoosier, nee Guarnieri.|
|1924||Alfred Hoosier surprises his wife in bed with her lover and shoots and kills both. Alfred Jr. is taken in by an aunt in Manhattan.|
|1925||His father is executed after a much-publicized trial. Because of the case’s notoriety, the children’s family name is changed by their guardian (an uncle) to ‘Hoos’. ‘Alfred Hoosier Jr.’ is henceforth ‘Alfred Hoos’.|
|1931||Hoos is kicked out of high school, for hitting a teacher. Works for a while at his uncle’s printing press.|
|1934||Begins to teach French to private pupils, among them the Montenegrian surrealist poet and playwright Stefan Janic and his wife, the actress Eva. Hoos enters artistic circles.|
|1935-1938||He is employed as translator, editorial assistant, and later drama and film critic for Janic’s little magazine Quack!|
|1937||Poems from Hoos’s collection Eye four are performed in a private performance by Eva Janic. He writes the script for the surrealist film pork belly dream.|
|1938||He begins to shoot pork belly dream on a shoe-string budget. Starts to drink. Although never a full-blown alcoholic, Hoos when drunk is prone to violent outbursts.|
|1939||Reads Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and its Double.|
|1940||He is diagnosed as suffering from a ‘severe neurotic disorder’ and thus exempted from the draft. The affair with Eva ends when she takes up with a young millionaire. He leaves New York, ostensibly to go to Mexico to shoot additional footage for pork belly dream.|
|1940-1943||Spends some time in the South of the United States ‘studying world history’, before he gets to Mexico. Near the end of his stay in Mexico he visits the Tarahumara Indians, following in the footsteps of Artaud, two years earlier. Attempting to film their rituals, his (rented) camera is smashed, he is arrested and consequently deported.|
|1943||In June, soon after his return to New York he seriously injures a stranger in a drunken brawl; he is arrested. He is found ‘not guilty’ by reason of insanity.|
|1943-45||He is interned at the New Albion Home for Mental Rehabilitation, in Poughkeepsie, New York. There he paints the Winterreise series his abstract expressionist paintings and writes The Renfield Elegies.|
|1945||May. He is released from the hospital and resumes work on editing pork belly dream.|
|1946||In February, pork belly dream is given a few screenings in a New York cinema. Hoos attacks, lightly injuring, the magazine film critic Ed Filthorn. Soon after, Hoos departs the United States, never to return. In Paris, he meets painter Jean Dubuffet and Antonin Artaud, who is then a live-in patient at the Ivry-sur-Seine mental hospital.|
|1947||The Renfield Elegies published by a small Parisian press. The collection is dedicated to Artaud.|
|1948||March, Artaud dies. Hoos begins but never finishes a film-script inspired by Artaud’s internment at the Rodez asylum (1938-1946).|
|1950||His monograph Antonin Artaud’s Vision is published, in French. The essay “The Axioms of Art”, a short programmatic introduction to his mature theories, is included as a post-script. Its last paragraphs reads: “All artistic creation in the Western world must cease, until we understand and define anew the purpose of art. If you don’t know your destination, there is no point in marching on.”|
|1951-1958||Hoos travels extensively in Asia, studying traditional art-forms. He spends over three in Java, and long periods in Kerala (Southern India) and Rajasthan (Central India). In Bombay, he reads Leo Tolstoy’s text What is Art?, a book which is to play a crucial role in the final formulation of his theoretical positions.|
|1958||Hoos settles in Hammersmith, London, in a small loft. He meets and becomes friends with the Greek-born musician and thinker Marco Pallis, the last of the people he considered his ‘great teachers’. (The others being, in chronological order, Dubuffet, Artaud and Tolstoy.) He self-publishes and distributes privately The Death of Art, the first of the five ‘pamphlets’ presenting his positions on the degeneracy of Western art, based on what he labels the ‘axiomatic method’.|
|1961||The film pork belly dream is shown as a part of the Surrealist Spring exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art, in London. Hoos personally pickets the showing, distributing to the viewers his first and second (Art Lives – but not in Museums and Galleries) pamphlets as well as a direct denunciation of his previous work.|
|1962||Writes and self-publishes the third and fourth pamphlets: What then must we (artists) do? and The Two Basic Principles of Art.|
|1964||Completes his monograph The Shadow Theatre of Asia: a True and Holy Art.|
|1965||Hoos becomes a Buddhist. Visits Greece, to find out more about the Karaghiozis shadow theatre. Meeting with Sotiris Spatharis and Yannis Philaretos.|
|1967||Back in England, he paints the series of Bestiary paintings. Starts to draft the History of Western art from Narthex to pissoir cycle of puppet plays.|
|1968||He completes the last of his pamphlets, The Future of the Arts: a Project in outline. He drafts extensive outlines of many of the plays in the History cycle and writes in full the trilogy (part of the cycle) The Tragedy of the Abstract Expressionists consisting of three biographical plays, on Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. He becomes ill.|
|1969||Yannis Philaretos comes to London to help him with work on the cycle. On the first of September, Hoos dies. According to his will, he is given the last rites according to Buddhist ritual.|