When the Stutz Artists Association decided to honor the Year of Vonnegut with a Vonnegut-themed exhibition in conjunction with the Stutz Open House this year, the artists had no way of knowing their tributes to the writer would also become a sort of memoriam. Vonnegut’s passing last month was a shock — many had anticipated the octogenarian author’s scheduled talk here in April (ably presented by his son, Mark, instead).
A Memorial Exhibition by Stutz Artists in Honor of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., which comprised the work of roughly 20 artists working in various media, from painting to pastel to metal sculpture, offered a different sort of remembrance, one Vonnegut himself might have appreciated had he the opportunity.
As one might expect, there were a number of references to Vonnegut books and a good number of his quotes (“The two prime movers of the universe are time and luck,” “Martinis make you mean. Manhattans make you a mellow fellow” among them), while several portraits easily captured the writer’s unmistakable impish grin and unruly mop of curls that Vonnegut made much of in his own self-caricatures.
That face was as easy to love as his good work. Vonnegut was outspoken and abrasive in the best possible ways — and he was brilliant and funny. He may not have been politically correct but he was respectful, inclusive and generous with his praise when praise was due.
Displayed on easels in the “Car Room” of the Stutz — flanked by showpiece automobiles, from a Ferrari to an Indy 500 racecar — the Vonnegut-honoring art offered a surreal contrast to the symbolic power, and even materialism, the cars represent: both subjects Vonnegut took on with his pen and, in later years, his drawings. But the automobile is as American as Vonnegut: and the author balanced his cynicism with his appreciation of American creativity — particularly in the realm of jazz.
For a “come one, come all” exhibition, the work was surprisingly strong: evidence that the artists took their charge seriously. Among the requisite portraits, striking likenesses were offered by Jerry Points (pastel) and Rita Spalding (painting). Caroline Mecklin responded to Vonnegut’s affiliation with the Freethinkers movement with an abstract painting of the same title. Many others did the next obvious thing, incorporating Vonnegut’s words into their images: John Robert Pleak scrawled “what is the point” in an endless drawl over a large canvas; and Peg Brand reprinted an entire Vonnegut poem onto her large portrait, “Vonnegut in Flight.”
Brand’s inclusion of “Requiem,” from Vonnegut’s last published book of prose, A Man Without A Country (2005), offered a fitting close to the exhibition: “When the last living thing/has died on account of us,/how poetical it would be/if Earth could say,/in a voice floating up/perhaps/from the floor/of the Grand Canyon/’It is done.’/People did not like it here.” This poem epitomizes the Vonnegut worldview: that we are screwing up bigtime — and there’s no turning back. For that, a moment of silence is in order.