Monday, August 28, 2023. Temps in the low 80s, a bright, sunny Sunday but not hot, yesterday in New York. The city continues to be very quiet. There are still lots of New Yorkers out of town for the holiday(s), and likely to remain that way until next week and Labor Day.
Yesterday, August 27th, was the 90th birthday of my friend Bob Schulenberg whose pages have occupied this spot almost weekly for several years. Whenever I think of Schulenberg, I think of conversation. He has a naturally analytic mind and a naturally sharpened inquisitiveness. It’s the artist’s brain operating. Therefore conversations are analytically extended (you had to be there) and often enlightening.
I call him Bob on a one-to-one, but I always refer to him, even in my thoughts, as Schulenberg. We’ve known each other for 57 years. This is always an amazing consideration since all that time was well invested. His intellect and talent have a substantive quality in my mind; He is deeply sensitive but in a way that most of us don’t possess or never get to. You can see it expressed on every page of his sketchbooks. His art, these artist’s journals, are organically an extension of the hand that draws them. He takes it all in almost compulsively.
The thousands of pages of his drawings, his recordings were accompanied by thousands of conversations of subjects narrow and wide, universal, local, gossip, history, ironies, jokes, and news and political opinions. I was reading Jean Strouse’s piece about Sargent’s painting portraits and how he was very verbal, talkative, even loquacious. This amazed many of his sitters that he could paint so brilliantly while at the same time converse with his subjects. All of Schulenberg’s works in those sketchbooks over the years were expanded greatly by conversation going on at the same time. It’s like a learning process.
Long separations and distances change the relationship because the day-to-day has more drama on both sides of it. We’ve lived on separate coasts for the past 30+ years, and we’ve rarely seen each other. I don’t know what his life is like anymore although I know enough to imagine his environment. But like me, he spends his times with people I’ve never met, never heard of.
Those are friends. I am an “old” friend which to me means we know each other. Although these are things we’d be talking about if we were talking as frequently when we lived in the same towns — New York and Los Angeles.
He’s entirely an individual. It’s been in many ways a solitary life because his life is his art and vice versa. He lives the artist’s life by his nature, just as the child is the father of the man. He’s very perceptive and he also has a vivid imagination; take your pick. He has a loud but lovely guffaw when he laughs.
You may recall I wrote something about Schulenberg sometime ago when we displayed some of his envelopes. Looking it over, both JH and I thought it would be interesting to re-run. The envelopes are pure Schulenberg: if there’s an empty space and especially if it’s going somewhere to someone, he’s compelled to fill it with his own measure — which is often meant to make you laugh. Or think.
It began on the first day. We met through a mutual friend, Philip Carlson (who remains a close friend all these years later also). I’d gone to the Neighborhood Playhouse (School of the Theatre) and was preparing to go out in the world of making “rounds” with photos as actor. I needed some “headshots.” Philip knew Bob through his wife Patty Sauers who went to UCLA with him. Philip said only that Bob was a very good photographer.
I’m not sure of the time of year although it must have been Springtime. He came to our apartment about four in the afternoon. I had never seen him before he showed up at the door. A good looking guy about thirty, with dark, wavy hair, bright eyes behind black framed glasses, and a big smile on greeting. He was carrying a large black sketchbook under one arm, and camera in a case strapped around the opposite shoulder. I did not know, until that evening, that he was an artist and focusing on illustration. He also took photos. I had no idea then or even until he began publishing his sketchbook-memoir, that he had already begun this odyssey of recording his life on paper in much the same way a filmmaker might record a life on film (or now, video).
No pictures were taken that day or night, but he stayed for dinner. My wife was a newly trained cook and was very good. The conversation continued wandering all over the field, as I would learn it does with Schulenberg. Throughout, wherever he might be sitting, he also had the sketchbook in front of himself, and was sketching throughout the discussions. His exercise with the sketchbook, he explained, was to train himself to draw what was in front of him without looking (very much) at what he was putting on paper. He began his habit years before he went to UCLA.
He had recently returned from living for several years in Paris (the times we are seeing on his Page now). In his recounting of the people, the places, the situations and what his ever sharp eye could see, we too were seeing it. We had a grand piano in the new apartment, which I played. It turned out Bob did too. I could read music but he really played. He talked about the emotional content of composers’ private personalities, and how he could perceive it through their music.
It must have been about midnight when he took the conversation to the keyboard and demonstrated how Beethoven might play a Chopin piece, and then how Chopin would play Beethoven, or Mendelssohn playing Brahms. Or Tchaikovsky playing Gershwin or vice-versa, demonstrating with “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” All of this without any music in front of him. Anyone who liked to play the piano would be impressed.
It was close to four in the morning when he got up from the piano and decided he had to get home and get some sleep. So did my wife and I. I don’t believe in all the years since that he and I ever spent another eight hours steeped in conversation. Although no doubt we have spent thousands of hours exploring each others thoughts, memories and experiences. It is often a learning.
Several days after that initial visit, he came over again and worked the camera on me for those “headshots.” We finished at a pre-midnight hour. For years after that when we were both living in New York (and even after I was living in Connecticut) we spoke and saw each other frequently, sometimes weekly. Phone conversations with Schulenberg are not unlike that first time in our living room on East 81st Street — full of variety, interesting perceptions and information.
Bob was born and brought up in Los Angeles, and then in his teens in Fresno where his father had business interests. He went to college at UCLA, worked in costume houses that provided garments to the movie studios, and was generally — as it often is, or was, for young people growing up in what was then a one-industry town — enthralled with the movies. He came to New York after college (as his readers now know), and then accidentally moved to Paris for a few years, returned to New York, and then in the early 1980s, coincidentally after I’d moved my life to LA, he returned West.
So it has been a great pleasure to have the opportunity to share some of my friend’s talent, memories and his personality that is both very curious and very charming. He is always learning and seeing new things.
Discussing all this with JH over the phone this afternoon, I told him about Bob’s letters. Never was there an envelope containing one of his not infrequent epistles over the years that he hadn’t prepared it as thoroughly as the message inside. I’ve saved almost all of them and so we’re sharing a few of them with you. They give you the gist of the man’s eye, wit, and observations.
Happy birthday old friend!