Some painters have painted their mothers; some painters have painted their fathers. A very few are known to have committed both to canvas and fewer still to have fixed them in the same work. MOTHER and FATHER is a single work, a diptych in homage, and respect too, to two people conspicuously crucial to my life and my becoming an artist, for—contrary to the customs of the time—I was half-encouraged toward this unthinkable occupation. Otherwise they were immensely unimportant in their world, leaving no other mark. Born at the end of the nineteenth century they helped to dissolve that era’s social solidity. They were definitely the “lost generation.” They were lost and they got there fast on wheels.
My mother’s name was Carmen. Though warm and vibrant she was not Latin, but was so named because it was her father’s favorite opera. An insurance salesman when that breed criss-crossed North America by rail (HIGHBALL ON THE REDBALL MANIFEST) and were away from home long intervals spending nights (USA FUN) in countless hotels and going to vaudeville palaces or opera houses—according to their likes. He preferred Bizet. Her mother died of dementia melancholia while he was still on the road (USA DIE) and he took another wife who was shot to death because she was so mean. My mother’s darkest hour came at the trial when the defense declined her testimony in behalf of her step-mother’s murderess, a dark haired ball-o’-fire named Ruby (THE RUBY RED YIELD). Before the death of rail passenger service whenever I traveled to Chicago from New York I took the Twentieth Century Limited and always thought of this grandfather, as well as of my paternal counterpart who used to drive trains for the Pennsylvania Railroad (THE BIG FOUR). Each morning on one of those trips I would wake up in South Bend, Indiana where the notorious event took place in ’38 and mull over it eating breakfast (USA EAT) all the way to Chicago (THE SECOND AMERICAN DREAM). My mother never saw “Carmen” and probably would not have even liked it, but she did know and admire Theda Bara, styled herself into a “vamp,” and wore her fancy cape seductively. She employed marcelling irons and finger-curled her bangs with spit. She applied mascarra [sic] with a mean thin brush. She went through three husbands, but “Father” lasted longest. For 21 years she worshipped the ground he walked on (her words). She wouldn’t permit an ordinary laundry to do his shirts. She held him all through the Depression with her cooking (EAT), but finally drove him to distraction with her gypsy-like obsession to keep domestically on the move (USA ERR). All in all they called it “home” in over fifty different bungalows—as modest habitations were wont to be called in the Midwest—and I personally lived in 21 of these before I found stability in the U.S. Army at the age of 17. They were the swingers of their times and loved their newly found four-wheeled mobility. She had her car and he his, Crash or no Crash! With roadmap in hand they devoured the American landscape (THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM). This went on, trip after trip, Sunday drive after Sunday drive, evening spin after evening spin, for those 21 gasoline-gorging years. Then one sunny Fourth-of-July weekend “Father” packed his duds and fishing gear and took off with a new-found auto-mate. “Mother” loaded the family revolver (which he had left behind) and went scouring the Hoosier countryside for him in her car with the ’38 in her lap. She was going to shoot them both if she could find them together. He had added insult to injury by confiscating her fishing rod for his new love.
My father’s name was Earl and he was as colorless as his name and the grays I have used to depict him, but he thought himself a chip off the new American block, a real patriot who wanted to make the world “safe for democracy” in ’18 but never got closer to France than Louisville (Kentucky). He wanted the big house on the hill, geared himself to make it—he was American Dreamer No. 1 (THE AMERICAN DREAM). The Numbers 37, 29, 40 and 66 in it are the highways that he traveled in his quest—a Lindbergh of the plains who never quite made it. He loved all three of his wives, but with Carmen he flew highest. My mother was middle wife and he was in his prime. He wooed her on wheels and she was crazy for it. Then she became fat and middle-aged and he ditched her for a new model; obsolescence Yankee-style: new wives, new cars, new art (regularly).
MOTHER AND FATHER is part and parcel of my AMERICAN DREAM, the first major Pop painting acquired by an American museum (1961) that grew into a large series of paintings still in progress. The first, acquired by the Modern, and the third, by a Dutch museum, were couched in the jargon of the pin ball and slot machines, two of my mother and father’s favorite devices, second only to the very keystone of their happiness and dream—the chugging chariot carrying them on to even greener pastures and redder passions, the arm-breaking magic carpet of escape from their confines of family (large), neighbors (encircling), and the small town (imprisonment). It was Mr. Ford’s answer to a national dilemma that liberated one generation, killed off half another, and put amorality on the road and Detroit on the map. Here beside their Model-T they are stopped momentarily (forever) in their endless pursuit of distraction from any meaningful aspects of life—now ended for “Mother” in that same Indiana loam she stands on; in fact, in a country cemetery very similar to the wintry landscape here, but the rutted road has been paved over many times and become a busy highway dominated by the smell of exhaust rather than myrtle. Ended, too, for “Father” who went on traveling to both ends of the American rainbow—California for a few years and finally to Florida where, Eureka! having solved the revolving house problem with a mobile home (castle-on-wheels), while eating breakfast one morning he toppled over and died (EAT/DIE). Somewhere in the middle was Indiana, a state that produced more automobiles (247 makes) than painters (until my generation) but lots of farmers, Republicans, Ku Klux Klanners, John Birchers and John Dillinger—the cream of the crop whose hometown was where I attended first grade and suffered my first art theft (Chicago second, New York third, Berlin fourth).
Sealed in time here they stand fixed on this lonely dirt road frozen hard in midwinter, according to the license plate about nine months before my birth. My father considered himself as hard as hickory as well as a bit of a dandy, properly arranging his overcoat for my mother’s Kodak. She revelled for him in her very store-bought attirement—a burst of warm sunshine. Beyond them a hand-split rail fence (it was Lincoln as well as Dillinger territory) encloses a stand of hickory. They were young and flush and happy with their Tin-Lizzie—surely as proud of her as they would have been were she a Hoosier Dusenberg. They are totally unaware of the sad trip ahead.
Published in Tracks: A Journal of Artists’ Writings 1 (November 1974), this is a slightly different and longer version of the statement "A Mother is a Mother and a Father is a Father," published in McCoubrey, John W., and Robert Indiana. Robert Indiana. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art and Falcon Press, 1968