An Afternoon with a Master

We sat down at a corner table at a local coffee shop. It was late afternoon, and a ficus tree cast a ghostly shadow on his gaunt figure. He was unshaven, and clumps of dirt and grass clung to his clothing. I held out a cigarette and he immediately took it; as he inhaled, the wrinkles on his face seemed to fade and his gaze turned from anxious to reflective.

“I start with an idea, you see,” he explained, his Parisian upbringing obvious yet elegant in his inflection. “I take this idea, perfect and pure, and mold it in meaning. It’s like the crystallization of beauty.”

I nodded, indicating my understanding, yet felt slightly confused. This was, after all, Henri Leconte, the famous French artist recently turned Berkeley experimentalist. It was his first interview in over twenty years, and I was lucky enough to be allowed several hours with him. I asked him to classify his artistic philosophy.

“Well, I guess you could say that I started as a minimalist.” He motioned with his hand on every syllable, cigarette painting circles of smoke in front of him. “Images, notions, really nothing more than wisps of imagination. But in time, I outgrew this, and I became a maximalist. Now, I’m somewhere in betweenGAAGAAa mediumalist, if you will.” He looked deeply dissatisfied with his response.

Yet it seemed perfectly consistent with Leconte’s mysterious history. He has been something of an enigma ever since he started practicing his craft. In 1976 he first shocked the world with his piece “Fallopian tubes over a bed of cous-cous,” which was a plate of cous-cous topped with the fallopian tubes of a recently deceased French woman. He was soon run out of Paris, and he alternated between homes in Amsterdam and Florence for the next ten years. In 1985 he released his “Ballet of Appliances,” featuring dancing dishwashers, twisting toasters, and skipping stereos backed by electronic music. He returned to a hero’s welcome in France, where he performed this production to packed houses in Paris for the next three years.

He was able to invest the money he saved and move on to more extreme forms without worrying about subsistence. “I moved to Berkeley, naturally,” he continued. “Where else can an accomplished artist live in obscurity and still be inspired day after day?”

All of this background information I got from Leconte himself, as I could find no information on his life anywhere. But I trusted him completely, as he was Henri Leconte, and I was merely a young photojournalist.

I wanted to know what projects he was currently working on, or planning for the future. His eyes widened, as though he had been waiting for this question. “I have many things plannedGAA GAAthere is so much to be accomplished. For example, I plan to drop a mountain goat from an airplane and photograph the impact. Depending on the success of this endeavor, I will then move to other creaturesGAAGAAbears, camels, perhaps a gnu. Whatever I can find that interests me.”

I had a faint sense that he was pulling my leg, but I didn’t dare doubt him. His previous utterance led seamlessly into the next. “Have you ever looked at a rose, I mean really, really looked at one?” he leaned forward, and with his face only inches from mine, waited for an answer. I responded tentatively in the negative, and he backed away and put his hands behind his head, letting out an apathetic sigh. “Hideous things, roses, don’t ever do it.”

He then responded to the recent accusations made by critics that he merely hides behind his art, too afraid to speak for himself. “It is no shame, hiding behind one’s art. Artists try to do it all the time. The problem is,” he pursed his lips together and then smiled slightly, “they don’t know how to do it correctly. You see, you cannot hide behind a paintingGAAGAAit is far too small. Now a mural, or a statue, one or two hundred meters high, this is something you can get behind, and no one can really see you.”

The profundity of this statement hit me full in the face, and I felt as though my entire reality had changed. Everyone else in the cafe, without even hearing our conversation or recognizing the genius in their presence, seemed affected by it as well. Postures straightened, conversations jumped to new levels, and the ivy on the walls crept up at a slightly quicker pace.

Henri soon tired of our surroundings, and he led me on a tour of his favorite artistic spots in Berkeley. Among them were the botanical gardens of Strawberry Canyon, where he sketches on dewy mornings, and Eshlman hall, on the south edge of the University of California campus.

“This is a building that is so misunderstood,” he said, holding his hands high in the air. “Just look at it. The lines, the shapes-it’s vertices nearly scream out in anguish.” I nodded, paying my respects without fully understanding. He struck me as an intellect difficult to comprehend, and even more difficult to relate to describe. The interview was clearly over- I shook his hand, trying to feel and memorize the contours of every bone, tendon and ligament. He began to walk slowly down Bancroft Avenue, confronting the steady onset of the evening fog. Stopping by a trash receptacle, he peered in, and extracted a half-eaten sandwich. He analyzed it carefully and took a bite-perhaps the subject of his next piece of art. As he continued down the street, I shook my head, smiled, and wondered what amazing thing Henri Leconte would do next.