It was difficult to talk with Grotfeldt. I was on a very abstract level, and he expressed ideas in a simple, grounded way. I saw that the brush was his strongest expression. I was amazed by the depth of his brushstrokes.
– Waldo Bien
It was near the end of Virgil’s life when a collector contacted me with a request for help in selecting and purchasing a painting by Virgil Grotfeldt. By this time the money would be so inconsequential compared to the need as to render the financial benefit to be meaningless. But Virgil needed the psychological support. When one is a few breaths away from oblivion, a stray pat on the back in praise for a worthwhile time on this earth goes a long way toward staying the infinite. Trust me on this. The collector, in their attentive sensitivity, knew this. I did too.
I helped the collector select a later work when Virgil was at his peak and near his end. It is sometimes said that prowess dissipates with age, but this is not true. At least not so with the good ones. Virgil was always very good, but he, unlike others, kept getting better. If Virgil was not an artist’s artist, there is no doubt that he was a painter’s painter. There are only two true masters of painting that I’ve known in my life, people with such dazzling virtuosic "how-do-they-do that?" skill that even for people like me – not the biggest fan of painting, and yet, believe it or not, not a slouch with the medium – find humbling. One is Darren Waterston. The other was Virgil Grotfeldt.
carbon, coal dust, water color, bronze powder, braille paper, found ledger paper, even MRI scans of his brain
And any combination thereof. What is this stuff?
Virgil could do anything with pigment. His dexterity with paint and other media was dazzling. But upon meeting him for the first time, one would never guess that such [skill] could derive from this guy. Virgil was a blue collar grunt with a look and demeanor right out of any midwest inner city. He was, in fact, from Nowhere, Illinois. Shortish and stout, mustachioed with reddish hair revealing his northern European immigrant heritage, his hands were thick and strong from years of labor. How could hands like these do that?
Virgil had a family and always needed money. He wasn’t like the rest of us who had no families and thought we needed money. He really did. And being an artist in Houston in the 1980’s wasn’t exactly a way of striking it rich. So Virgil worked. He had a painting company, which makes sense. It wasn’t exactly a company though. It was, rather, a collective roving mini-horde of disheveled, ill-dressed artist friends whom Virgil hired on a case-by-case contract basis to complete jobs that were too big for him alone. And the truth was, just like the rest of us, Virgil would have rather been doing almost anything else but painting. Job painting, that is, not painting painting. And we all worked for him. None of us wanted to work, (work work, that is, not art work) but all of us needed money from time to time, so Virgil would call his friends. Some were reliable and steady, like Rick and Nestor. Others, like me, less so. Despite this, I spent a lot of time with Virgil working for him on his painting crew. There were a few years in the mid-1980’s when I was between jobs and in a not-knowing-what-I’m-doing mode that I helped out with Virgil when he needed me. As an artist himself, he was always understanding and gracious, even when I would sometimes decline his request for help. Yet he would somehow always fit me into his crew when I called him needing work whether he needed help or not.
One gruesomely wet and cold Houston winter day (yes, we have those), Virgil called me to ask my help to paint the exterior turn-of-the-century wrought iron posts in front of DiverseWorks. This was in the old days when Diverse was still in its original location in downtown Houston just off Market Square on Travis. It was a miserable outdoor job, working with smelly enamel green paint that was almost too thick to spread because of the cold. It’s not fun trying to cut a straight line with paint when your fingers quit working due to numbing cold, let alone clean a brush properly with turpentine. Like Virgil, I’d worked plenty of menial jobs too and didn’t complain. You’re in it together so just shut up and do the work. Virgil respected that. A muted mutual count-on-me attitude went a long way with him.
Somehow, through the mysterious art world underground workings, Virgil secured the job to be the Museum of Fine Arts painter, or at least one of them. I don’t know how official the arrangement was, but he seemed to always be working there painting whatever galleries needed a fresh coat for an upcoming blockbuster show. I worked with him there, along with the mainstays of Rick, Nestor, sometimes Jack, and others. As a consequence, I reckon I’ve painted just about every wall in that place. And these weren’t just any walls, mind you. This was sheetrock that would support the gods of art. Unlike us. It was during these jobs, when things needed to be done right, that I learned how to paint. There’s the correct way to paint, then there’s every other way, which are all wrong. Virgil taught me the difference. Everything I ever really learned about paint and painting (work painting, that is), I learned from Virgil.
I learned how to hold a brush correctly, how to correctly apply paint onto a wall with a roller. To this day it drives me nuts to see people paint who think that all you need to do is apply and spread. It ain’t. I learned that you don’t “paint a straight line,” you “cut a line.” It’s not “drywall compound,” it’s “mud.” And you don’t “patch” or “smooth” it, you “float” it. The first time Virgil instructed me to “cut that corner over there,” I grabbed a small, beveled trimming brush and started. Virgil shook his head and said, “You don’t need that,” and grabbed the biggest 5” brush and said,”Here, you do it like this,” and proceeded to lay down a perfect edge, free-handed. Wow. How’d he do that? I learned that you didn’t have to go through the trouble to clean your roller and brush when you go to lunch. The paint would remain wet and fresh by carefully wrapping them in plastic grocery bags. I learned how to properly clean a brush, first rinsing it along with the bristles, then rinsing it against the bristles to get all of the paint out, then to finish by gently combing it with a wire brush. Drying was a method of holding the handle between your flat palms and rapidly spinning it back and forth then positioning your foot, toe upwards at a 45° angle to the ground and tapping the brush against your toe shaking the water out. “Take care of your tools and they will take care of you,” is what Virgil would say. Virgil was a great teacher and I’m the beneficiary of many lifelong teach-a-man-to-fish lessons from him.
I’ve always had a good hand and eventually I got pretty good at both painting and floating after Virgil patiently allowed me to fuck up for a while. But next to Virgil, Rick was always the best painter and floater, and everyone knew it. Rick was fast and accurate. Rick was also like Virgil in that he came from nothing (he’s from Nowhere, Alabama) and knew the value of hard work. Virgil counted on Rick and Rick did not disappoint. Together, I reckon they were the best one-two floating and painting punch in Houston. Virgil’s museum painting crew was comprised of serious artists who all eventually did well, but back then when we were down on our knees for hours painting, to most museum staff we were just the help. We would paint a gallery a one-of-a-kind, specially mixed color that was just right for the upcoming spectacular show, then the curator would stroll in, take a look, and change their minds. We’d often shake our heads, murmuring, “What a dumb shit” amongst ourselves while thinking, “I just finished painting this goddam room like I was told.” Not Virgil. To him, the more fickle mind changes there were by curators, the better. As far as he was concerned, he’d paint as many different shades of any color of paint as he was asked. It just meant more money.
Virgil was a regular guy and liked to relax doing regular guy things. He liked to fish, play golf, and play pool. And, having a sharp mind and true hand, he was very good at all of them. He had regular pool and golfing buddies, some of them artists, like Perry House and Butch Jack, some not. I’ve never really liked pool so I never played with him. Nor did I ever golf with him, not having re-taken up the game until somewhat recently. But I have fished with Virgil. One of the last occasions when I really spent quality time with Virgil was on a small fishing trip on a friend’s private ranch lake. He caught fish, I didn’t.
With Virgil, it was always just “Virgil,” his last name being unnecessary. How many people do you know named “Virgil”? The artist community was small back then. Everyone knew Virgil. He had a studio at Commerce Street for a while until the chaos of Commerce got to be too much for him and he left. Then he carved out a space in his house where he did his later works.
This is the first decade anniversary of Virgil's death. Virgil never had a major one-man traveling show during his lifetime, proof-positive that museums "don’t know shit," as he would complain. And, as always, he was right.
January 15, 2019