In many ways, Voice of Fire is not unlike a childhood acquaintance. We grew up together.
Barnett Newman’s progeny, birthed in time for Montreal’s Expo ’67, looked entirely alien to my young eyes. An American expatriate, Voice came to Canada that same year on a visit with his father.
He was tall, brash, awkward looking… unlike anyone else I’d met, and exactly as I expected an American to be. Voice said nothing, content to tower over us in uncomfortable silence.
He presented as someone that expected, if not demanded, respect merely for being who and what he was. Distant, aloof, unyielding. His self-absorbed manner exuded tangible power but was simultaneously repulsive. His silence made his meaning impenetrable. His purpose, unguessable. His intentions, unfathomable.
The nerve… to descend upon my town in this way.
I hated him.
Then he was gone. We didn’t see each other again until 1988.
By then I’d grown taller; Voice looked just as I’d remembered him. But something else had changed in me, too. I could understand his discomfort in being alone in a foreign land. It almost demanded a daunting, egotistical stance: understand me – accept me. Finally, I could identify with his need to command attention and yearn for deferential honour.
But something about him still bothered me, and when the Canadian government paid him a $1.8 million salary plus free rent to reside in their National Gallery, any sympathy I had for him was completely extinguished.
I wrestled with my feelings in the years that followed. I knew where he was but I avoided seeing him.
Recently, with us both now in the middle age of our lives, I felt ready to confront him once again to resolve our long estrangement.
I saw him from across the room and remarked at how well he’d preserved himself. While I’d grown rounder and softer around the middle, Voice was as tall and slender as he’d been in his youth. I was envious, but not angry with him. Clearly, his restraint had trumped my indulgence.
I walked closer, presenting myself directly before him so he could not help but notice. I felt ready to confess: to admit my jealousies and prejudices; to apologize that I really didn’t understand him, to proffer some commonalities of maturity, life and learning that might foment some new connection between us.
Voice looked down upon me sternly. He said nothing, seemingly content to watch me squirm uncomfortably before him. He could have easily offered a polite acknowledgement, a simple recognition of our past together, but I sensed that he was deriving enormous pleasure from my gesture of vulnerability. I’d come to him. It had been important for me to make this journey.
But he had not waited, and had certainly never missed me. I was nothing. For him, the encounter was another reiteration of endlessly routine work: another wide-eyed spectator, an adoring fan, an obtuse critic.
I felt my skin burned by the light reflecting from his lean, red garbed torso. I could not bear to remain. I turned and ran.
I’ve replayed this encounter many times… examining who we’ve both become.
I’ve changed over the years. I easily recognize the folly of what I’ve been and the gap that still remains between who I am and what I should aspire to be.
Voice is still Voice. Self righteous, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-serving.
What an asshole.