I knew Don Mochon for about twenty years, as employer, fellow-artist, and trusted friend. I met him first in the company of artists, mostly in and around Woodstock. My contact was the painter Edward Millman, and there were parties with David Smith, Fletcher Martin, Bud Plate, Philip Guston, and Julio de Diego, who was at that time married, mostly in absentia it seemed, to Gypsy Rose Lee, and who was a master of a paella cooked on an open fire. Everybody was poor, and we all experienced that dilemma whose horns were teaching and the studio -- what we owed younger artists and what we owed ourselves.
Don was deeply conscious of the humanistic and social values of architecture as well as of its technical demands. He peaked in Academe as acting dean of the RPI School of Architecture. More than once, when RPI's Dean of Architecture moved on to another appointment, Don was offered the crown, but he always declined it, consenting to serve as acting dean while a search committee looked elsewhere. During these intervals the school seemed to run more smoothly and policy to have more meaning; for Don, in addition to being a sensitive reader of character and courageous upholder of principles, was a truly talented administrator and diplomat. His style was gentle but his hand was sure. In his administration, he tried to transfuse into the routine and time-consuming drudgery of architecture courses some of the vitality and urgency running in the veins of artists he knew. It was during one of these interregna that Don hired me, as he had, earlier, Eddie Millman, to bring to three dimensional design a counterpart of Eddie's teaching of drawing, composition, and expression in color. Don benevolently insulated the two of us from bureaucratic obligations; he wanted us to remain as much artist as possible. He wanted, also, to become as much artist as possible; so there was always a reservation in Don's mind which made him shrink from complete academic fulfillment and to turn instead toward the solitude and immediacy of the brush against the canvas. He was a deeply committed painter.
While Don was yearning for the artist's life, he was trying, within reason, to live it, in part vicariously through the lives of his artist friends. However, "within reason" tended to insulate him from the very art he so devoutly wished, just as he had insulated Eddie and me from the bureaucracy. He could not go overboard. I'm sure he thought of it, and then made a prudent judgment. He painted and drew continuously, but this was still not the core of his existence. The climate of the time--the 50's and 60's--was Action Painting, which propounded an orthodoxy of total commitment to feeling, spontaneity, even abandon. Don did not trust his own talent and inspiration quite that far, doubting that his gifts were strong enough to carry him past the point of no return. He told friends that he didn't have what was necessary to be a great painter. Meanwhile, he continued rather privately, and with astounding perception and productivity, to pour out in pen, felt pen, and gouache, drawings and watercolors of brilliant virtuosity and acumen, which Don persistently belittled to his friends and RPI colleagues.
Then came the bold decision in 1966 to leave RPI and to establish and direct the new art gallery of the State University in Albany. This was a new beginning which brought a freer lifestyle and sharper identity. From then on, Don thought, looked and planned, drew and painted amid art and artists all day, every day. For the tragically brief remainder of his life his pen and bush were never still.
I think Don regretted to the end that he was not Kandinsky, Gorky, Rothko, Kline or de Kooning. It was not that there was, metaphorically, a soft "ch" instead of a hard "k" in his painting as well as his name. He was none of those abstractionists but he need not have regretted it. In them he was choosing the wrong ancestors. He should rather have invoked Hogarth, Daumier, Rowlandson, and Thurber. For Don was a rare satirical observer, endowed with conscience, insight, sympathy, and an exceptional command of graphic means. He looked deep into character, convention, mores and social structure; he could write in pictures. His cutting edge was sharp and, miraculously, without malice. Abstraction was, for this kind of talent, the wrong arena. For Don's art the human figure was absolutely essential.
Though he had a great firmness of character, Don Mochon was the most modest of men. It was difficult to get him to charge even a dollar for a colored drawing. His productivity was completely independent of demand. He shunned publicity and made no effort to develop an audience and establish a marketable reputation. He answered letters and accepted invitations with drawings. He gave notice of events with drawings. He was immensely generous to friends, students, and fellow artists. These drawings were not culls; they were among his best. Yet, if the possessors of his drawings were an audience, it must number thousands. Each year at RPI there would be a Mochon exhibition to raise money for student aid in which a hundred or more of his drawings would be pinned up and priced from 25 cents. All would go. It was only with great difficulty that Don was eventually persuaded to substitute a blind auction for these absurd, dictated prices.
Don's style, while anything but abstract, was indeed expressionist, with a leaning toward Max Beckmann. Like Beckmann, he could expand or compress any part of the human figure and retain full and convincing articulation; like him, he lived in the shadow of ugly enigmatic birds; like him, he was a master of the use of black with color. He perceived the pretentions, the appetites, the failings, and the unconscious absurdities of his fellow men. He also perceived the horrors of war, the tyranny of class, the bumbling of bureaucracy. He could jab at these with his sharp pen, getting under the skin, but never drawing blood. He could love the unlovables. There was always a hint of hope and a glimmer of benevolence in Don's version of the Comédie Humaine.
Donald Mochon Article