The Ego and the Ecstasy

Sculptor Raffaele Martini Pandozy wages a one-man war to revolutionize Dallas' aesthetic from inside his South Dallas fortress

The sculptor's fortress rises above a South Dallas neighborhood that has long since gone decrepit. His home is an island, surrounded by a sea of busy streets.

It is walled off on three sides by an 8-foot, black metal fence, jagged at the top, and on its fourth side by a brick wall rimmed with coiled razor wire.

From the street, one sees the form of two sculpted human figures, headless and cast in concrete, peering over the top--castaways stranded behind the fence, never to be rescued. Behind them, two metal hands clasp in a perpetual handshake.

The sculptures beckoning from inside are designed to spark curiosity, but the forbidding walls and fences make you think twice about taking a peek. Come close, but not too close. Beyond these barriers are additional layers of security: alarm systems, motion detectors, and cameras. This is a private island.

But the inner surroundings appear much more inviting to the few who have set foot on these shores. Roses and other flowers line a parking lot. You discover that an entire menagerie of sculpted creatures surrounds a two-story, light-brick building nearly invisible from the street.

A large, polished aluminum figure sits at one corner--a stylized angel extending an offering. There are flexible shapes in the yard, woven metal strips that spin and sway in a strong wind. The headless castaways rise on wooden pedestals amid a jungle of weeds and flowers. The clasped hands are in a series of six, enclosed in diamond-shaped metal frames. They were designed to twirl in the wind, but their base has rusted, and they are still.

This is the private sculpture garden of Raffaele Martini Pandozy, a Dallas-based artist whose singular aesthetic is borne partly of seeming egomania, partly of seeming genius. Since 1972, he has made the former Tiferet Israel synagogue at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Good-Latimer and Old South Central expressways his home, studio, and refuge.

The sculptures outside the former sanctuary and the works hanging on the walls inside it are a time line of the sculptor's artistic and intellectual development, he says. Look around and see how ideas develop, how themes are explored, forever changing the artist who made them. The works become more and more abstract the closer they come to the present. Pandozy, who is 59, says it shows his contempt for form.

"I condemn style," Pandozy says, haughtily. By style, he means the form his artwork takes. "Style is not the word to describe art. You have to interpret art. What kind of human value does the artist bring about, expose? What has he been able to find out about life, about nature, about the phenomenon of the universe? The artist is essentially a researcher."

Such pronouncements come easily from Pandozy. He received his doctorate in the philosophy of art education from New York University, producing a three-volume, 1,500-page tome on how people should look at art. The work, which took him six years to complete, undoubtedly caused plenty of late nights for his doctoral advisor.

Pandozy has spent the last 10 years revising his thesis for a similarly weighty book on the subject. It is going to be "the bible of art," he says, matter-of-factly. He is writing this sacred text from the walled environs of his studio in South Dallas.

Pandozy is animated when he describes his ideas, and sips a glass of wine to "help loosen my tongue." He is an average-sized man, with a halo of unruly white hair. He has large sculptor's hands, calloused and thick. His clothes are rumpled but clean, favorites worn again and again for years. This day, his faded yellow shirt shows a faint wine stain near the collar.

He pulls out files--an array of papers, manifestoes, and pamphlets--espousing his labyrinthine theories. Emerging from a maze of rhetoric, he explains that his basic idea is this: The artist shall provide a cultural service to society through art that informs, uplifts, and is--in his words--important.

Perhaps needless to say, Pandozy is certain that his work is important.
"An artist who doesn't try to grow or become conscious of social positions is an artist who is good for nothing," he says, noting that he has paraphrased the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

He doesn't always carry on this way. He also talks about his three children, his life in Italy, and his girlfriend Annette, but saves his more esoteric comments for art and artists. The artist, he says, has become disconnected from the community he was made to serve. What is needed is a reintegration of the arts and artists into everyday life.

Yet this credo is at odds with how Pandozy has lived his own artistic life in Dallas. In this city that he describes as his adopted home since arriving in 1970, he lives in obscurity, a memory in the minds of local artists and a cipher to the surrounding neighborhood.

Yet in New York City and his native Milan, Italy, Pandozy is a respected and successful sculptor who has made a very comfortable living from sales of his artwork. Gallery owners and artists from abroad call him a visionary--a tag that Pandozy readily adopts for himself.

His isolation from the South Dallas community around him is symbolized by the elaborate security measures on his tiny island. He hardly ventures into the neighborhood. The Pandozy-designed fence that surrounds his home is bulletproof, forged from one-eighth-inch-thick steel. The jagged top isn't merely decorative. Each point has been sharpened to a razor's edge, capable of inflicting a serious wound to intruders. A buzzer or gate opener are the only ways inside.

Pandozy makes no apology for the fortifications. Indeed, he is rather proud of them. In Italy, he says, you always see things like this. He points to the security cameras at the corners of the building. While he claims he isn't fearful of his neighborhood, he says he doesn't believe in taking chances. Besides, you can't be too careful. Once, a police car on a high-speed chase crashed into his fence, destroying one of his intricate sculptures.

But a check outside these walls reveals that Pandozy also is isolated from the artistic community of which he speaks. Mention his name to local sculptors or gallery owners, and you'll get either a look of befuddlement or one of surprise and nostalgia. "Is he still around?" many ask.

Jealousy and suspicion wall him away from the artists here, Pandozy says. His ideas are complex and inclusive, while Dallas is parochial and simple. People didn't understand what he was trying to show them back when he was trying to show them something. He is a victim of his own advanced ideas, he says.

"I am a complex artist," he says, without a trace of irony. "I am a copy of nobody."

Many Dallas artists say it wasn't his ideas but his ego that kept him on the margins of the local scene. Pandozy was brash and uncompromising when it came to touting his own theories. In Dallas, a city that prefers gentle cajoling to coarse wheedling, his style may have grated.

"I think he is flaky and arrogant," says a director of a university gallery who asked not to be named. "He had a reputation as an operator."

These artists also point out that Pandozy hasn't been a significant "force" in the Dallas art scene since the late 1970s.

Yet Pandozy says he has few regrets about how his life has turned out in Dallas. He has been true to his own spirit, true to his destiny. Some day, when he is gone, people will comprehend.

"It is going to take years for people to understand," he says expansively. "Maybe I will be dead 100 years before they actually discover it. I will leave behind a lot of work unsold and unshown. I will leave behind a lot of ideas unread, and books unpublished."

Pandozy acknowledges that his work is hard to understand. It is meant to be so, because he wants to force people to think.

"My work is difficult," he says. "My work has become a criticism of criticism--sort of a self-reflection of art. It's just like you look in the mirror and ask yourself, 'What is wrong with me?'"

He is out to change the way we look at art, he says. He will accomplish this through his revised dissertation. Fusing history, philosophy, sociology, and literature, Pandozy comes to the conclusion that the way we look at art is rooted in preconceived notions about either the artist or the kind of art produced. As a result, the work's original intent is lost.

Pandozy recalls an incident in which he saw a beginner's art group looking at one of Jackson Pollock's paintings. The teacher asked the students what they saw in the work. Pandozy grimaces. The point of Pollock's paintings wasn't to see some house or tree or bull in the drippings, he says. It was to show that order and visual ideas were being destroyed.

"There is a context that you should read in the art," he explains. "You can't read it in another context. It's just like taking the whole development of thoughts and ideas and throwing them in a dumpster."

The loss of historical context has been accompanied by the loss of the essential importance of art, he continues. Because of this loss, art no longer is essential in society. It is not integrated into education or politics or entertainment.

"Therefore, artists are totally disconnected from the world," he explains. "That is why, when one thinks of an artist, you always think of someone kind of weirdo who does his own thing."

This, of course, is exactly how people view Pandozy. In his South Dallas neighborhood, few people know who he is, though they find the presence of his fortress slightly strange.

"I'm not sure what that is," says Robbye Jackson, looking at Pandozy's island. She lives in a house in a quiet neighborhood behind the building. "I thought it had something to do with nuns."

When told that the house belongs to an artist, she shakes her head. "Is he black?"

These days, Pandozy lives only part-time in his fortress, dividing his time between Dallas and studios in New York City and Milan. When he's in town, he sees only the other tenants--all artists--who share his building in self-contained units, and a handful of friends. Pandozy sees no contradiction in this, only misunderstanding.

"I am a tremendously advanced artist. I am beyond my time, 50 years, at least," he says, without explaining how he came to that specific figure. "That has been my problem. I envision it as a much higher standard, not in terms of production, but in terms of presence and existence. I am controversial."

These bold statements are not without supporters.
Harry S. Parker, director of the Dallas Museum of Art from 1973 to 1987, says that Pandozy's work brings an intensity and an intellect that is often hard to grasp.

"While not always comprehending the philosophical base of his speculation, I have recognized the intensity and seriousness of his efforts," Parker wrote in a letter of recommendation for a National Endowment for the Arts grant proposal that Pandozy submitted nearly a decade ago. (He didn't receive the grant.)

"Some of his work is quite minimal," says Parker, who is now director of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco. "It was not representational work and required a certain sophistication to it."

Renato Danese, former director of the Pace Gallery in Manhattan, says the beauty of Pandozy's work is that it is simple, yet works on a variety of levels artistically and intellectually.

"Its accessibility does not compromise it," says Danese, who now owns his own gallery. "Sometimes when a work is too accessible, it loses its edge and importance. Art shouldn't look like art. It needs that rigor and edge. [Pandozy] doesn't compromise the density of his work."

Pandozy himself says he runs up against the insularity of Dallas' art scene--which he calls provincial, lacking in worldliness.

"The artist has to travel, otherwise you will keep painting your Texas landscapes," he says.

There is a bit of irony in that declaration. Pandozy admits he hasn't been to a gallery show in Dallas in years. He doesn't particularly like the galleries. They are "all minor, minor, minor things. They always show the same local things."

Pandozy, in contrast to the homegrown artistic talents, was born in Rome 59 years ago and was classically trained as an artist. Growing up, he lived in a house where individuality was encouraged and politics was part of normal conversation. His father was an anti-fascist, whom Pandozy says was jailed for his beliefs. His mother smuggled Pandozy and his sister out of Rome during the bombings of World War II by sending them to an agricultural boarding school.

Pandozy created his first sculpture fairly late in life, he says. He was 16, and made a mask of his face in plaster as he lay in a bathtub. Once the plaster set, he set about making the face look more like he saw himself--scarred and flawed.

Sculpture is the best way for him to express what he sees in his world, Pandozy says.

"I always remember looking at a painting and thinking that it's flat, you know, too illusory," he says. "I was never a lover of illusion. I am a lover of reality. I like to be shocked by reality. Sculpture is real. You don't have to switch yourself into a dreamlike fantasy to look at it."

For his own sculptures, Pandozy takes seemingly ordinary materials, like plaster or dirt, and elaborately styles them. For the past few years, Pandozy has made earthwork sculptures, using dirt as the main material. He has crafted metal frames and covered them with a blend of epoxy and tan soil; they look something like mud blankets.

"I am not going to interpret the material; the material has to represent what I want," he says. "Since my ideas are in perfect harmony with the times...I thought about earth as the prime, basic medium."

Pandozy hasn't always lived the hermit's life in Dallas. When he first arrived here from New York in 1970 with his wife and baby son, he says he did everything he could to become part of the local scene.

Dallas was his wife's hometown, and her parents encouraged the couple to come here after their attempts to live the artist's life in Woodstock, New York, didn't work out. Here, the couple found an emerging art scene. Things were still energetic and new. Artists were cutting their teeth on innovative projects, and fledgling galleries supported their works, says Patricia Margolin, who would later divorce Pandozy.

Pandozy wanted a studio and a foundry; he found his South Dallas studio through a real-estate agent. The building was a gutted mess, with squatters living inside. But he could squint his eyes and see its potential. The couple sank thousands of dollars into refurbishing the former synagogue, and used it as a home and work space.

The studio evolved into a promotional center for the arts, Margolin recalls. The couple began to host monthly salons where artists and activists met.

"I felt like the Gertrude Stein of Dallas," she says. "We had people from ex-offenders to doctors show up at every performance."

Weekly events at the studio featured African dance troops and appearances by civil-rights leaders, as well as artists and performers. Margolin never felt threatened by the neighborhood.

At the time, Pandozy was busy making inroads into the Dallas art community. He attended events at local galleries, had his work shown, and even managed to get a one-man show at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the DMA's predecessor. Back then, the museum featured exhibits by local artists that were almost always sparsely attended.

Today, two of Pandozy's works are part of the DMA's permanent collection, though they are not on display.

Pandozy made quite an impression on local artists back then. Many remember him as a man who possessed an innovative mind and a gift for self-promotion. He had a sculptor's personality--brash, overly confident, and uncompromising, according to Mike Cunningham, a sculptor who worked at Pandozy's foundry in the mid-'70s.

"Oh, yeah, sculptors are like that. I suppose it's because they operate from the premise only themselves and God can do what they do," he says, laughing.

Pandozy's self-promotion and cavalier attitude earned him the enmity of some. Arthur Koch, an artist and associate professor of art at Southern Methodist University, says he first met the sculptor in the 1970s. Pandozy was as brilliant as he was egotistical, and would use his great talent to justify bad behavior, Koch says. He remembers specifically that Pandozy would offer art students work in his foundry, and then not pay them for their efforts.

"Like many artists that have big egos, he felt that the quality of his art should justify" his actions, Koch says, adding that "talent doesn't justify everything."

The '70s and early '80s were productive times for Pandozy. He began a series of experiments with light on plaster, where he would carve images or words into white plaster. Lighting would create a three-dimensional effect. He also created his "negative sculptures"--bronze works that extended underground. The viewer would step onto a clear platform and look down at the sculpture. He also honed his theories of philosophy and art history.

But for all his activity, Pandozy ran into the age-old problem of having to make a living from his work. And with three children and a wife to help support, he needed to extend his horizons beyond Dallas.

So in 1978, he opened his studio in New York. Things weren't any easier, but at least in New York, he says, he had a better chance of actually selling a few pieces. And at least in New York, there were people to come see them.

Renato Danese was one of them. He met Pandozy in 1980, and was struck even then by what he termed Pandozy's "highly philosophical, high aesthetic" works. "He had a strong social sense in his work, and he wasn't afraid to go against some unwritten doctrinal position within the art world," Danese says. "He had carved out his own sort of conceptual island and was quite happy working within it."

The move to New York eventually turned out to be profitable. Pandozy began to sell his work, slowly at first, but increasingly in the past seven years, according to Evelyne Jesenof, his dealer from the Isidore Ducass Gallery in Manhattan. She calls his work deliberate. "It is based on philosophy, not the slapdash imagination of the artist," she says. "There is a reason for everything being done. And it is worth something."

Those who buy Pandozy's works evidently think so. Jesenof says she sells steadily for Pandozy--about 25 pieces to date. His sculptures start at $5,000. Last week, Jesenof sold a sculpture to a New Orleans business for $12,500.

Pandozy began retreating from the Dallas scene in the mid-1980s while he concentrated on getting his work shown abroad in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. His marriage had ended, and his children and wife left the state. He doesn't talk much about the breakup.

"It was the big problem of nature or nurture," says his 26-year-old son, Maximilian, who lives in Los Angeles. "Dad was always setting up situations to spark our interest. Mom wanted to let nature take its course."

Max became an artist himself, and his father was there to help. When Max later made the switch to acting, Pandozy, although not initially happy about the switch, still supported his son.

"My dad has always been on my side," Max says. "He's happier now that I'm making money."

Pandozy says his artistic life has been a constant struggle to explain and implement his grand ideas to a public that isn't ready for them. He has had devastating results in Dallas, he says.

He points to his effort to start the Dallas Contemporary Art Museum as his artistic Waterloo. He wanted to get back into Dallas art society, and to his chagrin, found the doors utterly closed.

It began in 1993 when Pandozy decided that what Dallas really needed was a contemporary art museum. It wouldn't be just any museum, but a place to encourage and educate artists to create "important" works.

Pandozy says he shelled out $70,000 of his own money to get the idea off the ground. He printed bulletins, hired a secretary, and waged a one-man public-relations campaign to get the word out about the museum.

"But they rejected me," he says of Dallas. "They [the other museums and galleries] saw me as competition.

"It was regionalism and protectionism," he adds. "It was so uncalled for. The arts have to be an open field...The more material, the more people, the better it is."

But some artists say this supposed rejection wasn't protectionism, it was weariness. Contemporary artists in Dallas had been down this road many times, says Don Schol, interim dean of the school of visual arts at the University of North Texas. The idea had come up before, but hadn't made it into reality--except for a contemporary art museum during the 1960s that was absorbed by the DMA. Pandozy's notion came along at a time when there was a lull in energy for such an effort, Schol says.

"I think a lot of the artists of my vintage thought it was a nice idea, but it probably wouldn't fly," he adds.

The premise for the museum itself was somewhat vague. A 1993 newsletter explaining the museum's concept was long on abstractions and short on concrete goals. The mission of the new museum would be to "establish art's social, philosophical, and moral responsibilities, expand individual artistic consciousness and the artist's intellectual horizon, and to advance and promote mainstream contemporary art in Dallas."

The strategies set forth to do this were equally grandiloquent, equally nebulous. Pandozy listed exhibitions, discussions, experimental artist-public interfaces, a research program, even a local and international art registry. Yet there was no talk of a space for these exhibits, nor talk of how much it would cost to get the program started. The museum would not be a museum in the traditional sense--meaning a space to show art, Pandozy wrote. It would exist "to stimulate intellectual growth and the production of better art."

Others saw the museum as another effort by Pandozy to draw attention to himself.

"It was the Raffaele Museum, and people generally weren't too interested in that," says the university director who wishes not to be named.

Pandozy laughs at the references to his ego. Of course he has an ego, he says; all artists do. But it is the type of ego that makes a difference, he explains. There is an ego that does things to make you look good, and there is a transcendental ego--one that lets you see things happening even when others can't.

"They call them people of vision," he says dreamily. "All people of vision have a transcendental ego. You can't put one guy with vision and a beer drinker in the same room and have them have the same kind of talk."

People just couldn't grasp Pandozy's vision.
"I was terribly disappointed," he says. "I said to myself, 'Why do this? Nobody appreciates it. People look at you as if you are doing this for your own ego.'"

A recent day found Pandozy in full rant. He had just been in Deep Ellum and had seen the "art" being installed beside Good-Latimer Expressway. He hated it.

"It is so tacky!" he says. "When an artist puts himself out there at that level, he is supposed to make a social statement. That is just fool cool. If that is the future of art, then we are in big trouble."

Dallas still doesn't get it, he laments. Monumental art, public art, is not supposed to be temporal or of the moment. It is supposed to be timeless. It is supposed to be concerned with human values.

"After three days, that should be wiped out," Pandozy says. "Those pieces should go. They are making a statement that is no statement, and it defeats the purpose of public art."

It isn't often that he gets so worked up about local art. Pandozy usually isn't here to see it these days. He spends most of his time away from Dallas, venturing here only to check on his rental studios. He also works on his book in Dallas, though he no longer sculpts here. It is too difficult to create sculptures here and then ship them to New York or Milan, he says. He is, by his own admission, completely cut off from the community around him in Dallas.

So why is he still here? Habit. "I own this building," he says. "I cannot sell it. Look where it is."

He has chosen his exile, and he will endure the misunderstanding. It is his lot, a mantle he wears with some pride.

"You have to be a free, uninhibited researcher," he says. "The artist takes on a thematic, explores the idea, and once he feels it is explored, he goes to the next one. If he stays with that idea all his life--and you can see that with some artists who have done the same thing all their lives--they are nuts.

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