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Image of Break on through the other side

Sam Messer , b. September 11, 1955

Break on through the other side

90 x 128 in. (228.6 x 325.12 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: gift of Phoebe Kwass
Accession Number: 2013.76


Sam Messer’s Break on through the other side concludes his series of 50 portraits of folk painter Jon Serl. In 1990, 34-year-old Messer met 96-year-old Serl, who, for the last three years of his life became Messer’s recurring sitter and influential mentor. Messer regularly drove out to Serl’s house in the California desert seeking moments of personal connection to capture on his thickly impasto canvases. While the series formally ends with Last Portrait, the picture Messer painted the day Serl died, and a small group of posthumous images, Break on through the other side—painted by Messer two years after Serl’s death to capture his fleeting memories of Serl’s world1—provides emotional closure to their relationship, as the artist reflects on his final walk through his late friend’s house and garden.

Break on through the other side is a rare occurrence in the artist’s oeuvre in that it draws—in equal parts—on experience and memory. The milky white swirls surrounding the figure and golden yellow arc around the top of his head function as a halo of sorts, marking the subject’s departure from the earthly world, where his spirit still lingers. The composition2 brings together real-life elements in a somewhat fantastical arrangement: the red and yellow sign—letters incised into the think impasto paint—that reads “CLEAN ENOUGH TO BE HEALTHY, DIRTY ENOUGH TO BE HAPPY” could be found near the porch of Serl’s Lake Elsinore house, while Patches, Serl’s black-and-white Chihuahua, trailed him loyally everywhere he went.

Beneath the loose, seemingly careless brush strokes lies a system of deeply deliberate organizing principles. The visual contrast between vibrant, primarily warm colors, such as yellow and red, dominating the left half of the painting—the garden—and the somber, primarily cool grays and purples dominating the right half—the interior—symbolizes the liminal state of the subject between life and afterlife. The depiction of the figure with his back toward the viewer clearly marks his departure from the world of the living, while the tones of black and purple—traditionally mourning colors—in which he is rendered link him chromatically to the right side of the canvas.

While Messer emerged from the New York-based neo-expressionist movement of the 1980s, elements of a shared visual background with his contemporary neo-expressionists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente, intermingle with early aspirations to emulate the immediacy of earlier actionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. It is Serl, however, whom he credits with attuning him to his sitter’s inner world and encouraging him to capture the emotional charge of the moment. “Their empathy for each other,” recounts writer, film director, and Serl’s close friend Eleanor E. Gaver, “— and the visceral recognition of himself in the other — changed their relationship from that of model and artist to a collaboration between the ‘sitting painter’ and the ‘working painter.’”3

Kelley Tialiou
Charles H. Sawyer Curatorial Assistant | Librarian | Archivist

1. Sam Messer, correspondence with the author, September 10, 2014.
2. The treatment of exterior and interior space in Break on through the other side was sparked by conversations Messer had at that time with fellow artist Kiki Smith. Ibid.
3. Red Lips, essay in One Man By Himself: Portraits of Jon Serl (West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press, Inc., 1995).

Exhibition List
This object was included in the following exhibitions:

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