In the trickle-down way of things, I learned this week that one of my college professors– a friend, an influence, a delightful spirit– passed away in April.
Reinhold Marxhausen, "Marxy" to those around him, danced to his own music. At the time I met him he was approaching retirement... His mysterious presence arrived in and disappeared from campus at irregular intervals. I only had one formal class with him, Modern Art History, and remember quite clearly how we arrived for the semester final to find him giggling away in a room conspicuously devoid of a slide projector. (For in those days, youngsters, images were projected on screens by means of a bright light shining through transparent colored film.)
"No slides!" he hooted. "How can you have an art history test with no slides?" We wondered the same thing, but there it was... a written exam about Isms and such! No slides. No visuals at all. Mystifying. But this was a man who also built his own coffin from a kit... decades before he could expect to need it. He kept it in his studio and said it helped him not to be afraid of death.
There were many quirky Marxy moments during the four years I spent in Nebraska, but two stand out for me. One came about during my Sculpture 1 (and only) class when Marx, renowned for his "junk sculpture" assemblages, took a liking to an armadillo I fashioned from rusty corrugated pipe and rebar. He asked me what I wanted for it, and I took a deep breath and suggested an exchange for one of his trademark sound sculptures. The deal was struck and the armadillo went to his office desk. A few days later a Stardust appeared in my campus mailbox. I was the luckiest student. Ever.
But it was a moment shared across Marxy's garden fence, and not on campus, that comes to mind most often. I was passing on the sidewalk just as Marx was collecting his mail, so stopped to visit. Marx opened an envelope as we chatted, pulled out the contents and laughed a bright belly laugh.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"It's a rejection notice," he replied, gleefully chortling away.
Novice art-putterer that I was, I felt horrified. "That's FUNNY?" I said.
"Sure!" he exclaimed. "Look what they rejected."
He handed me a two-by-two slide. I held it up toward the sun and squinted, and then I laughed, too. The rejected piece had recently taken Best in Show honors at another (more prestigious, I might add) exhibition.
It was a hugely valuable lesson... and one which, 30 years later, still tempers each rejection notice I receive. Sure, it's disappointing not to get The Big Envelope. But every Little Envelope conjures up the smiling face of Marxy... and how can you not laugh along with a man like that? David Letterman couldn't help himself, either.