Artist, Promote Thyself

March 25, 1990

By Kristina Feliciano of The Sentinel Staff

Painter Walter Gaudnek knows how to get attention. He got Johnny Carson's when he painted the famous host's white suit. He gets his students' attention at the University of Central Florida with his straight-forward talk on art and self-promotion. And as a youth he got the attention of a Nazi commandant and talked his way to freedom.

World War II had just ended. Gaudnek and his family were slave laborers in Czechoslovakia, desperate to be free.

But a soldier refused to release them, forcing the boy to begin what would be a lifelong practice in the fine art of persuasion.

Gaudnek went to the top - to the commandant - and soon found himself and his family on a train to freedom.

He's been preaching self-promotion ever since.

Forty-four years later, Gaudnek presides over a class of about 20 at the University of Central Florida. Today, as on most days, he wears a wide, double-knit polyester tie over a cotton pin-striped shirt. His pants are made of heavy cotton and are rolled up a few times. He enters the room and notices the surf shop advertisement on a student's T-shirt.

''Why don't you wear a shirt with your name on it?'' he asks. The student is caught off guard and can think of nothing to say. ''Why do you want to advertise for somebody else? What do they do for you? Why don't you advertise for yourself?''

You might say he's already started his lecture for the day: the importance of self promotion.

''I never asked somebody to motivate me. I'm always motivated,'' says Gaudnek, his large hands brushing aside long gray hair. His hazel eyes twinkle when he talks about motivation. Motivation and art. He is never without either. In his job as art professor at the UCF, a post he has held for 20 years, he teaches both subjects - mostly by example.

''He's trying to prep fine artists to make them think about selling themselves as well as their art. He thinks it's equally important to act like an artist as to be an artist,'' says Michael Flanagan, a senior at UCF and Gaudnek pupil.

''He likes to tell the story about how Dali once went to the opening of his own show with a loaf of bread tied to his head.''

While Gaudnek hasn't resorted to wearing food to his own shows, he has been known to part from convention once in a while.

Like the time the palm trees in his front yard died, and he painted them day-glo green and orange. Or when he appeared on the Tonight Show and used Johnny Carson's white suit as a canvas.

A LITTLE ECCENTRICITY GOES A long way in the art world. Art patrons can appreciate an artist whose life is as noteworthy as his art. Gaudnek's work is in the private collections of at least one prince, princess and count in Europe, one United States president and one American billionaire developer. European car companies Audi and Porsche have Gaudnek works in their corporate collections. And his works have been exhibited in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Munich, West Germany.

But Gaudnek landed his first exhibition in the usual way. He schmoozed. He wined and dined the right people.

It was 1952 and Gaudnek was in his first year of study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. He and a fellow student decided the best way to show their work was to organize an exhibit.

Their plan was simple. They would secure an exhibition space and invite established artists to show their work, with the understanding that Gaudnek and his friend could include their own work in the show as well.

This is where the schmoozing comes in. They approached already well-known artists and sold them on the idea. It was an easy sell. All the artists had to do was show up with their work. Gaudnek and his friend would install it and see to the red tape of organizing the show.

Gaudnek knew they would need big names. He knew the opening night would have to be spectacular. So he went straight to the top. He tracked down the mayor, who happened to be buying his lunch at a tomato stand. Gaudnek bought a tomato, too, and soon they were chatting and eating their tomatoes. The mayor agreed to appear at the exhibition opening. That was the wining and dining part.

Five years later, Gaudnek earned a graduate diploma from the Academy and won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he studied and taught for two years. After attaining a master of arts degree from UCLA, he set his sights on New York City. He could work on his Ph.D. at New York University and immerse himself in the art scene. He just had to find a way to transport his canvases across the country.

His friends came to the rescue. They built him a coffin in which to carry them.

''I wanted it to be a happening when I arrived in New York,'' he explains.

A happening is anything that attracts media attention, something crucial to the artist's existence. He initiated a class at UCF called Happenings Art. The goal of the class is to create an event, performance or art work, that will bring publicity. Even when he is painting in his studio, he uses a screening process to test his final product. ''I take photos to see how they (the paintings) reproduce. Today, in the age of mass media, an art work has to reproduce well,'' he says.

Gaudnek has seen his work in many publications and he knows that the recognition can mean winning a new patron or making a sale. That's how he sold his first painting in New York City. He had arrived in the summer of 1959 with little money and no connections. He needed a place to stay and a place to show his work. Then he found the Image Gallery.

''New York galleries are slow in the summer. The owner of the gallery was closing it and asked if I wanted to rent it for $60 a month for three months.'' Gaudnek set up there. ''It had a half bath as big as a closet. I had a sleeping bag in back. There was no icebox, no fan. It was terribly hot in summer.''

And the food wasn't exactly wonderful, either. ''I lived on frankfurters, unless someone invited me to dinner,'' he says. But it was a chance to be seen and to meet ''significant people,'' as he calls them. One of these people was Emily Genauer, former New York Herald Tribune art critic. She wrote about him in a piece titled ''Youth Takes Over.''

His paintings ''manage to be personal and powerful, dynamic in line, occasionally subtle in texture, and organized with a sure sense of spatial relationships and tensions,'' she wrote. That article brought Gaudnek his first paying customer, who spent $800 on one of his paintings.

But it was Mademoiselle magazine that brought Gaudnek to an especially significant person - Johnny Carson. In 1961, he was fresh from the success of his labyrinth, ''Unlimited Dimensions,'' a series of tall canvases painted in black and white, some with swirls, some with silhouettes. He cut large holes in each panel and arranged them in a maze. It was participatory art - gallery-goers proceeded from one panel to the next by stepping through the holes.

He had a newer and grander loft and he was hosting exhibitions, sometimes filming them.

One day some fashion models, on their way to their photo shoot on the next floor of the building, wandered into his studio. The building's elevator opened directly into his studio, so he was used to visitors. He took every opportunity to show his art, this was no exception. The models told their photographer about him and soon Mademoiselle requested his paintings for use in a fashion spread. One of the editors told Johnny Carson about the artist and it wasn't long before Carson invited Gaudnek to appear on The Tonight Show.

The artist had never owned a television set and had never heard of Johnny Carson or The Tonight Show.

''I went on the show with one of my environmental creations. I was very serious. But Johnny Carson, Patrice Munsel and George Jessel made fun of me. And I didn't know it. When I saw the program later, I cried,'' he says.

The next time out he fared much better against the talk show monarch.

''When I saw the editor, she said Johnny Carson liked me very much and they wanted to have me back. This time I was determined not to be made fun of, but to make fun of him (Carson). I told him I would only go back if I could put him in a white suit and paint him, include him in my canvas.''

Carson agreed. He and Gaudnek made the cover of TV Guide.

DURING WAR II IN Czechoslovakia in 1944 Gaudnek's father, a former corporal in the Czechoslovakian army, caused a controversy by openly declaring that Germany had lost the war. Gestapo agents arrested and beat him. He died in a hospital one week later.

After his father's death in 1944, the Nazis shipped 14-year-old Gaudnek, his mother and sister to a labor camp. For two years they traveled by cattle car from town to town and camp to camp. They were placed on the auction block and sold to the highest bidder. A factory owner bought them.

At the end of the war, the Gaudnek family found freedom with the last shipment of slave laborers out of Czechoslovakia. But one of the soldiers refused to let them on the train. Gaudnek pleaded with the commandant on behalf of his family and persuaded him to add their names to the list to be freed. The commandant was so impressed, he gave Gaudnek money to distribute among the prisoners and appointed him ''wagon leader'' for the trip to West Germany.

In New York City in 1961, Gaudnek's childhood manifested itself in violent, emotionally charged paintings. He painted huge canvasses of black and white Medusas, snakes and beasts.

''Sometimes very heavy emotional experiences are stored away, like my end-of-the-war experiences, which left a deep mark in my previously beautifully protected soul,'' he says. ''And naturally I did not deal with that shock right away. I didn't go to art school to deal with that shock and I wasn't thinking about my war experiences. I was just looking for the new world.''

FOR MORE THAN 10 YEARS, THE new world was New York City, where he lived from 1959 to 1970. He was immersed in the art scene. There were parties and exhibit openings, happenings and formal events like New York's first panel discussion on pop art, held at NYU, in which he participated.

In 1970 Florida Technological University, which became the University of Central Florida, offered him a position in its art department. Gaudnek liked the climate and he liked the growth potential of the area. Working at the university meant he could continue his art, teach and travel to Europe, where he has many exhibitions. Orlando was uncharted territory and Gaudnek meant to make a foothold for himself in Central Florida's arts community.

Johann Eyfells, a colleague of Gaudnek's at the university, calls Gaudnek's self-promotion ''admirable'' and says that Gaudnek is ''an under-appreciated personality in this area. We should be very receptive to people of his caliber.''

Gaudnek's students just have to go to class to benefit from his wisdom.

Collage class is held in what's called the Dome. It looks like a halved golf ball resting on a cement slab. Inside, the bare floor is paint-spattered and the handmade wooden workbenches are splintered and coated with many layers of spilled paints, plaster and cement.

This is Gaudnek's forum. Here he lectures on trends in art, social issues and marketing techniques. Each lecture is bound to include at least one anecdote from the past. Students who have been in more than one of Gaudnek's classes are especially familiar with the story of how he presented Nixon with a painting.

Nixon was in Orlando in 1973 to speak at a commencement ceremony at UCF, then FTU. The night before the ceremony, Gaudnek and his art department colleagues discussed the big day ahead. Lots of publicity, big name people, hoopla. Gaudnek knew a happening when he saw one. He told his colleagues that the president should have one of his paintings. He figured he would call the university president, Charles N. Millican, and arrange for the presentation of his painting. He called the university operator and asked to be connected.

''Tell him his old friend Walter Gaudnek is on the phone,'' he said. He heard the line being picked up and let loose with his sales pitch. ''Here's your friend Walter in the art department. I have a painting that fits tomorrow's theme. It's of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.'' The voice on the other end told him to bring the painting to the office in the morning, then hung up.

At 8:30 the next morning, Gaudnek stood in the university president's office with his work. Unfortunately, the university president knew nothing about his painting. But the Secret Service agents who had picked up on Gaudnek's call from the night before knew all about it. ''The president wants your painting,'' they said. The university president sent for wrapping paper.

Before they could finish wrapping and join the commencement, Gaudnek had a kidney stone attack and had to be rushed to the hospital. He missed the commencement, the publicity and his chance to make his presentation to the president. But he left the hospital for the airport and delivered the painting to Nixon, who was boarding Air Force One. No hoopla, but he did get a signed letter from Nixon, which is framed in his home.

GAUDNEK SITS IN HIS studio on the ground floor of his New Smyrna Beach home. The room is bright with natural light, and the unpainted wooden floorboards look new. He talks about his commission to paint two 14-foot-by-45-foot paintings for the lobby of the $10 billion Newport Office in New Jersey.

The commission enabled him to purchase his beach home, and he has since bought the lot next to it. He plans to build a swimming pool and a second studio for graphics, drawing and printmaking. He also has a three-story home and studio near Munich. The commission came from builder, philanthropist and art collector Samuel Lefrak. Lefrak saw Gaudnek's work and sought out the artist.

''I want you to see the company I keep,'' he says, pulling a magazine off an end table. ''Last month's Fortune magazine,'' he says, and flips to a page featuring Lefrak and his wife. He points to a number, a rather large number, on the page: $1.8 billion. That is what Lefrak is worth. He exclaims, ''$1.8 billion. Billion. Billion!'' He's on a roll now. He names other artists in Lefrak's collection. ''Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet.’'

Gaudnek has a saying about perseverance that he learned from his father. ''A hunter shouldn't throw his gun into the field because nothing showed up.'' The practical application of that can be seen in many of his achievements.

If he could find no established gallery to show his work, he started his own. The Neue Gallery in Germany, which he founded in 1953, is still alive today. ''The wall partitions that I put up are still there,'' he says. He founded another gallery at Long Island University's C.W. Post College in New York.

He keeps abreast of current social and political issues - the subjects of many of his paintings - with subscriptions to at least nine magazines. His wife, Audrey, has even more.

If he seems to be undaunted by obstacles, his paintings reflect a greater struggle. One of the most dominant symbols in his paintings is the labyrinth.

''Everything today is labyrinthine. There are no more easy solutions. You cannot say, 'We have too much crime - we need more police and prisons.' Even sex is no longer simple,'' he says.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are devoted to teaching. He will not teach summer school and strives to keep his painting days free of school-related responsibilities. It means starting the day at 5 a.m., driving the 65-plus miles to UCF and staying on campus until 10 p.m. It can be grueling, but he prefers to spend as few days as possible away from his art work. He warns that ''teaching can be a trap.''

He says that artists who teach can become bitter because they have to sacrifice their art for their job. ''We need good teachers, it's true. But we also need good artists,'' he says.

He could have chosen another job, other than teaching. He was offered directorship of the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas, and he was in the running for the position of dean of music and art at New York State University in Fredonia. But teaching has proven most compatible with his love of art. And he does love art.

''When people say, 'I love the opera,' and I ask them how often they have seen the opera and they say, 'twice,' they cannot love the opera. For me, love is commitment. I can't just say, you know, someday when I retire I will take up art. It's nice, but you will not be an artist. You will be an artisan; you will be a hobbyist.

''It's different, very different from someone who devotes his entire life to it. You go to bed in the evening, your last thought is art. You wake up in the morning, your first thought is art. And during the day, everything circulates around art. That's a commitment. That's a passion. That's a drive.’'