And in the simmer, there is the creation of something ephemeral, like an exquisite sauce, like his barely visible images of Memorial Hall on haunting painted-white canvases, the images coming into being and vanishing at the same time.
And why not make it a cooking metaphor? On this snowy afternoon, the cerebral-yet-ethereal, complex-yet-chummy, chapeauxed but not mustachioed Tom Chimes is putting aside his bowl of soup to try to explain it all.
And with a 50-year retrospective now open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this good-natured gentleman who lives alone on Washington Square and fancies himself a hermit is still very much that favorite son of Greek immigrants who ran a seafood caf at 31st and Girard, not to mention the father of Dmitri Chimes, of Dmitri's, the grilled-octopus restaurateur, another Philadelphia cult hero.
"I'm trying to carry on this underground thing, but it's not working," he jokes about the prospect of the big show, Thomas Chimes, Adventures in 'Pataphysics, which opens today and includes 48 enigmatic panel portraits of Jarry and other literary and art heroes with whom Chimes has been obsessed for decades. A companion show at the Locks Gallery on Washington Square, The Entropy Paintings, opens March 2.
Chimes subscribes to Marcel Duchamp's notion of the serious artist having to "go underground." He says he achieved the underground state decades ago by retreating to Philadelphia - he was born on Elfreth's Alley - after early success in 1960s avant-garde New York.
Back then, he was painting boldly colored Matisse-inspired canvases of crucifixions, symbol-laden landscapes with stars and ladders. The Museum of Modern Art bought two works.
But Chimes recoiled from encounters with the abstract expressionists in favor at the time, artists whose work he still disdains as lacking in the intellectual underpinning he demands of his art, and whose personalities he found arrogant and foreboding. He proceeded to work, in the relative obscurity this city can bestow on an artist, on a career that curator Michael Taylor says can feel like the work of four artists.
"When I finish a painting, I have to deny and reject what I just finished," Chimes says. "That denial and rejection causes the next thing to happen."
In the late '60s, he began creating a series of tongue-in-cheek metal boxes, often featuring images of male genitalia and allusions to masturbation among other topics, inspired by Joseph Cornell and Duchamp and in the spirit of pop art.
But it was during that time, in a bookstore in New York, where Chimes came upon the work of Jarry - the 19th-century writer who came up with the notion of "pataphysics" - an absurdly subversive pseudo-science of exceptions to rational thought and imaginary solutions - then drank and ether-ed himself to a roguish early demise.
Jarry's writing and persona - he rode around France on a bicycle and packed a revolver - inspired artists from Picasso to Duchamp. But Chimes struck his own chord. He set about creating exhaustively researched dark-hued portrait series of Jarry and his "kindred spirits" - the pataphysical home team, as it were - framed in large wooden Eakinslike panels. His subjects include Jarry, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Ubu, Jarry's notoriously scatological king.
And if there is a contradiction in using a traditional art form to evoke such radical thinkers, perhaps the pataphysical point of the contradiction is the contradiction itself.
In any case, Chimes wants the viewer to go searching for the who and the why behind the images, to find a copy of Jarry's "Exploits and Opinions Of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician," or go work out the meaning of ethernity (ether plus eternity) or entropy, the start of the end even at the beginning.
Speaking of which, here's a Chimes story, his Duchamp moment, akin to Duchamp's famously cracked Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors).
In 1991, he worked with poet Stephen Berg to install a 1,123-foot poem on stones along the Schuylkill. Not long after it was completed, the first 250 feet fell into the river. For Chimes, it was a most pleasing entropic display, and proof of his kinship with Duchamp and Jarry.
"Oh, we just loved it," he says. "The words that appeared on the remaining wall were 'Could Die Here.' As soon as the artist puts the last stroke on the canvas, it begins to deteriorate."
But even as Chimes prides himself on the cerebral nature of his work, his artistic life has been influenced by times of depression and sadness; even at 85, he says, childhood dreams still haunt him.
In the late 1970s, Chimes' marriage began to unravel. By 1980, he had moved into a studio at 17th and Spruce and despaired at what to paint. "This is the first time in my whole life I've ever been alone," he says.
His sadness led him to abandon the darker portrait series of dead people (the only living subject was his wife, Dawn). With the help, he says, of a little wine and a large canvas left behind by another artist, he painted a waterfall landscape.
Soon, he began a process of removing color from his work, beginning a new phase of his career that still consumes him: the white paintings, with shrouded images of Memorial Hall and blurred images of Jarry and Faustroll and the like.
Taylor believes his subject is often memory itself. "To paint memory is something very difficult to do. And he brings it off."
The reduction of color soon became a systematic reduction in size. Most recently, he created a series of 3-by-3-inch oil on panel white paintings of spare outlines that correspond to the final line of Finnegans Wake: "A way a lone a last a loved a long the." It is starting to feel like an endgame.
While Jarry's behavior at the end became more and more crazed and ridiculous, and Duchamp ultimately stopped creating art and decided to simply play chess, Chimes is still grappling.
"He just continues on," says friend and gallery owner Heidi Nivling. "His work concentrates that amazing energy. Even the tiny work is full of intelligent and inspired energy."
He works at his art every day in a Spartan apartment with a twin bed and simple workspace. He spends all waking hours going round philosophical and etymological puzzles, equations and theories, but also, still just grateful for being able to figure out the next canvas.
After all, you can't get to the bottom of it, only the end of it, as everything in his art is inevitably reduced, colors become white, large canvases get smaller, words of poetry fall into the river, people grow old.
But then, Chimes seamlessly moves from the futility of trying to defining God to what he'll wear for the museum's opening.
"I'm going to dress with a tweed jacket and all that, but to make it pataphysical, I'm going to wear a red tie with eyes all over," he says. "And I'm going to wear my hat the entire time."
Contact staff writer Amy Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
"Thomas Chimes: Adventures in 'Pataphysics" opens today and runs through May 6. For information, call 215-763-8100.
Coming Sunday: Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski reviews the exhibit.
Take a closer look at Thomas Chimes' work at the Art Museum's Web site via http://go.philly.com/chimes