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A Brush With Madness : An Artist's 'Creative Behavior' Began Looking More Like a Mental Illness in the Town Where He Took His Life

January 21, 1988|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

On a cool, overcast afternoon last summer, Michael Balog hiked up to a windy bluff on the sage-covered hills above Ventura and pointed a .22-caliber rifle to his freshly shaven head.

He was dressed in a black martial-arts suit and Oriental shirt buttoned to the collar--part of one of the many identities he had adopted in his final troubled years. Underneath, a swastika-like Indian symbol was tattooed across his chest. Despite a long struggle with drug abuse and schizophrenia, his 41-year-old body had been kept sinewy by surfing and a vegetarian diet.

On the hillside overlooking the ocean where he spent so much of his youth, Balog fired a shot into his forehead. A jogger found the body later that day. There was no funeral, no mention of his death in the local papers and no obituary. In many ways, he was just another outcast whose tangled life had lapsed in obscurity.

But there was a time when Michael Balog commanded more attention, a time of rising celebrity, of possibility, of life without bounds.

A virtuoso painter and draftsman, Balog in 1972 leaped overnight from this small, seaside town to New York's most important contemporary galleries. In 1974, when he was 28, he was showing at the Museum of Modern Art.

That same year, Balog, pale, with piercing eyes and a dimpled chin, gazed out of an Esquire magazine photograph of two dozen artists, including the late Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. The caption hailed the group as "about as much artistic talent as has ever been packed" into any picture at one time.

Later, his charm and striking looks won him the attention of actress Diane Keaton, and his on-and-off-again affair with the actress landed them in the columns of a national gossip tabloid.

But Balog soon grew disenchanted with the pressures and pretense of the New York art world. In the late 1970s, he returned to Ventura, where he hoped that old friends and the surf would provide a more nurturing environment for his talent. Here, though, he gradually succumbed to his schizophrenic tendencies, an illness made worse by drugs and rejection.

Like his diverse body of work--which is on display through Jan. 28 at the Ventura College gallery--Balog's life exhibited a chilling duality.

At his best, he was a brilliant, witty, inspirational figure whose vision and intensity opened new worlds to those around him.

But his wit could quickly sour. Often, he turned unpredictably hostile, self-destructive and violent, ultimately alienating many of the people who tried to help him.

"He was a frightening genius," said Walter Stowe, one of Balog's closest friends and the last to see him alive. "He could be physically and emotionally threatening on one level and so sincere and perceptive on another level.

"There didn't seem to be a middle ground for him," he said. "It was one or the other."

Balog came from a family of individualists.

His father, Lester Balog, was a Hungarian-born union activist and socialist who made documentary films of farm workers in California during the Depression.

His mother, Frances, was an elementary school teacher and social worker who has spent most of the last seven years at sea as a junior purser in the Merchant Marine.

His sister, Leslie, is a civil rights attorney who works in Cuba for Radio Havana.

His 85-year-old maternal grandmother, distraught over the death of her husband, killed herself several years ago when she walked into the Pacific Ocean early one morning and never turned back.

For all that, Michael Balog had a seemingly typical childhood that was marked by physical fitness and a love for the outdoors.

Born in San Francisco in 1946, he grew up in a rural area near Chatsworth, in the hills above the San Fernando Valley, where he spent much of his youth exploring the canyons near his home.

At Simi Elementary School and, later, at Simi Valley High School, he was known as the class joker, the kind who could make the teacher as well as his classmates laugh.

Still, he was reserved about expressing his own feelings, and, as with his meticulous personal habits, preferred to keep unpleasantries concealed.

"He was very stoic," his mother recalled. "He wouldn't cry. He wouldn't admit he was frightened when he was. When he had his tonsils out, there wasn't a peep from him."

Love for Ocean

His artistic ability had begun to blossom at an early age, although Balog was more interested in the ocean than in drawing. In study hall, he would often sketch pictures of surfers and waves.

A regional wrestling champion in high school, he left after his junior year and finished his schooling at Ventura College, where he could be closer to the beach. He was given a surfboard for being on the local surfing team.

"He was the 'Barrel of Fun' guy," said Bill Delaney, a Ventura photographer and film maker who was one of Balog's closest childhood friends. "I thought this is a guy that's real talented and is going to do whatever he wants to do in life."

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