the artist trip

As a child, I loved coloring books and those huge boxes of Crayolas with dozens of different hues, particularly enjoying the unorthodox process of coloring a picture all in shades of brown or otherwise ignoring any link to "reality". I knew nothing of art and until the first trip to Europe had seen few paintings aside from the small collection of the Witte Museum in San Antonio. In school, I fared better in art appreciation classes than in actual practice. One teacher is especially remembered for insisting that my charcoal drawings were not dark enough. He wanted Rembrandt, I wanted Chinese watercolor; he was one of my more stupid teachers.

When I moved to Atlanta after my years in the Army, I lived very near the art institute and spent much time there. I met a local artist, Jarvin Parks, an eccentric in the Proust mode, who did elegant, gloomy canvases quite in tune with the literary work of his friends, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Jarvin had exhibited a few times in New York but then wisely decided he preferred the comfortable life of a provincial star and rarely ventured more than a few blocks from his spacious apartment-studio, where he would pour tea for the writers, musicians and painters who were the Southern provincial equivalent of the New York School. It was exciting to be included in those gatherings and although my primary intention was to "become a writer", I did a few experiments with canvas and oil paint, successfully enough to be commissioned to do several paintings.

One of Jarvin's friends was the architect, Hugh Mercer, then with Edward Durrell Stone's group in NYC. I mentioned my desire to visit Manhattan, which I had never explored on my own, and he invited me to stay at his apartment if I did. I was too shy to call him when I, not long thereafter, went to NYC for a week's visit, took a room in the YMCA instead, then called him. He scolded me for not having called when I arrived, but invited me to a dinner party on my second day there, and I met Edward Meneeley on that evening as well as Wayne Adams, both of whom were to play major roles in my life for the next six years. Wayne took me to the roof of their building on Central Park West and the night view from there, mixed with the glow of having seen "Breakfast at Tiffany's" for the first time in the afternoon, settled it for me. I had to be in Manhattan.

Number 14 Cooper Square was a small four-floor industrial building down the block from the venerable Cooper Union school building and directly across the street from the Five Spot, a Greenwich Village bar frequented by artists of the American Abstract Expressionist genre and their groupies, entertained by many of the major figures in American jazz music. Cooper Square was quintessentially downtown New York in the early sixties, an oasis melding almost conservative education in design and the "minor" arts with the quietly exploding developments about to revolutionize the New York, and thus American, art world, and the still thriving small businesses, streetfront or up flights of narrow stairs, maintained by people who had entered this country via Ellis Island in the era when the Statue of Liberty didn't lie and really meant "give us your tired, your poor ...".

We lived on the second floor, above a wholesale restaurant supply business and underneath a sweat shop, I mean a garment manufacturing business, which produced vast quantities of those little Jewish beanies. From early morning to early evening, except of course on Saturday, the neverending whirrrr of sewing machines could be heard overhead. This had the advantage of keeping the rent for our floor quite low. On the top floor lived a very eccentric artist and raconteur named Patrick Carey. For me, a wide-eyed naive nineteen-year-old still utterly dazzled by the whole fantasy of Manhattan, Carey achieved a sine qua non by insisting his toilet have no walls. Thus all fixtures normally closeted in a private room stood open to view, surpassing Derek Jarman's later decadence when he insisted upon the bathtub being a public piece of the furnishing in his London studio of the late Sixties. By then I was jaded enough to take a bath in it; in those earlier more innocent days I was always very careful to use the bathroom just before going to visit Carey's floor.

The loft was basically a long bare rectangle with very high ceilings. The front wall, facing the Square, was mostly glass, the only windows in the place, and in the far back corner was a door leading out onto a small roof terrace. It was still illegal to be living there despite the fact that all over downtown Manhattan and the Village, artists, dancers and musicians were living and working in similar spaces. It took a few more years for the city to wake up and see this Bohemian presence as an asset and initiate the Artist-In-Residence (AIR) program, after which one saw an almost overnight materialization of the little AIR signs by stairwell doors. Until that happened, at least some effort was made to disguise the fact that someone was actually living there instead of just using it for a workplace.

I entered this exotic world barely out of the Army, with a short interlude as an insurance company clerk intervening. I was going to be a "writer" but dabbled with painting. Even though very young and stupid, knowing almost nothing of the art these people were passionately creating and involved in, I did have enough sense to keep a low profile for awhile.

Except in Cooper Square. Invited to share that open industrial loft with its largely communal space, I saw immediately that M. Felix Katz had staked out his own area, right at the back, away from the noise of the Square (which isn't square), if not escaping the overhead sewing apparatus. This he had accomplished with the construction of a wall of vertical wooden louvres which could be, but rarely were, opened to increase the visual space of the main area. I tackled the problem by hanging two silk banners I had acquired in Atlanta during a holiday job at a department store, window decorations in an absurdly Picassoid harlequin style, and added behind them a cast-off chandelier-like fixture over the bed. Felix, of course, hated it. Our other loftmates, Edward Meneeley and three cats, ignored it.

I had no idea what an aesthetic nightmare it was. In retrospect, I think it was so outrageously gauche that many of our more sophisticated guests assumed it was a conscious and deliberate statement and may well have been the first brick in my reputation as something of an infant terrible.

Actually, Felix and I were both infants terribles and must have driven poor Ed crazy, even if we rarely took it out on the cats. Felix and Ed had been lovers. Even though Felix had already embarked upon one of his longest-lasting great loves, he still wanted to cling to his former role as mistress of the house and found frequent reason to complain about me privately to Ed, some of which were passed on to me, some justified, many not. One I recall with particular amusement was the complaint that I never walked naked through the loft, always had at least a towel wrapped around me on the path from bed to shower. My method of revenge was one evening, a hot summer one and everyone gathered being slightly drunk, Felix began to fantasize about a super decadent world where people would gather as we were and it wouldn't be seen as anything at all extraordinary if someone were just to masturbate while the conversation proceeded as usual. He may have been laying the groundwork to demonstrate the idea himself, but I promptly beat him (or myself) to the draw, continuing to converse in as ordinary a manner as possible.

Such exploits, of course, added to my reputation of being a somewhat bizarre young man, assisted by my being able to prattle about having taken tea with Carson McCullers on Flannery O'Connor's verandah and calling Mister Williams Tom instead of Tennessee, all legacies from my friendship with Jarvin Parks. Felix had his own trump in that he had begun to move in the Warhol circle, long before those most eccentric of all eccentrics had even grown near the public spotlight, but at that time the Warhol crowd was still looked upon as basically a bunch of weird people in the advertising racket and not taken seriously by the "real" art world, especially since it was still then dominated by the major figures of the Fifties.

Ed had studied with and was much influenced by those figures. He was originally from Wilkes-Barre, had served in the Navy, married and began his career as an artist in Philadelphia with some success. In those days, perhaps now too, a young artist arriving in NYC was starting anew, provincial success with rare exceptions meant nothing at all. Ed had studied with Jack Tworkov, had been around early enough to have known the Cedar Bar in the days when Franz Kline was still alive and helped make it a major gathering place for the Abstract Expressionists, and Ed had formed friendships with many of the major as well as peripheral players in that movement. So our social life was mostly among that group and dinner parties at Giorgio and Linda Cavallon's beautiful little house on the Upper East Side, the New Orleans-flavored shindigs at the Fritz Bultman house, more formal dinners with B.H. and Abby Friedman, and occasional visits to the exotic mansion of Alfonso Ossorio in Easthampton, with its magnificent Pollocks, all served for me not so much entertainment as an education in the inner workings of the New York art world and a glimpse into what that had been in the Fifties when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant force.

By far the largest part of the Cooper Square loft was dominated by Ed's working space. He was working both on sculpture, much of which was relocated to the roof terrace when completed, and a number of large canvases in preparation for an upcoming one-man exhibition at the Parma Gallery. There was a steady stream of people through the loft, old friends of his coming to share a drink and provide encouragement, past and future patrons looking to put a reserve on any work they particularly fancied before the exhibition took place, and occasional students who would come to work under his supervision.

I have said in some resumes that I "studied with" him. In a formal sense, this is not true, I never attended classes which he conducted for his real students. But I did learn much about the mechanics of preparing a canvas, selecting and mixing paints, and even, very gently on his part, was directed into ways of better achieving what I was attempting to do.

After a short while with experiments in the style of DeKooning and Gorky, I settled into some months of making canvases which were so like Jackson Pollock that even some of his friends would ask "where did you get your Pollock?". It was that background which, a few years later, inspired one of the more memorable sword-crossings of my career as an artist, events which were no doubt more frequent than was smart or politic. Perhaps encouraged by the presence at the dinner table of a notable British critic and art historian, plus the always generous supply of liquid available at Abby Friedman's elegant parties, Lee Krasner began to hold forth on the subject of her late husband. I sat silently appalled by her views on the role of Jackson Pollock in American art history, finally losing patience when she claimed he was so "unique" that he in fact had no influence on younger painters. Since I was in a definite position to know better and also because I had long considered Helen Frankenthaler to be one of the major explorers of the avenues opened by Pollock, I strongly disagreed with Mrs. Pollock. Helen's sister was also at our table, so the incident was certainly a multi-layered one. Mrs. Pollock was not at all used to being openly disagreed with, even less by an impertinent young man supposedly interested in a career as an artist. It was a stormy moment which did absolutely nothing to further that career, but I was certain she was dead wrong and I still think so.

One afternoon at our summer studio in Frenchtown, New Jersey, I was so fed up with the way one of those Pollock-influenced canvases was going, I folded it over and was about to junk it. We weren't rich, it was too much canvas to waste, so I opened it up again, intending to scrape it down and paint over the mess. What I saw was quite beautiful, a dense, detailed Rorshachian image, far more abstract expressionist in feeling than the series Andy Warhol later did.

After that "accident", I continued to explore the idea, making large canvases by manipulating the paint with a small wooden block once it had been poured onto the canvas and the canvas folded. There was more control to the process than was immediately apparent but there was still always some element of surprise when the canvas was unfolded. Influenced by the jazzy entrance of the pop artist group onto the scene, along with the subtle, beautiful paintings by Frankenthaler using acrylic paint on raw cotton canvas, I began to use plastic squeeze bottles filled with paint to draw images before folding the canvas, leaving the purely abstract designs behind. The abstract ones had been very successful, had gotten me invited to join the Bertha Schaefer Gallery, and had produced a steady income. The semi-figurative ones, however, were even more successful and were included in museum exhibitions and sold to major collections, both private and public.

One of my fondest memories of that time was traveling to Providence where one of my paintings was included in "The New Art" exhibition. The British critic, Sir Herbert Read, gave a brief lecture at the opening, standing in front of my portrait of Edith Sitwell.

But overall, I did not enjoy the social aspect of the life of an artist in Manhattan, even less the life of a "promising young artist", doomed to being nice to boring people who had lots of money and sometimes had the attitude of owning the artist as well as his work. There were exceptions, of course. It was an honor to be included in Richard Brown Baker's collection and he continued to provide moral support for many years, often with a wryly amusing style which included once bringing two bags of groceries to the Chelsea Hotel. It was also an honor to have the encouragement and support of B.H. Friedman, the more so since he had been a friend of Jackson Pollock who was and still is the American artist I most admire; Daniel Robbins, who was then a curator at the Guggenheim; and Samuel Adams Green, an up-and-coming figure on the curatorial scene who was so pleased with the sale of my Edith Sitwell portrait that he brought the cash in a bag, stood on a stool, and showered me with money.

Sam Green had a wonderful ability to make himself a delightful part of an artist's life and was an especially sporting participant in a new project I began shortly after that Sitwell portrait. Playing upon childhood memories of tracing around the hand with a pencil and the murder scene silhouette-on-the-floor image, I began a series of life size canvases, portraits produced by having the model lay on the canvas, tracing around the body, then pouring paint along one side of the silhouette and folding the canvas. The exact symmetry and the sometimes very amusing "accidents" of the blotted paint line, plus the bright elementary color schemes I chose, made for some very striking results. And, of course, I insisted the model "pose" naked. Although Sam agreed without hesitation to participate, when the moment came he got very nervous and hesitant, as was the case with many who became part of the series. Sam insisted everyone else had to leave the studio and with that condition accepted, finally removed his clothes and lay down on the canvas. I can say without reservation that his was one of the finest bodies I traced around for the series and also one of the few I was seeing unclothed for the first time, giving the session another special quality. After the tracing was finished and he had regained his clothed state, he impishly apologized for not having gotten an erection. A delightful fellow, Samuel Adams Green, and it was a pleasure in later years to watch him achieve the success in curatorial circles which he definitely deserved.

By that time the AIR program was taken for granted as a permanent feature of Manhattan life, Ed and I had been spending summers in New Jersey for several years and had acquired a lot of antique, or merely old, furniture and artifacts from the frequent "estate auctions", so one part of the loft became highly domesticated with carpets, bentwood chairs, one wall of shelves filled with books ... all the trappings of a comfortable country home.

Up until then we had never had to overly concern ourselves with how much noise we made at any time of the day or night and had a decent sound system capable of making quite a lot of it to accompany the hammering and sawing and other noises of our work. The AIR program, though, brought with it the yuppie curse and we acquired a tiresome neighbor on the other side of one wall who thoroughly shocked Ed. Jean Cocteau had died and we were listening to a memorial program with the sound quite loud. The neighbor called to complain. We both saw it as an omen of the beginning of the end, amplified not much later by rumors that the building was being sold as part of a multi-property deal. The "beanie factory" moved.

It had been my first taste of real "Bohemian" life, perhaps not as romantic as the garret in La Boheme, but not far short of it. We never had a great deal of money but were usually at least a little better off than most young artists in our position, partly because of Ed's work as a photographer of art and the growing color-slide publishing business supplementing his direct income as an artist, and also because there were two of us making money from art sales as well as, in the beginning, my (smaller) contribution from office temp work. It had been a mostly happy, very productive life at 14 Cooper Square but the uncertainty of its future plus our mutually expanding careers and the need for more space for the business ended the phase of living in a loft.

We leased a commercial space in a much larger building at 13th Street and First Avenue, a building with several artists no longer in need of the AIR status, and moved our living space to a three room apartment on the Upper West Side, across from the Museum of Natural History.

Ed Meneeley had been for some years a much respected and sought after photographer of painting and sculpture. With the cooperation of a motion picture processing lab in Mamaroneck, he had pioneered the use of a professional color negative film for the production of color slides. Not only was the film much more color true than the amateur 35mm film commonly used, it yielded a negative from which large numbers of slides could be produced without the loss of quality brought about when duplicating from a positive master slide. Shortly before my arrival on the scene he had begun to offer sets of slides to university and museum libraries, had named the business Portable Gallery, and sent out a small brochure with an initial offering which met with limited success. I wrote an analysis, as I saw it, of the effort to date and outlined ideas to expand that success. Ed was sufficiently impressed to make me a partner and after those initial ideas had proven themselves, the business was incorporated as Portable Gallery Press, Inc. and I could go around telling people I was the President of a corporation.

Because Ed was as much a patron of the arts as an artist, he was known for photographing the work of young struggling artists for a very low fee or in exchange for one of their works. Thus we came to see much new work long before it came to the attention of the art world, not to mention the general public. And as it frequently turned out, we acquired invaluable material for the PGP catalogue documenting the seminal work of artists who later became major figures. Painters who were to become the most successful of the newly arrived Pop Art movement were the first to benefit from this phase of our activity, works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Segal, Dine and others finding their way into libraries long before they would otherwise have done, and both the artists and their dealers appreciated the quality of the reproductions as well as the added publicity.

It had been the general habit until then to produce such material as straightforward color slide images of a single work with the often misleading effect of viewing a small painting in the same-sized image as a very large one. To help counter that deficiency, we frequently documented an entire one-man show with both slides of individual works along with installation views to give some indication of scale. I remember well walking into the Stable Gallery one afternoon when they were installing an exhibition, seeing a room full of faux Campbell soup boxes and large paintings of soup cans on the wall. It was amusing and even a little shocking and I quickly convinced Ed we should photograph the entire show. That set of slides documenting Andy Warhol's first one-man show was to become one of our best sellers.

We had behind-the-scenes access to many museums and galleries and came to know many artists we might otherwise never have met. It was often necessary to move paintings in order to properly light and photograph them and it was a touching experience sometimes to see the backs of famous canvases. Ed had the habit of photographing any interesting work he spotted in back rooms even though I sometimes grumbled over the shambles it made on the production end. The negatives were printed in reels the size of a motion picture, then cut frame-by-frame and mounted in cardboard holders, so a beautiful Picasso sandwiched in between Roy Lichtenstein and George Segal exhibitions didn't make for efficient processing, not to mention packaging and promotion which meant all those interesting individual items had to eventually be found a spot in the catalogue with suitable companions since we had long since given up selling individual slides.

One of those backroom items created another of my stormier sword-crossings with the Powers That Be. Before Jasper Johns appeared publicly on the scene, Robert Rauschenberg had created one of his "combine" sculptures which included a small all-white example of the American flag series which later helped make Johns a major star. Ed had managed to catch it before the work was withdrawn from public view. Not fully aware of the undercurrents, I wrote an article about the political influences in the New York art world and used that work as an example of ways more established artists lend a hand to up-and-coming ones. I had meant it admiringly but it was taken just the opposite, complicated by the fact that the special relationship between Rauschenberg and Johns had ended and had not yet emerged from a sour phase and perhaps even more so by the fact that the small Johns painting had itself become more valuable than the work as a whole. Their dealer, Leo Castelli, read my article, telephoned and told me I was a "beetch" and forbid us to sell the slide of the work. So when I designed the catalogue called "The World's First Pop Art Newspaper", the slide was offered as a free special bonus. Although Leo forgave Ed and continued to cooperate with future photography sessions, he never forgave me. I thought then he was a silly little man and I still think so while giving him due credit for the absolutely brilliant job he did in helping make Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein and others into the giants of twentieth century art which they later became.

The business was thus closely intertwined with our personal careers as artists and was certainly not always beneficial to them. It became successful enough, though, that we could hire people to do the production work and order processing and eventually I had little directly to do with it but design the packaging, promotional materials, and occasionally assist with the photographic sessions.

When Wayne Adams opened the new Frederick Teuscher Gallery, I left Bertha Schaefer to go with him and my first NYC solo exhibition was held there in 1966. It was originally intended to be a show of the folded portraits, but I had instead created a complete room intended to convey the feeling of being in Lothlorien, the elven land from Tolkien's Middle Earth, and in the process of designing tree-like supports for the roof of that environmental work, had done several pieces of sculpture. Those, with a few drawings, made up the first show. It was well received and most of the work was sold, including the Tolkien-inspired environment which went to a private collection in Toronto. A critic writing in Art International thought the sculpture the equal of work being produced at the time by the much admired English school spearheaded by Anthony Caro. No doubt helped by that review, one of the larger pieces of sculpture was selected for the Whitney Museum's then-annual invitational exhibition.

Shortly after that, the coincidence of selling three canvases to the Hilton Collection, plus being commissioned by Robert Motherwell to photograph his retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, provided sufficient money for a trip not only to London, but also Paris and Frankfurt. It was my first visit to London and I was determined to return there as soon as possible.

I did, and that ended the first chapter of The Artist Trip.


Resume written in 1980


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