Interview with Emil Friedman, by George Hofmann, for the Artists Research Group, Oral History Project, October 7, 2003, in Queensbury, NY.
HOFMANN: Could you just give us a little bit of background about where you were born, and when, and so forth and so on? Schooling, and so forth?
FRIEDMAN: Yes. I was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 25, 1925, and I stayed in Chicago until I was nine, and then I came East, to New York with my father and brother, and we grew up in the Bronx, New York. I went to elementary schools in the Bronx, and I graduated from Christopher Columbus High School.
GH: Was that a New York City school?
EF: A New York City school, yes. I had been interested in the High School of Music & Art. I had just heard about it from one of the other students in the eighth grade from where I graduated. I didn’t even know about it. My homeroom teacher insisted that Christopher Columbus High School, which was a new school, was going to have a terrific art program. So, that’s how I ended up at Columbus. That was the school for that district.
GH: I see. And then?
EF: Well, then the Second World War was on. I joined the Marines just before I graduated, but I graduated in 1944, but I was already in the Marines just prior to that. I was a radio operator in the Pacific – I was in Iwo Jima and Kyusho, Japan.
EF: Yes. That’s what I did there. Then, when I got out — of course, I had always wanted to be a cartoonist and a commercial artist. I always did a lot of drawing when I was a little kid. My grandmother used to give me writing paper to draw, and all that. And I just built up — just compulsive drawing. And by the time I was a teenager — I liked to do kind of the cartoony-type of figures. You know, when I was in the Marines, I used to draw. I’d draw people and all that — the other guys. I sort of developed a kind of satirical drawing. That’s when I was interested in it — to say something. Then, of course, I always thought I would like to have a career as an artist. Either a commercial artist or something. But I didn’t have a commercial artist-type of personality. [Tape Off/On] Of course, after the Second World War, a lot of schools cropped up because of the G.I. Bill, and I went to a — I was out of the service for a couple of months. I found a school on the West Side called the School for Art Studies. It was run by a sculptor called Maurice Glickman, who was sort of well-known in certain circles in New York City, and he and his wife ran this — there were a lot of places like that. Pratt Institute — there were long lines, and there was a big waiting list. And so, I ended up there. But that was a school where people who had a painting background could come and do the model-type of thing.
GH: Like the Art Students League, or something like that?
EF: Yes. But in the Art Students League you might get a little more instruction. So, it was really not quite the place for me. So, I was there for a while. I just kind of knocked around. I had different jobs. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. What I did is I started drawing these sort of cartoony things. I worked them up, and I went around to a lot of magazines, and thr people said that I had something, but you’d have to work on — take topics and things. And again, it was really the commercial art field. In other words, you have to be in business to do that. And so, that’s where the personality comes in. In other words, I have a lot of ideas. But you have to have a manager. [laughs] So, I tried to do something with those cartoons, and never really got too far. And then, somebody gave me — a doctor I had gone to for some reason – gave me the name of a gag writer who was one of his patients. This was in midtown Manhattan, right around the New York Times — in that area — in a loft. There were a couple of these guys, and they had these gags on strips of paper. There had to be a million of these gags. You make a drawing, and you give it to him, and he sends it to different magazines.
GH: And they would match the drawing and some gag?
EF: Sometimes the gag would go to an artist like George Price or —
GH: Right, right, right.
EF: Or one of the guys at The New Yorker. William Steig always used his own gags. The obituary.
GH: I know. I just read it. It was very interesting.
EF: Anyway, a couple of them were accepted by The New Yorker, but they didn’t use my drawing.
GH: They used another drawing?
EF: Yes. But I did get accepted in a couple of magazines. One was a detective magazine. The guy told me, You draw this burglar with a mask and he needs a shave, with a flashlight. So, it was one of those things. Two or three got accepted. But I just didn’t have the ambition, the drive for that, in general. So, finally, a friend — you know, an older guy — said, You should go to college.
EF: I said I’m too old. Anyway, I went to college. I did apply to Hunter, but Hunter was taking co-ed because of the veterans coming in at that time.
GH: Oh, right.
EF: But again — and Hunter was supposed to have a pretty decent Art Department.
EF: And it would have been closer to the Bronx, where I lived at the time.
GH: Because what is now Lehman College was Hunter in the Bronx.
EF: Oh, yes. Well, Lehman is up there, too. I don’t know if that’s where I would have gone. But, in any case, fortunately I had the G.I. Bill. If I didn’t have the G.I. Bill, I might have become a cartoonist. Who knows?
EF: Right. You never know. Then I found out about Brooklyn College, that Brooklyn College had a good Art Department, which was called the Design Department. It wasn’t called the Art Department.
GH: Oh, no kidding?
EF: Yes. Design. And that may come out in talking about the approach. Because the Chairman of the Department, Robert J. Wolff, came from the Institute of Design in Chicago, which was Moholy-Nagy from the Bauhaus —
EF: That was sort of called the New Bauhaus.
GH: Yes, yes.
EF: And just coincidentally — I have a cousin who was a little older than I am — when he got out of the service, he went there. Because we had relatives in Chicago. I came from Chicago. And he stayed with an aunt. He was interested in photography. As a matter of fact, he had that book Vision in Motion.
GH: You mean Moholy-Nagy?
EF: Yes. And so, I was looking at that. I think he may have mentioned to me that this guy, Wolff, who had been an Assistant Director, I think, at the Institute of Design — he was something in the administration of the art. He’s an abstract artist. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work.
GH: Not really.
EF: He’s not that well-known.
GH: Right, right.
EF: But I think he was a little more of an educator. He was a painter. So, that may be where the design came in for the Design Department.
GH: Oh, from him?
EF: Yes. But also, prior to that, there was this guy, Gyorgy Kepes.
GH: Oh, yes!
EF: He was at Brooklyn College for a while. Very intellectual background there. Well, you know, the Bauhaus kind of thing.
EF: With design.
GH: I came across an article once where an old clipping that related how they had to fight to hire some of these Bauhaus guys who were displaced in Europe because there was a strong feeling against hiring refugees, you know?
GH: But they were early in having Bauhaus people. I think they were amongst the first. Maybe some of the first — Brooklyn College.
EF: Yes. And my cousin — just incidentally — we come from a Hungarian background. I was never fluent in speaking because my father spoke a lot of English, so we didn’t really speak Hungarian at home. I mean, I didn’t. But I understood it. But my cousin, Ernie, was interested in photography. I’m just wondering whether he ever got to talk to Nagy and some of the other people there. I’m just curious.
EF: He also — just mentioning the art interest in the family — he didn’t draw or anything, but he was interested in photography. And he had been a good student. He and a few other Army guys — he was in Fort Ord, California — Monterey. He and a few others used to go down to see Edward Weston. Edward Weston, apparently, was — he had these Army guys coming, and he was very —
GH: Really? Yes. I think he was already well-known there.
EF: Oh, yes. I’m sure by then. Well, the 1940s.
EF: My cousin went, and he was studying Serbian at — the Army had these programs — ASTP, and he was a good student. He was good in languages. Maybe Edward Weston got him interested in going to school for photography.
GH: Oh, in photography?
EF: Yes. That’s what he was interested in. He was always interested in that. He never did much with hit because then he got married, and he went into sales at Peerless, which is a photography store.
GH: Oh, yes. I remember it well.
EF: So, anyway, getting back to the Institute of Design and Brooklyn College. So, just as things go, with coincidences, I ended up at Brooklyn College.
GH: What year do you think that was when you started there?
EF: Well, I started Brooklyn College in the fall of 1948, and I got into the Art Department maybe about a year-and-a-half later.
GH: And Brooklyn was co-ed anyway.
EF: Oh, yes. Sure.
GH: So, then you became an art major at Brooklyn College?
EF: Yes. And just at that again coincidence, there was this big bulge in the population, and so education became a big factor in employment for a lot of people. And the schools — the Department of Education and Speech were big.
EF: And so, a lot of the people in the Design Department in Brooklyn College became art teachers because that was a way to go. And so, the Department had its people who were interested in education. Earlier on I had mentioned Harry Holtzman, who was there.
GH: As a faculty member?
EF: Yes. He was a faculty member. And he was in charge of — well, sort of the education part of the — not so much for the design majors, but for other teachers in the school who would be going in, who would want to learn something about art. A lot of elementary school teachers, and so on.
EF: And so, he was there. And Robert J. Wolff taught the Principles of Art Teaching in the High Schools. And it was very, very little “ how to – [laughs] And he insisted that that wasn’t important. So, we did a visual notebook. This was a class that was called The Principles and Practices of Teaching Art in the High Schools. I think they had to name it that for the Education Department.
GH: Of course. Of course.
EF: And it was largely intellectual, but it brought in the visual aspect. I’m going backwards, really, because this was when we were seniors. We did this visual notebook, and it was really a Bauhaus kind of thing, with comparing real life with all kinds of visual images, and things that look like other things, and so on. And I don’t have my visual notebook anymore, or I would have brought it to you.
GH: Was it a notebook of drawing?
EF: Well, no. It was a visual notebook. You didn’t have to write anything for that. The notebook was like a term paper, kind of thing. But it was visual. It was all visual, and now it’s really very, very old stuff. I mean, it’s been around so long. And so, Life magazine was still around in those days, and Life magazine was filled with all kinds of images and photographs. And so, you could compare all these various things, and you could include some of your own work, too. I mean, in some ways. It depends. And he had examples that students had done before.
GH: And were you being asked to copy or to collage or –?
EF: No, no, no. You’re comparing images that wouldn’t ordinarily be related, let’s say. And I know it comes from that Bauhaus background, because some of those — they had photographs. And there was a surrealistic element to that, too.
GH: And they would ask you to clip them out and paste them?
EF: Yes. Usually, it was for comparisons. So, that was the kind of thing that was going on. And there was really practically no talk about how do you present a topic to a class? or anything like that.
EF: That was the approach in Brooklyn College in the Art Department. So, I think that may be where the idea of design and —
GH: So, it was this Bauhaus idea, but not so pedagogical. Really more about the intellectual and visual –?
EF: Yes. So, that if you’re coming into a classroom — I mean, how to control the class or how to write a lesson plan — that has nothing to do with art! [laughs]
EF: So, I guess it’s always — if you’re going to be a teacher, it’s you in that situation. You’ve got to develop a way of doing it. Now, somebody can train you. I mean, in the old days, teachers were trained, and there’s a system, and there are all kinds of back-up. So, that’s what it was.
GH: I think you’re actually documenting here, by talking about that, a big change in education at that time. Because I think in the 1930s — or pre-war — it was very doctrinaire.
GH: And then with these Bauhaus people, it did change — the approach.
GH: They had a big influence.
EF: Yes. And I think that the so-called progressive education — the John Dewey-type — whatever you want to use the name — and all the others would come into it because there’s a lot of — in that Art Department, as I say — there was a lot of intellectual approach.
EF: And whatever we did, it was visual and intellectual, of course. And, of course, a lot of people complained about that because it wasn’t like the Art Students League, where you’re getting How to Paint. [laughs]
GH: Nobody showed you that!
EF: Right. You just figured it out. Now, to jump back to the first teacher we had was Burgoyne Diller.
GH: Oh, my God!
EF: And Burgoyne Diller — it was called Design I. And that was almost like an art appreciation. It was him talking and asking you questions, and you could ask him questions, or whatever.
GH: No studio?
EF: No, no. This wasn’t a studio. This was like a lecture.
EF: Yes. It was a small group. It wasn’t the art appreciation with slides. That’s something else. It was the traditional, and Morris Dorsky, who became the Chairman many years later — he was one of the history teachers. And there were a lot of other students who were not majors in the Department, who had to have that, who took that, also. That was a huge lecture hall, and they showed the slides.
GH: With Diller?
EF: No, with Morris Dorsky, who was the — so, with Diller it wasn’t that kind of a class. No, this was Design I, which was the principles of whatever. [laughs] I don’t know what it said in the curriculum. And he started talking about design and art. Now, you’ve probably seen pictures of Burgoyne Diller. He was very handsome. He was a tall guy, with this shock of dark gray, wavy hair. His language was pretty good, too. He would say, If you will, and things like that, which we’d never heard before. [laughs]
GH: A cultured man.
EF: Yes. And he didn’t look like an artist. He almost always wore the Oxford gray suits, which look black, with a white shirt. And he smoked. And I mentioned to you before that some of the teachers in the Art Department — and here and there in the school there were a couple of others who smoked in the classroom. But being the Art Department. But anyhow, he started lecturing to us about, How to look at things and What do you think you’re doing when you’re looking at something? As I say, it was really kind of intellectual because he didn’t have a lot of pictures that he brought in to.. Now, if I were doing it now, I would have either slides or visual materials.
EF: He was just talking.
GH: That’s amazing!
EF: And I think there was a little restlessness. He kept us after school. [laughs] This was a four-hour — they were four-hour programs there, in the shops. He may have taken a break to go to the bathroom. He was punishing us because I think there were a little snickering.
EF: There was something going on, or people were talking or something. He kept us later.
EF: But little by little, he kind of loosened up, and then we did start doing a lot of work. We started drawing… It wasn’t all going to be that. This was the first day. We did gouache — we did things with gouache and chalk. So, he introduced that. It was kind of a Cubist approach. I mean, I didn’t know anything about Cubism. [laughs]
GH: So, no still life — nothing set-up?
EF: No, no, no. It was nothing like that. He probably showed examples he made. He may have done some demonstration. But there was very little of that. It was really — it came mostly from verbalization. He might show some examples. He might have shown some examples of being a contemporary in twentieth century art work.
GH: Was it black and white?
EF: Yes, it was black and white. He started out with all black and white. There might have been a little brown. We were working with chalks and pencils.
GH: And because it was design, it was abstract mostly?
EF: Yes, it could be abstract, or it could have been — I think I did something that was part of a room, or something like that.
EF: With some rectangles or with some shading — stuff like that. So, that was it. I can’t remember everything about it, but that was first. And then there was — I’m not sure what they called it, because there was another design course which was right out of the Institute of Design. Because that teacher’s name was Henry Kann, and he was only there for about a year. He was a graduate of the Institute of Design. There were a couple of pictures of his in that Vision in Motion book.
GH: Oh, really?
EF: So, he was one of their good students, I guess. And he also didn’t look like an artist. He was this very, very dressed up guy. And he also was very, very serious and conscientious.
GH: Was he European?
EF: No, no. He didn’t sound European. Not in his speech or anything like that. He was somebody who might have been interested in architecture or something like that. And he gave these Principles of Design. We had to fold paper. It came right out of the Institute of Design and the Bauhaus thing.
EF: You had to fold paper without cutting anything away and create — my cousin had told me about this. They’re like light modulators or something? You put them on your desk and you create shadows and you look through it. So, I kind of enjoyed that because I hadn’t done stuff three-dimensionally much, you know?
GH: Yes. So, it challenged you to do something with light itself?
EF: Well, light was involved in that. Part of it is the discipline. You restrict yourself to a small area of structure and what you can do with it. So, if you take a square piece of white drawing paper or whatever — rectangular. And you fold it. So, the simplest thing was what a lot of people did. They just started folding it like an accordion kind of thing.
EF: You started out with that. That would be the simplest thing.
EF: You couldn’t make lanterns. I mean, it might come out looking like a lantern, but you couldn’t cut anything away. And when you folded it out, you had to see every fold. So, it was a challenge to do that.
EF: I used that later on in high school. I developed things for the students to do, and I came up with quite a lot of interesting things.
GH: So, you passed that one along! [laughs]
EF: Well, it was a good — and then the other thing we did, which also came from that — there was a little shop where we had a band saw or something. We had some wood, and you had to cut wood in such a way to make it do something that it ordinarily wouldn’t do. Like, if you’d make a lot of cuts in it, it becomes flexible. And again, you were supposed to do something that would look like a design, you know? It couldn’t be a whole hodge-podge. It would have to have some kind of structural logic.
GH: Yes, yes, yes.
EF: So, that was Henry Kann.
GH: That’s great!
EF: And he also — he wasn’t punishing us. But he also — his class went over because he was sort of — not plodding — but he kind of spoke slowly, and he was very, very serious, you know? Really, really serious. But at the end of the term, we all appreciated him because we came up with a lot of his stuff.
GH: You had learned a lot from him.
EF: Yes. So, that was the two things. Diller was a very serious talker, and you had to work. And with Diller, it started there. When you think you’re finished with something, and that kind of helps you. Well, you were a teacher, if one of your students says, “Well, that’s it. He knocks off something.”
EF: Well, you wanted to work on it a little bit, do something, develop it, do something with it.
EF: I mean, unless he’s an absolute genius!
GH: Right, right. Which you are.
EF: Right. [laughs] Well, not only that, if you’re the educator — and even if he is — you don’t want him to get away with just — because he woke up this morning with this great idea, and that’s it. So, you would hardly ever be finished with Diller. He’d say, Why don’t you think about — is it dark in this area?
EF: And it was very hard to — then he’d say, I like the way this is developing. And he would try not to impose, but that would be — now, with Diller I had Sculpture. I think Sculpture I and II was Diller.
GH: Oh, in another course?
EF: Oh, yes. There were all these. And then, Painting. I had Diller for — I never had Rothko for Painting, although Rothko came later. He wasn’t there at the very beginning.
EF: And it was the same with Painting. I had never done any oil painting, but I got some oils. I hadn’t done much.
EF: And it was the same thing. You start out with nothing.
EF: That’s the way it worked.
GH: So, you worked with Diller in several different classes.
EF: Yes, yes, yes.
GH: So, he was really kind of an influence on you.
EF: Yes, yes. He was there. And we did — one Sculpture class we worked with clay, which we would have to eventually cast in plaster. And you had to make an egg-like form with sort of like an arc form. But you couldn’t go too far away from that egg. It could be slightly — it couldn’t just be a perfect egg. It had to have a little movement. But you couldn’t add another form.
EF: So, we finally did this egg, and then we had to cast it with the plaster. Now, there was one girl in the class who just wanted to do realistic stuff, and she was practically crying.
GH: It was tough for her.
EF: Most people just accept — and you’re in college. I was a few years older than the others because I had started college later. But there were a lot of these young kids who did great stuff. But she wanted to do a head. [laughs] She wanted to do a woman’s head. She had some talent.
GH: He wouldn’t let her.
EF: No. He said we’re going to do it. In other words, she was being either rebellious or she didn’t get it. I don’t know. So, it seemed to me that the guy said, We’re not going to do a head. We’re just going to do this egg form. And that’s what she was doing.
GH: And she couldn’t accept that.
EF: So, eventually, I think she may have done it. Or she may have dropped out of the class.
EF: But I think she was the only one. Everybody else listened to teacher.
EF: And I don’t think he showed us sculpture or pictures of it because he didn’t want people copying it. But it ended up that kind of a form, although art usually had a little more to it.
GH: Yes, yes.
EF: Bu tit was an experience again in sticking to this very, very small area. And then, of course, the technique of actually casting it. He taught us that.
GH: And did that?
EF: Yes. He was very competent in — well, you probably know he was the head of the WPA Mural Program, when Arshile Gorky did that mural that was in New Jersey or something, in the airport. It was well-known. Diller was the director — the mural director.
GH: Was he?
EF: Oh, yes. He had an engineering kind of mind. He may even have had that background.
GH: Right, right, right.
EF: And, of course, a lot of the stuff that he did — he did some sculpture, too, and some constructions and things.
GH: Absolutely. Absolutely.
EF: He did some pretty well worked on stuff, too.
EF: So, he did that. And then just jumping to — there was an MA program, too, which was paid for by the city if you were teaching.
EF: So, two years past the graduation — I graduated in 1953 — we had an MA program in the Art, and I had Diller for Ceramics. Now, we had very, very little. There was a kiln there, and there was a small wheel. [laughs] But I think we did a hand-built thing. So, he specialized —
GH: I’m amazed! I’m absolutely amazed!
EF: He knew about it. But again, there was a technical side to it. And he was a tough — he could be very tough. And he taught another class which was in designing something that worked. I didn’t take that class, but a friend of mine took that. Because I think that he worked for the Navy during the war. And he had designed something for the Air Force or something — not a Link Trainer. There was something mechanical that he actually designed. He was teaching something.
GH: I’m amazed. I can’t believe it.
GH: He must have had an engineering background of some kind.
EF: So, I think there are one or two biographies of him that I think goes into that. It may not go into it that much. But he did mention to us something about where he was involved. He didn’t brag or anything. He just brought in this background. And so, that was a large part of the feeling that I had in Brooklyn College.
GH: What a wonderful influence.
EF: Yes. He was pretty strong there. And in Ceramics — at the end of the two years, we had had Ceramics the first term of this two-year MA. I was teaching already. That’s why I took two years.
EF: Otherwise it would have been one year. You had Ceramics. And he didn’t teach us much. It wasn’t a real Ceramic workshop.
EF: At graduation, I had to do a research paper, which is like a — well, you’re getting a Master’s. And I had an advisor for that, who was not in the Design Department. That was in Education. And I was already teaching, so I worked up something about —
GH: Do you remember who that was?
EF: I don’t remember his name. He was a Brooklyn College.
GH: It was the Education Department?
EF: Yes. He passed on the term — well, you could call it a Thesis. It was something in Art, and I picked something which I tried to prove in some way that children from other places, other than the U.S., would draw a little differently. And there were some studies like that. I did the research and a whole bunch of stuff. And I was teaching at a junior high school at that time. So, I had a couple classes of mostly Puerto Rican kids. I was on the Lower East Side. And I compared them, and I set-up — do houses and figures. And I compared them. And it was sort of a long stretch. It was only short. So, he accepted it. He was critical about it. So, I did that. So, I got that out of the way. And then I had Diller to contend with because Diller was in charge of passing on these students. And he knew me all these years.
EF: And he was going to give me a hard time. He asked me about Ceramics, and I didn’t know anything about Ceramics. So, he asked me something about glaze and under glaze, and we did a glaze, but it was just a straightforward simple — and he wanted me to go and start doing some research. He said, Well, come back and see me in two days. He flunked me. [laughs]
EF: I knew what a glaze was, and I knew what an under glaze was. But I didn’t have all the — in other words, he was asking. And I think there was a side of him that was not sadistic necessarily, but that was a little bitter. In other words, We’re college people. We should go out and learn stuff and come back and be able to sit down. It was something like that, you know? I don’t know. I think he also was an alcoholic. There are a lot of people who are.
EF: And I think his wife was. He had some personal problems, I think. I remember, he used to eat yogurt. In those days, hardly anybody ate yogurt.
GH: That’s right.
EF: It was Dannon’s yogurt in a jar, in those days, in the school cafeteria.
GH: Yes, yes.
EF: I think he might have had an ulcer, too. Because he smoked. But as I say, he was very gentlemanly looking, and very, very impressive, and a very serious guy. Highly intelligent. But when I came back, he just passed me. [laughs]
GH: He gave you a little bit of a hard time!
EF: Yes. He was giving me a tough time because he felt that I may not have done enough homework or something. So, subsequently, when I got to the last high school I worked in, I had to teach Ceramics. And now I still do it. I hand-build stuff. So, I know a lot about Ceramics.
GH: Right, right.
EF: But at that time, I didn’t know anything. So, I was going to have to come back and I wasn’t going to get my degree.
EF: But I think he probably knew that he wasn’t going to fail me. I suspect that.
EF: He gave me a hard time. [laughs]
GH: He knew you well.
EF: So, that’s the experience with Diller.
GH: That’s very interesting. That’s very interesting. I’ve heard very little about him so far in research that we’ve done.
EF: So, as I say, subsequently “ [referring to Florida] there was a variety of shows there. John Ringling’s — you know, the circus?
GH: Yes, yes.
EF: Who was a big deal in Sarasota. He built a museum with this collection. You know, it’s a lot of kind of pre-Renaissance. He has a couple of Rubens and things. I’m not crazy about the collection, but that’s what he had.
EF: That was what mainly he had. But later on, of course, they’ve had shows. They’ve had contemporary stuff there. I hope to. one of these days.
GH: Yes. That would be great. So, back to Brooklyn. Who were some of the other faculty who you encountered during that time?
EF: Okay. I should go to Adolph, Ad, Reinhardt.
GH: Oh, yes.
EF: He was also a big influence in some ways. I didn’t have him for Painting. I had him for one class which was called Advertising Art, I think.
GH: I can’t believe it!
EF: Yes. Now, Ad Reinhardt — you probably know about his cartooning background. That he did these cartoons.
EF: He did something called, I think, The Races of Mankind, which was an anthropological thing. Ruth Benedict — he illustrated that. He had a very simple cartoon style. You know, he had a nice way. And he also had a cartoon of this tree, where all the leaves say something.
GH: I’ve seen that.
EF: You’ve seen that?
GH: Yes, yes, yes.
EF: I think that’s in the catalog of his last show.
EF: And this was a posthumous show because he had died since then.
[end of side one]
EF: I don’t remember the first class I had with him, but I’ll talk about the Advertising Art. I think they called it Advertising Art. They didn’t call it Commercial Art. And again, it was a Brooklyn College Design Department thing.
EF: The thing I remember — he talked, and he had a blackboard, and he would print this very, very legible — all kinds of words. And he would start, and he would fill the blackboard with all kinds of words. And then there were things like Realism — Fact and Realism — and what you see, and all that kind of thing in Advertising. Again, it was the theoretical or background, rather than how are we going to do a pay stub or a mechanical.
GH: Yes. [laughs]
EF: And it is college, after all, and why should it?
GH: Well, that’s a good point. A good point.
EF: That’s something else.
EF: I mean, maybe you could have a workshop where you could develop that.
EF: But anyhow, we had to take a photograph from the newspaper, and I think he intentionally said newspaper because newspapers are kind of flat and all. And copy it. Oh, no, no no. I think the first thing we had to do was do an exact copy of something very, very, very realistic, like trompe-l’oeil.
GH: Of somebody else’s work?
EF: No, of anything. Of something — like a little still life or something. You had to do that. Now, of course, some people could do it. Whatever you do — you do something, you draw something “ the desk drawer, or that telephone or something.
GH: Something highly realistic.
GH: Unbelievably realistic.
EF: Yes. As much as you can.
GH: Right, right.
EF: Then, the next thing we did was — and he didn’t say too much. He may have brought in some ads, or said something about the visual aspect of it, or the type. And we may have done things where we did some collage things with type. We probably did. I don’t know. I mean, it’s over fifty years ago!
EF: But I do remember a few things, and that was one. And then the next thing we did, related to that, was to copy a photograph from the newspaper — a recent newspaper — and bring it in. And that you could change a little bit. But it had to be — it had to look something like that photograph. That’s kind of the visual notebook idea that you would change it somewhat. In other words, you’d make a work of art out of it. But it would still look like that photograph.
EF: It would have to have the tones. I think that was necessary, to reproduce or to parallel those, so that it would look like that photograph, but it would still be your own composition. So, I did a thing where there was some construction job or something, there were shadows or whatever it was. You had to make your own — it was essentially a similar composition, but it was still going to be your own composition. You couldn’t copy it exactly. The first thing you did — you had to make an exact drawing. And then maybe, he may even have included — no, maybe you had to make an exact copy, and then you could. that’s possible. He’s forcing you to see.
EF: But he was very — he wasn’t like Diller. He wasn’t quite as harsh as Diller. [laughs] Well, Diller didn’t holler at you, but he had a certain personality. And with Reinhardt, there always used to be a kind of wry quality, you know?
GH: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
EF: He had that. And he was very nice, though. He was really very nice, and he was kind of a gentle person, you know?
EF: You got that feeling — he’s really that way. So, we did that, and then the next thing I had him — so, we went through that. And, as I say, he would ask things and point out things in the picture. And he was usually pretty accepting. But you knew that there were reservations because you knew that you couldn’t do completely — you were just a student, you know?
EF: But he kind of accepted that.
GH: Now, that was graduate level, you’re talking about?
EF: No, no, no. This is undergraduate.
GH: With Ad Reinhardt?
EF: Yes. I didn’t have Reinhardt for graduate because — I don’t know whether he was on sabbatical then, or he wasn’t doing the — I had Rothko for graduate, I had Kurt Seligman.
EF: He came. And he was very interesting.
GH: That was on the graduate level?
EF: Yes. And Alfred Russell, who I had mentioned to you last time. He was a graphics man — you know, print making and stuff. And he had been on sabbatical when we took print making. And we had Still and Rothko. So, I’ll finish with Reinhardt. After that, I had him for Art History, and again, it was a discussion group.
GH: With Reinhardt?
EF: Yes. There were two history classes. History I and History II. History I was Reinhardt and History II was Rothko. But I’ll talk about that later, with Rothko. And he would fill the board — you know, Surrealism, Cubism, Renaissance — all these things. And the students would either ask or say something about those terms, and then he would point them out. The blackboard would be full of these things, and as I say, you could read them very easily. They were printed. As I say, he was very quiet. He’d just ask a question. He was pretty good that way.
GH: And part II?
EF: I just want to go into this. He’d say things like, in Art that a lot of the critics and the people who interpret art don’t agree. He mentioned, although it’s kind of — I’m not sure — but he said, You take the Guernica — and he talked about the famous Picasso painting of the Guernica — and I didn’t know much about it. I think I may have seen it, but I didn’t know too much about it. But I knew the background, that it was dedicated to the town, and all that. But he said that some people called it anti-fascist and some people called it pro-fascist. [laughs]
EF: But that doesn’t mean he.. wouldn’t. He said – because it’s not a photograph of these people being blown out of their houses. The artist has created these images which, if somebody comes to it and doesn’t really know — or does know and feels that it doesn’t — now, for example, somebody — a social realist — might look at that and say, This doesn’t point out enough, you know?
EF: Even though you can see the people twisted and suffering. So, he may have meant that. But he didn’t say it. He just said that — he’s pointing out that these things can be interpreted in two different ways.
EF: Unless it’s just a clear-cut — What does this picture show? Like a photograph.
EF: So, unless you know what it is, it might even show other things.
EF: So, he was good about that. He didn’t accept — I mean, I assume that that was it. He didn’t want you to accept whatever you see right away. You think about it, and be able to study it and think about it yourself, you know? So, I think that’s what I came away with, in that feeling. Although I think in general, we pretty much agree on why Picasso did that particular thing.
EF: And that was his — the way he worked. So, that’s it. I don’t know if I had Reinhardt for any other. I think it was just those two classes. But he may have come in and subbed. He may have come in maybe in the Painting class. So, I had Painting with Diller and Jimmy Ernst. I guess I could go from Reinhardt to Rothko because —
GH: Okay! [laughs]
EF: In this book that I have — I have a Rothko book, where it goes into the background. Apparently, Rothko got into.went on the outs with a lot of his contemporaries.
GH: That’s right.
EF: Even Clyfford Still — they were buddy-buddy. Whoever started it — I know Clyfford Still, I think, had a tougher personality than Rothko.
EF: Rothko had kind of a depressive —
EF: I mean, he was very nice. He was very talkative, and also very intellectual. Rothko.
EF: And Still — I never got a word out of him because he didn’t say much. But I had read about Still.
GH: Difficult personality.
EF: Yes. It seems he was difficult. Some of his shows and things — he wouldn’t show. And, for some reason, Rothko and Reinhardt broke-up, too. They may have gotten reconciled. I don’t know. Now, Rothko — it might have been the first — I’m not sure whether we had him for Etching first, or for History. But the History — he talked. He sat there. He didn’t write anything on the board. And we had to do a paper on —
GH: No slides?
EF: No, no.
GH: None of that?
EF: No. All talk. I don’t remember any slides except for — maybe a little later on, there might have been a couple people showing slides. The Art History class, where they show the slides, and you have to remember them, and you have to take a test.
GH: Yes. But with Rothko, it was just talking?
EF: Yes. I don’t remember any slides. And there was a lot of contention. And there was a lot of — I was pretty unsophisticated. I mean, I had this kind of cartoony thing, and all that. You know, I was just kind of growing up. A certain kind of immaturity. I mean, at that age — even though I was already married and may have had my first child by that time. But I just wasn’t that sophisticated in art. I mean, I was gobbling this stuff up. I liked it. I liked what I was getting because it was new stuff. And when I was in high school, we had this major Art — it was very, very informal for the most part. And you could just go, and you could do whatever you wanted — the high school I was in. Except for a couple of teachers. As I say, almost everything I did was okay. And I just wanted to draw. I was accepting of things, but I just didn’t know this. So, when it came to abstract art, I just wasn’t that sure about it, you know?
EF: At that time. And having a little bit of an argumentative side or something, I wanted to kind of debunk it to a certain extent, you know? Not completely. I wasn’t quite that stupid. So, we had to do a paper for Rothko on — before the end of the term because he wanted to talk about it.
GH: But he had given you a text book?
EF: No, no, no. There’s no text.
GH: No text?
EF: Oh, no!
GH: So, the entire thing was just his lectures — his talking?
EF: Yes. He would bring things up and he would talk about — even about his work. Well, I should say this before… I think it’s in print. He said that he paints very big in order to be more intimate.
EF: In order to draw you in. I mean, I think that’s been mentioned.
EF: And he’s. And I thought that was kind of interesting, you know?
GH: Right. But the set-up of that class was that you came, no text book?
GH: He saw, and spoke, and that was it?
EF: Yes. But you had to do a paper, and you had to do some research, and make references to artists because — a point of view. So, I did something that kind of pitted more traditional or realistic art — not necessarily realistic, but we’ll say objective art against non-objective, or something like that.
EF: And I went to the library. You know, you had a month or so to do it. So, one of my — the spokesman in the paper — I just remembered that there’s a French artist called Jean Helion.
GH: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
EF: And Jean Helion, who had been doing kind of abstract stuff — then he started doing realistic stuff.
EF: So, as I said, I wasn’t too sophisticated. So, Rothko wrote … He wrote comments on the paper, and they were pretty good comments.
GH: Right, right.
EF: You really think about it. And so, there was that. But in the class, he brought in a lot of contemporary problems — social problems — and he was relating it to art. Oh, the other quote about Rothko. He said the Cubism — he didn’t care for Cubism. Besides, its old stuff. He said, Cubism is a dead art because there’s nothing deader than yesterday’s newspaper.
EF: He had the newspaper.
GH: Yes. Of course. Woah! [laughs]
EF: Somebody said, What do you mean? So, he said, If you looked at Cubism, you’d know what I’m talking about.
EF: He was also very pessimistic about the atomic bomb.
EF: He thought it was going to be used.
EF: So, he brought these things, but he tied them into art. Now, I can’t go into everything, but I remember the Cubism thing. He didn’t talk much about his work, except to say that he worked big because — and he brought in the size which — I mean, it’s been important in older art, too. But in contemporary art, of course, the size is definitely a factor.
EF: And he spoke about that. And I think again, he was trying to make you think.
EF: I won’t go into the Etching thing, although —
GH: He taught Etching?
EF: He taught Etching. He had taken some Etching at the Art Students League. He did a little bit. He’d done some stuff. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any of his work reproduced — etching. I remember those water colors that he did — the soft greys and so on.
GH: Oh, yes.
EF: And the earlier things. He may have done some etchings like that aquatints.. But he was a good teacher in ways. It’s just that that really wasn’t his field. And on a college level, I think it would have been better — if they couldn’t get Russell, they should have gotten somebody else.
EF: You know, academic politics — who knows — or whatever. That’s how it worked out. But in the Graduate class, he had us do a project where we — there were a couple of things. We had to do things from different periods in art history. He had one thing with gold leaf he showed us. Going back to Van Eyck back to the early Renaissance.
GH: You’re talking about a studio course?
EF: Yes. It was studio.
GH: And the other course that you were describing where he just spoke was an Undergraduate.
EF: That’s Undergraduate.
GH: And it was just Art History.
GH: So, then he taught Painting on the Graduate level?
EF: Yes. Well, we weren’t doing too much painting. I think it was collage. It wasn’t a painting studio. In other words, I think we did homework and we brought it in and we talked about it.
EF: We may have done it mostly at home. We may have done a little work. I don’t remember it all. But again, as I say, Rothko did a lot of talking. And he showed pictures of things, and he started — I think the first thing we did — we had to do something which was a take-off from where they use gold leaf.
EF: And it could have been a pre-Renaissance or an early Renaissance kind of thing. I think he was thinking of something kind of flat, but bringing that in. And I can’t remember why he did something with the gold leaf. But he talked about it. And I can’t remember what he said. [laughs] As I say, he sounded like he was really educated. He remembered what he read. And he was quite verbal, you know?
GH: And that course was in a room with tables or with easels?
EF: No. There were tables. It was one of the art rooms. Yes, there were tables. We could do some work while we were there.
GH: So, then it was more like a Design — part of a Design idea.
EF: Yes. Different periods of art. Let’s say, maybe there were four periods of art history. This was one with the gold leaf. Then he went into a later period. It’s just that I don’t remember everything.
GH: But what I’m saying is that it seems to — what you’re describing sounds like it fit into that Brooklyn College Design idea rather than an art school idea about a painting class with easels and a model, and all of that.
EF: No, it wasn’t that. Again, it was similar to either the visual notebook or what Reinhardt did with the Advertising Art.
EF: You were creating something that was based on some inspiration.
EF: There was an inspiration. In other words, you didn’t just start fresh with nothing. No.
GH: And he came in with these ideas?
EF: Yes. And that was probably his own. Now, there may have been — since it was Graduate, it could be — you were even allowed a special project, which – I took painting with Jimmy Ernst, which – just between him and me. I would go home and do the work, and come back, and we’d talk about it.
GH: Oh, that was the one-on-one?
EF: Yeah. That was one-on-one. But this was just two-on-one. There was my friend, a guy that I had known for a while, and I. And that’s it. There was just two of us.
GH: The two of you and Rothko?
EF: That’s it! That’s it.
GH: That’s unbelievable.
EF: It may have started out with somebody else — well —
GH: That’s unbelievable.
EF: It’s nice to know that that could happen, right?
GH: That’s almost unbelievable[laughs]
EF: And the classes were — especially on the Master’s level — they were just a few of us. There weren’t that many at the time when we graduated. Because some of these guys who graduated weren’t taking this program, or they weren’t going into teaching, or whatever. You know, not everybody did that.
GH: It’s like a private education! [laughs]
EF: Oh, it was terrific. And there were some pretty good students there. You know, there were some kids who were bright. I wasn’t particularly — my type of background. But as I say, I can’t remember all the things. But that was the one. And the others were similar in that. And many years later, I used — I remembered part of that, and I used it in my teaching. I had this class which is called high school Basic Art, or whatever it is.
EF: But we did everything. And I would show them examples of a particular artist’s work — contemporary artist. So, we had the Picasso Woman in the Mirror which is contemporary enough.
EF: Because it has a lot of colors, and it’s easy enough to understand and see. We talked about it, and had students — and then students had to do something like that with faces, where there would be one face reflecting another face. And they had to do it in collage. You know, cut out a magazine. But they had to come up with the image, which is a challenge.
EF: But we had done some collage art. Then I took a Dubuffet. You know, the Dubuffet?
EF: I think they were acrylic — these sculptures. He has one on Wall Street, in front of one of the buildings.
GH: Oh, yes.
EF: It’s big, and it looks almost like a tree in Figurative. Well, I had pictures of that. I didn’t have the original. I told them where they could see it. And I had pictures — because I had done a paper on Dubuffet a couple of years ago, and I got interested in Dubuffet. First I kind of dismissed the ugly stuff. [laughs] But then, when I got the book out, I really appreciated it. And then when I saw the stuff, a very creative guy.
GH: Yes, yes.
EF: And I like those things!
EF: I really like those things. It has a little of the Mondrian. I mean, it’s not as structured.
EF: But it has the black and white and the whites and a little red here. So, we built — we did a lot of this three-dimensional work, with drawing paper. We’d build boxes of all kinds. Geometric forms. You know, tetrahedrons and cones, and make sculpture. But this time it had to be similar to a Dubuffet. I called it a tree — sort of a figure tree.
EF: They had nothing to copy. [laughs]
EF: But they looked at this — you know, I showed it to them. The picture — and they could pass it around.
GH: Right, right.
EF: You know, with brush and ink — these kids are terrific.
EF: They’re just ordinary kids. But the thing is, it came from Dubuffet. So, I got that from Rothko. And there were a couple of other things. There may have been about four different things. So, I’m getting a little assistance from some of the other artists. But it’s inspiration. And when you’re teaching and you’re dealing with adolescents, you want to make sure that they’ve got something to do.
EF: So, I try to challenge them — try to make it interesting.
EF: And they liked it. They’d grumble a little bit.
EF: So, I got that from Rothko.
GH: Going back, how was Jimmy Ernst?
EF: Jimmy Ernst — it was Painting II, I think. And we did water color and gouache stuff. And he did a demonstration, and he actually — again, it was a small class. It was undergraduate, but it was a small class. There might have been five of us in the class. It would be your dream as a college teacher.
GH: Absolutely, absolutely.
EF: It’s nice sometimes to have a crowd, too.
GH: Of course.
EF: Anyway, he played recordings. I mentioned he had this Jelly Roll Morton from the Smithsonian Archives. And he didn’t say much about it. He just played. Because Jelly Roll Morton could talk. I don’t know if you ever heard any of those recordings.
EF: There was somebody who did a Jelly Roll Morton program, and we saw it in a night club many years ago. And I think it was on off-Broadway. It was a guy who looked Jelly Roll Morton, a tall, skinny, part-black guy. And he had a Swedish pianist who played this very, very fast piano. And he would talk. And Jelly Roll Morton could talk. I have a small recording of him talking to this guy who did the Smithsonian archives. I forget his name now.
GH: It doesn’t matter.
EF: So, he had this thing. And we were working while Jelly Roll Morton was on. Jimmy Ernst — he was a short, slight guy, kind of cute. He had this bow tie all the time, and we knew that he was Max Ernst’s son. We knew that. And Jimmy Ernst said something else, like Rothko said, Nothing is dead as yesterday’s newspaper.
EF: Somebody — he read a quote from somebody who referred to surrealism. He said, Surrealism [laughs] In other words, his papa was the Surrealism star!
EF: In other words, what does this guy know about surrealism? Calling somebody something surrealistic, and Jimmy was saying, What does he know about Surrealism? This isn’t surrealistic, you know?
EF: I remember that. But otherwise, he brought in some personal experiences here and there. He wrote one or two books later on, about his life.
GH: We’re running slightly out of time. I want to ask quickly just —
EF: Do you want a couple more people?
GH: Was there any other figure that stood out from your experience at Brooklyn College, besides these many who’ve you described, who are interesting?
EF: There weren’t any women in the department then.
GH: Right, right.
EF: There was a guy who had a Greek name, Papadaki. I don’t remember his first name. He was an architect. We did a design. We had to do the interiors, and we had to use only construction paper, and we had to make it look like an interior.
EF: In looking inside. So, Papadaki — and he was supposed to be pretty well known. And Holtzmann but I never had him as a teacher, but I watched him perform with these elementary school people, and he was very good at that.
GH: And Still, you just had —
EF: Yes. Clyfford Still came in. I had heard of him, and maybe I’d seen something of his. At that time, I hadn’t seen too many ..art books. I’d seen some. But I’d heard of him, and I knew that he had been friendly with Rothko because Rothko and Still were part of a group in California for a while, I think.
EF: I think Rothko had been to San Francisco or something, and I had read or heard something about that. The rumor was Still is there because Rothko brought him there or something.
GH: I think that was..
EF: Anyway, Still looked something like James Thurber. He had these glasses, and he had white-gray hair. And he also had this Oxford gray suit, like Dillon. But he was shorter. A thin guy. Also very, very severe looking. And he put up this page of material for Etching, and this is our first term of Etching, with all the acids and plates, and all the other stuff. The burin,and this and that. And that’s it. And he stood there, and you could ask him things, and that would be about it. There was paper there — whatever it was. We had the materials. And he hardly ever said anything.
GH: Amazing. Amazing.
EF: And again, it was a small group. There may have been one or two other students who tried to draw him out or something, but I wasn’t that — now I’m a little more open, having been a teacher for many years. [laughs]
EF: But at that time, I was a little on the shy side, you might say. Shy might not be the right word, but a little self-conscious. I still don’t like to ask people things if I don’t have to. [laughs]
GH: Right, right.
EF: So, that’s Clyfford Still.
GH: Well, that’s interesting. This is a great history of that period, and all these big figures — it’s a remarkable experience you’ve had.
EF: I think it was a very, very good experience.
GH: Yes. It sounds just wonderful. And it’s so vivid in your imagination. It must have left a big impression. [laughs]
EF: Oh, yes. It opened me up in lots of ways. By the time I left Brooklyn College, I was a lot more open to contemporary art.
GH: Exactly. Exactly. Thank you very much.
EF: You’re welcome.
End of Interview.