Ethel Baziotes George Hofmann 1998-11-01

Notes on a conversation with Ethel Baziotes, widow of William Baziotes, Nov. 1, 1998, New York, NY.  

Ethel Baziotes, the widow of William Baziotes, the American painter, brought Baziotes instantly to life in talking about him. Calling him, always, “Baziotes”, she spoke with reverence and respect about his attitude towards life, which was “to stay hungry”; she spoke of his love of food, people, laughter, and even, of smoking, which killed him. Three packs a day from the age of nine brought on lung cancer in 1962, when he was fifty. But Mrs. Baziotes spoke of how beautifully he smoked – inhaling deeply, letting the smoke curl from his exhalation, in a way that recalled the spiral gesture of his painting.

Born in Pittsburgh, Baziotes lived mostly in Reading, Pennsylvania, as a child, and he was always happy to go back there. He was proud of his immigrant background, although he never called it that. His father was a Greek “shepherd”, a “lion”, from Sparta, the ancient home of great warriors, his mother, an “educated” Greek woman who was a wonderful cook and housekeeper. His father became a prosperous restaurateur in Reading, so Baziotes knew good fortune early. Later, he knew hardship as well: his father”s restaurant was destroyed in a fire and the family moved from comfortable circumstances to the worst part of town– Baziotes knew pimps and prostitutes and gangsters, ran errands for them, in fact did every sort of job: he was an errand boy for a newspaper, he was a bootblack, he worked in a hat factory and as a window trimmer in stores, and in a stained glass workshop. He boxed, and finally, he went to art school.

When the family would ask him what he wanted to be, he would say: “an architect”. Mrs. Baziotes recalled: “He said to me “it sounded important””. He was very attracted to boxing, but he knew, early, that he was to be an artist. When Mrs. Baziotes asked him, later, when it was that he knew he would become an artist, he paused, and then very slowly said that he knew, one day, that he had been “chosen.”

Ethel Baziotes felt very much that his art was “spawned in the Depression”. She emphasized the terrible cost, to him, when the country was so desperate — no work for so many people, and his interest: Art! He lived and worked through that Great Depression, but it had it”s price. But, it was a great triumph for American democracy that there was a WPA for artists�it gave him a chance.

Baziotes, archaic and transcendent, was a man of strength: in Mrs. Baziotes” description, he considered facing the square white canvas to be like stepping into the ring. At the same time, he was a man with beautiful hands: In her words: “he knew life”. “Quiescence” was his.

For him art was “ephemeral,” also, “arcane;” he saw it, not as a status symbol, but as a phantom that must be caught and made real. He never “pursued” art, rather, it “came to him.”

These qualities in him are reflected, in part, in his personnel records in the Hunter College Archives. Under the category of “Education”, his only entry is: “National Academy of Design”. But under “Professional Achievements”, he provided a long, matter of fact list of every major museum collection of the time, as well as of the private collections of the museums” directors: Nelson Rockefeller, William Burden, Rene d”Harnoncourt, and Gordon Washburn of the Asia Society.

Baziotes’ teaching experiences were all important to him, but teaching at Hunter gave him, in Mrs, Baziotes” words “for the first time, stability”. He taught at Hunter for ten years, and was beloved: many alumni speak to this day of his kindness, and warmth, as a teacher. “Teaching, for him, was an extension of painting: he felt that “he who teaches, learns twice”. She recalled: “when he could get students to laugh, he felt “they learned something” It was, in Mrs. Baziotes” view, “fortuitous that Motherwell was there”; he knew Richard Lippold, and was good friends with Gabor Peterdi.

Finally, in our conversation, Mrs. Baziotes also voiced the feeling that “talking so much– talk being so prevalent in our society — de-poeticizes” art”, leaving no room for “the mysteries”.

That was “his view too.”