INTERVIEW WITH NORMAN BLUHM
July 21, 1997, at East Wallingford, VT,
by George Hofmann
TAPE ONE, SIDE A
GH: George Hofmann, speaking with Norman Bluhm on the morning of July 21, 1997, in East Wallingford, Vermont. We were discussing Clement Greenberg.
NB: Well, we just opened on a sidewalk, which I don’t like. Anyway, to be repetitious, there was this kind of natural hatred between Clem and I. We really disliked each other. And to go back to (inaudible) he once went to see a show of mine at the Everson, which Jim Harithas organized, and he walked in and said, “what a fantastic show, what a fantastic show”. He said, “who’s the artist” Jim said, “Norman Bluhm”. He said, “oh, it’s terrible”. Then later at Helen Frankenthaler’s, well, some years before, as a matter of fact, I was drinking a little bit, and I said something to somebody, and he said, “that’s you again, loud mouth”. He said, “I’m going to punch you in the face”. I said, “no, you’re not going to punch me in the face”. I said, “but if you’d like to get hurt, it’s all right with me”. So he started to take off his jacket, and the Liberace of American painting jumped in between us.
GH: Who was that?
NB: That was Paul Jenkins.
NB: Who I call the Liberace of American painting. And he said, “Clem, don’t fight Norman. Norman was a boxer, and he knows how to fight, and he’ll hurt you”. And the only other event…over the years, Clem, whenever he would see me, it was like I had a branding iron and was poking him on the buttocks with it or something, you know. He’d just look at me and get all tense, and in 1966, there was a show called Two Decades of American painting, which opened in Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. They invited four artists to go.
GH: You were one of them?
NB: I was one of them. Jasper, Jim Rosenquist is one of the most boring people I ever knew in my life, Ad Reinhardt, and myself. Anyway, at the dinner party at a big Noh theater, Betsy Baker was there, and Betsy Baker was tall and has very long legs. We were sitting there, eating and drinking. A lot of sake. And Betsy…naturally, nobody had their shoes on, you know, you take your shoes off.
GH: Right, of course.
NB: And Betsy was barefooted. (inaudible) I was sitting right across from her, and Clem was sitting next to her. And I didn’t say a word. In one moment, Betsy’s foot stretched out one way. And I picked up her toe with my chopsticks and began to nibble on her toe. Clem blew his top.
NB: He said, “I came 6,000 miles to see art and talk about art, and I’ve got to watch your vulgarities”? Like he just couldn’t handle it. He had a thing about me, a real, personal thing.
NB: Which I enjoyed, because I think it’s marvelous that in your life when you get people that really dislike you intensely…
NB: Or have a thing. I always tell this story, in the forties in Paris. There were a lot of GIs who came over (inaudible) There was this one painter whose name I completely forgot. All I remember is he painted like George Grosz, except he didn’t paint as many medals maybe. I don’t know…
GH: I can’t think who that might be.
NB: I can’t even remember his name. Anyway, when he came to Paris, he immediately became a Francophile, but to the nth degree, so to speak. He would only speak French, and his French was horrible. So he lived down the street from me, and I would come down from my atelier and he’d see me on the street and he would serrer la main as they say in French, you know, bonjour, in the morning, good morning, and he’d give me the hand. Well, I figured, the first few weeks, you know, he’s in Paris, let him play the game, right? We’d see him at 9:00 in the morning, 11:00 in the morning, bonjour, same hand, 2:00 in the afternoon…
GH: He was always there.
NB: He was always shaking hands. So after about 2 3 weeks, one morning he came up, and he said, you know, tiens, bonjour, Norman. At 2:00 I saw him, at 6:00, he came up to me. I said, “wait a minute, hold it, will you”? I said, “look, I’m married to a French woman”. I said,
“I have a French father in law, I have a mother in law, brother in law. I see them quite often”. I says, “we don’t shake hands if I go out for a walk and come back into the house”. He said, “I’m in France. I want to be like the French. Either shake hands with me or you don’t”. I said, “That’s all right, I won’t have to shake hands with you”. It’s okay with me.
NB: (inaudible) so I never shook hands with him. I was in Paris for 15 years. He was there, and every time he’d come towards me down the street, I’d just wave my finger at him.
GH: No, no, no, none of that shaking hands.
NB: That’s a kind of atmosphere that you get. I’m leading in a strange kind of way into a tale about…before we get into some serious conversation.
NB: A tale about…I ran into a painter one day, and he said, “I saw your work”, he said. “I don’t think much of it”. I said, “well, good”. I said, “if everybody liked my work, it would be terrible”. And then he began to say well, I know a lot about the New York scene. I’m a real close friend of Bill de Kooning’s. I said, wow, that’s terrific. So when I came back to America in 1955, I met Bill. I met Bill, I met Franz, I met everybody. Somehow I melted in, and I was part of the Cedar Bar as I called it, the church of abstract expressionism.
NB: So some years later, I was walking up…Bill had come to my studio, and there were some shows. In those days they used to be on Tuesdays.
NB: (inaudible) he says, come on, Norman, let’s walk uptown and go to a couple of shows. Fine. So we were walking uptown, and here comes this guy.
GH: From Paris.
NB: From Paris. I said hey, Bill, here’s a guy who really knows you, an old friend of yours. Bill with his kind of, what? I can’t do his accent. Who’s he? Truth of the matter is, I ended up introducing him to Bill de Kooning.
NB: So I think what you had to go back to…I know you want to ask about the fifties. What you had about the fifties was a kind of relationship between people that had nothing to do with who they were or what their status was.
NB: And in a lot of cases even what their art was, because at least my interpretation, the feeling was that everybody was in the same boat.
NB: And whether he was successful or not successful, or whether he was a great drinker or a bad drinker, whether he was a fighter or not a fighter. That had nothing to do…I think one of the stories that I say when I usually give talks at the universities is, I always say, one of the first big events in my life was one evening at the Cedar Bar I was seated in the back with Bill and Franz, and we were drinking, and in walked this collector, a museum aficionado or whatever he was, a little pompous. And he came up to Franz, and he said, Franz, I’ll be at your studio tomorrow morning at 11:00. Franz said, well, he said, I don’t know, he said, I’ll tell you what we will do. Let’s go to Norman’s at 11:00, and then we’ll go to mine at 12:00, and then by then we can go to Bill’s at 1:00. This pompous ass said, well, I just don’t have time. I only have time for you. Franz said, forget about it. It struck me as a real situation. After living in Paris, where there is a certain kind of snobbism about being an artist, there was a totally different human atmosphere.
NB: And the intent of developing a kind of cultural force that made me feel…gave me a great deal of courage, and a great deal of desire.
GH: Do you think the thirties had something to do with that, or was it the war?
NB: I think the war.
GH: That it was the war.
NB: Well, I think the fifties had a lot to do with the anger, the energy of that time, the postwar energy of even America, so to speak, and this kind of endeavor to make something that was American, greater than most people would accept, because to retrogress, I always tell the story of in France, of a French painter one time coming up to my studio, and he said to me, he was looking at…you know, according to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which designed the idea of the stretcher or the chassis, they called it, they used to have sizes, like a 20 F, 20 P, and 20 M, one being a figure, F for a figure, and the P for Paysage, the landscape, and the M for what was called a marine canvas, for seascapes, so to speak. I remember that was the period when I was doing nudes, abstract kind of nudes, on marine canvases, but vertical, and this guy said, you can’t do a figure on a marine canvas.
NB: Some of those let’s say barriers that are put in front of you even before you start…
NB: It’s like going into…I always remember going into the studio of Jack Levine, and he had a huge canvas up, and he already had like an 18 19 Century gold frame around it (inaudible) and he had one thin charcoal line to break the kind of horizontal line, to break the horizon, so to speak, and I looked at it, and I said hey, Jack, leave it, it’s great. Those are the things that…these little items, these little elements are the elements that I think changed the scene, changed the scene in order to give…let us go outside of what we were for many, many years. It’s like a fourth rate culture. Everything we got came from either France, from Italy, wherever it came from. By the time it got to us, it had been so sponged down, it had very little significance, any significance at all.
GH: Right. You mentioned anger as being a natural…you just identify that with the situation, the postwar situation.
GH: But I think a younger person today would not understand why that was. In the history books it was…
NB: I don’t think anger in the context that you’re running around hitting everybody, and everybody is bleeding.
GH: No, a cultural anger.
NB: Cultural kind of anger.
GH: Yes. But I think the popular imagination has it that it was peace time, everything was terrific, what were you all angry about? An 18 year old would ask you that today, or a 22 year old, and…
NB: You’ve got to think back in the fifties, what was the scope of the art world, what was the number of people that I remember going to openings in the fifties, how many people were there? Besides maybe you had a mother and father and a couple of uncles.
GH: A small art world.
NB: Very small. Everybody knew everybody. Like I was kidding somebody, I was telling some people the other day that my wife and I were flying down to Washington to see one of the shows at the museum. There was a magazine out there, the Washingtonian or something, or some magazine, and in it there was an article on Grace Hartegan, and in the article, in the interview, she says, I’m going to release something about my past that nobody ever knew about me. And that was that I had an affair, she said, I had an affair with Franz Kline. Everybody in the God damn art world knew that.
NB: You’re not shocking anybody or anything, because everybody knew everything, and that includes…I realize that I had a bad reputation. I once called Irving…
NB: Slander, I used to call him. On the air. In the old days after shows you would do radio programs.
GH: Really? I didn’t realize that.
NB: Yes. They did them for a while from the Russian Tea Room, in which you got free Vodka, and get smoked out.
GH: Who was doing that?
NB: Irving (inaudible)
NB: No, excuse me, the first guy who did it was a guy named Casper Citron.
NB: Then Irving took it over, and it went to…they started to do it in the Hotel Pierre.
GH: Yes. Wow, highfalutin.
NB: I remember I got angry at Irving, and I called him a concierge of the art world, because he took it out on me, because when he ever wrote any of his books, he never mentioned me. Although he begged me once to give him a fifties painting, which I did.
GH: You gave it to him?
NB: Yes. But it’s interesting because the reason I said it was that Irving used to have a pad of paper like that, except a yellow pad, what do you call it, legal paper.
NB: And he would sit in the Cedar Bar, and he would write down all of the comments.
NB: Yes. He would write all these comments of various people.
GH: I didn’t realize he was so tacit.
NB: Yes. And I think that’s why I ended up saying that to him.
NB: But that’s part of the period.
GH: But to go back to the anger for a moment, do you think it was the artists versus the establishment, or that one just needed this psychic energy to bring about this revolution in art? I mean…
NB: I guess you could lean both ways. But I think the inner force was this anger in reference to a kind of desire to create an art form that was…although it was short lived, let’s be honest about it, it was extremely short lived. You really get down to the history of abstract painting.
NB: Except for those of us who continued on, or those of us who continued to live, so to speak, it was very short lived. And I would say that I don’t think that it was every truly accepted. I have always made this kind of statement because when you…
GH: In the broader society?
NB: In the broader sense of things. I think it still is not accepted, because I mean, when you think…I don’t want to race into talking about pop art yet, because then I really get hot. And I don’t think that the Museum of Modern Art…I recall one of the last meetings of the club in which Alfred Barr openly made the statement that he wanted another art form, that he did not find truly a significant…and it was that next year that they bought Jasper Johns out of sight. I mean, I was with Leo Castelli, and I can tell a story of me and Leo and a Machiavellian situation that existed.
NB: Because oddly enough, not to run away from things, we could run around a lot, but I knew Dorothy Miller quite well, and I knew her husband, Eddie Cahill, even better, and Eddie and I kind of drank together, and he loved it. He knew I knew a lot about boxing, and he loved to talk about fights. So I used to go over some nights from the Cedar Bar. Eddie would come by and then I would go over to the apartment where they lived on 8th Street, and Dorothy would come in from the museum, and Eddie would say, fix us dinner. And she didn’t like me at all. But I remember that when Jasper and Bob had their kind of smash, so to speak, and Dorothy Miller, one evening at the house, said to me, Norman, what do you think of Leo Castelli. What was I going to say? He was my dealer.
GH: He was your dealer.
NB: And as dealers go, Leo was one of the better…well, he’s still alive…one of the better dealers.
NB: Regardless of whether my dislike or what happened between him and I, I still have to give him that respect.
NB: And I spent a few minutes raving about Leo. Of course, later when Leo and I got to this point where I threatened to kill him…
GH: I probably undid that.
NB: No, the truth of the story is I had a show, actually my last big show with Leo, and I walked in about a week later this is when the gallery was on 77 Street.
NB: And the whole show was covered with paintings by Jasper and Bob, paintings or whatever.
GH: At the gallery?
NB: At the gallery, yes. So I said, Leo, get their stuff out of here, it’s my show.
GH: They had these paintings standing around while your show was up?
NB: Yes, leaning against my paintings. I said, you want to show them, show them in the back room like you show everybody else when there’s another show.
NB: And Leo said, Norman, they’re hot. They’re selling like hotcakes. I said, Leo, I don’t give a shit. Sometimes I spoke French with Leo. I said, I don’t want to see it again. So I came back I guess the following week, and it was the same thing, and I blew my top.
GH: They had left that there.
NB: No, they had put out some more.
GH: They had moved things around?
NB: So I blew my top. I said, Leo (inaudible)
GH: It was how they were doing things?
NB: Yes. And Leo said, I guess you’re dissatisfied with the gallery. I said, yes, I’m dissatisfied with the gallery, I don’t like the way you’re doing things, Leo, there is somebody coming up here wants to buy this big painting (which was eventually sold). I said, I think you ought to show me some respect as an artist. If you can’t show me any respect and do things this way, then there’s no sense in me being in the gallery. Well, all right then, leave. I said, okay. So I left. I said, send everything back to my studio. Well, he didn’t send everything back. He kept some things. In those days, to keep an inventory…
GH: People weren’t so archival in those days.
NB: No. You didn’t do anything.
NB: I don’t know where half of my things are.
NB: So anyway, 3 weeks later I got a letter from Leo: Dear Norman, I have gone through our records and I’ve come to the conclusion that you owe me $9,000.
GH: That’s kind of a typical dealer’s communication, isn’t it.
NB: So I made a bad mistake. I was so angry I tore the letter up. I shouldn’t have, but I did. It was dumb of me. About 2 3 days later, the phone rings. Hello, Norman. Yes? It’s Leo. Hi, Leo. Did you get my letter? I said, yes, I got your letter, I tore it up and threw it in the waste paper basket. He said, well, what about the $9,000? I said, Leo, what would you rather have, $9,000 or your life? Leo is Machiavellian to the nth degree. I mean, Leo is a real Machiavellian individual. I paid (inaudible) He badmouthed me from A to Z. I know people who called the gallery and asked for my address, so I found out later, for a show, for some sort of a show. We have no address. We don’t know where he is. You know, all of the little…
GH: Yes, that sort of thing.
NB: What would you call…little, petty, high school kind of usual things (inaudible) That’s it, what are you going to do?
GH: Well, nobody can claim that people in the art world are particularly elevated (inaudible) They’re not particularly nice.
NB: Art dealers are…what percentage of art dealers really have an art history background?
GH: Very few, I think.
NB: If you say 2%, you might be exaggerating.
NB: And I think most of them were either like Leo, that was in the garment district in the rag business…
GH: Sam Kootz, same thing.
NB: Sam Kootz. Do you know the Picasso Kootz story?
GH: Yes, with the automobile, sure.
NB: The rest were failed lawyers.
GH: I didn’t realize that, There probably are some in there.
NB: Might. Allan Stone.
GH: Was Allan Stone a lawyer?
GH: Oh, my God.
NB: A Harvard boy.
NB: I like Allan, though.
GH: He’s a force unto himself in a funny kind of way. In this period, to touch on the Hunter situation, did you know by any chance Fritz Bultman, for example?
NB: Sure. I knew Fritz in Paris.
GH: Did you?
NB: As well.
NB: And he used to show in the same gallery as I did.
GH: In Paris?
NB: The Galerie Stadler.
NB: I just spoke to him [Stadler] two days ago.
GH: Still in business?
NB: No, he closed the gallery.
NB: He said 40 years is enough.
GH: Yes. And how about Baziotes?
NB: I was never…I knew Baziotes, but I was never a friend.
GH: Did Fritz Bultman ever say anything about the fact that he had this teaching job, or how he had come into it, or…
NB: No. I was never really that let’s say socially with Fritz. Fritz showed a little…he was in a group show at Leo’s once, I think. The only painter that I knew, who I just didn’t like at all, yes, I knew him, he taught at Hunter, was Ray Parker.
NB: He and I were another…I couldn’t stand Ray Parker.
GH: Well, Ray was younger than you were, right?
NB: Maybe a couple of years, not much. I used to call his paintings hamburgers and hot dogs in space.
GH: You mean because of that simplification of the form and…he was a very amiable guy, though. It’s interesting that you…
NB: Mike and him were close friends.
GH: They were?
NB: But he and I never somehow got along. I think one of the reasons was, one of the first times I met him was at a dinner party. He was friendly with another painter by the name of Kyle Morris.
NB: They were very close friends, and I think the first time I met him, we went out to dinner together. I don’t remember the name of the place. All I remember was it was on 23rd Street, and it was a steak house. And everybody was drinking a lot, and he got into this lengthy conversation about suicide.
GH: Kyle Morris did?
NB: No, Ray. And I was totally upset.
GH: Well, as it happened, he committed a slow suicide.
NB: Well, he drank himself to death.
NB: Which is a form of suicide.
NB: Slower suicide.
NB: And he was very…I remember one evening, one day out in East Hampton, do you know Bill Agee?
NB: I used to be very close friends with Bill. But I remember when I first knew Bill, Ray Parker saw me with Bill, comes running up. Who is he, Norman?
GH: On the make?
NB: Yes. (inaudible) and I really couldn’t stomach it.
GH: Did you have any contact around that time with Motherwell?
NB: Mommawell, I used to call him.
GH: That’s a great…I’ve got to write that one down, Mommawell.
NB: My first encounter with Mommawell was…
GH: Another dislike of yours?
NB: Yes. Was at a party actually at Helen Frankenthaler’s.
GH: Well, they were married then?
NB: No, before they…
GH: Before, yes.
NB: And I was a big, heavy smoker. But I only smoked Gauloises Bleu. I was a big smoker. So I finished a pack of Gauloises at this cocktail party, when Helen lived on West End Avenue, and I walked up to Mommawell, and I said to him in French, here’s…
GH: A pack for you?
NB: No. An old pack, a used package, you can use the cover for one of your gouaches, collages.
GH: Do you think you were being a tad…
NB: Yes. And he was, I didn’t understand what you said. I said, you mean to tell me you don’t speak French? I remember I started yelling at him. He and I never got along. As a matter of fact, Harold Rosenberg wrote an article one time, after seeing something of mine from this period, and he said, well, it seems like Motherwell is copying Norman Bluhm. And that evening…no, that day, next day at lunch, I had lunch with Tom Hess at a French restaurant whose name I can’t remember. There was seated Motherwell. Man, he gave me a look that…
GH: Having just read that, you mean.
NB: Yes, he read it. I never really…to be honest with you, I never liked his paintings. To be very honest. I think he ran that elegy to a Spanish churchyard…
GH: Into the ground.
NB: To the ground.
NB: I don’t know, I never really cared much, and then what’s the story that Elaine De Kooning used to say about Motherwell? Take a piece of paper, get a pencil, and count to ten. One second, two seconds, three seconds, going down horizontally, vertically, then turning going vertically, four seconds, five seconds, six, then back up, horizontally six, eight, nine, ten…$10,000.
GH: God, she had a sharp tongue and a mind to match, I think.
NB: Elaine was sharp. She once said to me, you know, I liked her so much. We got along great, and we did that famous panel with Frank O’Hara, and Mike and Joan. Hearsay. And it was very, very funny. And Elaine was marvelous. One day she said to me, you know, Norman, I just did a panel, and there was a guy on there by the name of Stephen Greene. I said oh, that moron, that jerk. You know what he said during that panel? That this one artist in the whole New York art world that I hate the most is Norman Bluhm.
GH: Mutual admiration.
NB: Then she said, I jumped up and I said, he’s my closest friend.
GH: That’s marvelous.
NB: She was great, but I think the great story about Elaine, I don’t know if you know the story. You know, we were talking earlier about Earl Kerkham?
NB: And Franz went away on a trip, and he gave Earl the studio on 4th Street and 10th, Fourth Avenue and 10th Street.
NB: And in those days nobody locked their doors or anything, and Earl said to Elaine would she pose for him? He’d like to do a nude from the waist up. Elaine said sure. So they started. Earl had that way of painting, a little bit out of Cezanne, with a touch of Corot, you know.
NB: Anyway, he started painting, and with Earl spitting tobacco all the time, which he did all over the place, and he said, well, that’s enough. I’ll meet you tomorrow. Let’s go to the Cedar Bar and have a drink. So they walked up the block (inaudible) two blocks to 9 Street (inaudible) and so Elaine said, what time tomorrow? He said, come 10 10:30. So Elaine was across the street naturally, and she went over. The door wasn’t locked. She walked in, and there was this painting, and Earl had changed it. It was a portrait of himself. I mean, it’s a great story. I don’t know.
GH: It’s unbelievable.
NB: Unbelievable, but it’s a great story.
GH: That’s unbelievable.
NB: That gives you the insight. Some of the oddities of other people who saw things, a way of seeing themselves or looking only at themselves.
GH: Yes. Going back to the crew at Hunter I’m thinking about Hunter did you ever know Tony Smith at all, or meet him?
NB: Yes, I met him, but it was under too social a situation we met there.
GH: Yes. He really started as an architect.
NB: I know, so did I.
GH: That’s why I’m mentioning it, having read about your background, and apropos of that, it interested me to see that you had actually studied with Mies van der Rohe.
GH: And it’s natural to wonder how much of a mark that left on you.
NB: I think, you know, I look back at my days before the war, and I was one of the first students of Mies. There were six of us.
GH: When he first came to this country?
NB: When he came to America in 1936.
NB: I look back at those days with a great deal of admiration for Mies, on two levels: one is, I got into architecture probably a little bit forced by my family, which I don’t regret. To go back to my days with Mies…
GH: You were young.
NB: I was too young. I graduated high school, I was too young.
GH: You were what, 16 17?
NB: 16 years old. Actually 15. I was very smart. I got dumber as I got older. And I was in with a large group of people who were very intelligent, studying under not only Mies, but Walter Paterhans, Hildesheimer, all these people who had been at the Bauhaus, and did I have a natural ability to be an architect? No.
GH: You don’t think so?
NB: No. Well, that was my reason. I never graduated. I mean, I walked out six months before I was supposed to…about nine months before I was supposed to graduate. I just suddenly saw myself in a joking kind of way doing toilets for Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
GH: And there were plenty of people who did spend their lives…
NB: And I also saw myself as being so highly influenced by Mies that I could never move past. I go back and I look at it. I could tell some great Mies stories. There are a few of them I can tell you. One was, we had to do in perspective a whole school, a detail of a whole school, drawing every brick. And if you worked for Mies, the lines had to meet just perfectly, no erasing, nothing. And I did it, worked how many weeks on it. Mies came in. He always started the same way. Ja, Herr Bluhm, this is wunderbar.
NB: Yes. Then he said, ah, maybe I see a mistake.
GH: Such a schoolmaster.
NB: Yes. At this level of creativity, on such a high plane, that if you went a little bit below it, you were out. And he said, ah, here. I said, but Mies. And then he would just look at you, and he’d say, maybe we will do it all over again. So this is the kind of training that you went into. Another scene was, we once had to do a thing with Peterhans and Mies, which was called an aesthetic and visual analysis of a building. In other words, let’s say a glass wall, a white this big, six inches, then a column maybe which was a quarter of an inch on scale, and then a glass wall maybe four inches, and then maybe a column an inch wide. And arranging these whites and blacks, and I did one, and Mies and Paterhans looked at it and he started the same thing. Ja, Herr Bluhm, this is wunderbar. But maybe I would move this black one sixtieth of an inch. I mean, like what the hell am I going to do? I just got to be at such a point, and my head began to wander, and then one day I did a drawing, and I was screwing around, and I was feeling a little corny, and I started to draw some nudes dancing around the building. I had messed up the drawing, and I was drawing these nudes dancing around, and Mies walked in and he saw this. What are you doing here, Herr Bluhm? I said oh, I’m ruining a drawing, so I just thought I would draw a few nudes dancing around enjoying themselves. And he said to me, when we are going to draw nudes, I will tell you when to draw nudes. So I just kind of closed the door, and one morning I walked in and I just looked at the place like, what am I doing here? I may end up a hunchback with a good ten inch thick lenses looking at a wife that I can’t see, and no stomach. So I started packing. Everybody said, what are you doing? I said, I quit, I’m leaving. And I walked out. Years later in 1950, I came back to America for a very brief trip, my father had died, and I stopped in New York. Mies had his office in New York, and he was then doing the Seagrams Building. And I went up to the office, and he was so pleased to see me. He liked me in his German kind of way.
NB: And so let’s have lunch. So we went out to lunch. He threw down those martinis like it was out of sight, and I got a little drunk myself. So then we came back to his office, and I remember my friend Gene Sommers. Do you know Gene? Gene is now running the school in Chicago.
GH: In Chicago, yes.
NB: So I showed Mies photographs of what I was painting, and he put his arms around me and he said, ja, Herr Bluhm, you would have been a terrible architect, but you will be a great painter.
GH: That’s sweet.
NB: So I grabbed him and we embraced. I never saw him again. (interruption)
SIDE B IS BLANK
GH: One thing that struck me from our last tape was that…and I thought of this when I did some…
GH: Let’s see how it comes across.
NB: Go ahead.
GH: There’s a dog in the background in case anybody is wondering about the sound effects. It struck me that you were, of all the painters, in a fairly unique position because you had been a part of the Paris scene, and then you were part of the New York scene following that, so you straddled both worlds, and I think that there were very few people who were in that position ever.
NB: Well, I think the only person, but later. Joan was in that position.
GH: Joan Mitchell?
NB: Yes. Only later was she in that position.
GH: Later, I see.
NB: Although she was in Paris in 1947…when she was married to Barney Rosset.
NB: She was in Paris. She lived…as a matter of fact, she lived upstairs with another painter by the name of…terrible painter…by the name of Herbie Katzman.
GH: Don’t know him.
NB: Kind of a Buckeye from Carte Postales, as they used to say. But Joan actually came to Paris in the fifties to live. That’s where she met Jean Paul Riopelle, and they lived together for about 25 years.
GH: I didn’t realize that.
NB: And I think, not to put Joan down, she picked up a lot from Jean Paul, because in a way, if you look…I don’t want to talk about Joan all that long, but Joan is much more a French painter than she is American.
GH: I think so, too.
NB: A lot of Monet in it, Monet in her paintings.
GH: Yes. The light.
NB: The light, and she really picked up on that a lot.
NB: But I think I was there earlier, and I think the most fortunate thing about it was that the scene in Paris after the war was rather morbid.
NB: It was active in a very isolated kind of way. But the isolation also had to do with except for a few people there was not much pro American feeling about us. A few painters were able to get through that, but I recall…and I was married, so I had a closer association with more French people than most Americans did.
GH: Yes. Your wife was French?
NB: Yes. I remember many of these kinds of heated discussions about the American barbarians, no culture, etc..
GH: Was that a general cultural indictment or…
NB: Yes, quite a general…what are they doing, and what is this, and we don’t follow the rules, so to speak. Like I was telling a story about the different size stretchers. It was the same thing in even your application or the way you did things.
GH: So they were already thinking. They were aware of the New York scene as it were, slightly coming together.
NB: Yes. Well, they were…I think two or three people like Michel Tapie, who was the nephew of Tolouse Lautrec, was one of the…he worked with a guy by the name of Facchetti, and they were the first ones to show Pollock in Paris. You know, they showed Pollock and they showed Franz, so there was a kind of a very close, tight knit organization of showing the pure, the early…you know, the first generation of painters.
GH: Did you see those artists there, their work there?
NB: Well, I saw the Pollock show, and I saw some Klines and some De Koonings, but I had already seen them.
NB: In other situations. But I wasn’t that…I think it took me a while to break off with my so called…I had a kind of admiration for Matisse, although I had one earlier painting, you can go over and look at it, in the forties, in the studio. Two or three, I don’t know. Everybody said it was very Gorky like. Maybe. I admire Gorky a great deal.
GH: Gorky was not shown in Paris, though, really.
NB: Not early, no. Later he was shown.
GH: Later, yes. Then when you were in New York, how did it strike you, the contrast between those two situations? Was the one…were you more at home in the New York scene?
NB: Yes, definitely.
GH: You were.
NB: Well, I was more at home, I remember I was telling a couple of stories about the Cedar Bar when I had my first show with Leo. And I remember that Cedar was full of a lot of anger and a lot of drunk and a lot of guilt. I remember…
GH: This was the late fifties?
NB: Yes, late fifties, but still I remember one thing, him coming up to me and saying, how come you’re having a show with Leo Castelli? You just arrived here. And I’ve been here for 10 years. Of course, my only answer was, why don’t you go back to your studio and work and stop moaning so God damn much. I think I was fortunate that I moved right in with people like Franz and Bill and Philip and…Guston, that is, and de Kooning, and Kline. I seem to have gotten along with them because…
GH: There must have been an affinity with their work?
NB: Yes. And everybody, you know Bill Franz, Philip? Everybody came to my studio. So I wasn’t some sort of a mysterious kind of individual then. I got that nice Guston. Franz and I ended up having a terrible row at the end. And Bill was going to give me a painting, and he never did.
GH: Do you think Kline was jealous of you at all?
NB: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think…I didn’t see that kind of jealousy. I always found Franz and especially Bill, whom I was more friendly with, and then became again friendly with him when I moved out to the Hamptons. No, they were very friendly to me. I mean, I spent many a drunken 3 4 day drinking thing with Bill and Franz, except I used to sneak out and get a sandwich once in a while.
NB: (inaudible) They had their kind of…they had their anger, and sometimes their anger even went on between themselves.
NB: And that anger…I remember, I always tell the great story of Bill coming in to Cedar Bar one night, and he was drunk. And Milton was there, Milton Resnick.
GH: Yes. Was he much younger? Your age?
NB: He was older than me.
GH: He was older than you?
NB: And Bill saying, in his drunken Dutch way, there you are, you son of a bitch, with that accent, I’m sick and tired of you. Because Milton would debunk Bill. And Bill said, I’m sick and tired of hearing your feet pounding all over the place. Anyway, I’m sick and tired of you copying my art. You know, this kind of (inaudible) screaming, you’ve been taking everything I do. You do exactly as I do. And Milton saying, my work is nothing like yours anymore. Totally different. And Bill said, ja, ja, Monet on rye bread.
GH: What a remark. That’s a classic.
NB: One time I was with Milton. Milton was talking to me, and he didn’t know much about my background, that I had studied with Mies, etc. So I said, you know there were 3 4 of us I’m building this place. And he started telling me about it.
GH: Meaning his loft?
NB: His studio. Maybe it was when he bought the synagogue. And he went on and on, and I said, stop, Milton. He said, what do you mean, stop? I said, stop, the place just fell in. He was pissed at me. And everybody was laughing.
GH: Did he…
NB: But those were those kind of scenes in those days. Everybody had some sort of witticism.
GH: I’m sure.
NB: About somebody else.
GH: It’s like a large, unruly family actually. I mean, you were all living in each other’s laps, for heavens sake.
NB: Well, I remember when I first did my income tax, my accountant, who was certainly a sleaze bag, but certainly knew nothing of the art world. He said, what is this place, the Cedar Bar? He said, every check is written out to the Cedar Bar.
GH: That’s where you spent your money.
NB: I said, that’s where I live.
GH: That’s right.
NB: And it was like that with everybody. The number of stories you can tell about the Cedar Bar. One of the funny stories I always tell is that Frank O’Hara was a good friend of mine…
GH: Frank O’Hara definitely was younger than most of you guys.
NB: Not that much younger.
GH: Really, is that so?
NB: Because Frank was in the Navy during the war.
GH: I guess because of the photographs, you always think of him as a young guy.
NB: Well, he looked very young.
NB: And I remember Frank…talking to Frank…I was uptown. I don’t recall exactly, but he said…I think I just talked to him at the museum (inaudible) He said, I’m coming down. Let’s you and I spend the evening together. I said, what time? He said, well, I’ll be there at 5:00 at Cedar Bar. Have a Martini for me.
GH: Have one ready for me, or you have one?
NB: Have one ready for me. So I got there about 4:00, and I always remember because there was some big fat slob wandered in. Oh, this is the Cedar Bar. And I was just sitting there having a drink, probably a beer, I couldn’t afford anything else in those days. Are you an artist? Can I buy you a drink? I said, I don’t accept drinks from strangers. Buy your own God damn drink. Get away from me. Oh, come on, let me buy you a drink. I said, I don’t want your God damn money. I got the money, and he was three sheets to the wind, as they used to say. He reaches in his pocket and he pulls out enough money to choke a horse. And he said, let me buy you a drink. I said, put your money in your God damn pocket. Get out of here. And as he goes to put his money in his pocket, it falls down on the floor (inaudible) So I pulled the old shoe string act, as we used to call it, bend down like you’re tying your shoe, and I took the money and put it in my pocket. About that moment, Frank walks in. He says, Norman, where’s my Martini? I said, screw you, you faggot bastard. Wait outside. Yelling at him. With no mechancete I was doing it to protect him. When I got outside, I said…I showed him the roll and I said, look what the drunk just dropped this. He said come on, we’ll go to the Five Spot. So we spent $100 some dollars. Boy, we had a great meal and drank until 4:00 in the morning.
GH: You relieved that guy of his change.
NB: He never appeared after that.
GH: I’m sure.
NB: But those are the things…the Cedar Bar…a lot of people used to say, what do you discuss, art in the Cedar Bar? It’s rare. Very rare.
GH: It was personal.
NB: It was personal. Nobody really…that was when it was what it was for; it was kind of like an outlet (inaudible) talk of women, sexual activities.
GH: Of course.
NB: I remember…you’re talking about Paul Brach. I remember the guys were one day talking about their sexual activity, and Paul was listening. And he said well, I once made love to a woman for half an hour. Somebody said, was it your wife? People would just laugh. Because it was a kind of…that plastic naivete of America. And there were a lot of people that hung around who were like what we used to call towel boys, who…I always tell the story, sitting there one day at the bar with Franz and some guy we knew, I can’t remember his full name, Arthur or something like that, came in. He said, could you lend me a dollar?
GH: This guy Arthur said?
NB: Yes. To Franz and me. Could you guys lend me a dollar? So he said okay. So I gave him a half and Franz gave him a half, and he walked out of the Cedar Bar and went, in a taxi.
GH: That’s great.
NB: That’s the kind of scene it was. A funny kind of scene. There were people there that…there was the old bartender that only worked on Sundays. A big, old German, who only turned around if you asked him, and he sat there at the cash register counting the money. What was his name, Carl? I remember if you stayed long enough on Sunday nights, to closing, right before closing he would get sentimental, and he’d turn around and pull out this little diamond ring that he carried, for the woman that he was going to marry, which he never met. And he’d show everybody this little diamond. But otherwise there could be a fight going on right there in the bar, and he would never turn around. He’d just count the money. It was a kind of an atmosphere.
GH: Well, it couldn’t have been invented. I mean, made up.
NB: It just happened.
GH: It just happened.
NB: Anger was not always anger because you didn’t like something, it just…things happened rather spontaneously. I don’t know whether I told you about the guy that did all the photographs of everybody?
NB: He snuck around. What was his name?
GH: Not that guy Namuth?
NB: No. Not Hans, not Fred McDarrah. Another guy. And he snuck around photographing people at night when most of us were drunk out of our gills.
GH: Is this a well known photographer now?
NB: I don’t know whether he was well known. Anyway, about three weeks later, one evening, everybody was at the Cedar Bar, and he had all these photographs hanging all around the Cedar Bar, of everybody in various states of alcoholism we tore them all down and broke every one. Because that was the attitude there. The attitude was…
GH: Was that the owner’s idea, to put those up?
NB: Well, he probably conned him into doing it.
GH: I’m sure.
NB: There were two owners. John, who was Polish, and Sam, who was Italian.
GH: They had this German guy working for them.
NB: And they had a German cook once. We used to go across the street or next door. There was a little food market, and we used to bring the food in and make him cook our food. (inaudible)
NB: (inaudible) But that’s not the fifties scene. The fifties scene was openings that were respectful in a strange kind of way. Everybody went to everybody’s opening as a show of, kind of solid Because he was an abstract painter, you went. You didn’t necessarily have to like the work, but you went anyway. It was that kind of…and then there were the cliques. There was the uptown crowd, a Motherwell and Rothko and that bunch. Every once in a while they’d come down to the Cedar Bar.
GH: Peggy Guggenheim probably fit into that crowd.
NB: Yes, with Motherwell.
GH: And Ernst and so forth.
NB: Who, Jimmy?
GH: Max, I mean.
NB: I knew Max in Paris. He was a sweet man.
GH: Yes, it seems so from the photographs.
NB: A very sweet man.
NB: I knew him because he used to hang around with all the surrealists, some of the surrealists. A nice guy, Max.
GH: But there’s a hint in what you’re saying of this group still…however, whatever the cliques were, of being a minority, still rode up against a pretty powerful establishment that wasn’t having you really.
NB: Yes. I don’t think, even if you date to the completeness, the end of the period of that period, so to speak I would say there was never really complete acceptance in a very…in comparison to pop art that came after.
GH: Which almost universally was accepted and eaten up by…well, it was popular right away.
NB: Yes, because what it did is, it brought art down to a level that people could understand.
NB: And plus all of this, as far as I was concerned, all those fascistic symbols that they used. And I would say that as far as…not to be repetitious, but I don’t see any real honest talent in any of them.
GH: Rauschenberg has talent, had talent.
NB: Yes, but he copied himself year after year after year after year.
NB: I mean, he was what he was, he was a window store decorator.
GH: He was a very good graphic designer in his…
NB: Jasper at the end, one of the best things he ever did were his prints.
NB: He was a printmaker.
GH: Yes, very strong in that.
NB: And the rest of them, I mean, there is somewhere in this house an early book, a mystery book or something like that, that Andy Warhol did the cover. He doesn’t even know how to draw.
GH: Well, he was photography oriented right from the beginning, I think.
NB: Yes. Went to school with Paul Jenkins.
GH: Did Jenkins go to school there?
NB: Yes. They all went to Carnegie. Paul started as…not to get him on the tape, but he started as a theater major, an actor.
GH: Did he really?
NB: Somebody said, you’re such a terrible actor, why don’t you go into painting?
NB: But I think a lot of these guys, as far as I’m concerned, I mean I’m being extremely personal, were not really individuals. If you really go back in the history of painting, and if you know a lot about the history of painting, and you have an academic background of great art, I mean, you can see where they all took off, various people. Not only the surrealists. I mean, look at Marsden Hartley and his numbers, in the German period.
NB: Rauschenberg was nothing but a photo…did like photo journalism in a strange kind of way. And the rest of them, I mean Cy Twombly is a non talent person, and he was a student of Franz’s.
GH: Was he really?
NB: Yes, at Black Mountain.
NB: Franz and Motherwell. I don’t know whether it was Franz or Motherwell. But look at those early paintings.
NB: I mean, a lot of people don’t know that…I don’t think that we were that knowledgeable, our culture was not knowledgeable. It’s like when you look at the hard edge people and you say, oh, look at this, like Barney Newman. Barney Newman, I mean, I was looking at stuff like that in the thirties when I was a student at the Bauhaus.
GH: Reductivist and so forth.
NB: And Constructionism.
NB: And I don’t think that we allow in our attempt to make such a big nationalistic lie about it all, but we allow any knowledge of what really was there. I mean, art is not a local scene, nor a national scene. It’s an international scene.
NB: And art has been going on for centuries and centuries and thousands of years.
GH: A life of its own.
NB: And if you want to be an artist, you’ve got to know all these things.
NB: And certainly in certain periods of your life you’ll be charmed by them, or you’ll pick up on them. Everybody does it.
NB: Bill did it. Look at Pollock, one of his early Thomas Benton paintings, just miserable, miserable paintings.
NB: You couldn’t sell those in Washington Square.
NB: And Franz, have you ever seen Franz’s Allegheny series?
NB: Trains going through the mountains. Then his cats, did you ever see his cats?
NB: Come on, let’s be real about it. I’m not knocking it, but what I’m doing is, I’m trying to say that in the break out of a kind of cultural force, the abstract period, we have to admit that things existed and things that can move on. Like I had a die hard argument with somebody. I said, you can’t be an abstract painter any more, per se the fifties. It’s gone. You don’t live in that period.
GH: You’re talking about a conversation recently?
NB: Recently. We don’t live in that period, we don’t have that energy. We don’t have that anger. We’re not in that time. I mean, art has moved on.
GH: Well, in truth there is no…almost no capacity for it. And it’s interesting that the reaction, even among students today, is still anti abstraction.
GH: Very strong.
NB: Well, they’re anti because they think that it’s either too facile, too easy, or they think that it has nothing to do with the trend of today, which is corn ball. I mean, there are great things in abstract painting, and they still exist. There is a form of the gesture that sprung out of abstract painting that could still be used.
NB: But you cannot go into…you can’t sit…as we were talking about Joan, you can’t sit with a kind of post-impressionist period, you can’t sit with the Cubism. As far as I’m concerned, you have to go forward, or you’ll have to look at other great moments of art history. We have to maybe go back to something that might have been, which I have tried, I admit, into the Renaissance, no different, or into some sort of Oriental concept, which they even did the impressionists. Then we have to know all these things. And there’s a lot to know. When you stand in front of a canvas today, you’ve got 5,000 years of art in front of you. It’s not that you’re going to turn around and copy it per se, but you’re going to need something on that, and that I think that the fifties brought a great force in which you had to…you can’t do it any more, but you have to hang on to that. I can never get rid of it. I don’t want to ever get rid of it.
GH: Right. It has to be acknowledged, I mean as a major, powerful force in art.
NB: It was a powerful force in art, and there were things in it that were great. There were a lot of things that as far as I’m concerned were acknowledged as great art that have kind of worn down a little bit now. And there are a lot of people that were attached to it who got recognition off of it, but really didn’t do much. They might have had 5 or10 years. I think of painters like Gottlieb, who I used to call Moon Over Miami. And even an abstract painter like Philip Guston who went back to his socialistic roots, what he did in the thirties. What saved Philip, I think in a strange kind of way, Philip knew how to handle paint. He really was (inaudible)
GH: I don’t think there was ever any question about that.
NB: He really knew how to handle paint. See, I don’t think that Pollock…Pollock was a great innovator, but I don’t think he was a great painter. Next to Bill.
GH: In terms of just painterly…
NB: I’m talking about painting. But Bill was not an American painter. He was a European painter.
NB: All the way down the line.
NB: Even to his final moments.
GH: I totally agree.
NB: Franz was an American painter.
GH: There was always a turn to the gestures.
NB: Franz’s span was minimal. I mean, his late work was just dreadful. Franz had no sense of color, absolutely none. His black and white paintings had the energy of the time of Americana, and he was the American artist.
NB: Rothko always struck me as some sort of religious Jewish rabbi, and thought of himself as the spiritual god of things.
GH: Very Russian in his way.
NB: Yes. He was born in Alexandria.
GH: Was he?
GH: There is almost an oriental business about it, a near eastern, Turkish something, quality about the light with him.
NB: Well, in his last paintings, which are beautiful paintings, he actually painted his death.
NB: And the rest of the painters, you know, that were around. Like I said, Gottlieb. I never considered Gottlieb an important painter at all. Baziotes was a nice guy, and who else? Gorky. But Gorky was a European painter.
NB: Gorky was European.
NB: And the only other…well, there’s a few other painters, one painter that never got any recognition, who was interesting, was Bradley Tomlin.
GH: I was just thinking of him.
NB: And he was an interesting painter. I’ve seen some great paintings of his.
GH: Was he too polite, was that the thing?
NB: I don’t know about that, but I won’t get into personal interpretations. I think that there were other painters. There was my archenemy.
GH: Who was that?
NB: Sam Francis. But Sam never…he did a few things in the fifties. As a matter of fact, I was in Paris just recently, and I’m a very close friend of the Matisse family. I mean, they bought 10 paintings from me. And I was having dinner with Claude Duthuit. Claude Duthuit is the grandson of Henri Matisse. His mother is Marguerite Matisse. She was married to a man by the name of George Duthuit.
NB: And George Duthuit, who was an art critic and a Byzantine scholar.
GH: Was he?
NB: George pushed Sam all over, and Claude said, you know, Norman, I want to tell you this: that at the end, right before George died, he said to me, you know, I think much more of Norman than I do of Sam. Sam bullshits himself through his oriental philosophy. He said, his art doesn’t come up to it. Sam did some terrific paintings in the fifties, but after that he became a Christmas card painter, like he was smart, he knew how to get along with people.
NB: He had been a student of David Park.
GH: Really, was he?
NB: Yes. There’s a lot of art history that people don’t know, contemporary art history.
NB: I always tell the story of my ex wife.
GH: The French lady?
NB: The French lady. She had tried to get a license to be a professor of design.
GH: In France?
NB: In France. And she flunked the exam, doing all those casts, drawings and things like that. And we were having lunch at the Matisse house, with Marguerite Matisse, then Madame Matisse, Matisse’s widow, George Duthuit, Claude was there, the grandson, and all of a sudden at the table, my wife broke out crying. Madame Matisse said to me, Norman, what’s wrong? So I said, she flunked her exam.
NB: And she laughed, and she said, you know, Henri tried, and he flunked it too.
GH: That’s amazing.
NB: Or another great story I tell. I was with this dealer, Pierre Loeb, except I blew my top and pushed him over a couch one day.
NB: Well, I was nuts, and I have to admit it. I was standing there one afternoon, upstairs, in the gallery of Pierre Loeb, and Pierre had just bought a late Cezanne, a beautiful late Cezanne, just a white line for Mont Sainte Victoire, and Masson was there. Now Masson was a bit of a pompous ass.
GH: Was he?
NB: Yes. He always wore a black cape or an Ecole des Arts black hat. And he was looking at it, and he said…this was all in French, but I’m not going to be a snob and talk French, and he said well, it’s interesting. And when the French say something is interesting, that means they don’t like it. He said, but I don’t really like that white line of Mont. Sainte Victoire. I don’t like the quality. And oddly enough at that moment, Picasso was there. He was standing behind, and he jumped in front of Masson and starts screaming at him in his French, which was never any too good. And he said, you know your problem, Maitre, which is an insult.
NB: He said, your problem is you went too long to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which is a kind of interesting interpretation.
NB: Because the French (inaudible) all of us sitting downstairs, and he had a big sofa there, and everybody, he smoked a pipe (inaudible) he showed Miro, and he showed Jean Paul, and he showed a painter by the name of Balthus.
NB: He showed Balthus, Bores, did you ever hear of Bores?
NB: He was a friend of Picasso. He showed a number of painters. Some of them made it, some of them never made it. I remember a young painter, French, came in with his package of art (inaudible) and Pierre said, just put them around. And he put them around. They weren’t very good, but that’s insignificant. And Pierre made the most disgusting remark. I got furious. He said to him, come back in 10 years and we’ll see what we’re doing. But that’s French, that’s the way the French did things. I had a friend of mine who I admired, in a strange kind of way. His name was Luciano Fontanarossa. He taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, right?
NB: Of course he had never gotten away from Corot. But he could handle paint, and he had a kind of feeling about art. I’ll never forget the day. You’ve got to realize, this was right after the war, in the forties, and I was very poetic about my career as an artist, a dreaming nut, so to speak. And we went to see his dealer, right on the Rue de Seine, right across the street from the Cafe Palette, and he walked in, Fontanarossa with a little kind of red painting, kind of a little bit out of the Corot Italian period, it was kind of red.
NB: But this was a little different, but you could see the influence. And he put it against the wall, very informal. And this dealer, who had a rather large brioche, we used to call it, pot belly, looked at it. (inaudible) was really snotty (inaudible) and he said in French, yes, yes, very good. He said, but the red, I’d like to see it a little warmer, hotter, plus chaud, so again, I was kind of a freak, and I said to Fontanarossa, in Italian, are you going to listen to this fat asshole? What does he know? And he said to me, I’ll never forget it to this day.
GH: Who, Fontanarossa?
NB: He said, but Norman, I have to eat. And I said to him, if you change that red, I won’t talk to you any more. He took the painting, changed the red, and I never talked to him. I was like that in those days. I had this kind of…
NB: Good or bad, that’s what you do. You don’t listen to anybody. I carried it for many, many years. It ruined me, but I don’t care. I remember in the fifties doing a dining room commission for a very wealthy collector in Chicago.
GH: Painting directly on the walls?
NB: I did it in my studio in New York. Huge painting. Well, for those days it was big. Maybe 15 18 feet long. I did two of them. And Leo came, Mighty Mouse, as I called him (Leo Castelli) and he said, well, that one without a doubt. I said, Leo, that isn’t as good as this one. That’s the one he’ll buy. I argued with him. I said, that’s the better painting, Leo. No, this one. Of course Leo was right, that’s the one he bought. And in 19…I don’t remember. I went to Chicago, and I was with Bud Holland, remember Bud?
GH: I don’t know very much about him.
NB: He was associated with a guy by the name of Noah Goldowsky.
NB: They had a gallery in Chicago called Goldowsky Holland, where I had a show with Larry, and the two of us had a show there in 1958, I think.
NB: Rivers. Anyway, Bud said, this dealer, or this collector that you did the big dining room painting for, wants you to come up and see the painting. Well, I was at that time very friendly with a guy by the name of Aaron Siskind, who was a photographer.
NB: A lovely, lovely man, who I loved. But Aaron could drink me under the table. He was a short guy, he must have been (inaudible) three times. Anyway, we were getting so stewed. Finally I said, Aaron, I’ve got to go. He said, I’ll go with you, I know those people. And there was an apartment overlooking the lake. We went up. I’ll never forget. We walked in and we were greeted extremely enthusiastically, and Bud Holland was there. I walked in. The living room had a marvelous collection of Mondrian, Paul Klee, Von Doesberg. But everything was covered with plastic, transparent plastic.
GH: The pictures?
NB: The seats, the lamp shades, everything. And I was drunk. So the owner guy said, well, would you like to have a drink? I said, yes. So each time I went to sip at my glass, I would slide almost on the floor. And he said to me, we’ve got to go look at the paintings. I said, give me another drink. By then I’m totally smashed. And I’m sliding, I fell on the floor again. So he got nasty. And he insisted, we’re going into the dining room right now to look at the painting. I said, I don’t want to go in the God damn dining room, and look at the fucking painting. You’ve got it covered with this plastic shit without a doubt. And I walked out. Two months later I got a letter from him asking me if I’d buy the painting back. That was the fifties scene.
GH: That’s great. In any of this time back in this country, you never taught anywhere, formally?
NB: Never had to.
GH: Most of the people who did teach did it because they had to. I mean, except for Motherwell, I think.
NB: Motherwell liked teaching.
GH: I think he liked it. Yes.
NB: I never taught. I did a lot of…I was constantly invited to be on panels. I’ve done a lot of panels and a lot of universities used to invite me to talk. Everybody says I’m terrific. The bigger the audience, the better. I sold a painting to the Dayton Art Institute, a huge painting, and I gave a talk. It was marvelous…
NB: I did this talk at the Dayton Art Institute, rather a large crowd. I know there was one woman in the front row. Like I said, we used to call a woman like that a biddy, looked like the old lady who sits at the end of the bar, drinking Martinis.
NB: And she kept waving her hand at me, waving her hand. (inaudible) So finally I gave in, and I said, yes, madam? She said, I’d like to ask you a question. I said go ahead, what is your question? She said, I’d like to know if you ever did any realistic painting? I said yes, when I was a student at the Beaux Arts. I copied Piero de la Francesca, later I was influenced by Courbet and Corot, then Matisse. You know, the standard kind of things. She looked at me and said, I asked you if you ever did a realistic painting. So I said, madam, if you would turn around immediately and run to the exit door, you could catch up with Norman Rockwell. Of course, that really blew the audience. But I used to always get those kinds of people. It seems I draw them out. I did one at the Maryland Art Institute.
NB: And I had a woman who said, can I ask you a question? I said, what is it, madam? She said, my husband paints. They’re all over the house. Everywhere. I can’t even move. He never sells them, they’re just all over the house. What should I do? I said well, you have a choice: you can throw out all the paintings, you can throw out your husband. Then I remembered the same thing, a young guy, I’d been to his cubicle.
GH: Where was this, at the Maryland Institute?
NB: Yes. And he showed me…no…was it then, yes, maybe it was, I don’t remember. And he said to me, I’ve got a question for you, and I’d been to his cubicle, and he is what I call an Art in America or Art News painter.
GH: Whatever was in the issue…
NB: Whatever was in the issue, he started to paint like that.
NB: And I told him, throw it all out and start all over again. He didn’t like that. He said, I’ve got a question. He says, you know, I’m graduating now, and I’ve had a little success. Do you think I should get myself a lawyer and an accountant? I says, young fellow, you should get two of each.
GH: Right, with that attitude.
NB: But I used to do that a lot. I mean, I enjoy it sometimes.
GH: But they didn’t ask you to become a member of a faculty?
GH: Your reputation must have precluded that.
NB: Well, I have a bad reputation. I remember going to one school where I gave a talk, and I walked in, and there were the faculty. Most of them were sitting around. I said, look, everybody at ease, I said. I’m not looking for a job.
NB: Don’t feel…oh, how are you?
GH: Yes, that’s always…
NB: That made me sick. Could I come and look at your work? Would you come and look at my work? Oh, yes. What do you think of it? I said, well, it’s a good thing you’ve got a teaching job. Some of them are just dreadful.
NB: I mean, the fifties had a kind of energy about it, good or bad.
GH: It didn’t always translate academically, I’ll tell you that.
NB: No. Not at all. I remember Tom Hess telling me a story. As a matter of fact, I just had dinner with his daughter, but Tom told me, he said, you know, Norman, he says, I was asked to give a talk, I think it was Cleveland or Columbus, Ohio. He said, there was a cocktail after the talk.
NB: He said, I met this guy, and he says, you know, I’m so and so and I live here, and I’m the local artist. He gave me some spiel, and he said, would you like to come up to my studio?
GH: You said no.
NB: Tom said, yes, all right, maybe I’ll see something interesting.
NB: He said, I’ll pick you up in my car, he says, and he came in the morning. Picked me up in this fancy car. We went to his studio. He said, we no sooner got into the studio and he said, would you like to see my impressionist work, my cubist work, my abstract work, my figurative work, my realistic work? So Tom said, what do you mean? He said, well, you know, if they want an abstract painting, I do an abstract painting. If they want an impressionist work, I do an impressionist work.
NB: It’s unbelievable.
GH: Yes. Well, you couldn’t have been part of that scene, you wouldn’t have lasted a day.
NB: No, but it’s an interesting kind of thing, that we don’t realize what happens to our culture.
NB: Our endeavor to have culture. Of course, now you go and what do you see? You see Jasper Johns.
GH: You mean among the students?
GH: Totally that’s what’s going on? Yes.
NB: Jasper Johns. I went recently to a…I think I told you about the guy in (inaudible)
GH: Yes. The holes in his wall, yes.
NB: Yes. With a chain saw. And another guy, they’re all take offs. Bad take offs of various painters, some of them not very good, as far as I could see.
NB: And there was one guy who had some talent. I thought he was talented. That’s my interpretation. At least he painted with a kind of force, a kind of unknown. He’s finding himself. But it wasn’t a take off on anything. I said, you’re a very interesting young painter. I said, I hope…he said well, I’m not always going to do this. I find whatchamacallit’s work very interesting. I said, man, you’re walking up a lost trail.
GH: He mentioned an artist?
NB: Yes, that was there. He said, I like his work. I think that’s a very interesting concept.
GH: I kind of lost you on this.
NB: Well, what I mean is, he had a friend there, and he wanted to…
GH: A teacher?
NB: He said, I like that kind of work. I think I’m going to devote it to that. I says, you’re at a dead end, man, it’s over. But once in a while you do see a young painter that has talent, and it’s nice to see.
GH: Yes. In all this time in this country, did you miss the idea of teaching? Did you ever feel like you would like to do that but you didn’t want to be part of the academic scene? I mean, was it a missing element in your life at all?
NB: No. But I do enjoy doing critiques, the young people.
NB: You know, talk to them about it. Because I’m a great…as a matter of fact, Don Russ said I should ask you, after we do the tape, I’m a great…I go to New York, first thing I do is I go to the Met. I have a huge background in art history, and I’ve been to I bet more museums than most people will ever go to in their lives.
GH: I would imagine. Yes.
NB: I went also to the Accademia de Belle Arte up in Florence. I studied fresco painting.
NB: Yes. So I have a big background in painting, and I love Renaissance painting. I mean, I can look at it for hours.
GH: Yes. It’s showing up in your work.
NB: That’s all right. I always tell the story, speaking about the fifties, of going one day with…we were talking about the French…going one day with George Duthuit. I mean, stories come to me quickly. There was a show of Courbet, and I’m a lover of Courbet. I once looked at a Courbet landscape and started to cry. I mean, the tears just floated down my eyes.
GH: He’s a wonderful painter.
NB: Great painter.
NB: Even Giacometti once said to me, and I was a good friend of Giacometti. He said to me, you know, no one could paint like Courbet.
GH: There’s the true statement. Yes.
NB: Anyway, I went with George [Duthuit] and there was a Courbet show, and there was a triptych. And standing in front of us were three French women, haute bourgeois, the white gloves, the hat, the glasses stuff, dressed to the eyes, so to speak. And so French. And their comments were: Ah, c’est Courbet, c’est la France, c’est sensationel. Ah, oui, c’est francais. And they went on, all this French act. C’est formidable, c’est rare. And they went on and on. I could go on for a half an hour. And George Duthuit was a man about six foot three, and he had this deep French voice, and he spoke a little bit a la Racine, very deep theater kind of…and he went around the side and he said to them in French, Excusez moi, mesdames which is like going to the theater he was very impressive. And he said, Vous saves, mesdames, c’est des faux Courbet.
GH: It was?
NB: They didn’t know they were fakes.
GH: Were they fakes?
GH: My God, really?
GH: My God.
NB: Yes, I’ve seen…
GH: In a museum?
NB: Yes, I was in a museum once in the south of France, and the guy had a little Corot, some trees, the reflection of the trees.
NB: And I said to him, it’s upside down. He said what? I said, that painting is hung upside down. (inaudible) very rude, but sir, that painting has been hanging here for I don’t know how many years. I said well, why don’t you take it off the wall and see where it’s signed on the back, is there an arrow? He took it off the wall. He said, oh, my God, it is upside down.
GH: I see there is room for education in this world.
NB: Well, there’s room for…I remember, speaking of Jean Paul Riopelle, he and I were invited to a guy by the name of Daniel Varenne, who was a big…
GH: Is Riopelle alive, by the way?
GH: He is.
NB: Daniel Varenne, who was a big art dealer, now lives in Switzerland, he can’t go back to France. A very chic guy, educated at Princeton, during the war, etc. He had the most gorgeous Portuguese wife. Daniel Varenne had a problem because every time he shook hands with you he went to wash his hands, with everybody. If he shook five hands, he’d wash his hands five times. And we were at his house one night, invited for dinner, and he took Jean Paul and I aside and he said, I just bought a Picasso. I paid a pastel I remember him saying 36,000 francs or something like that. This was some years ago. And he said, what do you think of it. I looked at Jean Paul, and Jean Paul looked at me and we both smiled. I said well, and sort of like in unison said, it’s a fake.
NB: And he got very indignant. What do you know? Both abstract painters. You don’t know anything about art.
NB: He was furious.
GH: Did it prove to be true?
NB: Then his father came, and his father was a dealer also, a dealer in Rembrandt and the great masters, and he said, papa, look at these two North Americans. They say this Picasso is a fake. I paid 36,000 francs for it. Look at it. The father looked at it and he said, Ah, Daniel, they’re right. He was furious. That was a bad meal that night.
GH: I’m sure it was.
NB: I mean, the atmosphere. But you know, people sometimes don’t realize that some painters may not have a great history of art in their head, but they have an eye for paint.
GH: Absolutely. Yes.
NB: And they know. I was once looking at a Titian somewhere, and a friend of mine said, look at this Titian hand, and I said, whoever restored the hand didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And you can spot those things.
GH: Yes. Well, it’s the training of a painter to see paint and know paint, to understand things visually. On that note, I think we will end this tape. Would love to come back again and do another.
GH: And maybe a video tape one day will be in our future. We’ll see. Thank you very much.