INTERVIEW WITH MARK FELDSTEIN
GH: This is George Hofmann on January 22, 1998, speaking with Professor Mark Feldstein of Hunter College.
So, we were talking about your very beginnings at Hunter, and I don’t think that I was so aware of the fact that you actually were an undergraduate there.
MF: Yes. What happened was, I wasn’t going to go to college at all. I was going to be an artist, didn’t need college. And my mother, unbeknownst to me… because there was no money in the family- my father died when I was 11– we were dead broke. I was paying the rent from 11 on, as a child. A family member, whom my mother had counted on for financial support for me in college, refused it. I never applied to college. But when I got the letter saying that I didn’t need to go to college because I was a widow’s son, I went to the advisor… I had gone to Music and Art High School. I had done very well. He said, you can’t apply now for college. It was the last year, my senior year, late in the senior year. He said that although CUNY had a plan, anything over an 85 90 average would get automatic admission to any of the senior colleges. I asked which was the best college, and the advisor said, City College. So I had dinner with a friend and his parents, his parents were both artists. They said what, are you crazy? Hunter and they listed names that I’d heard of, and I said fine. I went back to the advisor and said, I’m applying to Hunter, change it from City to Hunter. He said, Hunter is a girl’s school. I said, so? At any rate, there were men already there, and it was kind of an all star cast of people. The chairman, Edna Wells Luetz, it turned out, had called MoMA some years before and said, send me over an articulate painter.
GH: What year was that?
MF: I went 1954 58.
GH: To Hunter?
MF: To Hunter. I graduated with a BFA from Hunter, and that chairman, Luetz, had apparently called -the story was, she called MoMA and said, send me over an articulate painter. Motherwell came, Baziotes, you got Baziotes and a whole bunch of other people.
GH: So that probably was late Forties, let’s say….early Fifties…..
MF: Yes, probably …..
GH: Something like that.
MF: So they were already there when I was there. It was a strange place because it was in transition from having been the Normal school, which meant, a teacher training school. Also Hunter had the Bronx campus, what is now Lehman. It was then called Hunter in The Bronx. So I switched. One had to go uptown for some of the art classes, then back downtown. So I was split, and finally graduated with a BFA in 1958.
GH: Why was it that some of the classes were uptown?
MF: I’ve really forgotten. I think that the BFA was certainly downtown. It was called uptown downtown at that point.
GH: 68th Street being downtown.
MF: Right. And I remember classes with Lippold and other people in big studios uptown, and then after two years, I switched downtown. I’m not even sure why at this point in time.
GH: So maybe some of it was studio space?
MF: It could have been. But then the population then was different than it is now, because the population then, mainly women in every class, probably 15:3 or 4, if that, and for me the great part of working with whom I worked, was that one could get very close to them, because a lot of the people, my fellow students, were young women who wanted to teach elementary school or high school, and had no great interest in art. It was an easy, pleasant, fun filled major, which meant that the 3 4 people per class who were deadly serious were able to have almost the undivided attention of some pretty terrific teachers.
GH: So the art classes were part of the teacher training?
MF: No, the art classes… it was an art department…what I’m saying is… the school, Hunter, was, after all, a Normal school.
GH: Yes, teachers were heavily involved in that.
MF: Very heavily involved.
GH: In teacher training.
MF: So that, of the average, in the average class, the majority were not BFA or straight art majors, but there were an awful lot of art minors who were involved in getting certification points for teacher training things, this kind of thing.
GH: Yes. They were education majors who were taking some art…..
MF: At one point you couldn’t major in education, but in fact it was your major. But you majored in something else.
MF: I can’t think of the title. But you in fact were going to be teaching. It was a very different time.
MF: Of course, New York was then…was already sort of the center of the art world. So 68th Street was an incredible liberation, because everything was there. You could walk to – this was long pre Soho, even pre 10th Street with the co op galleries.
MF: This was… so one could walk from Hunter in 10 minutes to Kootz or any of the major…Janis, any of the major galleries, and that was a tremendous, tremendous… Ray Parker was starting to exhibit at that point, he was a teacher of mine. And one could literally, between classes, run and see an exhibition.
MF: It was a very… the few people per class who were serious had the benefit of tremendous attention by wonderful people.
GH: Yes. So these wonderful people included Ray Parker.
MF: Parker was a young instructor. Peterdi taught graphics. Lippold taught sculpture, Motherwell and Baziotes were involved in painting. There were still some remnants of the old guard there.
GH: Harry Stinson being one of those people?
MF: Stinson, Miller and McKenna…
GH: The Twins. Miller and McKenna, yes.
MF: So it was a very strange mix.
GH: They weren’t any more involved in these interdepartmental theatricals or something like that? You didn’t have any of that?
MF: Not that I was aware of.
GH: Because some of the older alumni talk about these events that were staged for certain holidays, where the Theater department, the English Department, the Art Department… which sounded like interesting vehicles… for whatever. But that seemed to be gone then.
MF: Yes, as far as I could remember, it was gone. The other thing was that there was a real split, because on the one hand you had older, conservative, classically trained people teaching, and you had what amounted to some of the hot young blood in the New York gallery world teaching. So you might have a completely academic drawing course taught by one of the Twins.
MF: And then go from that to…by the way, Bill Rubin was the art history instructor.
GH: Do you think he was alone in that, or was he just the most prominent?
MF: The most prominent, as I recall he was the most prominent.
GH: Yes, there were perhaps some others?
MF: There were, but they’re kind of…it’s a long time ago obviously, theyâ€™ve kind of faded.
GH: Luetz was a vivid personality.
GH: Do you remember things about her, or was there contact? I don’t know what she taught, actually.
MF: She taught theater, she taught stage design…
GH: Stage design and so forth.
MF: She was a very flamboyant character. When I was in graduate school a few years later, she came into Rubin’s class, which was forbidden. He ran a very formal class. She walked in and pointed to me, and I was scared out of my mind, and she said, get in here. It turns out that the lecturer at MoMA… she asked for a bright young person who knew art history. I had taken a lot of art history classes. Luetz had apparently asked Bill Rubin for a bright young thing, and I was dragged out of class, and she said… Luetz said to me– you will lecture… MoMA’s lecturer on Miro is ill, and you will be delivering the lecture in two days.
GH: Oh, my God.
MF: So I had written a paper on Miro. I felt… I was scared out of my mind.
MF: It was for some group of people, I’ve forgotten… a club…a union… it was some… their regular lecturer was going to give the lecture.
GH: At the museum?
MF: At MoMA. So I think my voice went up several octaves. So I gave the lecture.
MF: She did things like that. She had a secretary, a male secretary, which was very rare at that time, and he could look into her office and read her like a weather map. If you had a question, he would say, it’s not a good time. He’d look in. Heâ€™d say, don’t go in now. Go in in 20 minutes.
MF: She had this amazing ability – she was a very mercurial, very theatrical person. But she did a lot of good, because she was aware of the need to hire professional artists, not educators.
GH: And.. why do you think that she came to this? It fascinates me that she did this, where she could have taken a very safe route, you know, and hired the traditional…
MF: As I said, the only story I ever heard was that she wanted to get professional people, and called MoMA and asked for…
GH: But that in itself was a daring act.
GH: To call the Museum of Modern Art.
MF: In fact, I had friends…again I got into Hunter or CUNY because I did well in high school, without any admissions test or anything else. I had friends from Music and Art High School who went to the famous art schools. Not one of them had the level of faculty that I had in New York for nothing….total tuition…you paid for books, that’s all.
GH: So something in her recognized the quality and maybe what was happening in New York all around her, and all around everyone.
MF: She had the guts to actually do it.
GH: Yes. And it was very prescient of her really, when you think of it. I mean, this was an outstanding list of people, and you probably had better teachers than almost anyone ever has had.
MF: It was quite a concentration of talent. I think that was the point. And in fact, when I graduated, the question was where to go if I wanted a graduate degree. So I applied all over.
MF: Yes, I applied…
GH: To go out of town and so forth and so on?
MF: From Yale to Indiana. I got in absolutely everywhere, and decided, to hell with it, I wanted to go on working with the same people. It seemed ridiculous to me to go elsewhere I had a studio already to go elsewhere when I had access…obviously for far less money on top of that. But I was offered assistantships, all kinds of scholarship money, I said, the hell with it. The big Talmudic argument among the BFAers was, did you leave this group of faculty to go elsewhere, or did you stay in New York? So some left for parts unknown or elsewhere and got degrees elsewhere, and a bunch of us stayed in New York.
GH: And this was 1958?
GH: And there was a graduate program.
MF: It was an MA in Fine Art, which I had to write, unlike today, there was an exhibition, but there was also a 50 page thesis, a long, written thesis.
GH: I remember supervising them when I first started teaching.
MF: And that was an ordeal, because they wanted a more or less scholarly paper.
GH: Yes. So that put you in the graduate program between â€˜59-â€™60?
MF: Yes, 1958 60.
GH: 1958 60. Which still preceded Eugene Goossen.
MF: That’s right.
GH: As chair.
MF: Luetz was still there.
GH: She was still Chair.
MF: Luetz was still Chair.
GH: And did you then go immediately into teaching?
MF: What happened was, I was given a class, I think the semester I graduated I was given a class to cover for someone who was ill or on sabbatical.
GH: To teach?
MF: To teach.
GH: What was the subject? Was it painting?
MF: It was probably design. I was a sculptor at that point. And I had… Stinson had gotten me a scholarship to the Sculpture Center, so I had additional work there. Then I gradually switched over to painting – I wanted to work more abstract, less physical – and had a series of studios in the East Village at that point. That’s about two blocks from where I’m now sitting. And I taught a course or two, and then a course or two, and then when Goossen came in, he got rid of a lot of people, because he was bringing his own people with him, as hangers-on.
GH: Had Luetz simply come to the end of her term?
MF: I donâ€™t even know. I do not know the answer….
GH: Yes. So he came in around 1961 62, something like that?
GH: And who were your colleagues then, as faculty, the same people, Ray Parker…
MF: Basically…yes. And a bunch of adjuncts, all of whom hoped at some point to go further on it. Goossen, as many chairmen do when they move in to take over a new department, bring their people with them, and so there was a tremendous fall off of a lot of people who were there. I survived for a while, and then he kept cutting the classes back that I…I must have been up to three classes at one point, and then it was clear that it wasn’t going to work, which happened to coincide with being evicted from a loft, so…
GH: It wasn’t going to work in the sense that your prospects there seemed dim.
MF: It was clear to me that he was going to bring in new people, and I was not one of his boys at that point.
GH: Right. He had an agenda, very much.
MF: Yes. So we, my wife and I, ran off to Europe with one way tickets. I was born in Europe, and had a great affinity for it, and ran off for almost a year, and when we came back, Gene gave me summer school. And then the thing started, I started having an occasional class again. And then the Education Department had an idea of getting people from math and art who were not educators, but professionally involved in those areas. So I, for a period of time, with Art Department approval, taught studio classes in the Education Department, with an occasional class in the Art Department.
GH: But in the same physical premises?
MF: Yes. In most cases, yes.
GH: But a different student population, in other words?
MF: Yes. And no. Because, that strange mixture…
GH: Sometimes there’s a cross-over, right?
MF: Right, and at one point it seemed to make more sense to physically move it back into the Art Department, with the line that I by then had.
MF: And under Kipp, when Kipp was Chairman, those early …
GH: Which would be 1970 or later?
MF: Roughly in…the line that I had by then earned shared between Education and Art. I was by then teaching more courses in the Art Department than in the Education Department.
MF: It didn’t make any sense to leave it there, plus photography was beginning to be recognized more seriously. I was just beginning to become more and more involved in photography, at which point we had no darkroom, we had absolutely piss-poor facilities, but we just began giving photography classes …Iâ€™m not sure of the year even…
GH: Was that still with Gene? Did Gene start supporting photography?
MF: I think so. I think that was…at some point Roy came in. Doris Kennedy brought Roy in.
GH: I didn’t realize that Roy had gone back as far as Doris.
MF: Off the record, she didn’t feel it was her happiest decision.
MF: She had John Mili first, an old Life Magazine photographer.
GH: How do you spell that?
MF: Mili is the last name. I think it’s Gjon, but I’m not sure.
GH: Mili. Yes, his name has come up before. So for a long time you taught design…
MF: I taught life drawing…
GH: Life drawing…
MF: I’m not sure I made clear, I had for some unknown reason a tremendous number of art history credits, so I was very often drafted to teach art history. By then I traveled in Europe extensively, and had slides of every cathedral from hell and gone, so I was very often given a basic art history class to teach.
GH: You then were in your own work developing an interest in photography?
MF: I was exhibiting paintings… Leo Steinberg was there also, by the way…
GH: Yes. But only after Goossen came.
MF: Yes. And Leo was very supportive of my painting.
GH: I think that actually Rubin…
GH: So your interest in photography was developing?
MF: Yes. I was a painter, I had shown at Tibor de Nagy a number of times, I had a number of one man shows there. Barbara Rose had an article: “An Artist to Watch for the Eighties”.
GH: Who said that, Barbara Rose?
MF: Barbara Rose. I was one of those painters whose work was reproduced in Art in America. Every once in a while a current MFA student says, you know, I found a thing by Barbara Rose on your role as a painter in the 1980s.
GH: Hey, great.
MF: I named the painting Central, because I bought all of my supplies in New York Central Supply, thatâ€™s all; I remember the painting very well.
GH: But your interest in photography…
MF: It was beginning. The problem was that I was making mathematically conceived paintings that were very precisionist. They were air brushed on. I had about a half a dozen or so one person shows, I had work in museums. I lived in pre fashionable lower Soho on Centre Street.
MF: Near Police Headquarters, same building Milkowski lived in. And I bought a camera to be able to photograph slides of my paintings, which was too fucking expensive. So a friend said to me, you’re not stupid. You will not break the camera. This is what you do. What I found was that the last series of paintings were very much about beams of light, and I thought, this is crazy, I’m photographing beams, why would I want to paint beams? Iâ€™m not out there in the sunlight.
GH: That’s interesting.
MF: So they were like that, only light on a dark ground…and they had to do… cast iron… all of lower Manhattan in those days. It was totally illegal to live in the loft, it was run down, you took your life in your hands…that story by now is very well known. But just being able to walk, and seeing the grids projected by fire escapes and the light hitting the cast iron details, was to me very high producing, so somewhere around 1975, I began exhibiting photography for the first time. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. The lab did the developing and printing, I just took the pictures, and I gradually learned what I needed to learn, because Iâ€™m too compulsive to do more than one thing at a time. I liked the idea of being outside – I did not like what for me was very intellectual, mathematically conceived painting that was done indoors. The studio was kind of the holy chapel in which I made these paintings that were to me very pure, reductive… and so gradually… just the ability to wander the streets…
GH: There was this freedom and…
MF: Also I think that the larger issue– and this was something that Maurice Berger and I discussed at length a long time ago– the whole notion of the war in Vietnam, the political situation, and the idea of so many artists doing work that was very distant from…kind of, we all hoped to do this sort of perfect, mathematical theorizing… this would be the solution. And gradually I felt that was not the case. The idea of a camera– it was a small camera, it was a hand camera in most casesâ€” that I could move, even with a tripod camera, I could wander all day, every day. I would make notes for myself. I’d see the wall of a building I thought would be beautiful next October. I could calculate by then how the light would fall and what kind of shadows might be forming. So I began to wander more and more with that. In 1975 I had my first – my second – the first photo show was with O.K. Harris, and these were details, bits of New York. My first book came out in 1975, of cast iron, itâ€™s called Unseen New York. It’s now a classic, you can’t get it. The few copies I have left are worth ten times the advance they gave me for it. I was by then very hooked on photography, and leaving the studio. It was kind of… I’m not trying to make an analogy on a serious level, but itâ€™s kind of like the Impressionist who went outside to paint. The difference between easel painting and studio painting.
GH: Sure. Of course.
MF: For me this was very important. Then the work has grown and changed direction. Ironically, now I’m doing a lot with making cameras, rebuilding cameras, I want more control over just…the images – so, Iâ€™m not simply recording things. I’m involvedâ€¦ I’m intervening on a different level, which is probably the old painterly past in me, coming through.
GH: With the instrument itself.
MF: Yes. In other words, I will modify, I’m using blur a great deal. It’s much more painterly. I think in a way it’s a return. There was a middle period where I did architectural…it was completely controlled, super sharp… detail beyond what the eye would have seen at that situation, or macro imagery, it was beautifully printed with incredible detail, again beyond what the eye could see.
MF: But controlled all those things. It was very thrilling to have that kind of control, and then in recent years I have moved away from that, so that my exhibitions in photography, which by now are 10 11, the last half dozen or so were in Europe, are a very different kind of work. I think that really does reflect part of the kind of somewhat surrealistic aspect of abstract expressionism which I got from Motherwell and Baziotes, although applied to photography.
GH: Did you feel that they were involved in some awakening for you? I mean,…
MF: I think I never…the condemnation and moments that I learned from Motherwell and Baziotes didn’t even make sense until years later. A lot of things that were said- you were a student, these were great people, you learnedâ€” but at the level of understanding that one has as a younger person was far less than what one develops later on, so a lot of things…. that Motherwell spoke at great length about– the Elegy to the Spanish Republic, a long series of paintings….
GH: That he was involved in it at that time.
MF: A lot about living in Europe, which he did extensively… and there was a milieu there… I think that has really come out again in the last 5 7 years of work of mine. A lot of Baziotesâ€™ work, which was very dream-like, it had that aspect. This is the way I’m working now within photography.
GH: Yes. Were there any other people who made this same transition? I think you’re probably alone in having been an undergraduate, then having been drafted into teaching, experiencing all these people, then experiencing them as colleagues…
GH: And so forth. I haven’t spoken to anyone…
MF: No. I believe I’m the only survivor of about 25 30 people, all of whom were adjuncts when I began. Luetz came up to me a year or two before that and said, I always knew you’d make it.
GH: Bullshit. She was a piece of work.
MF: About half the BFA group continued on to graduate degrees because they wanted to continue.
GH: Do you remember any of the other part-timers of the early days, does anyone stick in your mind from that whole time?
MF: No, I remember more of the…I remember Tom Woods very clearly.
GH: Me, too.
MF: What’s his name, Rawlings…
GH: John Rawlings.
MF: I remember him.
GH: The classic story he told us was of his meeting Harry Stinson in the elevator. The elevator doors opening, and his being introduced to Harry Stinson, who was around 4′ 9″, and Rawlings, who was 6′ 5″. They looked at each other and just burst out laughing.
MF: My Harry Stinson elevator story, we had a very theatrical fellow BFAer, who thought Harry…who was a very sweet man, who was very conservative, very kind of gray, quiet person, Stinson was… and she would come and rib him behind his back. And one day, putting on a cockney accent, in a jammed elevator, said, Harry, I think we’re going to have a baby, and he was there, he was two heads in front of her.
GH: That is hysterical.
MF: And he was so short, she never saw him in the front of the elevator. But he was a very sweet man.
GH: He was a sweetheart, yes.
MF: He was a sweet man. He knew the area that he taught.
MF: He was conservative and very formal, but he knew that area very well.
GH: Was that figurative sculpture mostly?
GH: Small scale figurative sculpture?
GH: Heads and so forth. I never quite knew what he had taught. Some other alumni have said in passing, or in letters, that they didn’t know what to make of Motherwell, or Motherwell didn’t say very much, and so forth and so on. There were a lot of funny comments about…a woman said well, I think he was…I don’t know, I always thought he was bored, he was just doing it for the money. Of course, this guy had more money than God, you know. He wasn’t doing it for the money, I just want to say that.
MF: Well, he was doing it to pay off alimony.
GH: His father had been president of Wells Fargo. He didn’t need the money.
MF: First of all, Motherwell taught in a very elliptical fashion. He would tell… he was a great story teller, he would tell stories.
GH: So he wasn’t silent or anything.
MF: No, he was hardly silent. He would tell stories. He didn’t teach to the topic exactly. He taught more about being an artist, the problems of being an artist, the political situation. He did not teach you how to paint. He taught about life. He taught about wine and France, and was kind of a heroic.. with the gesturing, the way he…he taught the way he painted. It was not a linear direct way. So I would say he lost 75% of the students in the class. The others.. I think… what’s the flower? only some people could smell it. I think it’s narcissus, depending on your olfactory sense. Those who could read him got a great deal out of him. For a lot of people…
GH: Yes, this confirms…a woman said to me the other day that she remembered being…that the one thing she remembered about his class was his coming very quietly up behind her, saying, that’s very good, and her thinking, what’s very good? I don’t know what I’m doing! I don’t know what you’re talking about! And she really was not in touch with his…
MF: But also part of the contemporary teaching techniqueâ€” and this included Ray Parker, and the other people– was to say, boy, that works.
MF: And if you wanted…what exactly worked…kind of…
MF: There was almost an anti I don’t mean anti intellectual, but almost anti analytical reading of the work. If you wanted to know exactly what the hell worked, is this orange section in the lower left….you wouldn’t get an answer. You’d get, it works. So where you wanted to be, I once asked questions… someone called me a European based intellectual, because I wanted to try to understand. But that’s not what you got from Motherwell.. .what you got was an attitude, an approach to art, rather than absolutely specific stuff. Plus, he spoke so fondly of France and Chateau Lafite Rothschild and other good wines.
GH: So other fellow graduate students of your time were Antoni Milkowski, for one, right?
MF: Yes. Well, I was already teaching when he was still in graduate school.
GH: So you were further along, then?
GH: Than he was. And my ex wife, Susan Groehl, the same thing.
GH: You were already teaching.
MF: It may have been a class or two, but I kind of passed through the program, and in fact Milkowski lived in the same loft building.
MF: On Centre Street.
MF: And he was looking for a place to go, and I mentioned Hunter, so I’m indirectly responsible for his having gone to Hunter in the first place..
GH: Right. And what about other people, was Doug Ohlson there at that time, as a student?
MF: Not as a student; he got an MFA somewhere else.
GH: I see. Anyone else you recall being a student then? Or did they come as instructors, let’s say Swain?
MF: They all came later, as instructors. The people who were there who were my contemporaries were not in the program, did not then make the transition to teacher.
GH: Of that later group, Swain, Ohlson and whoever, and the part-timers, did you relate artistically, or in any particular way, I mean were there any bonds, anything special there?
MF: Nothing special. Just the usual.
GH: Because I think there was a great bond between some, like let’s say Ohlson, Swain, and maybe others who had worked for Tony Smith?
GH: As apprentices, or something like that, who had been graduate students I guess after you. There was a particular kind of friendship between them.
MF: Right. Also, I’m trying to think, Tibor de Nagy, my first major dealer, and Milkowski showed there, Sandy Wurmfeld showed there. So there was that kind of a big opening on 57th Street, plus there were a cluster of people, all of whom had Tibor as a gallery, and then Tibor…I had 2 3 shows there (inaudible) Tibor broke, Johnnie Myers….
GH: That’s right. He split off.
MF: He split off, and we had the option of going with either one, and many of us felt that Johnnie was the brains–Tibor was the money and the name–so I went with Johnnie and showed with him. There was a memorial (he died a number of years ago), there was a memorial exhibition, in which I was involved.
MF: What I forgot to mention is that Lehman, Hunter in the Bronx, you know, Lehman, existed. Faculty members were given the optionâ€¦ who were teaching, of…
GH: I remember.
MF: …of up or down.
GH: Yes, of joining one faculty or the other, which I well remember that many of the people were all together, and then there was suddenly this decision. And some people, then you never saw them again.
MF: Right. And then (inaudible) lived upstate preferred that, because they could take the drive (inaudible)
GH: Well, a case like that was Dick Zieman, who taught graphics, and suddenly…I had been kind of looking forward to developing a professional relationship with the guy. I liked him and so forth and so on. All of a sudden he was gone. And Kipp was gone. Who was the abstract artist who at the time then also went up, who was a sort of a shy guy, but made very good work, very…
MF: I cannot remember his name.
GH: …straightforward. I can’t remember his name.
MF: Trying to recal what kind of work Bill McGee did
GH: I don’t remember McGee.
MF: A lot of people went in and out. The school had two different faculties…the choice of going up or down. There was in fact at one point a bus (which) connected the two schools. The bus was a gas, no pun intended. It left on an hourly schedule between Park Avenue and 68 Street and Bedford Park Blvd., in the Bronx. And if you were lucky, you could kind of catch the bus and make the next class. But I enjoyed the bus because it was full of very interesting people.
MF: You know, you’d get stuck in traffic and there would be some political discussion, you know, with someone from the History Department, someone from the Economics Department….
GH: Other departments were making the same….
MF: You could have two courses in each school or one (inaudible)…..
GH: Yes. That’s how I started, the last minute drafted to teach.
MF: A lot of people….and the bus was the best way. It wasnâ€™t the fastest–the subway was much faster–you got on the train up there and took the subway straight down….
MF: Ursula Meyers….
GH: A name from the past!
MF: She lives down here…I see her once in a while. Sheâ€™s still crazy….
GH: She made sculpture.
MF: I once earned her eternal enmity….although I see her in the street and we talk once in a while…because she won great praise as the woman who made velvet sculpture….and I said…
GH: So what?
MF: So what?
MF: By the way, I have a New York City welderâ€™s license.. I passed a four hour exam…so I looked at her welds….they were OK…Oh my God, Ursula, youâ€™re actually welding…..never in recorded history have I seen seams like that….
GH: Did you have to take print making, for example, in your student days?
GH: So you knew Peterdi?
MF: Yes. I worked with him. I liked him.
GH: Yes, an old school kind of fellow.
MF: He was terrific….he also…he was a very muscular guy, he taught in a very powerful way. No, I liked him, and I liked him a lot.
MF: In fact, I learned enough from him in the printing class that when Laura and I ran away to Europe, in â€˜62, I guess, with one way tickets, I had this idea of mass producing an idiotic flower wood cut. Some bookseller said he…
GH: I have heard this story, from your colleague, Milkowski.
MF: We needed…we gonna run away to Europe, we wanted to put every nickel we had in travelers checks so we could do it. There was a sign in the Hunter basement, which said: â€œArt students, don’t throw out your old art work. Make money on your unwantedâ€…and professors!…â€make money on your unwanted art workâ€. So I called the number, and Laura was interested in wood cuts also, and I said look, we’ve got this stuff, and heâ€™d say,could you turn these out, could you make them kind of more saleable. Could you turn them out? We were desperate for money.
MF: What do you mean? He said, can you make hundreds of them? I said sure, they’re wood cuts.
GH: Black and white.
MF: There were some black and some color. We had access to a basement, and I figured out that if we cut a bunch of blocks, and if we printed them on very thin tissue paper, far thinner than normal print material, we could just ink them, let them dry. We set up large tables in the basement of a building on the Upper West Side and they were sold. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t want to use my name on them. He wanted them signed. When I was a kid, my favorite writer of dog stories was Albert Payson Terhune. So I called myself Albert Payson. So somewhere in the world are these thousands of prints signed Albert Payson.
GH: Did they all go out under that name?
MF: Iâ€™ve forgotten who…I might have used a different name.
GH: Milkowski also printed some of these, I think.
MF: Iâ€™ve forgotten his involvement.
GH: I think so. He spoke about it, and then you divvied up the money, or something like that….
MF: This allowed us to leave and basically to live without working for about a year.
GH: Did you have a printing press or…
MF: It was all done by hand.
GH: Oh, rubbed! Hand rubbed! Oh my God, incredible, unbelievable.
MF: Some were already sold…I donâ€™t know if this should get out, but the person who did it, our agent, the seller, was Burton Wolff. Burton Wolff does all these cooking shows on television…
GH: Oh, my God, you’re kidding.
MF: Yes, one of the biggest con men in the world.
GH: I’ve always thought so when I saw him on television.
MF: A real greaser, a smarmy guy…
GH: He could sell anything.
MF: He sold Albert Payson prints.
GH: Oh, my God. Incredible.
MF: We would vary the color of the paper stock…and we varied the ink…
GH: And they were sold to publishers as Book illustrations?
MF: No, these were sold as fine art prints.
GH: As fine art prints.
MF: Own an original wood cut for X dollars.
GH: Sold at X shop.
MF: We simply ground them out. Heâ€™d come and pick up… I also made the big discovery that Sam Flax sold precut mats. So weâ€™d simply buy mats by the ton, tip â€˜em into the mats…soon as the ink dried…(inaudible)..but that paid for our stay in Europe.
GH: Of course, in those days, the franc being what it was to the dollar…
MF: You could stay in Europe on $5.00 a day. Literally.
MF: Youâ€™d get a two dollar hotel, breakfast thrown in, and fifty cents each for a full lunch, two bucks each for dinner, and that was that.
GH: You mentioned something about seeing the sign in the Hunter College basement. As I recall, when I first came to Hunter, the sub basement at 68th Street was actually a beehive of activity, in that, first of all, it was a storage place where tons of unwanted equipment… it was like a labyrinth. But also it was a sculpture studio, as I recall.
MF: It was also, for a while, the photo studio.
GH: That’s what I was going to ask you. Wasn’t the first photo studio also down there in the sub basement?
MF: It flooded so frequently, I would tell students to wear galoshes when they printed, because there was…the water table….a valve….something was leaking…there was an eternal half inch of water on the floor.
GH: We then of course had this other building on the corner of 68th and Lexington. P.S….
MF: Iâ€™m sure it was 44…
GH: It wasn’t 44.
MF: It wasn’t 44. .48?
MF: Whenever it was, it became in a way our…
GH: An abandoned public school.
MF: It became our Vorhees.
GH: Yes, that’s right.
MF: Because you were given the studio there. The BFAs were given studios, and I think a bit beyond that. People were living there illegally, so there was no real security.
GH: Well, and all the painting studios, all the painting classes… I remember Tony Smith having the painting class, and the graphics studio was on the fifth floor.
GH: On a very high flight. And we hauled every printing press up there, I’d like to point out. I mean, it was a horrific time in there, but it was a home for art students, and a lot of people came out of that situation.
MF: I think that was a real problem with the program altogether. I mean, pre that building and pre Vorhees, there wasn’t a real sense of community.
MF: The instant you had Vorhees.. it changed the entire program tremendously.
MF: It would have had to.
GH: And in your time as a graduate student, where did graduate students work, and where were the critiques held?
MF: I think….I remember I had a studio on East 4th Street, and people came down, but I’m not sure whether whole classes came down. Also I did sculpture there too.
GH: Do you remember any instructor coming there? Do you remember being there with Ray Parker or anybody?
GH: You brought the work back up to school or something?
MF: Very often, or work was left in PS whatever the hell it was called.
MF: I remember doing that. And also when I was still doing the sculpture, I had some access to the sculpture studios at the Sculpture Center. Which is a block from Hunter.
MF: So that was possible, too.
GH: Yes, you need that center and that public school building did provide that for a while.
MF: It didn’t look like a normal class room space, it was kind of relaxed, if you got paint on the floor, it was not a big deal.
GH: It was a mess to begin with.
GH: And you really didn’t mind…it had a studio quality to it.
MF: In a way, it was very precursive of Soho studios.
GH: Yes, a lot.
MF: I was saying that the public school building was very much like….then later moving into a loft, for most of us. It was an open space, not formal. Paint stained, splinters on…you got splinters every five minutes from something. The old, beat up sofas…..
GH: Really, in retrospect, you, it seems to me would have to say, that, first of all, you were first of all very lucky to have the very end of this…been a student when…
GH: …when these people had been the higher education scene, and to me it’s remarkable that they were ever even there.
GH: And then further, that because you were an undergraduate, going back that far, that actually you had seen a huge transition in what? Thirty five years. It’s probably thirty five years since you were an undergraduate, and you’ve seen tremendous stylistic change, plus several generations of artists, from abstract expressionists, to minimalists, to conceptual, hold sway in this department.
MF: And videos, computers, and the whole change of…and also I think one of the biggest changes has been the horizontal spread of work. There’s a photo etching of…a photograph of an etching, combined media, combining different media, what is it? In a way that’s, to me, really been one of the biggest changes…the fact that the lines are blurred, increasingly blurred between the media, between what is purely a painting or a photograph or a sculpture…using other things as well….
GH: Yes, and the purity was so emphasized when you and I started.
MF: Very much so.
GH: And it has swung wildly away from that now, so that this is really an extensive history that we’ve lived, and that someone like you being in the heart of New York has really lived through an enormous amount of…maybe you don’t see each droplet passing under the bridge, but add it up, it’s quite a river.
MF: Sure. The distance… given any kind of historical context…..
MF: An overview, that’s what one sees.
GH: Yes, it’s amazing.
MF: And also the students are different, the population is different, the graduate school changed radically, once Vorhees came in. You got an international body, much more so than we ever had before, and in general I think it’s a more serious bunch. Which I think is…
MF: Its more serious.
GH: Although, faculty-wise you started out at the highest possible level in the world.
MF: Yes, it was a very high…the milieu was a very intense…there were very different personalities. If Motherwell was, I don’t mind using the word, laconic, or actually elliptical, Baziotes, you could have mistaken him for a Thom McAn shoe salesman, except they were polar opposites. If Peterdi was this and Lippold was that, they were all very intensely lost in their work. But as personalities, they were wildly different.
GH: What kind of personality was Lippold?
MF: Lippold was very precise, he did this kind of constructivist sculpture.
MF: I’ll never forget, he told me that the only car he could ever drive was a hearse because… to carry his sculpture around…so he kept buying hearses. He was also an industrial design fan. I had a vague interest in that at one point myself. So we talked about that, and about automotive design. He told me once that, I donâ€™t know…Full Moon Variation No.7.. one of his sculptures, how do get it around? It folded to 11 by 14. He folds it… the thing is 18 feet tall. It was engineered in such a way, it was all…
GH: The size of a casket.
MF: The whole thing collapsed.
MF: He just did it in some small…
MF: He was an engineer, very precise. I remember the first class I ever had was at Lehman College with Lippold.
GH: The present Lehman, but at that time, the Bronx.
MF: Right. He said, how many of you have gone to Music and Art? About four of us in the class proudly…this was the premier art school and high school in Manhattan. So four of us raised our hands. He said, forget everything you ever learned.
MF: It was a very…I liked the atmosphere that far back, I liked the intensity. We were aware…I think what it gave me more than anything else was the real smell of what being a professional is.
MF: That to me was the…if I could sum it up, that to me is the bottom line. Different personalities, different styles, different media. But you could smell someone who was profoundly involved with their work, and that’s never left me.
MF: That’s the example that I was given. It was set by these people, and it became art. Baziotes, at one point… he died in his fifties – at one point, when you’re twenty, someone who is fifty seems 150 years old.
GH: Of course.
MF: So he said to me one day, we were leaving the class together, I was a student of his, he said, well, I can’t wait to get home to see how the paint dried, on whatever he had done before. Can you imagine a person that old is still involved in seeing how the paint dried? I must have been eighteen. He was fifty.
GH: Yes, he seemed ancient to you, sure. I know. I remember thinking when my father said he was fifty that he would die soon.
MF: But it was astounding to me… but the punch line for me…it may sound curious…. but I grew up in a normal refugee, Washington Heights, Manhattan neighborhood, and every man, every father, every husband I knew… who were all in the various professions… somewhere around fifty, which most of them were at around that point, they all had lost interest in what they were doing. And here was someone as old as they were, who couldn’t fucking wait to go home to see how the paint dried. There’s something to this art business, that’s what I meant by the smell of involvement in the profession. So that to me was the…
GH: Life giving.
MF: Yes. That was the kernel, that was the nuclear core, which I think in a way has powered me…it sounds trite.
GH: No, it doesn’t at all.
MF: On one level it has powered me ever since.
MF: So I can’t…if I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I go in my dark room to see how the negatives dried. So I’m Baziotes.
MF: Between my bedroom and the bathroom.
GH: You are.
MF: It’s the same thing.
GH: This is the continuity….part of life…
MF: …. and that’s what I hope that I get across in the teaching that I do. I hope that’s the kind of …its a cliche and if I could cry now I would, but that’s the kind of…the passing of the baton, in some insane way.
MF: And that you are involved….itâ€™s fine to be involved, itâ€™s essential to be involved in something profoundly; art is a valid way of living, and carry it further….so ends my sermon for the day….
GH: Thank you, Mark, for this insight.
(End of Interview)