INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL GOLDBERG by Serafino Patti on April 18, 1997, New York, NY.
SP: The following interview is conducted on behalf of the oral history project of the Art Department of Hunter College. The interviewee is the painter, Michael Goldberg. The interviewer is Searfino Patti. The interview took place at Michael Goldberg’s studio in New York City on Friday, April 18, 1997, at 1:00 p.m..
I have fond memories of studying painting with you at the School of Visual Arts. One of the most vivid of memories is your statement to me, Serafino, painting is an elitist activity. You made the same statement in a recent talk you gave at Hunter as part of the graduate art department’s visiting artists lecture series. Please tell me how you came to this conclusion about painting?
MG: I don’t see any way in which contemporary art affects the society, especially this society which we live in. I don’t believe this society recognizes that it has any need or use for visual art. And by that token, it seems to me that the artist’s position is a relatively hopeless position on the general level, whereas like on an individual level, you’re doing something because either you’ve got this extraordinary need to do it, passion to do it, or else you’re crazed, or a combination of all of those things. I think that doing something that’s so limiting and so limited is an elitist position.
SP: But you feel that it has an influence on society, the painting, that is?
MG: I think that it could have. But whether it does or not, I couldn’t really say. I would suspect it doesn’t. Formerly art was a comment on that society. The artist’s position was as an outsider, commenting on the society one way or the other. That position has been suspect ever since…this is the modernist’s position, and I think that ever since modernism has been discredited, willfully discredited, the idea that art could affect the world or could change the world has been laughed at, you know. I think that today to believe that art can change the world is absolutely ridiculous. Now, I happen in my heart of hearts to believe that art can change the world, but I don’t go around hollering about it.
SP: Otherwise you wouldn’t have continued.
SP: The late fifties and early sixties appear to have been years of crisis for gestural painters, of the New York school. Except for a brief period of figurative still life in 1962, you still make abstract art. Would you comment on what the late fifties and early sixties were like for you?
MG: Well, let me comment rather on why I believe there was a crisis in gestural abstract painting. I think that so many people were convinced that process oriented work would enable them to find the content. In other words, within the process they would discover something they could make a painting out of, some miraculously appearing kind of thing within the process, and that would make the content of the work. I think that’s a rather peculiar concept, very wishful concept, and it resulted in more rotten abstract painting than you can possibly imagine. I think it’s still true. You see it in schools all over. You get outside of big urban centers and you see it. And I think that the crisis was generated by just how much bad painting, uninspired painting, was in existence, in the late fifties, sixties. I don’t think that pop art marked the demise of gestural painting. I think that the reason that pop art so quickly attained such an importance was the fact that the imagery was more recognizable, that there was no doubt of the imagery, that it reflected a great deal of pop culture, quiche culture or whatever, you know. I think that after the surfeit of rotten abstract painting, people were really relieved finally to see something that they could really kind of describe, accept, understand, etc., and have a little bit of humor in it, too.
SP: There was also Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the [inaudible] as they were called. And actually they were earlier accepted by the New York school, even though they were considered on the fringe, correct?
MG: Don’t forget, Larry Rivers was equally as important at that time, if you’re talking about the late fifties, early sixties. I think that say the middle fifties to the late fifties work of say Rauschenberg and Johns was much more specifically oriented to the Duchamp ethic or aesthetic. And it’s when Rauschenberg moved into those combines say in the midsixties that he truly did some really extraordinary paintings. I happened to see some of the combines about five years ago, and they were wonderful. Still wonderful. I saw the Johns retrospective at MOMA, and I was really very pleased to see that there were so many really terrific paintings. But there were almost no paintings that knocked your socks off. It was quite fascinating. I don’t know what prompted the idea that the work was as important as a lot of people talked about. I don’t think that’s true. I think that it’s very good work. I think that some of the work rises to a terrific level. But I don’t think that there was any great surprise for me in the work. I think that the work was known. I knew it. You could respond and say, that’s really awfully good. But nothing really gave me a big kick in the pants.
SP: You’re talking about back then?
MG: I’m talking about right now.
SP: Right now. But it did depart from gestural painting, to some degree.
MG: Some degree, yes. I think that the original paintings were quite gestural. The paintings that both of them did in the fifties.
MG: And Johns. Johns particularly. They were very painterly paintings. They had at least something of an aesthetic, but they were painterly. They were involved with painting. Even if they had combine elements in them, they were clearly paintings, they were…they always had a figuration that was specific though, and I think that was the Duchampian part of it.
SP: Well, we had those movements. I forgot to mention the happenings and environments of Kaprow.
MG: Jim Dine, Oldenburg, a couple of other people, too, were doing happenings. A lot of this happened right around the corner from me. I was living on 10 Street then, between Third and Fourth Avenue, and right around the corner on Fourth Avenue was the place where all these happenings first were really being done. Oldenburg had that store down on I think it was 4 Street, on the East Side, which I thought was terrific. I loved all those things. I saw a good number of them.
SP: So you as a painter and representative of this thing that was happening, you didn’t see them as a threat then?
MG: No. I saw it as theater. Cabaret, whatever you want to call it. I saw it as an adjunct to a lot of the concerns I was dealing with or was thinking about. (inaudible) I’ve never seen any art form as a threat. I’ve just seen certain art forms that I don’t particularly like or respond to, but not as a threat.
SP: Then we have the critics of the time, particularly if I can mention John Canaday from the New York Times, when he would seem to be vehemently against the gestural painting.
MG: Well, a lot of things hurt his feelings. I mean, offended him, say. He reminds me a little bit of Roger Fry. He’d stake out a position, and everything that is a little bit different is an enemy, it’s something that you want to put down, you don’t want it to grow to be a big kid so they could beat you up. That was Canaday’s position. Canaday didn’t have very good eyes. He didn’t look so hard, or he didn’t know how to look, let’s say. I think his vision was very clouded by his intellect.
SP: And then we have William Rubin who in 1960 was responsible for the younger American painters, writing, the younger American painters said the poor quality of contemporary art or De Kooning style painting, he says, abstract expressionism has passed its period of vitality. And this was in 1960. How did you respond to that?
MG: Well, I thought that was an intellectual statement more than a visual statement. Certainly the people…abstract expressionism by anybody’s definition was so broad and included so many diverse kinds of paintings, if you think about (inaudible) Ad Rheinhart, Clifford Still, Bradley Tomlin, Franz Kline, De Kooning, Pollack, etc., I mean it’s a vast difference. They were all called abstract expressionists. Certainly you’d think somebody like Rheinhart, Rothko, even Gottlieb were into a very different attitude or a very different content. So if Rubin is saying that those people were past their peak in the sixties, I don’t agree with him. If he’s saying that people of my age bracket, the younger people, who came up in say throughout the fifties, I think that some of us were really doing pretty good work still, very exciting work.
SP: I agree.
MG: He may not have seen it. It seems to me that that’s really a critical ploy, it’s like, painting is dead, it’s the same kind of statement. I find it very unimportant. It doesn’t make me angry. I just think it’s short sighted, and I’d be quite interested in finding out what he meant, who he referred to.
SP: Right. I’m sorry, that’s partly my fault. I believe in my research that he was referring to gestural painters.
MG: That’s what you said.
SP: Did I say that? Okay.
MG: It goes back to what I was saying, that there was lots of bad gestural painting by that time, totally uninteresting and uninspired.
SP: Then of course we have still part of the New York school, we have the postgestural painters like Kelly, Louis and Nolan. Stella was probably the most vocal against…
MG: There was Stella and there was Andre and there was Don Judd. Judd was writing criticism at that point.
SP: Really? Is it the same thing…
MG: Also there was Colorfield painting, too, that Greenberg was championing, you know, Morris Lewis and Noland, Olitski, then I guess what’s his name, (inaudible) fitted into that (inaudible) fitted into that group. One of the interesting things that people do talk about, critics, or aestheticians talk about, is the art form that’s appropriate to the times, and ideally in the sixties, the most serious kind of art form that was really appropriate for that was what…it was rock music. It was this shit that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were doing. So really, ideally, if you were young, you should learn to play the f—— guitar. I was too old to learn how to play the guitar, and also I liked jazz music more than I liked rock music. But that was certainly the dominant art form of the times, if you recall. Today obviously some form of rock music is still vitally important to a lot of younger people. All you have to do is read the counter culture newspapers like the Village Voice or the Rolling Stone, or these magazines. My God, rock music is vitally important, and I must admit that I know almost nothing about it any longer. I just don’t listen. And that’s my own fault, my own lack. I listen to a different kind of music, or different kinds of music.
SP: After the club there was another…sorry, after the Cedar Bar there was another place where you guys used to hang out in. Off hand, it just eludes me.
MG: There were several. One was called Dillons, which was a bar further up University Place. It was between 11th and 12th Streets. Then there was the Five Spot, down here on Third Avenue between 4 and 5 Streets. The place has since been demolished. It was a jazz club.
MG: Actually it was…the person who turned everybody onto it were Herman Cherry and David Smith. Herman had a studio right across the street from the Five Spot, and David, when he came to New York, used to stay there with him. They were old friends. They first started going there because I guess they heard the music coming from across the street, and it was a bum’s bar that at night started to let jazz musicians play there, and it slowly became principally a jazz club. I forget exactly the date, but it must have been…well, this was still actually when the Third Avenue Ell was up, whenever the hell that was. So you’re really talking about say…
SP: I think it’s the midfifties, isn’t it?
MG: Midfifties. I think 19545, or something like that.
SP: Because in doing some research I recall that Billy Holiday played there.
MG: No, she never played there. She sang there.
SP: Performed, I’m sorry.
MG: She sang there one night.
SP: Performed, that’s right.
MG: That one night, I happened to be there. But the reason she sang, she came in with a guy who accompanied her at that time, a guy named Mal Waldron, pianist. He’s still around, as a matter of fact. She even sang “God Bless the Child”.
MG: I don’t remember exactly. But it was quite extraordinary, and actually Frank O’Hara did a poem that I was included in. Called, “The Night Lady Died”.
SP: Yes, that’s right. As a matter of fact, later on I do want to get to Frank O’Hara, but that’s interesting.
MG: Anyway, the Five Spot was a place that I would go with friends, or alone, I think four nights a week, to listen to music, and I kept a tab going there, so I’d drink mostly champagne. If you didn’t have any money, you might as well drink something that cost a lot of money. And I didn’t have. I was working at a job during the day at that time.
SP: Were you working for a corrugated paper manufacturer?
MG: Yes. I think by that time I was working at a loading platform. I had driven a trailer truck for them earlier. By that time I was working on the loading platform, just moving shit.
SP: That was much later. I’m thinking right after the war…
SP: I was saying, after the war you had worked for a box manufacturer? (inaudible)
MG: That was yes, for a while, in upstate New York.
SP: It was upstate New York?
MG: Yes. I worked for this…they made corrugated cartons.
SP: The life…we read about the Cedar Bar and as you just mentioned, the Five Spot. Would you mind commenting a little bit about the Cedar Bar? I mean, there was a place to meet…
MG: The Cedar Bar was terrific because the guy who originally owned it, whose name I don’t remember, would allow artists to run up a tab for food. And the food was sort of adequate bar food. Good sandwiches, hamburgers, adequate hamburgers, he’d have pastas and (inaudible) sometimes you’d get well done roast beef smothered in gravy, things like that, that kind of food. But inexpensive. And he’d let you run up a tab for the food, not for the drink. You had to buy your own beer. At that time it was ten cents a glass. And it was very convenient and pleasant. Also when I first started to go there…I’m kind of vague about when…it’s early fifties, but it was…because Motherwell, and I think Rothko and other people started a school on 8th Street called Subjects of the Artist.
SP: That’s correct, yes.
MG: Then the artists…
SP: 35 East 8th Street.
MG: 8th Street, yes. And then 8th Street at that time was a whole row of four story brownstone houses with outside stoops going up to the first floor.
SP: Good for socializing.
MG: Yes. Pollack had his studio in that area. De Kooning was over on 4th Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets. Franz was over on 9th Street, right off University. Then the Club started on 8th Street, too, and the Club was started by people like Philip Pavia and Emanuel Navaretta, 34 other people, I think Jimmy Rosatti, because all these guys used to hang out at the Waldorf cafeteria, which used to be on 6th Avenue between 8th and Waverly Place. It was one of those all night cafeterias. Everybody would sit around, drink coffee and bullshit. And I think that Pavia’s idea was to get them off the streets and out of the Waldorf cafeteria, to a place they could call their own, and sit around and drink coffee again, and talk.
SP: Talk about art?
MG: Well, talk about anything they wanted to.
SP: But there was a lot of talking about art, was there not?
MG: Well, it was usually on Friday nights they had these panels, and for the first couple of years they used to invite people to speak. I heard Boulez speak there, as a matter of fact. People like that. Then they used to have in house panels. I was on a number of the panels there. But the club was really a place to have these panels, and then the women passed these wicker baskets around, everybody put in coins, and they used to buy this cheap bourbon, like Old Grandstand, Old Snowshoe or something. It was $2.95 a fifth. So they danced and drank this shitty bourbon. That was really the big deal about the club, this Friday night after the panel, party.
SP: I see.
MG: And I remember that the art world was really much, much smaller at that point. In terms of money being in the art world, forget it. There was no money. Everybody was relatively poor. I’m thinking about the time Franz Kline went off to the Catskill Mountains. He was an art teacher at some kind of Catskill Mountains hotel. Come on…
SP: He needed the money.
MG: He needed the money, yes. So this was really at the time too, Black Mountain College.
SP: Yes. Black Mountain College was one of the more important schools, as well as the school that you…you studied with Hans Hofmann.
MG: I studied with Hofmann.
SP: That school was considered very important.
MG: Yes, the Hofmann School was interesting. I don’t know too much about the art students. I did go there.
SP: Yes, briefly after the war.
MG: For about 78 months. Art students leave I went there to do stone carving, because I was partially paralyzed. I studied with Jose De Creeft.
MG: I had this kind of very smart physical therapist, at the Veterans Administration, who told me I should do this kind of work. But I had gone to Hofmann School before I went into the service, 1941, beginning of 1942, and when I came out, I went down to Venezuela to work in the oil fields, in the beginning of 1946, for 9 months. Then I came back and then I went to Hofmann School. After the (inaudible) I went to the Hofmann School. So I went back to Hofmann, I think it was about 19489, something like that.
SP: Yes. 1948 through 1950.
MG: Yes. And I still had the GI Bill, and I still had been getting a pension because I had been wounded.
SP: Is that from your paratrooping?
MG: Yes. I was wounded three times, so I was getting I think 60% disability, which is another story I’ll tell you about. But at that point, Hofmann, we still had veterans going there, and I mean, most of us really felt that we were trying to make up for lost time. The school was very professional. Hofmann was very professional. I don’t know if any of us really understood what the fuck he was talking about. He had this funny combination of a thick German accent, with very strange colloquialisms, all mushed together. I mean, his favorite thing, he used to say, knicker, knicker. Knicker meant nicht wahr. It’s like Puerto Ricans saying mira, mira. But he was inspirational in the sense of the love of art that he generated, he made you feel that making art was important, and what better teacher do you want, if you think about it? I don’t want to paint like Hofmann, I didn’t even particularly like his paintings. But I really respected him and still do, enormously. It was the focal point, the school. Everybody seemed to drop in there. He was there on certain days of the week and once a month we’d have these criticisms, and he certainly didn’t particularly like what I was doing. He used to call my paintings tonal, which was pejorative. I was a tonal painter. But I think he liked me. But once a month we used to show up (inaudible) I’ve seen Pollack at the school, seen (inaudible) at the school (inaudible) Kline from time to time. Everybody did show up at the school at one point or another.
SP: That’s one of the places that you met some of these people, if you hadn’t…I mean, that’s how you formed friendships?
SP: Did you learn from each other?
MG: The climate was such that there was so much excitement in the air that you just picked it up almost through osmosis rather than directly, picking up this from here and this from here. You know, one of the things that I made a point of is that I was always much more excited about the meetings with Pollack than anybody else, but at the same time, Pollock’s work was inaccessible in the sense that you couldn’t steal from him. I’ve always felt that art is selective thievery. You take a little bit from this person, a little bit from that person and you hopefully make it your own. With Pollack you couldn’t do that. I mean, people that did made little Pollacks, that’s all they did. Again, it’s the process, and the people really thought that the dripping of paint was synonymous with Pollock’s content. It’s fascinating too, because at that time, in the early fifties, people talked about Pollock’s paintings as being raw, ferocious, angry, all these kinds of macho things. Today we look at the paintings and they’re very lyrical, they’re very romantic.
MG: The paintings haven’t changed, we’ve changed. Our attitudes towards it have changed. But they still have great quality, and that’s the interesting thing. Whereas if you think about paintings like say Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, they’ve selfdestructed. We can’t look at them any more. There’s just nothing there. I find that fascinating.
SP: So the genealogy of your work is based mostly in Pollack?
MG: No, not at all. I was really very much influenced by people like early Kandinsky, from about 1909 to about 1914.
SP: How so?
MG: I think that it was a very lyrical kind of landscape, the abstractions that he did then were very important to me. They’re extraordinarily interesting paintings, and they showed you a way into abstraction. Miro was very important to me, and De Kooning was very important to me. Gorky, paintings that I loved. I had a great number of influences, only recently have I come into…the last 15 years I suppose, I’m really looking again at classical painting very seriously. I think that it may not be recognized for…I think that I am getting more ambitious in terms of painting. In terms of the content of the painting. I am also willing to take more chances. You know a little bit more, hopefully.
SP: When you say the content, you mentioned once that…in a previous interview, that you’re totally against story telling.
MG: Yes. I still am.
SP: So when you talk about content, what do you mean?
MG: Well, I’m quite interested in the idea of reconciliation, of finding some kind of measure of satisfying or making it more palatable, making chaos more palatable, making uncertainty squared. You know what I mean, like finding a sort of quasi end to uncertainty, to chaos, making some kind of order other than certainty, that kind of thing. That’s what I’m interested in. How one does that is I suppose a reexamination of your whole painting life, bring in whatever elements you think are important to it. I find it’s as you said, that a lot of what I’m doing refers to what I did 40 years ago. Quite consciously, as a matter of fact. I’m not trying to regurgitate things that I did. I’m hoping it’s on a higher level, ha, ha, ha. But it may not be, too.
SP: Yes, as I did mention before the tape went on, looking at this new work here at the studio, they seem so fresh and so honest, so raw and exciting.
MG: One hopes so.
SP: Going to Frank O’Hara, in preparation for the talk today, I couldn’t help but come across…(interruption) the name of poet Frank O’Hara, he was a friend of yours. One of his most celebrated, or more celebrated poems, “Why I Am Not A Painter”, mentions you, actually a few lines. “Why I am not a painter: I am not a painter, I’m a poet. Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Well, for instance, Mike Goldberg is starting a painting. I drop in. Sit down and have a drink, he says. I drink, we drink. I look up. You have sardines in it. Yes, it needed something there. Oh, I go, and the days go by and I drop in again. The painting is going on, and I go, and the days go by. I drop in, the painting is finished. Where’s the sardines? Oh, all that’s left is just letters. It was too much, Mike says.” Prior to his death in 1996, he had so much…
MG: No, 1966.
SP: 1966, thank you. Prior to his death in 1966, he had been so much a part of the creative life of New York as poet, MOMA curator, Art News art critic and general catalyst. How did your friendship with him affect your work? I know that’s a big question.
MG: I don’t know if you can specifically answer that.
SP: May I help you out with that?
MG: Frank was somebody who was able to make art seem so natural, like breathing almost, and was such an enthusiast of almost all art forms, that his affection and enthusiasm were so very stimulating. Since I admired his work and his taste, his enthusiasm so enormously, it was very flattering. Good for me, I suppose, and good for all of his friends, to be included in the circle that was around him. I think that adequate, as one of those people who…I remember at the funeral, Larry Rivers saying that every one of Frank’s friends felt that they were his best friend, in effect. So I think that (interruption)
SP: He certainly knew so many people.
MG: You’ve got to understand that when Frank died, he had been asked to head the MOMA museum, the head curator, the job that Rubin got, that had been offered to Frank.
SP: By whom?
MG: The job that Bill Rubin got.
MG: It would have been fascinating, for he was not an art historian, he was a gay poet. That’s exactly who he was, and he made no bones about it. It wasn’t a big deal to him. That was the interesting thing. So he was really in a position of great (inaudible) great authority. His taste was so broad that he was somebody who was at home in many, many different worlds, and he also was quite honest, and he also could be very mean. So the combination was fascinating.
SP: So he was honest in his poetry?
MG: I think he was honest in his poetry. He had stopped writing as seriously as he had been two years before he died, two and a half years, not writing as much. Why I have no idea. I don’t know. I heard all kinds of theories, but I don’t know.
SP: Interestingly at that time he was just beginning to really be published.
MG: Exactly. Well, he was very reluctant to publish.
MG: Yes. I mean, it took forever for Ferlinghetti, for instance, to convince him to do Love Poems, or the Lunch Poems. I mean, it was very interesting. I remember Don Allen, who did that big Anthology of American Poetry, of Contemporary American Poetry. This must have been in the early sixties, I guess. And Don actually thought that Frank was the major American poet of that epoch. But he had to really pry these poems out of Frank, that kind of thing.
SP: Is it true that Frank was actually responsible for convincing John Meyers to give you your first show?
MG: I think so. The reason I say I think so is that
SP: I’m sorry.
MG: It was the Tibor De Nagy gallery, yes.
SP: In October, 1953?
MG: Right. And yes, Frank was the one who, after he got John down to the studio, I was living on 2nd Street then, between 2 and 3 Avenues, and I think that predisposed John, you know, Frank bringing him down, being enthusiastic about what I was doing, but that predisposed John to show my work, which was a disaster.
SP: The show?
MG: Well, everything about it was a disaster.
SP: How so?
SP: If you don’t mind talking about it.
MG: I was driving a trailer truck then. I was on the road coming back from Pittsburgh when the show was installed.
SP: You weren’t involved with the installing?
MG: I didn’t install it, no.
SP: Oh, dear.
MG: And these were paintings that were very heavily influenced by De Kooning’s work. I was also on probation for the New York City Courts for a drug arrest. I had been…instead of going to jail, I was in the nut house for seven months, I think it was, and so when I got out, they gave me two years probation, and my probation officer was a very interesting kind of oldfashioned, left wing radical guy who wore ties and checked shirts and tweed jackets with leather things on the sleeves, a very nice guy. Anyway, I told him about this exhibit that I had. I used to report to him I think every two weeks, once every two weeks. So I told him about the exhibit and he went to see it. When I saw him again, he said, you know, it’s really bizarre. He said, I was looking at your work the gallery was on the parlor floor of a tenement building on 53rd Street, when they still had the Third Avenue El up. It was between Third Avenue and Second Avenue on the north side of the street.
SP: Off Third Street?
MG: 53rd. It was on 53rd Street.
SP: I find that interesting because the De Nagy Gallery dealt with so many downtown…
MG: But the gallery was uptown.
SP: But it was uptown.
MG: John Meyers was a puppeteer. He also was the American editor of View Magazine, that surrealist magazine during World War II, when all those French surrealists came over here. Anyway, John…this probation guy, his name I don’t remember, said to me, you know, it was weird because I was looking at your work, and this was a very narrow, long kind of gallery. And he said, this fat, gay guy…no, he said, this fat queen came out and he said, he introduced himself, and he said, you know you don’t want to look at this work. He said, come on in the back, I want to show you some work that’s really good. So he takes him in the back, the guy goes in, and he’s showing him Larry River’s work.
SP: Oh, dear.
MG: So I drove this trailer truck up, parked it on Third Avenue, underneath the El, and took the work off the f——– walls.
SP: Are you serious?
MG: Yes. Right away. And I told Johnny Meyers if I ever saw him again I’d break both of his knees. So in the future whenever we saw each other, he’d cross the street. Then the final wind-up was that Tibor De Nagy, who had the gallery on 57th Street before Meyers died, did a show, an homage to Johnny Meyers. And they sent me a letter asking about, you’ve got to be (inaudible) you’ve got to be kidding. You know what happened between me and John. I said I wouldn’t do it, I’d piss on his f——— grave, come on. Contributing a painting to this show.
SP: That’s funny. You and Frank did have a collaborative effort?
SP: Called a Trip by Michael Goldberg, or Signs and Portents as told to Frank O’Hara, war stories suppressed, evacuated, expurgated edition.
MG: I still have that somewheres around.
SP: Oh, I’d love to see it.
MG: It’s in one of the drawers. But what it was, was Frank was going off on his first…he was on the international council at the time, and he was going off to various capitol cities in Europe, doing some kind of selection for a show. I forget what that one was. So I said, listen, why don’t you keep a diary while you’re there, while you’re traveling around, and I’ll illustrate it. That’s what that was. And I still have it somewheres. We did I think maybe about a dozen plates.
SP: It says here, seven paintings and he did twelve poems.
MG: Something like that, yes.
SP: Maybe I should just turn the tape over now.
MG: So you see, I see my role in that school. (inaudible)
SP: School of Visual Arts.
MG: Yes, an ancillary role. I was giving kids who are not passionate about making art, by good or bad, they really were not driven to making art, to leave the school. It seemed like a waste of both time and money. It seemed to me (inaudible) you do something else. I think, why go to the School of Visual Arts? Beating your head against the wall.
SP: Definitely. So your philosophy on teaching is…
MG: You know, I wonder if I’ve got a philosophy about teaching.
SP: Sometimes these questions are so broad.
MG: Yes. I don’t believe that I do have a philosophy about teaching. One, because I don’t think that I have got the message. Certainly if I did feel that I had a message I wouldn’t want to give that message to anybody else. I’d be at home kind of playing with that message myself. So it seems to me that I go into the school each time expecting miracles, and of course you don’t find miracles. There are levels of communication that interest me. I find that it’s a social function too that I’m dealing with. Kids 1822 that we get there mostly are sort of both hiding from the world and being part of the world, and the school protects them, keeps the outside, outside. I can’t say that I find the activity restorative, because it doesn’t. I mean, that I get anything from the students, I don’t think so. But what I do get, and this is interesting, is the sense of a job that I can do from A to Zed and do it well. Because painting doesn’t do that. There’s no end in sight in terms of painting. I mean, it’s always an ongoing…if you’re lucky, anyway, an ongoing kind of thing. You get some kind of halfassed vision, you’re trying to get to it, and you never quite get to it. If you’re fortunate, you don’t get to it. At least in the teaching in art school, I find that if I’ve got something to say, I’ll say it. If I have nothing to say, then I won’t say anything. I’m not artificial about it usually. I tend to change my mind often, and I warn people not to trust what I say, to examine what I say. And at the same time, if I’m up for it, I usually leave teaching feeling very good, and wonderful. I’d almost pay them to be able to do that.
SP: I mean, your experiences at Hofmann was so traditional, so systematic.
MG: Not really.
SP: I’m sorry, did you find that?
MG: Not really. I mean, we had a model, you’d make charcoal drawings if you wanted to, you could do anything else if you wanted to, too. After all, Hofmann only came in I think it was one day a week. (interruption)
SP: You were just talking about your experiences teaching at the School of Visual Arts. I want to go back to after World War II, and the nature of art education changed drastically. Hunter was instrumental by merging the New York art world with public higher education in New York City, because of the foresight of the then chairman of the art department, Edna Lutz, avant-garde artists such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Ray Parker, George Sugarman, and Helen Frankenthaler were brought in as major faculty members. And Gene Goossen became chairman in 1961, continuing this tradition by hiring Tony Smith, Lyman Kipp and Ralph Humphrey. Would you mind talking about some of the people you knew who were associated with Hunter then, and did you get a sense of this change in art education?
MG: No, I didn’t get any sense of it, I didn’t think too much about it to tell you the truth. I knew Gene Goossen. Not terribly well, but I knew him. I knew a lot of people whom he hired. I knew Ralph Humphrey quite well, Ray Parker certainly quite well, then Ron Gorchov, who are the other guys?
SP: I’m sorry, yes, there are so many, and then I have more that came on later, but… first, Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes, Ray Parker, George Sugarman. Of course ï¿½.. Frankenthaler.
MG: Well, you know, I knew George, and I certainly knew Helen. I knew Motherwell. He and I never got along together. Then, Baziotes I certainly knew, not terribly well, but I knew him. I’d see him at the club from time to time. It was interesting the way Goossen kind of met the times in a way. I remember the (inaudible) Bob Morris.
MG: Then he hired Alice Aycock, too (inaudible) a student of Morris’s.
SP: Right. I don’t believe she taught there. She did. Of course, she teaches at the School of Visual Arts. Second, Morris was hired…
MG: Probably early seventies, or late…
SP: Was it that?
SP: I think you’re right. Yes, Robert Morris was hired at Hunter at the end of the sixties.
SP: Of course, Doug Ohlsen, who I studied with at Hunter…
MG: Who I like a lot. I haven’t seen him. I called him, yes. Do you still see him?
SP: No, but I did have him at Hunter, and I saw him there.
MG: He’s quite wonderful, with that dark night of the soul, that’s Scandinavian (inaudible)
SP: Those paintings are certainly…
MG: I even taught at Hunter.
SP: Did you? Would you please talk about that?
MG: Ray Parker, this was in…I can’t figure out whether it was the seventies or eighties, I don’t remember. But Ray Parker started to really drink heavy, and was in some kind of hospital, because I think he suffered some kind of brain damage. He was losing it. So they asked if I would substitute for him.
MG: And so I did for most of one semester, and I found it interesting.
SP: This was part of the graduate or undergraduate?
MG: This was graduate. Am I right?
SP: It doesn’t really matter.
MG: Something like that. I should make up my mind. You know, it must have been undergrad, because we used to have to go up there. There were some people that had their own studios I used to visit. It must have been graduate.
SP: Presently the way it’s situated in Hunter, I don’t know if back then, but I can only speak to when I was there, and presently the graduate students had their own studio space.
MG: On the West Side.
SP: On the West Side.
MG: I’ve been there.
SP: West 41 Street. It’s called Voorhies.
MG: They’re terrific.
SP: It’s a great place.
MG: Yes, I’ve been there because one of the kids graduated from Visual Arts, a Swedish girl, when I went to Hunter.
SP: Under Woolworth? Not same student?
MG: No. Is she still with Jack Woolworth, or did they split up? Do you ever see her?
SP: She was in my graduating class. I don’t know. I didn’t know her. I don’t know her well. She goes by the name of Hannie Woolworth (inaudible)
MG: She was good, I remember, very energetic. Perhaps it was (inaudible)
MG: They played with (inaudible)
SP: (inaudible) and I’m further down the block. It goes alphabetically.
MG: Did you like it there?
SP: Yes, I did. I felt that I learned a lot, a great deal.
MG: That’s good. It would be a pain in the ass if you thought you wasted your time.
SP: No, I definitely did not waste my time.
MG: I see what you’re talking about. That’s really quite nice.
SP: Thank you.
MG: (inaudible) very small?
SP: That one’s small, but my work is quite large. My thesis show consisted of five paintings, and they were about five feet by six, or something like that.
MG: That’s good.
SP: Then I might ask you, why did you recommend so many students to including myself to Hunter’s MFA program?
MG: Well, one, I thought it was here in the city. I think it’s probably as good if not better than any MFA program around. Then, the cost is right, and I think you people take on enormous burdens of debt when you go into say visual arts, and why should you compound it by going to a very expensive other school, a grad school? I also and I said this to you, I remember that, I feel that graduate school is just to keep you off the streets for an additional two years.
SP: It took me four. I went part time.
MG: Well, partially off the streets, four years. So you might as well not have to pay too heavily for that experience, I felt.
SP: Yes, that is true, and we were given the studio space, and I had an enormous space, as everyone else did. Did it have something to do with the quality of education as well, that type of education (inaudible)
MG: I don’t know, because I don’t know too much about the quality of education. I really don’t. I know a lot of the people who teach there, and I respect them certainly. It’s not a hotbed of contemporary issues. I mean, certainly today like the Pasadena Art School is the hotbed, much more than anyplace else. And for certain kids, you recommend that they go there. It’s expensive. (inaudible) I got some guy in there (inaudible) on a scholarship. It’s a friend of mine directing that program at Pasadena. But it isn’t a school for everybody. You know what I mean? The Whitney program is not for everybody, or Cal Arts is not for everybody. The difficulty about the up to the minute programs is they run the risk of becoming next year’s fascism, to become next year’s passe conservatism, etc., etc., because they’re stuck with an avante garde position. Some people you don’t mind. I mean, that’s the way they think, so you say okay, that might be the place for you. I think that other, from what I know, a position is Catholic enough so that if you’re smart you can make up your own mind, what it is that you want to do, what you’d like to do. You have all these possibilities. So it’s a little bit like a continuation of SVA.
SP: What is going on at Pasadena Art School that makes it so hot?
MG: Well, they’ve got very specific people, like Mike Kelly, who is very interested in dispersal, installation art. I forget the name (inaudible) a friend of mine Jeremy GilbrtRolfe, is sort of the quasi head of that graduate program, and Jeremy is the smartest guy I know. I mean extraordinary (inaudible) I think that’s what makes it so hot, because of the people they’ve got there.
SP: We touched earlier on the idea of money was not an issue way back in the fifties, but in the sixties the art world moved toward money and glamour. It moved “uptown” and was more elegant, less Bohemian, and there was an intellectual shift in thinking. Can you talk about this change in sensibility?
MG: Don’t you think that that was an outgrowth of the introduction of big money, relatively big money in the art world? I mean, certainly when Pollack died, in 19556, or something like that…
SP: 1956, I believe.
MG: De Kooning’s first show with Sidney Janis, which must have been right about that time, the second show really…I forget. The first show, I think it was, where people waited in advance to buy paintings. That had never happened before. I mean, in that first show Sidney Janis…Bill De Kooning was my neighbor on 10th Street, and I helped him build the stretchers. He wouldn’t buy stretchers (inaudible) he built them. I helped him stretch the paintings. Those were the paintings that were sold. And the idea that they could be sold that way, in front, was absolutely amazing. Franz Kline started to sell his work at that time, too. Now, I think for guys like that, what it meant was that they could think of bigger studios, they could drink more and better. They didn’t really particularly change their lives. I think that they still considered themselves outside of society, whereas I think that when money really became the other art world of the sixties…
SP: With Andy Warhol…
MG: Andy was later. Andy was a little like (inaudible) 19634. I remember John Weber who was working with Martha Jackson at that time. I was showing with Martha Jackson. John had come in from Dayton, Ohio, where he had been working with Tom Colt who was the director of the Dayton Art Institute, who also had a course in what he called Museumology, and John took it, and Tom Colt was a good friend of Martha’s, and so he sent Tom to New York to work with Martha Jackson. He was the first one to really pick up on Pop Art, for want of a better word, but the all inclusiveness of Pop Art in New York. So Martha did a show of what you call assemblage, and this was in the spring of 1961.
MG: Yes. And then I remember that because I went off to teach at Berkeley as a visiting artist, in that fall of 1961. And then she did another show as a second part of it. The second part of it was one where Alan Kaprow did the tire piece in her garden at the back of the house. John was really very responsible for that. John included Andy Warhol in that show, and wanted Martha to take Andy on, and Martha did not like Andy’s work particularly, and did not take him on. Yes, that was just at that time. She did take on a couple of people. I forget who. I don’t really remember. But I do remember that I was at Berkeley in 1961. I was asked to be the juror of the Oakland Art Annual, the sole juror. I said yes. Out of I think about 2500 entries, I selected I think about 50 pieces, and out of one of those 50 pieces was a hamburger by Thibaud. It was the first time he had ever showed a painting, a little painting of a hamburger. Pop Art. So I was receptive to that, certainly. It’s so hard to pinpoint…
SP: How money changes.
MG: Yes. You know, what happened of course, because of money, more and more galleries opened (inaudible) aside from the fact that there was an explosion of affection, of understanding, of need for art. Suddenly it became possible for the middle class to have some kind of relationship with art, and to buy it, own it. It gave people a certain cache to be involved with art and the buying of art.
SP: But the artists themselves, do you think perhaps that it affected their work in any way?
MG: Well, I don’t know if it did or not, but…
SP: What about yourself? You certainly were selling.
MG: Yes, I think what happened is that I still considered the sale of a painting a miracle.
SP: To this day?
MG: In a funny way, yes.
SP: You must be joking.
MG: Whatever. But I can’t really accept the idea that somebody likes what I do enough to want to buy it. It still really is amazing to me. Yes, my life certainly changed. Martha Jackson was able to sell a lot of work. But you see, Martha was one of the few galleries, the only gallery in New York, that gave her artists’ monthly stipends. I was getting a monthly check from Martha. What it meant is that at the end of two years, because I used to show every two years, I owed her a goddam lot of money, and so she had to sell a lot of paintings, which I got 50% of to pay off the debt in front. So I very often didn’t make very much money as a result of her selling a lot of paintings at a show, but I was getting money every month.
SP: Which helped you to live.
MG: Which helped me to live, yes. I was getting about $1,000 a month, which was a lot of money then. Then I was married to quite a rich woman (inaudible) in 1958.
SP: Yes, Patsy Southgate.
MG: Patsy Southgate, who borrowed a painting from me (inaudible)
SP: She lives on Long Island?
MG: In Springs, yes.
SP: As a matter of fact, that’s where many people are buried, many of the art world are buried. In that Green River Cemetery.
MG: Yes, but not De Kooning.
SP: Not De Kooning.
MG: Not De Kooning. I don’t know where they buried him. Bizarre, it’s sad not to bury him there.
SP: That’s true, that would be a monument (inaudible)
MG: Yes. You see, it’s funny, Elaine is getting buried there. She’s got a stone up. I think (inaudible) daughter Lisa, and this woman Pricilla Morgan was quite influential within this group, really disliked Elaine, disliked the fact that she was Bill’s wife and now that she’s dead they can rule the roost because they’ve inherited everything. So they’re not going to allow Bill to be cremated. They had a church service, I was there. They did cremate him.
MG: He must have been really turning over in that urn, an Episcopalian church service. Unbelievable. It’s enough to frost your hair. I heard they’re not burying him there, because (inaudible) Lots of people I’ve known quite well are buried there.
SP: Frank O’Hara, as a matter of fact, is buried there as well.
MG: I have a really funny anecdote. I was asked to write a piece for this (inaudible) magazine, for their next issue, on De Kooning. And I did. It was a short piece. But one of the things that I talked about was that I was at that cemetery, it’s called the Green River Cemetery.
MG: With Bill De Kooning and Franz Kline. The year after Jackson died, which was what, 1957, I think it was? And they were really pretty drunk. I was sort of half bagged. We were there to watch Lee Krassner put this giant rock on Jackson’s grave. There was a big forklift and a big, big, boulder. And Bill turned to Franz, and he said, you see that rock that Lee is putting on Jackson’s grave? He says, the stone that Elaine is going to put on my grave is going to make that look like a pebble! Great story.
SP: That is, incredible story.
MG: That is.
SP: Thank you for sharing that. I have a question. We were just talking about De Kooning and that he died. He died earlier this month.
SP: And it’s just about 50 years after the beginning of Abstract Expressionism in the New York school. What do you see in the future for abstract painting in general, gestural abstractions specifically, and for your own work?
MG: Well, I can’t really answer the thing from my own work. I’m blind to this, you know. It’s what I do and I can’t help myself. I still find that abstract painting is the greatest visual challenge possible. Yet at the same time, this refreshing kind of environment we all are working in. Where there’s no orthodoxy in art work, there’s no one way to work, there’s no one way that’s more important than the next. In contradiction to that idea that there is a specific attitude that reflects the time, there’s one specific attitude, it doesn’t seem to be true any longer. I think that there’s an awful lot of bad art out there now, probably more than ever before. Specifically, more artists and more spaces to show the work. So you see lots of shit. Occasionally you run into an epiphany, you run into someone that you relate to, respond to.
SP: Who are some of the people that you…
MG: That I responded to?
SP: Responded to and respond to now?
MG: You know, I really liked, say Harriet Corman, one or two pieces. (inaudible) got a showing, the other ones that I can’t stand. One thing really I think was quite interesting, Bill Jenson’s work interests me. I like sometimes David Rowe’s work. I said I like what Lynn is doing, a lot. Pozzi sometimes interests me.
MG: Susanna Tanger has been doing some things that I really like. I like Steve Rosenthal’s work. Do you know his work at all?
MG: Very discreet work. I like it. I like Bob Ryman’s work a lot. I’m very Catholic, I still look at Titian a hell of a lot. I likeï¿½ï¿½ï¿½an awful lot. (inaudible) I like to look at Beckman. Did you see that Beckman?
SP: Yes, down at the Guggenheim.
MG: I thought that was an extraordinary experience, absolutely extraordinary.
SP: Perhaps it was the space as well.
MG: I think that those paintings are so moving, I thought, and meant, or felt whatever the fuck you want to call it, an extraordinary experience. I’ve said that about four times. And that certainly is not abstract painting.
SP: Well, do you feel that there is still territory for invention?
MG: Yes, I do. You know, one of the things that interests me about painting is that I don’t necessarily have to like it, but I don’t want to be able to deny it. I don’t want to be able to turn my back on it and go home. And that’s still possible, every so often you see something and say, Jesus Christ, …see, one of the things that I didn’t say before, I really dislike Ellsworth Kelly’s work. I’ve never been able to understand it, ever. I don’t get it. But there are an awful lot of people who get it. Now, I think it’s sort of the emperor’s new clothes, I don’t think there’s anything there. Now, that may be a total blind spot on my part, but I’ve always been able to resist Kelly’s work. I’ve always been able to turn my back on it and not think about it. It has no moment for me. Helen Frankenthaler is another one who has no moment for me. I’ve seen early paintings of hers.
MG: I’ve seen early paintings of hers that I think are terrific. I think Joan Mitchell’s paintings are absolutely terrific. Not all, but…
SP: But it’s a consistent body of work.
MG: Absolutely. There’s going to be a show of Joan’s at Lennon Weinberg.
SP: Really? Your gallery is there.
MG: I’m very pleased about that.
SP: We’re sort of at the end, but you did mention Joan Mitchell.
SP: Now, you were quite close?
SP: At some point. And we didn’t touch on that. Did you want to talk about that? Or do you really have (inaudible)
MG: What a c—. No, I don’t want to talk. My comments should stand, that’s all. She was the most conniving, manipulative, bitchy woman around. And wonderful too, of course, but unbelievable.
SP: Well, maybe it was the time that she was in. I mean, it was mostly an all male sort of thing, so maybe it was part of her Reichian armor or something.
MG: Maybe. She had the uncanny ability to find your most vulnerable point and then proceed to twist it and twist it, and never let go.
SP: Then I guess we’ll end it there.
MG: That’s a good point to end up in.
SP: I do want to thank you for taking the time to help us with this valuable project.
MG: You’re very welcome. How many people are doing it?
SP: Presently we have about 12 people working on it, and we have many people to interview.
MG: Who is the guy who is running it?
SP: George Hofmann.
MG: Hofmann. Is he an art historian?
SP: No, he’s a painter, in fact, and he’s been with Hunter for many years, since the late…I could be wrong. I’d take the time to look it up now, but I believe it’s the late sixties he joined. Let me just check that for the record. Yes, he joined Hunter at the end of the sixties.
MG: He sounds like a nice man on the phone.
SP: He’s a great, great guy. I had him at Hunter, and he championed my work.
MG: I know Sandy Wurmfeld a bit.
MG: Who seems quite nice, but…
SP: He critiqued my work, but I never had him for class.
MG: I certainly don’t like what he does, though.
SP: I’m sorry?
MG: I don’t like his work at all.
SP: He’s very much into color.
MG: There’s the other guy, Bob Swain, is he still alive?
SP: Yes, I had Bob Swain…you know, Bob was a great teacher.
SP: Yes. I had him for one of our seminars. We are required to take three seminars and I learned so much from him. I mean, about art history, that sort of thing, and how it relates to what we’re doing. He was great. Of course, he was an assistant for Tony Smith for many years.
MG: I should kick you out now.
SP: Thank you again, Michael, you’ve been most gracious.
MG: And if you find that you want to do it in addition, then I could take a couple. That’s easy.
SP: Thanks again, Mike.
END OF INTERVIEW