INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD LIPPOLD

MARCH 6, 1998

LOCUST VALLEY, NY

CONDUCTED BY GEORGE HOFMANN

                        Transcribed by Margaret Fiore 

This  is George Hofmann on Friday morning March 6th, speaking with Richard Lippold, American sculptor and former Hunter College  faculty member, at his home on Long Island.

GH:  You began teaching there in 1956, I found out.  Did you know that?

RL: You apparently have all the information you need.  I don’t know why you came to talk with me.

GH: I only know the bare bones.

RL: ’56 you say?

GH: I think so, yes, ’56…

RL: I think you’re probably right because we moved out here in ’55.  Well, it’s vague to me now, but I remember commuting from here to teach.

GH: Oh really?

RL: Yeah, the Long Island Railroad…

GH: What were the…what I was curious about…we were talking just a little bit about Edna Luetz.  She was then the Chair.  Did you know her or have some previous contact with her? 

RL: No, I didn’t, I didn’t.  What I understand from the history of the department is that it was quite moribund, and she took it over.

GH: Yes…

RL: …and with great vivacity, as we all know.  One of the first things she did when she became Chairman–I don’t know whether she had been teaching there or was a member of the department, and then the previous Chairman (who I don’t know) left office and she became Chairman and immediately wanted to bring it up to date.  First thing she did was to hire Robert Motherwell, and he and I knew each other fairly well.  We’d exhibited together and so on–we were not intimate friends, but we knew each other very well.  She asked him to choose appropriate teachers to develop the department, artists especially.  Of course he was in the art world so deeply.  So the first person he suggested to augment the department was me,  and so I joined the faculty along with him.  We were the only two there, and then…

GH: Oh, really…

RL: …eventually there were others, Ray Parker, …

GH: Baziotes,…

RL: Baziotes, and–who was the photographer, Aaron Siskind–he was a nice guy, very lively.

GH: You know no one has mentioned him so far to me; it just rings a slight bell.  Was he well known at the time?

RL: Oh yes, well, you know, as we were all well known, which wasn’t very well.

GH: Well, you of course, …

RL: I mean, it wasn’t a time for art, much, in this country.  But anyhow, Siskind was a very fine photographer; he did wonderful, wonderful things.  And I don’t remember who suggested  him–maybe I did, even–for the department, I don’t really remember, but anyway he joined the faculty, brought a lot of life to it.  The students loved him because he was a very vivacious type.

What are you looking at?

GH: Just looking at…yes, the little wheel going around…

      So he was well liked.

RL: Yes, Aaron Siskind was very well liked in the department, he got on very well with the students, he was very lively, made jokes, he was a very natural type of man, a good guy, so as I say, I don’t remember whether it was I who proposed him or not because we knew each other from other sources.  His girlfriend and I were well acquainted.  I imagine it was through her.  Anyhow I don’t remember who else …

GH: Actually, I’m looking back here.  I was wrong, it was ’52 that you started there, …

RL: It was?

GH: It was further back.  So it must have been shortly after Luetz came in.  She must have hired Motherwell and shortly thereafter he must have recommended you. 

RL: We were still living in New York until 1955 when we moved out here to this very house, and I think I remember first of all just being in the city and teaching.  Then after we moved…that’s the way it was…after we moved out here, I had to commute.  I didn’t really want to at first.  Edna said, “no you really must stay with the department, I don’t want to let you go.”  So I commuted for a while.  Then when I left–do you remember what date?

GH: Well, you were there till 1967, so that’s a good long time, really.

RL: Yes, it was a long time.  There was no reason for me to leave, I had a full professorship, tenure, and everything.  She gave me a very light teaching load; I ended up teaching only two nights a week, two graduate classes.  She was trying to hang on to me, but I was very very busy, with architectural commissions and the things I was involved with by that time.  I was traveling a great deal, I wasn’t around a lot, I would have to find a substitute teacher for my classes, and I began to feel it was very unfair to them.  So eventually I told her I really–I told Goossen–I really had to leave, I wasn’t being fair to the students.  I was one year from tenure, so I’m left with none of that, but that’s beside the point.  And I didn’t think I needed it then, I was earning a great deal with my commissions, so it would have been a small amount every year, but that’s beside the point.  I enjoyed being there, and I regretted having to leave.  Goossen tried to prevail upon me to stay, gave me every possible incentive.  I didn’t feel I could do it because I was away so much–I was traveling a great deal at that time–but anyhow, that’s when I left and why I left, but I had no quarrel with the department or with their attitude toward me or with the school or anything.  I enjoyed the students.  I made some very good friends among the students, and so it was out of necessity rather than wish or desire. 

GH: Since Goossen came around ’63 or ‘4, you overlapped for a few years then, actually.

RL: He was there–I don’t remember how long–it wasn’t very long–

GH: No, it wasn’t, not very long. 

RL: A couple of years maybe–

GH: Maybe it was a little later that he came, maybe even ’65 or so.

RL: I know it wasn’t very long, it couldn’t have been more than two years that I stay on when he became Chairman.

GH: So maybe it was ’65 that he came and you were…

RL: It was another year, in any event.  It was a nice place to teach, I enjoyed it very much.  I hope you do, too.  You’re still there.  It was very congenial; the department was good.  Edna had made a good thing of it, so it was a pleasure for me to teach there.  I taught for fifteen years, I think, at Hunter, the longest teaching stint I had.

GH: Yeah, I noticed that you had been at Goddard, where you were head of the art department actually.

RL: I was the art department.

GH: Oh really, is that so?

RL: I was the only one teaching art.

GH: Are you serious?

RL: Well, it was a very small college.  The total enrollment couldn’t have been more than fifty or sixty in the whole school.  It was a very small school.

GH: Oh, it couldn’t have been that tiny…

RL:  Well, it was very small, well maybe it was a little more than than, maybe a hundred…

GH: Big reputation for …

RL: …it was no more than that.  So I had six students the first term I was there, and I made an assignment.  I said, “let’s go for a walk.”  So we all went for a walk.  And when we got back to the studio, I said, “Now I’d like you to draw something you observed on this walk.  Anything at all, your thumbnail, or something you saw while you were out for….”  Three of the students said, “We don’t do that here.  Nobody tells us what to do.  We decide what we want to do, and then we do it, and that’s how we learn.  I said, “well what would you like to do?”  So one of the boys said, “I want to do an oil portrait of my grandmother.”  I said, “have you ever painted before?”  “No, but that’s how I’ll learn.”  He may have been right.

GH: Possibly.

RL: They all had these–another one said he wanted to do a mural about the history of America, 90 feet by 30 feet or something.  I said “where are you going to do this?”  “Oh, we’ll find a place around here somewhere, the dining room or somewhere.”  So three of them had these outr�, for me, ideas about what they wanted to do, and I said “well, okay, if you want to do them, you go and do them, and if you want any advice or any help or any suggestions or anything, let me know and I’ll do it.”  So the three of them took off and never did anything.  But I was left with three very, very devoted students.  They became lifelong friends.  They went for the walk and drew what they saw, and that’s how we started out.  It was kind of a wild place.

GH: Goddard College students…

RL: But it did introduce me to Vermont, and I fell in love with Vermont and shortly after that I bought some property and we have a house up there.  I adore it.  It’s really such a beautiful part of the world.  It hasn’t changed–I look out…we have a porch, looking out over a great landscape including the White Mountains of Vermont, of New Hampshire, and it hasn’t changed in all the years that we’ve been there, maybe one more house is visible somewhere in the distance, but it hasn’t…no developments and that sort of stuff.  It’s really quite amazing, Vermont in that part, Northeast Kingdom, so-called, it’s still…  We’re in the Northeast Kingdom on a little back road called Paradise Alley, it still is, it’s still where the house is, it’s still called Paradise Alley, our address is something Paradise Alley. 

GH: It’s pretty great…

RL: In the Northeast Kingdom near St. Johnsbury.

GH: It’s a little sanctified.

RL: Couldn’t get any more spiritual than that.  My wife now lives up there.  Doesn’t want to be here in New York, so she’s taken off, well not taken off, but she’s chosen to spend her days up there in Vermont; she’s tired of being here, or tired of me, I don’t know what it is.  Anyhow, she spends the winter now with our oldest daughter because our house is a little isolated and difficult to get to.  It would require half a mile of plowing roads, so she’s spending the winter now with our daughter, and she’ll go back probably in May or late April or something, I don’t know what her plans are.

GH: The interesting thing that I guess I didn’t really quite realize was that you had had this extensive design background…

RL: Well, not extensive…

GH: Well, I mean you were at The Art Institute of Chicago…

RL: Yes, I majored in Industrial Design, that’s what it was called then.  It was the only place in the country, I think, that offered such a course.  Maybe Pratt did in New York–I don’t remember–anyhow, …that’s what I majored in because at the urging of my parents, especially my father, they thought I should be involved in something that made money…the idea of being an artist was not that….

GH: But your inclination, your own sense, was that you were going to be an artist.

RL: Oh, yes, I wanted to all my life.  My earliest efforts, drawing and stuff, it’s all essential to that.  When I finished high school and I announced I would like to go on to art school, my mother said, “I didn’t raise my boy to be a sissy.”  I remember her saying that.  But my father prevailed, and he was very sympathetic to what I wanted–he had wanted to be an artist himself when he was young and didn’t have the money and couldn’t afford to apprentice himself to a commercial artist…

GH: Where were you born?

RL: In Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

GH: And you grew up there?

RL: I grew up there.  I went to school in Chicago, which was close by, so I would go home weekends and stuff.  Well, I’m very grateful to have been born and grown up in the Middle West.  It was a kind of isolation, you know, Milwaukee was considered a cultural wilderness, but it was at least a fresh place, and we had to learn by ourselves, anybody who came from there, like Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance.  The school at which I first taught was in connection with an art gallery there, Layton Art Gallery.  It was run by two quite marvelous women who ran a school in the basement of the museum.  In his autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright mentions these two women with great affection and fondness.  They were the only people ever to invite him to Milwaukee to give a lecture, for instance.  Nobody cared about that in Milwaukee.  They were very fine people, and we became very close friends.  It was with some sorrow I had to announce I was going to leave the school.  It was rather sudden because I’d suddenly had this offer from the University of Michigan which I couldn’t refuse.  It paid so well, and I was getting a small family together, and they couldn’t pay me much in Milwaukee, so….  That’s the last I saw of them.  I went to visit them a couple of times maybe afterward, I don’t recall. 

GH:  Well, did you feel that the engineering training was forced upon you, or did you welcome it?  Were you happy about that?

RL: Yes, I was not successful at it because I had too much an artist’s attitude, and I designed…well, then after I left school I opened a little studio or offices up in, with one of my classmates, two of us opened this place in Milwaukee, and he ran around finding some small amount of work for us, designing things, to local companies, and I was very pure in my attitudes toward design.  I would design something for somebody who’d say well they don’t like red or they didn’t like three stripes or wanted three stripes instead of two or something like that, and I refused to accept that.  Because I felt that what I was doing was correct, you know, I mean I was very creative about it all.  So that didn’t last very long, and I finally had to supplement it with teaching because we didn’t make enough money, and then I never got involved with that any more.  I became a sculptor sort of by, what’s the word, default.  I was teaching at the University of Michigan by that time as I already said, and the head of the department there was a fantastic man, a German refugee that [sic] fled Hitler…

GH: Oh really…

RL: He was not Jewish, but he was a very fantastic man anyhow and hated the whole Nazi business, so he left.  However he became chairman, I don’t know, of the department there, but he was…

GH: Do you remember who that was?

RL: Ernst Mundt.

GH: Yeah, like Karl.

RL: Yeah, he was a very bright and very energetic man, very very full of energy.

GH: And he was a sculptor?

RL: No, he actually didn’t really make anything, now that I think about it, I mean he was not personally creative.  After I began to make some small works there then he decided he would like to try to do that, too, so he did.

GH: Do you think he had been a Bauhaus person, or…?

RL: No, he was not from the Bauhaus…

GH: …he just…

RL: He might have been associated with…he was old enough to have been around before the Bauhaus I think.  I don’t know, you know these dates to me are lost…

GH: Well, such as, similarly Hans Hofmann had had his own…

RL: Yes, well anyhow, he was way back in time with all of that, and he brought to the department a great enthusiasm and a great intelligence and one spring, or whenever it was, he said he was going to put on a show of faculty work.  Well, I didn’t have anything–I wasn’t doing anything.  I had left my office of design, and I wasn’t doing anything.  My wife was dancing; I did costumes for her and lighting, and I was more devoted to her work than anything I wanted to do myself.  I really had no particular interest in that or something else.  So he said, “you’ve got to show something; you’ve got to make something for this show, this little faculty show I want to put on.”  I said, “well no, I don’t really do anything.”  So he said, “make some drawings or something, just to contribute to the show.”  So I made some drawings, and I hated them.  I thought they were all terrible and I threw them in the wastebasket.  And as one of them was descending–I remember the experience–it just caught my eye, and I thought, “oh, that might be interesting in three dimensions,” just like that.  So I just snatched it out again, and it’s sitting right there, on that television set.  My first work.  It’s a little double portrait of me and my wife, dancing together.  And with, I’ve had to replace some paper because, you know, it deteriorated, but it has headlines about our involvement with the war in Japan, with Japan, so it’d be from that period.

GH: The original strip was just of newspaper?

RL: Well, same as it is now, it was headlines, but that’s newspaper also.

GH: Is that?  It looks like a thin bronze material.

RL: No, it’s newspaper.

GH: Is it really?

RL: I had to replace it because it aged and fell apart.

GH: Extraordinary.

RL: The first piece I had in there had to do with our, the announcement of our war with Japan.  I was very socially conscious, I guess the word is, I was very upset by our involvement with the war.  I was a pacifist, that goes way back because–this is a great diversion if you don’t mind–when I was a small child, my father made toys for me.  He made everything.  He was very capable, very handy about things and very good.  And he made me a little wooden boat–I can still see, I can draw you a picture of it, with dowels for smokestacks.  It was very simple, just a couple of boards.  I cared a lot about it.  But I floated it once in a while.  And then I had some cronies, kids my own age, around, and we all had our toys, they were tiny little…they took great delight in smashing up their toys, and they prevailed upon me to attach a string to my little boat and smash it against a brick wall at my grandfather’s house where we were living.  And I took the remains of it to my father and said, “look what I’ve done–I’ve smashed up the boat.”  He said, “that’s okay, Richard, now you don’t have a boat anymore, do you?”  That hadn’t occurred to me, losing the boat.  He said, “All right”–he must have been a very wise man, you know, my father–he said, “I’ll make you another one.  But I want you to watch me make it, to see what goes into making something.”  I’ll never forget that.

GH: He was a wise man…

RL: So I sat there while he made me another little boat, and he said, “I’ll never make you another one.  This is it, and you must remember”–and I can hear him say this–he said, “try to remember that you shouldn’t destroy anything you can’t make yourself or replace,” and I became an instant pacifist–

GH: Oh my God, …

RL: I couldn’t kill anybody–you know, I mean I took it very seriously.  I was what?… ten years old or something like that.  So it transformed my attitude toward things, his saying that to me.  So of course I never destroyed the second little boat, and I was very careful about everything I had after that, not to destroy it.  So it was amazing that it taught me that.  It was very unusual.  I haven’t ever been–even though I’ve wanted to kill people–

GH: And then you thought about…

RL: …Never succumbed to the temptation…I mean there really were monsters around–Hitler and Mussolini and others…or at least it seemed monstrous, I mean we all wished they were gone, out of the way, … anyhow, that’s how I became a pacifist.  So…I was anti-war, I didn’t go to the war.  I was at the age to be in the Second World War, and I was drafted, but I had already joined the Quaker group–they’re pacifists you know–and I didn’t do it to get out of anything, but I was sympathetic to their cause.  I joined some people I met…the friends I made were wonderful people.  And when it came time for me to be interviewed to be drafted, I talked about what I’ve just said to the man who was interviewing me.  I said, “you know, I can’t kill anybody, I just couldn’t do this.”  And I told him, I guess, what I’ve just told you about what my father had taught me, and he looked at me and he said, “I wish I could believe the things you believe, but I’m afraid that if I walked away, I would be stabbed in the back.”  I said, “then you’ll never get to Heaven.”  I think he was some kind of religious person.  I was being interviewed to determine whether my pacifism was genuine since they did excuse us for that, so I became a Conscientious Objector, I guess they called it. 

GH: Did you?

RL: …nothing made out of it especially, but I was exempt then, and I was very happy about it because I also had a little daughter and a small family beginning, and I went on to do my work.  …you know, with the killing, so … that was my attitude.

GH: Well, you were, what, twenty-four?

RL: Yeah, I guess so, I was married when I was twenty-five, so I was twenty-five or twenty-six, right after I was married, it was in the first year of my marriage.

GH: But a lot of the boys who were going were eighteen and nineteen, and twenty and so forth, so you were…

RL: I had been deferred, a number of times, first…

GH: You were a little older then, 

RL: First of all for being married, in the beginning they deferred you for marriage.  I had a child coming on or born already, and so I was given a further deferment for that, but eventually these deferments were all canceled because they needed boys, cannon fodder, and finally the time came when I was called, and as I’ve just described it, I talked my way out of it.  I didn’t do it for that reason, but that’s what happened.  So they gave me the status of Conscientious Objector.  I didn’t have to go to the war.

GH: So then, in this odd way, you made this piece at Michigan, and you hadn’t really thought about sculpture in a major way prior to that.

RL: No, as I say, I was more involved with my wife’s dancing than I was with anything I would do myself.  But I made this for that exhibition, as I say based on the drawing I pulled out of the wastebasket.  And it came to the attention of a man named William Valentiner who was the director of the Detroit Art Institute.  A wonderful man, enormous in stature–he must have been close to seven feet–and he was a German, had left Germany also.

GH: …a refugee…

RL: Well, he wasn’t Jewish, but I think he had similar…as so many intellectuals did and just fled, and he became director of the Detroit Art Institute, and he did many wonderful things there, fine exhibitions and stuff.  Anyhow he saw this little piece, we had been introduced to him.  And he said, “that’s most unusual,” he said, “nobody’s done anything like this before.  You should make some more.”  And he showed it–he wrote a book, I still have it somewhere, based on an exhibition he produced that was traveling, a traveling show, traveled to some of the major museums in America, wrote this little thing, and it was called The Origins of Modern Sculpture.  Began with the Venus of Willendorf.

GH: Are you serious?

RL: Of course I’m serious.

GH: That is unbelievable.

RL: What’s unbelievable?

GH: He included pieces that were ancient…

RL: He considered the Venus of Willendorf  the first sculpture produced…

GH: Of course.

RL: You know what it is, the Venus of Willendorf, prehistoric.  And that was, the show started with that and ended up with me.

GH: So he wanted to show the origin of contemporary thinking in sculpture by reaching as far back as possible.

RL: Of course when you go back to the Venus of Willendorf you end up in a rather abstract area…

GH: I would say so…

RL: So there’s a certain justification for contemporary abstraction.  Anyhow, he was very sympathetic to what I did.  He introduced me to a gallery in New York, the Willard Gallery.  And Marion Willard, who ran the gallery–now at that time, I think maybe, with Betty Parsons, was the first gallery to show contemporary American art.  Not successfully, but she had an income.  In fact, she lived in this very house.  This was her estate; she inherited this estate.

GH: Marion Willard?  Really.

RL: ‘Course it got broken up after a while, they couldn’t afford the taxes on it, and this was originally an old house, just to diverge for a moment, old Victorian kind of house.  Around 1950 it was transformed- as you see it now, I moved in-  by a man named  Morgenthau, well known Morgenthau family.  What is my studio out there now she used as a what she called a music shed, commissioned works from young composers.  I used to come out here during the summers when she gave concerts.  I wandered around this house–I thought “this is how the other half lives.”  I’d had a small apartment in New York.  Couple of years later she died, and the house was empty for a year or two, and it was practically given away to me, I got it for very little.  We moved out of the city, about 1955.  Well, where am I now… I diverged.

GH: Well, really, so, then, people like Valentiner and Marion Willard really encouraged you to start in sculpture and had a hand in …

RL: I would say so.  Valentiner was very, very responsive.  As I said, even that little work, he said, “you know, I’ve never seen anything like that before.  You must make some more.”  So I made one more that year, and that began things.  Marion included them in little shows, there was some other show that somebody put on, well, with Valentiner, “The Origins of Modern Sculpture.”  He based the exhibition on the book also–I think the show traveled around.  This was in it, so that’s how it started.  By default, almost, I became a sculptor.  I had no intention…

GH: I mean, David Smith may have been working at this point already.

RL: He was with Marion Willard at that time.

GH: Was he already?

RL: Yeah, she represented him.

GH: But I’m not sure about other figures.  Was Seymour Lipton already working, or Roszak, or…

RL: Well, they’re all in my generation…

GH: Although you were maybe a little bit older than some of them.  Well, maybe David Smith was your contemporary…

RL: Well, David was maybe a little older than I, I don’t really remember. 

GH: He was too old for the war…

RL: They were all of my generation…Roszak.  I’m not very nice about appreciating other people’s work, and I never became very close friends with any of them.  David was in the gallery, as I say, in my gallery, for a while.  And all at once he came in when Marion wasn’t around and took away all the works of his that were there.  He said, “I won’t any longer be in this Sunday school.” 

GH: Sunday school…

RL: Marion was absolutely very spiritual.  She was interested in Asian art and spiritual things.  She wasn’t interested in sculpture or anything for its material qualities, but rather for its spiritual qualities.  That’s why we got along.

GH: I’ve never really known that about her.

RL: That’s what the situation was.  And for David, this was not earthy enough, that’s the only word I can think of using.  We talked for a while.  He used to say to his students, “put some balls in it, put some balls in it,” which is nothing I would ever say.

GH: Never…

RL: I might say “put some wings on it”…

GH: Right…

RL: Or a halo or something…anyhow.  We of course knew each other very well.  We were in the gallery together, but we didn’t hit it off at all. 

GH: But you had some relationship with Motherwell, and some…

RL: I’ve forgotten how I got to know Motherwell �.. but I think we exhibited together or something.  He became interested.  He was a very gracious person in helping other artists.

GH: Do you know if he was living on 94th Street already at that time?

RL: I don’t know, maybe he was.  I don’t recall.

GH:  …well, we were backtracking a little to the fact that people like Marion Willard, you know, had shown your work and that you had some association with some of the other artists of the time, but maybe it was limited by your own personality and interests.  I asked you about where Motherwell was living because this rather interesting fact has sort of emerged out of some of these histories which was that Fritz Bultman …. taught at Hunter and he turned out to have lived on 94th Street along with Motherwell.  And as it then turned out Giorgio Cavallon also lived there, and it was a whole nest of artists on 94th Street…

RL: They should rename the street, … Artists’ Walk or Artists’ Avenue or something…

GH: …half of whom ended up teaching at Hunter, so it was a sort of a…I think Motherwell…

RL: …amazing…

GH: …you know, wanted his community around him or something.

RL: I suppose so.  He was very interested in communal efforts, not communal efforts, but in sympathetic associations.  I don’t know how to put it, but you know what I mean. 

GH: Actually, it was interesting … Jeanne Bultman gave us an interview in which she said that your successor, Tony Smith, used to live with them on occasion for God knows what reason, and spent a lot of time in the bathtub until one day she said to him, “why don’t you go out and get a job?” 

RL: ….and to whom, I guess, or something��

GH: Whatever.  But you know what’s interesting to me about that is that you said that you were pressed to leave Hunter, and you know that’s why Tony Smith came to Hunter because there was a vacancy left because of you, of your leaving, …

RL: I think so, yes, I don’t remember…

GH: And that’s, in a way, an accident.  People always think that there was a great design to that, but I see now that there was another element in that picture.

RL: I don’t remember having anything to contribute to Tony’s succession or anything.

GH: No, I think that he had been at Bennington, and Gene [Goossen] knew him at Bennington and probably cajoled him into taking this job because, you know, …

RL: I really lost contact with Hunter at that time.  I got busy with other things, and I had no input anymore, so I had very little contact.  I don’t know exactly what happened after Goossen or anything else.

GH: Right.  At the time it was mostly undergraduates, and you said you had taught a few graduate students.

RL: Yes, that’s how I ended up, with two evenings of graduate…

GH: In fact, one of them, or a few of them, had spoken to me about you. One of them, Mark Feldstein, still teaches photography at Hunter and remembers you well, and there are a few other people who have written to me who mentioned your name.

RL: Have you encountered Marilyn Gelfman Herrera?

GH: I’ve encountered her name…

RL: Karp.  She’s married now to Ivan Karp, the dealer. 

GH: Oh, she’s Marilyn Karp.

RL: Um-hm, Marilyn Karp.  She was one of my students at that time, and particularly appreciative of my teaching.  We still communicate occasionally, like every five years.

GH: I will make a point of contacting her.

RL: She would have a lot to tell you about me. 

GH: Really.

RL: I think so.  Because we became close friends, not just student/teacher relationship.

GH: You mentioned this a couple of times, of forming these friendships.  It sounds like these people really looked to you for mentoring almost, or…

RL: Well, I think that this was maybe the result that my teaching was, I hate to say it because it’s not–I mean it’s so vain–more, the word escapes me, my teaching was more to do with living but not with theory or ideas as such, but the relationship of art to life and that sort of stuff, which went over very well, I think, with the students because they were involved with such decisions about what to do with their lives, and many of them responded to that.  For instance, I know that Marilyn Karp’s…. my influence on Marilyn Karp was considerable, I know that it may have helped her with her life.  I think that what my teaching did for many people, was to–which was my aim–was to help to find themselves, look into themselves to find out who they were, what they wanted out of life.  And this was quite different from academic teaching, you know, theories or problems to be solved, and I got a great deal of appreciation from a number of my students for that reason.  I think that I had an influence–not that I intended it–on self-determination for many of these people.  And if that was the case, I’m glad for it, if it helped them to be who they became, and I know that with Marilyn especially this seemed to be the case.  We communicate once in a while, every couple of years.  First thing she said was “oh Richard, I love you.”

GH: Oh, oh, that’s so great…

RL: Not in a personal way, but just, you know, for what I did for her in her life…  It was very rewarding I guess.  I never thought much about it, but really very rewarding.

GH: Can I ask you a sort of ruminative thing?  It seems to me that if you went as a young person to school before the Second World War and then did as you did, studied industrial design, and then later taught as you’re describing it, that really involved a kind of a revolution, when you think of it, don’t you think?  I mean, your early training must have been fairly circumscribed or rigid, and then as you described how you taught students at Hunter, it was as much about life, it was really about an attitude toward art, or an approach–well, don’t you think that incorporated a radical change…

RL: …in education… 

GH: …yes, in education?

RL: Well, I never thought about it.  It’s possible I guess.  I mean it wasn’t the usual way of teaching, I know that.  I remember when I was at Hunter, shortly after I started there, Edna Luetz sat in on one of my classes.  At the end of the class, she said, “that’s the hardest way to teach possible, you know.  Such an effort.”  I mean I was so involved with all these questions and things.  Most teachers handed out formulas and problems to solve–I did that, too, of course–she was very appreciative…

GH: Now, just going back to that thought about the change.  I guess what I’m curious about is: how did you feel the freedom to do that kind of thing at that time, the way that you taught…beside the fact that no one restricted you from above and said, “oh, this must be your course content or anything like that,” you must have personally felt free enough to take that approach, to do it in that way…

RL: I never thought of myself as a teacher as such.  I didn’t go into teaching because I wanted to be a teacher. 

GH: That’s what it is…

RL: I went into teaching first of all because I needed the money, to be most practical about it, and the opportunity was there, and every situation in which I did teach I was lucky enough to have a sympathetic attitude toward my attitudes, like with Edna or the ladies in Milwaukee when I first began to teach.  They were impressed with my attitudes about life and about art and the relationship between those two things.  So I never taught by formula or by rules [inaudible]….  It was very hard for some of my students occasionally to do things out of their own needs or their own attitudes.  That’s not what they expected.  They wanted to have formulas handed to them, and occasionally there was some rebellion among my students about that.  So I was not interested in that.  As I say, I didn’t set out to be a teacher; I didn’t want to be a teacher especially.

GH: Right, so that there are at least two other elements there.  First of all, this other generation that was free in its encouragement of someone like you.  And then the fact that you were not pedagogical.  You were not coming from that position.  So of course that enabled you to take this approach.  I mean, you know the net effect of that was revolutionary.  I mean that’s really the end result of this.

RL: …I presume not, but that was my attitude.  I wanted my students–I felt very strongly–I still think I would feel that way–that they should learn about themselves, who they are, where they are in the world, you know, and find the direction of their work through themselves and through their relationship to life as they’ve experienced it.  That’s what an artist does, after all, and that’s the way I thought it should be taught.  Not through formulas.  I hated that idea.  I still do.  At least in our time, you can’t formulate everything.

GH: Oh, no…

RL: Maybe you could in the Renaissance, …

GH: Right.  Well, the end result of this was that really there…education totally changed in that era, in the post-war era.  It utterly changed.  Well, actually one thing that’s come out of our research is that – Harold Rosenberg was a pretty astute observer, and wrote a piece very early on saying these people are artists and they’re entering academe and they will forever change…

RL: He was right I guess…

GH: …and that that had both a negative and a positive…

RL: …connotation…

GH: Exactly.  That perhaps its effect ultimately on art also, you know, could possibly be negative.  I think I’ve already seen some of the results of that, you know, unfortunately.  So I…

RL: I understand what you’re saying…

GH: I think your day was..

.RL: …was, yes…

GH: There was a blessing in your being able to do what you were able to do.

RL: Well, as I said, I never thought of myself as wanting to be a teacher, being a teacher.  It was just something I had to do.  I did it in the same way that I would make my work, by addressing the problems of living.  I only wanted my students to open their eyes to themselves and to the world and be alive in it.  And that was very difficult.  Most students, even the brightest ones, were all hiding in the security of some place in life that they’d been told about or–you understand what I’m saying?

GH: –yes…

RL: …or been brought up to believe in, or something like that.  I was trying to shatter all that and make them face themselves and find out who they really were, if possible.  Of course I suppose one could say it was my own problem at the time, but I was not aware of that.  I was often accused of being extremely self-centered and vain, or whatever, because I was so secure in where I was, and what I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do.  Maybe not always being able to realize it, but I had no self-doubts, and still don’t have them, and I guess that’s something one can find fault with, but it also has got me through life.  What it has done–the thing I appreciate most about my attitude–I’m trying to be objective–is that with this detachment I’m able to appreciate everything that’s presented to me and not prejudge it or judge it in terms of my own personality or my own needs.  I suppose that’s inevitable to some extent, but I’m–I still look upon life, although not as much as I used to, with wonder and with delight in the things that I observe and find.  It was certainly the basis of my work when I was young, and I think that’s a very valid and exceptional gift to be able to do that, to see that, to lose oneself in that.  I look at the work of many artists now–I get magazines, Sculpture and stuff–and for me, so much of it is, well it’s either too conceptual or thinking so hard about what they want to do, or what to make new and whatever, or it’s totally self-description, and I’m not too interested in the description that people make of themselves…

GH: Well, there’s a very interesting difference between what you were talking about, which is a kind of a discovery of the self, and a self-description, which people are very involved in now, where they almost illustrate themselves–it’s almost an illustrational process rather than a process of discovery…

RL: Well, but it doesn’t interest me, what other people are, in general–who knows anything about the personality of the carvers of Chartres Cathedral?  Or even those of the Renaissance?  We don’t know much about their personalities.  They didn’t do it to illustrate themselves.  They had a job to do and it was just almost like a workman, you know.  I respond to that idea.  I’ve never, never in my life, I can honestly say, thought that what I’m doing now is a picture of myself, illustrating myself.  That hasn’t been of interest to me.  And if I look at the works of the past that I find so exhilarating, I’m not absorbed in the personality…[inaudible].  For instance, I’m very fond of music, and I particularly like the works of Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, and I don’t find in his work any, anything that reveals the nature of his life.  He had a very rough time for many years, he was stuck the last years of his life in Leipzig at a very low salary.  He had to teach seven classes of Latin to little boys, things that had nothing to do with his music, great composer.  He was not even appreciated as a composer.  Nobody thought much of his music.  But they valued him as a virtuoso on the organ, that was his reward, if you want to put it that way.  Yet he was one of the great composers of all time, one of the great artists of all time.

GH: It’s amazing to think of that contradiction, of the situation, and what we now have of him.

RL: I know.  He was forgotten for two hundred years.  Nobody remembered him, paid any attention to him.  And then it was Mendelssohn and somebody else who finally said that Bach was their father, father figure…

GH: Well, when you look at it in this way, it’s an extraordinary span of what you’ve seen from your origins, from the time that you were first involved in art, let’s say, to this current kind of state.  I mean, it could dismay you.  There’s always a danger of succumbing to too critical an attitude, I guess.  I think it’s great if you keep your…

RL: Well, as I said earlier, I’m really grateful that I grew up being a part of a world which was a cultural wasteland…I had to find my own values, quite different from a kid growing up in New York, being involved with museums and artists and everything else.  I think that must be rather confusing because you don’t know what is meaningful to you.  I suppose you can find some sympathy with some particular thing.  But I know I had to pull it all out of myself because there was no help in the environment at that time.  I still feel maybe that I’m more dependent on nature than I am upon any cultural manifestations.  I adore…I mean, I will hug a tree…

GH: A tree hugger…

RL: I’m a tree hugger.

GH: Oh, dear.

RL: Well, I don’t do it very often.

GH: And not in public.  Yes, but you did take those first students out on a walk, you see…

RL: That was more to get them to open their eyes to something. 

GH: Of course.

RL: That’s the first job of an artist–if you’re in the visual arts, you have to keep your eyes open.  If you’re in aural arts, like a composer, you’ve got to listen–be aware of all the sounds that come your way.  But with man-made or nature-made, it’s the job of an artist, to me. 

GH: Well, I do think that you were part of a revolution whether you did that consciously or not.

RL: Of course not.

GH: You did influence…

RL: You think so?

GH: I do think so, very much. 

RL: I never thought about it much.

GH: It’s great for me to be able to see the continuity when you speak of some of the figures who were there, some of whom I knew, and then you speak of other people who were your students.  And I’ve spoken to people who were your students.  I can see the line.  And it’s great to be able to trace that. 

RL: Well, it’s sort of your job, I guess; it’s what you’re writing about…

GH: Yeah, I’m enjoying seeing that a lot.  I wish very much that Hunter would have a great monument to you…or something…  Municipal institutions tend to just forget their wonderful connections, you know the people who served them.

RL: Of course when I was there, I wasn’t so well known.  And I don’t think that the institution itself was that appreciative–well, maybe I should revise that, Edna certainly was.  And so was, what was his name who was the president, Schuster, George Schuster, he was very appreciative.  And I gave a couple of talks, public talks, while I was there, and he was very responsive, he used to quote me.  The language I used.

GH: I saw some of those noted down,  And the titles–they were serious lectures that would be a credit to the institution today.  I wonder if they’re…do you have old papers and things of that period, by any chance?  You would never have any of those lectures or notes, …

RL: I didn’t write them out, I may have made just some reference notes, what I was going to say.  But I’ve never had any problem with finding words when I needed to find them, and most of the talks I gave were impromptu–or whatever word to use–spontaneous, based upon a general idea which I had, but they were elaborations on that idea, not all spelled out…

GH: Well, they were things that you were thinking of at that time.  Well, I want to thank you for this.  This was interesting,…

RL: I hope I didn’t wander too much…

GH: I know this will be an invaluable record for the people who are going to be …

RL: …[inaudible]

GH: …hearing it…  Oh, definitely, absolutely.  So…

RL: Who else are you interviewing?  We’re all dead, most of us.

GH: No, fortunately.  Well, Jeanne Bultman just has done a tape, Fritz Bultman’s widow.  And Leo Steinberg, who maybe came a little after you.

RL: Yes, he was.

GH: I’ve talked to Bill Rubin, and he is going to do something, but he’s involved in the same kind of effort for the Museum of Modern Art at the moment, and has to get that done first. 

RL: He’s the director now, isn’t he?

GH: He was, and he’s now Emeritus, and…

RL: …I was thinking he must be very old…

GH: …is complaining mightily about being without a secretary and having no help, and so forth and so on.

Tape change

GH: So, at The Art Institute of Chicago…

RL: …one very important teacher was a man named Emile Zettler.  He was first of all, a very unique personality.  He drove a car that nobody else would have driven, and he dressed, you know, more like Frank Lloyd Wright, I mean uniquely.  The greatest contribution he made to my education was one little thing.  I tended to be rather effusive, baroque, about my ideas, about what I was designing, encrustations of all kinds of things.  One day he came along, looked at it all; he took an eraser and erased all my encrustations. 

GH: Oh, my God…

RL: It got down just to the basic form.  He said, “that’s a very beautiful, well-proportioned form, and that’s all you need.  You don’t need to do all this….”  I remember that that had a great influence on me, just that observation,

GH: …of course…

RL: …his erasing the stuff…

GH: …of course…

RL: …but the daring he had just to come along and erase it, somebody’s work.  But I never objected to it.  I just…I saw what he meant, and it set me on the right path, being basic and essential about things, irrelevant junk.  So that was very useful to me.  He was a very good guy.  I was lucky to have him as a teacher. 

GH: I talked one day with a painter, who’s now older, named Norman Bluhm.  And Norman said that he had been at The Art Institute of Chicago, that on the top floor–this was about ’37–Mies van der Rohe had set up an architectural studies office…

RL: …at The Art Institute?

GH: …in the top floor of The Art Institute of Chicago.  When he first came from Germany–maybe it was earlier, ’36 or something like that, it was quite early–and he studied architecture as, oh, I don’t know, at the age of eighteen or something, or nineteen, up there.  And that he was so exacting a teacher that one day when Blum was doodling around on his sheet, along with the drawing of exactitude, van der Rohe came over and said, “Oh, I think Mr. Blum, that you will be a very good painter but a very bad architect.”  And from that day he dropped architecture and became a painter.

RL: You never know what influences people…

GH: Well, I think that teachers in those days sometimes had a very direct, telling kind of influence on people.  They were truthful and helped to steer people, in often a good way. 

RL: Well, as I look back upon my education at The Art Institute, all the teachers were professional people.  There was not a single one that had a degree in education, you know, and was just there carrying on theoretically.  They were all people who were doing things professionally.  And that gave great life and validity to what they had to say.  It came out of their experiences.  And that was great, I think, as I look back upon it.

GH: Was Zettler a designer?

RL: Yeah, he was sort of a designer.  He designed a very famous teakettle as I remember.  A very simple one, it was sort of flat on top, sloped a little, very fine handle, …I don’t know what else he did…

GH: …long before Robert Graves did his…

RL: Yeah, I think so…that was one of the things he did.  I think he designed some furniture.  I don’t remember, recall, too much about what he did.  But he was a professional.  I think those were the best teachers because they, their experience comes through, you know, [inaudible]…may not wonder [inaudible] what they do, what they’ve done.  But that’s beside the point.  What is important is their experience, what they’ve learned about things themselves because that helps you to find the way to learn.  That’s what I would have hoped I was teaching…

GH: Well, and what you’re saying suggests that there is a longer tradition of this than is immediately apparent in higher education. 

RL: I don’t know what goes on in higher education today.

GH: Sorry?

RL: I say I really have no idea what goes on in education today…

GH: Well, actually things have become more stratified and more structured.  You can’t teach in a college without an M.F.A.  I think that there’s, for example, in the graduate school now there’s a very, very heavy emphasis on reading, a tremendous amount of, oh, the French philosophers, you know, the current post-modern so forth and so on, and less on self-reliance, less on self-investigation.  So it’s become a little bit dry, a little academic to my way of thinking.

RL: Well, I was involved with that a little bit because after my first year or two at Hunter, Edna Luetz suggested that I would be more apt to be promoted and stuff if I had a higher degree.  All I had was a B.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago.  So I took a course or two toward a Master’s and found it very tedious and boring.  And I didn’t go on very far with it.  But meanwhile my own work was becoming more well known, and so on, and that led me to finally a full professorship based on my professional life rather than my academic education.  So I was fortunate, I guess you could say, in that I didn’t need to spend my time…

GH: It may have been through Luetz and people like George Schuster that this was accomplished in the…

RL: …that’s very possible…

GH: …in the hierarchical, you know, City University, which I think was in other areas much stricter about credentializing.

RL: What are things like now?  You’re teaching at Hunter, aren’t you?

GH: Yes.

RL: I just wondered what things are like now.  Are you teaching studio courses?

GH: Oh, yeah…

RL: In what, in sculpture?

GH: In drawing and graduate students in painting.  I’m a painter.

RL: I see.

GH: So mainly those areas.  And I used to teach printmaking when I first came there.  I think the printmaker who was there when you were there was Gabor Peterdi. 

RL: That’s right, that’s right, he was.  I remember that.

GH: Yeah.

RL: It’s all so long ago.

GH: It is, it is a while.  There was also a man there named Harry Stinson.  Do you remember him?

RL: Yes, that’s right.

GH: A little tiny guy? 

RL: I know.  Very nice man, very sweet. 

GH: Yes.  And then there’s a name here that keeps popping up that I don’t recognize, Albert Hechtman.  Do you have any recollection of that man?  Do you have any idea–did he teach drawing, or…

RL: Albert?

GH: Yeah…

RL: Well, the name is vaguely familiar, sort of way in the back of my head, the farthest possible position.  The name has some resonance, but I can’t remember anything as far as what he did.  He may have been in the department, you know, teaching drawing or something, I don’t know.

GH: I forgot to ask you this question, having just looked at the little first work, did you think at all of Calder in those days.  Or was he in any way influential on you?

RL: I would say not.  I mean people have suggested that, but I…I liked his work.  I was interested in it already as a student I believe, it’s, you know, another generation almost.  But I never thought that I would try to do things like him or in any way be influenced by him, and I think that our work is very different, I mean from my point of view it’s very different.  I honestly can say that I really was not influenced by Calder, just as I wouldn’t say I was influenced by Piero della Francesca–

GH: –Picasso–

RL: I mean I liked all of them, all of these things, but it wasn’t a direct influence.  I didn’t try to do things like Calder tried to do…

GH:  It almost doesn’t seem as though you tried to do things like anyone, in a sense…

RL: I hope not…

GH: Well, …

RL: I wasn’t trying to do anything like anybody else…

GH: …you weren’t really following…

RL: I did find myself in my�. what I wanted to do.  I don’t know where that came from, maybe it’s from my family background, my…what I got from my parents or something.  But I’ve been more interested in learning directly through observation and through my relationship to what I see.  And I don’t…I’ve never felt I could do that through anyone else’s eyes…they’re not my eyes. 

GH: But it didn’t even really occur to you to work off someone else, as a counter, or as a change from someone…

RL: No, I never have done that.  I’ve thought only about doing things that I’ve thought I wanted to do as problems suggested themselves for me to solve.  No, I couldn’t �. I didn’t think of what I was doing in relation to anyone else ….  And people have tried to associate me, say with Calder, as you just did, but my attitude toward what Calder did was simply that I was not interested in what he did–you know, I liked it and all that–but it was not something that for me would have any validity, so I didn’t follow in that direction.

GH: For you to do that–for him, fine.

RL: Yeah, that’s it.  As with every art that I like–I mean, you know, I’m not averse to other people’s work, but it’s for them, not for me.  The most I could say is that I appreciate work that bears a rather direct relationship to the moment in which it’s created.  I can still say with impartiality that of all of the sculptors of this century that I can think of that I like it’s Brancusi.

GH: Of course…

RL: He was the first one to lift things into space- that magnificent bird – which I was exposed to as a student at The Art Institute of Chicago.  And I think in a way I’ve carried on from there.  I haven’t done this consciously, but–my work incorporates a great deal more space than Brancusi ever did–but it was a gesture that I thought was very refined, and of course his forms are so beautiful and so essential–

GH: –extraordinary–

RL: –you know–I still appreciate Brancusi a lot.  I think he was an honest, marvelous man.  He was sort of a peasant, but he had a marvelous natural sense of beauty and proportion and all the things that make a good work of art–natural to him, you can see that in the work.  It was not studied, it was not labored, it was just what it was.  So I still like Brancusi a lot.  I respond in a very supportive�.  As I say, if I have any relationship to it all, it’s that I feel maybe I’ve gone beyond it as times have changed.  That’s all I could say about it.  He’s the one sculptor of this century that I really think was terrific.  I can’t really think of anybody else.  Calder is fine, yes, but some of it isn’t for me–the color, the sensitivity, or whatever that there is in Brancusi.  It isn’t a total thing, so it’s more playful.  It’s humorous.  There’s a lot of humor in Calder–that’s fine–it shouldn’t…

GH: But there’s a force in Brancusi that is extraordinary…

RL: It’s ancient ��

GH: Oh, yeah…

RL: Almost sexy, all the stuff in it, and so natural,..

GH: Someone said–I don’t know if this is true–that, as a young man, when he was starting out, that he walked from Roumania to Paris…or something like that…

RL: It’s possible…it may have taken him three years…

GH: …who the hell knows…

RL: …by which time he might have wished he hadn’t done it…

GH: Well, maybe that was his wanderjahr, he learned…

RL: You can learn a great deal by walking…

GH: …you can, you can indeed…

RL: …that’s how I started out, wanting to take my students for a walk…

GH: …there you go…full circle…okay…

RL: Well, I was so delighted with Vermont, and I enjoyed walking around so much and observing the forms of nature, the minutiae, the big trees, everything. so I thought it’s something that students might like as well.

GH: Thank you.

RL: You’re welcome.   

[end of interview] 

Transcribed by Margaret Fiore