What Tony, Lee, and Clem Told Me
Pat Lipsky, Revised from a talk at The Pollock Krasner House, July 1995
My three subjects are Tony Smith, Lee Krasner and Clement Greenberg. Jackson Pollock, the fourth, is equally important. He is the glue that connects the other three. All were born within four years of each other; Clem in 1909, Lee in 1908, Tony in 1912, and Jackson in 1912. I come at Pollock from the generation preceding mine — and from two points of view, Clement Greenberg’s and Tony Smith’s. I do not mention Lee in this context because I didn’t know her nearly as well. However in writing this, I realize that although I spent only two days with her she left an indelible impression.
Pollock – A quote that I found in my 1985 journal. – “No sketches, acceptance of what I do. Experience of our age in terms of painting, not an illustration of – but an equivalent.” That was Tony Smith’s attitude about painting when I first met him in 1964.
Tony Smith was a man of many theories. When I started studying with him at Hunter (it wasn’t long after Pollock had died) he was talking a lot about “Jackson, what Jackson said,” etc. I realized that the Jackson he was talking about was Pollock (someone whose name I had heard quite a bit in art school). Smith told me he’d been a pallbearer at Jackson’s funeral, and I was duly impressed. Tony was a great teacher and a humanist. (He was actually recognized as a teacher in 1974 by the College Art Association, given The Distinguished Teaching of Art Award. To quote from a conversation with his wife Jane “He wanted to bring out whatever was inside that person.” As a teacher he treated everyone alike. I remember sitting and watching him pay attention and show concern to the kid I thought was the least talented. And sometimes I was wrong – through Tony’s care the person would blossom, and gifts that no one suspected would surface. He was completely there for the time he was talking to you. That is the greatest thing I learned from him.
At first I had a meeting with him every week. He liked the paintings I was doing. They were large baby paintings of my sons engaged in various activities, in the park, in the crib, surrounded by autumn leaves. They were a combination of Matisse and German Expressionism. He said “Can I take some of them out to New Jersey with me (where he lived)?” I was honored. After a few months of continued meetings, he managed to get me off representation and onto abstraction by telling me that although representation was okay you could only express “real feeling” with abstraction. What he said was that what I was doing was illustration of feeling, not the feelings themselves. Only abstraction was capable of allowing the direct experience of feeling as Mark Rothko’s paintings showed. Often when he arrived at class Tony was coming directly from “Mark’s” studio, which was across the street from Hunter Graduate School. Not for the first time, I started painting abstractly (the first challenge had come from Charles Alston at the Arts Students League a few years before). It was wonderful to have someone take my painting so seriously and I flowered.
Tony had attended the Bauhaus in Chicago from 1937-38. Maybe that’s where he learned color (the Bauhaus had been reorganized there after being expelled from Hitler’s Germany). Now I understand a little better where some of my own color sense comes from, and what a lot of people were doing at Hunter. We were digesting the Bauhaus through Tony. His emphasis on geometry, and on color came right out of Klee and Albers.
Tony actually was an architect (although he never got the license). In 1960 he moved from architecture to sculpture through teaching, and because of Fredrick Kiesler, creator of the endless house who said to him “You should give up architecture, and take up sculpture. You really should be doing sculpture.” This advice worked for Tony who was disenchanted with architecture and tired of being at the mercy of his often capricious clients. One of Tony’s most fervent theories was about the border of a painting. He said that Pollock’s best paintings had a border, that is to say they did not go past the edge of the canvas. He considered, “slice of life” inferior to enclosed space. Other artists of the time were involved with this issue too, for example Noland’s targets are enclosed space, where as his stripe paintings go off the edge. However, I never heard about Kenneth Noland from Smith. (I wasn’t aware of it at the time but the “cliques” in the art world were operative here, Noland, coming from the Greenberg circle, would not have been mentioned by Smith). Tony and Clem shared Jackson though, and both talked about him a lot, which is what I meant earlier about getting my information from two points of view. (Tony also talked about Mark, and Barney who Clem didn’t mention on a regular basis, with him it was Jackson, and David, and maybe Ken and Tony (Caro). So to get back to the theory, it was that Jackson was at his best when the image wasn’t “slice of life. (This preference, I realize now could have been a subtle put down of Greenberg, who was known in the art world to approve of cropping. I don’t know if he ever helped crop Jackson’s pictures, but he certainly helped other people crop theirs, and he was good at it. I also have never heard publicly that Jackson did crop his pictures, but it looks obvious to me that some of his paintings are cut into and others are not. The idea of cropping definitely defined the painters and sculptors around Greenberg – Frankenthaler, Noland, and Louis.
When I started showing my work in N.Y.C. in the early seventies cropping was a big issue. And Tony didn’t teach it, never mentioned it as an option. Of course, his enclosed theory did not allow for it. No one who was studying with Smith at that time, 1964, 65, 66, 67 dared to go off the edge, let alone out to the edge. That went for Ralph Humphrey too, who was already teaching at Hunter. The irony is that Tony actually bought a Pollock from Betty Parsons Gallery, a painting from 1949, and what is striking that it’s a “slice of life” image, as are some of Tony’s own paintings. He gave the Pollock to the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1967, as well as a Newman, Onament and a Rothko. That year he told me that he’d given the three paintings to the Wadsworth as an anonymous gift. I took the train up there one snowy day to see the pictures, particularly the Newman that Tony kept talking about.
He also had a theory, which came down as a rule that three colors should never touch at any one point. At any moment in a painting only two colors should be touching. This idea comes directly from the Bauhaus, as well as from Mondrian, somehow you sullied things if two colors touched at a point on a third — what was pure was to have only two colors aligned at any given point. Even though Smith is primarily known as a sculptor he always taught painting. It was amusing that after years of studying painting I first learned color from a sculptor/architect. He also told me that the best proportions for a painting stayed close to the golden mean of Leonardo – the actual proportion is 1 × 1.3.
Tony had another thing – something of an obsession — with tetrahedrons. A tetrahedron is a polyhedron with four faces. And a polyhedron is a solid formed by plane faces. Most of his sculpture is based on the tetrahedron. Sculptures like Amaryllis 1965, Spitball, We Lost, 1962 The Snake is Out 1962 were shown in Bryant Park in 196 —(I’d seen some of them as wooden pieces covered with black tar in his backyard in South Orange). His connection with the modular unit came out of architecture. He worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 -39. Wright used the modular system of planning, plus material size as units. Smith called his own interest “the effects of mathematical and physical laws upon living forms.” My logarithmic paintings from 1968 — the year I graduated from Hunter – come out of the idea of repeating modular units. Like Jackson, Tony believed in the primacy of the unconscious. He said, “All my sculpture is on the edge of dream. They come close to the unconscious in spite of their geometry.”
Another thing that Tony mentioned often were the shapes of the industrial flatlands on the sides of the New Jersey Turnpike. He could be positively poetic about it. And I don’t think that anyone who knew Tony doesn’t notice these areas leaving or coming back to New York City and feel their magic. They are oil tanks, electrical wires, and other industrial objects that are particularly striking at night when they are eerily lit up. Here’s part of Tony’s description, “When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the fifties, someone told me how I could get on to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings, or anything at all except dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights… The road and much of the landscape were artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done…It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art… There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.” This sounds like Greenberg’s idea of “unformed aesthetic experience.” He considered that one could have an aesthetic experience in nature, which is not bounded, and has no frame. This is one similarity I found in their thinking. The more obvious one is their admiration for Pollock.
Tony first met Jackson in 1940 at the painter Fritz Bultman’s apartment in New York. They became friendlier in the summer of 1948. He told me this story about Pollock’s Blue Poles, which has since become somewhat famous and then been disclaimed. It starts off with how “they”, he, Barney, and a few others, Peter Busa, were all in Springs and they’d been drinking and the painting was on the floor and it wasn’t coming out and they started putting stuff on it, and they were all painting on it, and putting their fingers and hand prints on it, and there was some bleeding, and it sounded like a wild bacchanal. And then they all walked on it, and Barney got the idea of eight long blue lines to pull it together and he painted them on. The story is challenged in the catalogue raisone of Francis O’Connor. In the catalogue it’s states that Lee and Francis O’Connor and someone from Marlborough were in Washington to inspect the painting. Lee said that no other artists had been involved with making the work. Benton (Jackson’s teacher) said that he’d used a pole or linear method in teaching and that it was perfectly likely that Jackson had thought of it when he was working on the painting. Lee said he used a two by four to make the lines and she remembered some blue paint next to the canvas. Needless to say this caused a split between Lee and Tony. Later Tony retracted the story about Barney putting the blue poles in and said that Jackson was in a bad way at the time, and that he had been out in Springs and “got the painting started for Jackson,” and that after that Jackson had finished it, and it was his painting. This wasn’t the first time they’d worked together. Jane Smith told me that once in the early forties Jackson had come out to New Jersey and Tony had said, “Let’s make something together,” and they’d built two sculptures that were in plaster, and which Jane has kept. Mrs. Smith also mentioned that she went to Lee’s retrospective at the Whitney (Tony sent her, he didn’t want to face Lee) and when Lee saw Jane she instinctively put her arms out to her, and then, probably remembering the Blue Poles thing, she retracted them.
It was obvious that Tony loved Pollock and that Pollock had been an important influence. He told me with much angst, about the church for East Hampton that he’d planned in 1951 but that was never built. It started with Jackson being asked to design stained glass windows for the church and said he’d do the project only on the condition that Smith be the architect. Then Tony did a model, which was based on the repetition of a modular unit. Unfortunately the project was not accepted, although they, according to Tony, had both been very excited about the possibility. Imagine if it had been built. Tony was still talking about this in the mid-sixties, he was still that disappointed.
Tony told be about what he called Jackson’s professionalism. He said if he wanted to go somewhere with Jackson in East Hampton, Jackson would say, “Okay what time do you want to go?” And then maybe Tony would say “In two hours,” and whatever the time was Jackson could make it. It was none of this precious, prima donna stuff of some painters who say, “I’ll pencil you in, but if I’m working I wouldn’t be able to come out.” He could paint and he could also have fun. He had so much control as a painter that he could gear himself to the time allotted and stop. It’s not surprising that this story was on Tony’s mind. I remember him coming into Hunter one day, and saying that he’d done his whole show for MOMA, Wandering Rocks, the night before. One of his daughters had been out late, and he was worried. As he sat by the phone waiting for her call, he’d drawn up the whole exhibit.
I think that the use of black as the dominant color in my own painting of the nineties, the Dark Love series comes out of Smith’s influence, particularly the first black wood pieces in his backyard in South Orange. Of the three people under discussion it’s obvious that Tony’s work has had the most significance influence on my painting; because of my age at the time I met him. What’s ironic is that through Clem I got back to Tony.
As stated, hearing about Jackson as a person first came from Tony. My initial involvement with his painting had occurred ten years earlier, when I was about fourteen and wandered into the Pollock retrospective at MOMA, simply because I was interested in painting and happened to be there. I was also interested in Manhattan style which I could study there (one had to wear the obligatory outfit, black tights, leotard top, and capezio shoes — very Audrey Hepburn — just to get past the admissions desk). So I walked into this room that I recall being very rectangular in shape and there were these strange paintings up, a lot of them. As I walked further in and looked around the room it felt like it was shifting, I became dizzy and nauseas and was forced to leave without even checking to see the name of the artist. But I didn’t forget the images that had, perhaps in their freedom, threatened me. In a college art class a few years later, there were reproductions shown and I figured out that the paintings were by Jackson Pollock from his 1956 Memorial Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
Here’s a description of the young Lee Krasner by Lillian Kiesler from a conversation I had with her in the mid-nineties. Lillian Kiesler was the monitor for the Hans Hofmann class in the early thirties. The Hofmann school was on 9th St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The studio was on the second floor of the building. Lillian was in the classroom. “I heard this percussive sound on the stairs,” she said, “and a girl of about twenty-three walked in wearing high heeled shoes, black net stockings, a plunging neckline, and with blondish hair.
She was hypnotic and repulsive at the same time. She occupied the space with her energy.” Once inside the room Lee said, “I heard about the school.”
Lillian continued, “She was always direct. She said what she had to.” “Who are you, and do you have anything with you?” Lillian asked. Lee said she’d brought a sample of her work from the National Academy, a nude. Lillian told me “The picture although only twelve inches was very dynamic and “all there.” “You are a member of the school and I’ve given you a scholarship “ Lilian said to Lee. (Oh the good old days.) Then she gave her a drawing board, some charcoal, some Strathmore paper and said, “Mr. Hofmann is coming in later. Why don’t you do a drawing – start working.” There were about ten students in the class. When Hofmann walked in he saw the new student. He walked over to where Lee was working, took the four thumbtacks off the edges of her paper, tore it in the middle and said “This is push-pull, remember what I’m telling you,” (an early example of the Lacanian method).
Lillian told me that she continued her friendship with Lee until the latter’s death. In her words, “She had a powerful, first class intellect. Her first lover was Igor, Russian, and they used to go to Provincetown together. Really a liberated woman. She didn’t mince any words, could be quite nasty, extraordinarily tender too. Great artist.” Lee first met Jackson because they were both in the W.P.A. together. They met at an artist’s dance. He was a lousy dancer, and kept stepping on her feet. This was in the thirties. She met him again through John Graham, in early 1942. Graham had set up a show at McMillen Gallery that both Lee and Jackson were in. Graham had the list of participants and Lee asked him, “Who else is in the show?” Jackson Pollock was the only name on the list that she didn’t know (she had forgotten the earlier encounter). “Who is he, and where does he live?” she asked Graham and he gave her the address. She walked to the building, and up the stairs, knocked on the door, “Can I come in and see the work?” she asked Jackson. She loved the work, and liked him, and soon after she was living there.
Krasner was a major catalyst and force in postwar American painting. The foremost critic, and the foremost painter both got many of their ideas from her. She was the one who took Clem to the Hofmann school in the early thirties and introduced him to the current ideas in contemporary painting that influenced so much of his thinking. And it was she who first introduced Jackson to Clem. She was obviously a major influence on Pollock. In sum, Lee was the initial connection between Clem and Pollock, Clem and Hofmann, and even Hofmann and Pollock (which didn’t work out).
For me, the introduction to Lee Krasner came through Bob Miller. He was handling my paintings at Emmerich Gallery. I was a twenty-eight year old fresh out of graduate school. Suddenly I was catapulted into this major gallery, and two or three sales a week. My teachers at Hunter were angry. I met one of them, Vincent Longo, shortly after being accepted (“your in”) at Emmerich and he told me “A lot of people at Hunter are very angry at you.” So I was going out to East Hampton for the summer and Bob Miller gave me her phone number, and I called her. She was very cordial and invited me to the house in Springs.
She met me at the porch. I remember that she was wearing a bluish checked dress that struck me as housewifey. (All evidence of what a physical woman she had been earlier had been erased.) I don’t remember any meal but there was iced tea. It was afternoon. She referred to her late husband as “Pollock” which I found strange. She told me that she’d been in Europe for her first trip abroad in 1956, when he had the fatal car crash. From the way she described it I got the impression that taking the trip had been a big step for her, and possibly a way of separating from Jackson, and it was gorily ironic that she had been forced to return because of his death. She explained that he had never wanted to go to Europe, preferring to focus on what was here in America. She showed me around the house. Jackson never allowed her to just come into his studio she mentioned. Even though they were living together she would have to wait to be invited. When Jackson finally showed her a picture he didn’t say, “Do you think it’s a good painting?” he’d say, “Do you think it is a painting.” She told me about the time she got Hans Hofmann and Jackson together. She brought Hofmann to Jackson’s studio, which was around the corner from his school. They walked up the stairs together to Jackson’s studio. Apparently it was a mess, brushes everywhere on the floor, sticks in cans, brushes stuck in cans. Hofmann took one look around and said, “You can’t paint in a mess like this,” and walked out. That was the studio visit.
Lee said that Jackson didn’t paint all the time, and that he would get very restless when he wasn’t painting and do projects around the house. I remember her telling me about a ladder he’d built during one of these dry spells, and also bookshelves. But the bookshelves weren’t visible to the eye. She showed them to me, they were a V shaped hinged affair that swung open and shut where he kept his books hidden. She said that he considered what he was reading personal, and didn’t want to leave his books around. She didn’t show me the barn, probably because she was painting in it. Later in the afternoon that day Harold Rosenberg came by. He was very tall and I remember him lying on a rickety old couch that swung back and forth on the porch. I felt I had arrived. Here I was, my first summer in Springs on the Pollock porch with Lee, and Harold stretched out his feet over the edge of the sofa. The second time I saw Lee was at my apartment on Lexington Avenue. I had a studio downtown but invited her over for diner and there were a few of my paintings up in the apartment. I don’t remember what she thought of my work, or whether she commented at all, but she did ask, in a deep voice and slowly, “Have the Berg’s been to your studio yet?”
Before I ever met Lee I decided it would be fun to come out to East Hampton for the summer. My former husband and I were in a car on the way to Connecticut to rent a summer place. I said, “Why Connecticut, it’s so dull, let’s go to Long Island.” So he swung the car around and we headed here. When we got to the area I asked the realtor we’d tracked down to show us the Pollock House. Then I said, “Okay, what’s the closest house to it that we can afford to rent?” So we were living only about ten minutes away on Mary Street off Three Mile Harbor Road. I thought being that close some of the Pollock vibe might waft my way, and certainly the edges on my paintings of that summer are an adaptation of some of his drips.
Lee told me that when she was working she was like a Gestapo agent and scheduled herself. She wouldn’t do anything except paint for days, and then she would set aside one day to do everything that had been let go. She didn’t show me her paintings that day, but described that she was working with failed paintings of the forties, old canvases that had been stored in her closet. Now she said she was tearing into them, cutting them up and collaging them into new canvases.
She was pretty bitter – she said she didn’t have a gallery. In researching this I see that, in fact, she had had a show at Marlborough in 1968 a year before I met her, so on paper it does look like she had a gallery. That second time we got together in my New York apartment she said that she hadn’t made a final commitment on the Pollock estate; i.e. which gallery to go with. What she told me was that she was going to structure things so that out of the four galleries that were pitching the Pollock Estate (I only remember Marlborough and Pace) she was going to sign with the one that would commit to her work as well. She said that the only way she could get her work shown in New York was to make that package deal! And how clever she was. The published version of the story is quite different, and from what she told me, not true. The story goes that as early as 1963 Frank Lloyd of Marlborough kept asking her to show at his gallery. Emotionally what she projected to me that day was a woman who had met with resistance from the art world in regard to her work. It’s also obvious that her toughness won out, that Lee was able to protect her art from the inertia and callousness of the art world and make her paintings known.
In the early nineties Clem told me a lot about Lee. He said that Lee was the most formidable person he’d ever known! He said that she was so strong that when she left her analyst, Lenny Siegle, he had become so dependent on her that he continued to call her every day. It was clear that Clem was impressed with Lee as a person. He owed her a lot and he knew it. They had a lot in common too; both had admired and understood Pollock’s work and it’s greatness before other people had caught on; both came from Brooklyn; both were highly verbal; both had moved into the recondite art world of New York in the forties, and they even looked alike.
I met Alphonso Ossorio that same summer, also through Bob Miller. Ossorio was living in a mansion on Georgica Pond. I called him, and he invited me over. The house was beautiful, although the dcor was a little over the top, antlers, and a lot of maroon velvet. Pollock’s Lavender Mist was the reason for my visit. It was beautiful in daylight provided by the large glass sliding doors in the room where it hung. It was perhaps the most beautiful Pollock I’d seen, certainly the most colorful. (To my eye looks dark and less impressive in the basement of the National where it now is shown. Two stories about it. 1. Clem told me he’d named it. This came up when I was showing him a purple painting of mine, he named that too — or at least shortened the title. I’d called it Josephine the Singer after a Kafka story that Clem had written about in Art and Culture and he’d suggested Josephine. Then he said to me “it’s not the first purple painting I’ve named. I also named “Lavender Mist.” 2. Ossorio told me that he’d bought “Lavender Mist” from Jackson after the major show of 1950, out of which nothing had sold. He bought it for $1,800. because he wanted “to help Lee and Jackson out.”
Another quote of Pollock’s from my 1985 journal. “On the one hand he is too proud, too honest to want to repeat himself, to give the critics more of what they seem to think is his best work, and on the other hand he isn’t sure where he’s going, where he can go.” Imagine what it was actually like for Jackson to have the best critic, a man of formidable intelligence and visual acuity appreciating and writing about his work. Here’s what Clem said in a 1969 interview with Lilly Lielo about his painting. Lielo, “You were instrumental in bringing Pollock, whom you consider to be the best painter the U.S. ever produced to the public eye. What caused you to believe in him when others did not?” Clem’s answer, “His quality – his pictures “sent me.” And imagine what it felt like when that same critic stopped liking his work after late 1952.
Clement Greenberg was among the smartest people I’ve known. His intelligence, which was his greatest strength, could also be a failing because it made him sometimes impatient, and occasionally even cruel. Of the three I’m speaking about today I knew him best. I first met Clem (aside from the time he came to Emmerich when I was hanging my first show, and asked if I needed help, and I said, “No,”) at Bennington College in 1971, where he was giving five or six lectures on aesthetics – he called the series his Homemade Aesthetics. I had never heard anyone so clear and dynamic on art, and the experience of looking at it. At a discussion at the Whitney on Greenberg’s writing soon after he died – what had been billed as a Symposium, but turned out to be more of a lynching – Irving Sandler criticized Clem’s thinking by saying that with him there were no criteria, and it was simply a matter of taste. (Actually Sandler was one of the mildest on the panel.) At the end when the audience was allowed to participate I reminded Mr. Sandler of the famous remark that appears in Volume IV of Greenberg’s Complete Essays, and also in a video — The Importance of Taste in Art. It was a topic that was very much with him in the last twenty-five years of his life. “There are criteria, but they can’t be put into words any more than what makes good and bad art can be put into words. Works of art move you to a greater or lesser extent. That’s all.” Another thing he believed was that in art all that mattered was the result. He called critics “manipulators of attention,” and told me more than once (in case I had any wrong ideas) that no critic could make an artists career. (Is it true?) That was the basic flavor of the series at Bennington, and it “sent me.” The other thing that I found refreshing was that he didn’t like the work of Robert Rauschenberg, which he called “iconographic”. Ever since college I’d been hearing how great Rauschenberg was, whereas his pictures looked idiotic to me (if you could call them pictures, they were mostly, ungainly collages). From the first tire-throated goat I’d an aversion to his work, and here was Greenberg calling it easy, conventional, and poorly composed.
At the same lecture I also first witnessed the negative aspect of his intelligence. He would publicly demoralize anyone who asked what he considered to be a stupid question – “If you were really interested in that you would read a book about it,” or “Why are you asking me that miss?” [it was invariably a miss] it’s obvious that I can’t answer it,” or “Better minds than mine have given that a lot of thought and not come up with anything. Of course I can’t answer that.”
At Clem’s apartment there were two Pollock’s hanging, both ink on paper. Both were gifts. The first was from 1946, ink, pencil, and crayon and the inscription read “Greetings from Lee and Jackson,” The second dated 1/16/51 was Clem’s birthday, January 16, when he was forty-two. I liked the works on paper, particularly the one from 1951 and Clem always pointed them out to new visitors. One was on the wall near his study, where he spent most of his time.
Clem loved Pollock, almost, it seemed, unconditionally. And he was very critical, was known for it. One night I was at his apartment for a drink and he was running everyone down, what the matter was with Noland, and Fried, and going back to the fifties, Gottlieb was a “pants’ presser.” It was getting a bit much, even for me who had a great tolerance for anything he might say, and finally I interrupted and said, “Clem who did you like?” And he answered, “I liked Pollock Sober.” At first I thought it was someone’s name Pollock Sober, I’d never heard of that artist, and I asked him to repeat it. “Pollock sober.” “Oh I get it, he liked Pollock when he wasn’t drinking.” He said that when Pollock was drinking he was a totally different person. I recently found these remarks by Clem, which appeared in “The New York Times Magazine, _The Jackson Pollock Market Soars, _1961. “Sober, Pollock was a shy man who did not find it easy to talk. He had no artists’ airs and cut no figure. His feelings of clumsiness and of social and intellectual inadequacy made it hard for him to show how much was going on inside him… All this went by the board, however, when he had even a small amount of alcohol in him. It is on his drunken behavior that the stories of his noisy self-assertiveness are founded – a self assertiveness that had singularly little direct relation to either his art or his serious self.”
Clem was disapproving of the fact that an innocent woman had lost her life in a car crash. He always mentioned that detail (the way he also always mentioned Braque and Picasso, never just Picasso as the inventors of Cubism). He said that it was wrong of Jackson to include this innocent woman (who’s name is all but forgotten) in the car crash, and that because she was sitting in the front seat she’d unwittingly been joined in Pollock’s self-destruction. He told me that he’d written about Jackson and Lee’s marriage in 1956 but that after rereading the manuscript he’d decided that the material was not for publication. When I first started spending time with Clem in the early eighties, nearly twenty-five years after Pollock’s death, he was still talking about him as if he’d seen him only last year. Jackson’s work and career were his model, in much the same way that Delacroix was Baudelaire’s ideal painter. For example, in a letter to the editor about the painter Morris Louis he wrote, “Now I realize I was too optimistic (what passes for art criticism in connection with Pollock should have told me that)…”
He was always talking about Jackson, little anecdotes in the studio, for example, “Jackson didn’t paint before or after a show, it’s obscene to paint all the time. Jackson let the pictures cook. Jackson wasn’t arty. What made Jackson great was [the density of the decisions], and that [he could bear down].”
Clem told me that art and character were irrevocably intertwined — in much the same way that money and art were. He believed that good art came out of good character. Ultimately he said that for him it came down to a single fact, “All art is about character.” I can picture him saying this as he stands in his study with the light in the window going down in the west behind him.
As was well known Clem drank a lot – even in the last years of his life — as before. More than once he referred to himself as an alcoholic. Perhaps he would have written more in the last twenty year of his life without the drinking. I hesitate to call it a problem, because to my eye he seemed to have it under control (he did live to be eighty four). Before he got sick in the summer of 1993, he drank pretty much every day. I remember being in a car with him once. He said, “I can’t wait to get home and have a drink.” Another time I picked him up at the hospital in the morning. When we got back to his apartment it was only eleven in the morning. I’d never been there that early (with Clem nothing started before two). The first thing he did was have a scotch with ice. How he seemed to relish it. The second thing he did was light up a cigarette. I wonder now whether this was a way to stay connected with Pollock, and the macho group of Abstract Expressionist painters? I never said this to him, and I’m sure he would have said “hogwash.” When I asked him how he got so into drinking he said it started in the early forties when Jeanie Connolly, the woman he was in love with (the woman he mentioned most often) went off with another man. She had been the wife of Cyril Connolly and then briefly married Laurence Vail before she died of a stroke at thirty-nine. He said it hurt so much when she left that the only thing that could dull the pain was liquor.
Once I bought a post card for him and took it over to Lenox Hill Hospital. Another bout of emphysema had brought him there. It was early July and I was leaving for Virginia in a couple of days. At the last moment instead of sending him the card, I walked it over. It was a card of the Pollock at the Albright Knox Museum, Convergence (a little late for Clem to consider it a prime Pollock) but for once he didn’t say anything about the date. As soon as he saw the card he lit up with that electric smile and said “Oh that’s the Buffalo Pollock.” It was clear in everything he said that of all the painters he’d known Pollock had made the biggest impression (even though he sometimes said that he liked Hofmann’s art better because it encompassed more, he’d worked in Germany, France (at the Matisse school) and America and therefore had greater range. He also mentioned that Hofmann had had the advantage of painting into his eighties.
He told me about the Pollock/de Kooning split and how de Kooning was like the pied piper, very smooth, and that he had a following and a lot of charm and that Jackson was awkward and difficult and shy and didn’t cultivate the crowd (as mentioned above). Clem said that the guys, the other painters and sculptors thought him something of a jerk, and that he wasn’t taken seriously. I was surprised to hear this. In a lecture he did at Yale Clem mentioned seeing de Kooning’s back up from a picture on the second floor of his Fourth Avenue studio and Clem thought how self-conscious he must be because his wife Elaine had just written something in Art News about his being the greatest living painter. Clem imagined him stepping back to look at each stroke and thinking “What would the greatest living painter do here?” Clem thought most of what deKooning had done was “arty” and it was possibly the worst thing he could say about any artist. You prayed that he didn’t notice that stroke that you couldn’t stop yourself from putting on.
These distinctions filtered down to the seventies New York art world that I entered. Leaving out the burgeoning conceptualists — most of whom didn’t actually make anything – there were camps in the art world (vestiges from the generations preceding mine). The de Kooning/Rosenberg camp had no stock with the Pollock/Greenberg one. When I thought about it more, the words that came to mind were “schmearers” and “croppers”. The croppers were influenced by Pollock and the schmearers by deKooning. The schmearers didn’t turn their abstract pictures in different directions at all; there was a distinct top and bottom, which had to do with the way the picture started, and from which they didn’t deviate. And with the de Kooning offspring, as well as Tony Smith, cropping was completely out. Even mentioning the C word was dangerous, as if you were violating a religious precept. (It was almost as bad as using the word “quality” in the wrong gallery, or at the wrong meeting.) The scmearers went in for brushes, and mixing and oil paint. The croppers by contrast painted on the floor, usually on platforms of some kind and with their canvas stapled flat onto the floor, the croppers also walked around the painting and worked from all sides. They didn’t decide what the top was (if, in fact, they ever did) until the end, and even as late as hanging the work in a show the orientation could still be changed. They usually painted in acrylic while the schmearers often, although not always used oil. Once I visited deKooning in Springs, and he told me that he spent half the day mixing his oil paint to the consistency of mayonnaise with big wooden spoons.
Clem was the only critic I’ve known who didn’t idealize the relationships that artists have with each other. He knew the backbiting and nastiness that artists were capable of towards their peers. With him there was no whitewashing, you could be honest and direct and he could absorb it. And above all you knew that he wouldn’t say something that wasn’t true. For me, ultimately his quality was not in his great eye, and his innate feeling for art, both of which existed, but in his feeling in general; his perception, his “take” on things, his clarity, his ability to “get it.” I could call him and talk about anything, and he could understand what I was saying. He’d say something like, “The life of an artist is very hard,” “You made the choice,” or “Why did you do that?” or “I know what you mean,” “There’s nothing you can do there,” “That was unprofessional,” “It’s tough for a man too.” He talked straight; I’d call it empathy. I wonder if he had this kind of relationship with Jackson? It’s these things about him that I miss most now. Maybe his ability to connect allowed him to see, so early, what was special about Pollock’s painting? It’s as if the veil that was covering other people’s eyes, and maybe their hearts, had been lifted in his case.
Another thing he told me was that “In art feeling is everything.” He hammered away at this. In a painting, no in art in general, feeling is ultimately what counts. In expressing this about Pollock he said “…Even so, it is not the unity as such that counts in the last resort, but what the unity communicates. Pollock’s art catches even the untutored imagination, thanks above all to the richness and variety of feeling it conveys – and not because it makes an assault on the eye.” New York Times, 1961 (italics mine). In a lot of ways Clem was like a painter who didn’t paint. Once he said to me “I should have been a painter, I would have been at least as good as Guston.” He seemed to understand all about technique. He’d say things like “try the knife,” or “paint thinner,” or “muddy the paint up a little more there,” or indulge yourself while you’re painting.” He told me that W.H Auden had said of him “Warm head, cold heart,” and he’d mention that from time to time. He seemed very interested in Auden’s take on him. He understood feelings as I’ve described, was attuned to the language of feelings and dreams, but at the same time he was quite detached. He could be right there but it didn’t mean that he expected anything special from you. And for a man in his eighties he had a very varied and lively social life. I remember the time I called him and he said “I’ll call you back in a little while – the BBC is here.” He was primarily attuned to words, to language. He weighed words the way some painters weigh colors. He was the first to correct his own usage, and, of course yours, “No you don’t mean crude there, you mean rude.” It was fun talking with him because he took language, and what was said so seriously.
As far as the relationship between Clem and Tony, as I wrote they were not friends. I never heard Tony, even once, mention Clem at Hunter. As for Clem – he didn’t like Tony’s sculpture. He said it was boring, no feeling, and nowhere near as good as David Smith’s. He told me that Tony Smith was a genius, not as a sculptor, but as a raconteur. Here’s what Clem actually said in an interview conducted by Edward Lucie-Smith in 1968. “…That the trouble with Moore was that his stuff said right off that you were in the presence of a masterpiece. It is able to say that – for the time being – because it meets your expectation of what “big” modern art should look like, Tony Smith’s sculpture does the same thing – and Smith’s success is the fastest big success I’ve witnessed on the American Art Scene. Which is ominous. There are similar reasons for the speed of Bacon’s success.” No wonder I never heard about Clem from Tony.
Here’s what Clem told me about the actual falling out between them. Tony had designed the space at Parke -Bernet where French and Company was. This was right in the middle of Clem’s tenure at the gallery as advisor. For some reason the owner of French and Co. had decided not to keep Smith’s design – and Tony held that against Clem, although it had nothing to do with him. When Clem met Jane Smith, Tony’s wife, some years later she said that she was glad he’d gotten over it, and he corrected her saying, “No I haven’t.”
He had three diaries, one just for where he went and with whom, one for what happened, and the third for his more intimate feelings that he wrote in only sporadically. He also noticed when he was misquoted. For example, he told me that Grace Glueck had misquoted him in The New York Times in her Motherwell obituary, and he called her to have her correct it in print, which she did. When I gave him a new art book, or he saw a catalogue lying around he’d immediately look in the index under “G” to see if he was quoted – and then if it was accurate. Once he was misquoted in an article about Gorky, but he had such a negative feeling about the man Gorky, that he said he wasn’t going to bother to make the correction. He liked gossip, I remember once his saying about a stringer art critic, that her problem was that she “didn’t have enough gossip.” He also mentioned the catalogue raisone that a woman dealer had done on Morris Louis. He said that she’d sensed that he thought her “plain,” and to get back at him, deliberately misquoted him in the book.
Clem had this thing where he automatically dated the major period of every twentieth century artist. For example, Picasso was good only until 1918, after that he “fell off.” Klee’s paintings were good only until 1930 -then he started using harsher outlines that hurt his work. Mark Rothko was good between 1950 and 1955 (he didn’t even give him the whole decade) after which it looked like he was imitating his own earlier stuff in darker colors, as if the later paintings were caricatures of the earlier work painted by someone else. Reinhardt’s period was very short, 1950 -52, “When he was friends with Rothko something rubbed off, and then Rothko had dropped him.” And Pollock until 1950, with an exception like Convergence. After Clem thought Jackson’s work had “fallen off” when he was doing the black figurative images in the mid-fifties, people would come up to him and say, “At last I see what you see in Pollock.” These last pictures that some dealers and museums have tried to resurrect don’t detract from Pollock’s achievement. Clem told me that you judge a painter by his/her best work, and you don’t hold the bad work against the artist.
Pollock started synoptic painting in this country. It’s all there up front at a glance no matter how big it is. And Clem championed it. That Jackson had the power and gifts to paint the great pictures when he did, and that Clem was there to receive and write about them, makes us all the richer. Painting changed, and the world changed, if every so slightly, as a result of what happened here in springs and elsewhere in New York, in the late forties and early fifties.
New York City, 1995