‘Pol­lock? He was not a good drunk…’

Se­crets of the ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists, re­vealed by the man who knew them best

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Front Page - Alas­tair Sooke

In 1952, a young man named Irv­ing San­dler, who had served in the US Ma­rine Corps dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, ar­rived in New York City, in­tent on be­com­ing a “bo­hemian”. “It just seemed log­i­cal,” says San­dler, who is now 91 years old, speak­ing by phone from his apart­ment in Green­wich Vil­lage. “The city was a sort of mecca.”

Af­ter find­ing a cheap place to rent in Lower Man­hat­tan, San­dler set­tled into his new “hair-shirt” ex­is­tence. “I was liv­ing in dire cir­cum­stances,” he re­calls, “but I had an en­trance card to the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art [MoMA] and I’d go up there quite a bit be­cause it was civilised.”

At the time, San­dler didn’t know the first thing about art – he’d stud­ied Amer­i­can his­tory as an un­der­grad­u­ate in Philadel­phia. But a chance en­counter in one of MoMA’s gal­leries de­fined the di­rec­tion that his life would take.

One day he found him­self trans­fixed by a vast can­vas, six feet across, cov­ered with loops and lines of thick, black pig­ment against a white back­ground. It looked like a piece of over­sized cal­lig­ra­phy, and had been painted, in oils, only a cou­ple of years ear­lier.

The art work (re­pro­duced, right) was Chief (1950) by the Amer­i­can artist Franz Kline, a pi­o­neer of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, which flour­ished in New York dur­ing the For­ties and Fifties.

This week­end, a new exhibition de­voted to this ex­hil­a­rat­ing move­ment – the first in Bri­tain for al­most six decades – opens at the Royal Academy of Arts, fea­tur­ing more than 160 works by ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism’s big­gest names, in­clud­ing Ar­shile Gorky, Philip Gus­ton, Willem de Koon­ing, Jackson Pol­lock and Mark Rothko, as well as Kline.

“I didn’t know what Chief was,” San­dler says, “but it touched me very deeply. It had a rough­ness, an un­fin­ished qual­ity, and a kind of anx­i­ety about it. Yet I also saw great as­sertive­ness. I knew at once that it was ter­ri­bly im­por­tant.”

Shortly af­ter his epiphany in front of Chief, San­dler found out that the ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists con­gre­gated each evening in a bar called the Cedar Street Tav­ern, a few blocks north of Wash­ing­ton Square Park. There they would talk about art, and some­times even brawl. He de­cided to go along. “You could buy a beer for 15 cents,” he re­calls, “and I would nurse one all evening, lis­ten­ing to the artists, whom I re­ally liked. This struck me as a world I wanted to be in.” Hav­ing trained as a his­to­rian, he de­cided to “chron­i­cle” this scene. By 1954, San­dler could be found ev­ery night in the Cedar Street Tav­ern, pen in one hand, drink in the other.

The ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists were not known for wel­com­ing out­siders. They liked the Cedar Street Tav­ern pre­cisely be­cause it didn’t at­tract fash­ion­able types. More­over, it didn’t have a tele­vi­sion set, so it hadn’t be­come a gath­er­ing place for peo­ple from the sur­round­ing neigh­bour­hood. “The artists told the own­ers that they wouldn’t at­tend if there was a TV,” San­dler says.

Still, most of them took a shine to San­dler and didn’t mind him scrib­bling down notes while they talked – in part, he says, be­cause he was “a good lis­tener” and “very en­thu­si­as­tic”. Af­ter a while, he was in­vited to Fri­day-night dis­cus­sions at The Club, an in­for­mal in­sti­tu­tion that had been es­tab­lished by 20 artists in 1949 as a fo­rum for New York’s be­lea­guered avant-garde.

“The Club was a place to drink and talk,” San­dler re­calls. “It moved around, like a sort of mov­ing crap game. You’d have the panel, and then you’d have drink­ing and danc­ing. The drink­ing was done by pass­ing around a hat. If you had money, you’d throw it in. And if you didn’t, you didn’t. When there was enough money, they’d bring out a bot­tle. At its height, there were 200 mem­bers – mostly painters, with a few crit­ics”.

Af­ter record­ing his ob­ser­va­tions in his note­book, San­dler would type them up: they now fill 90 boxes in the Getty Re­search In­sti­tute in Cal­i­for­nia, and pro­vided the raw ma­te­rial for The Tri­umph of Amer­i­can Paint­ing, the first his­tory of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, pub­lished in 1970. “Hardly any­thing had been writ­ten about the move­ment back then,” says San­dler, “so I had to in­ter­view the artists.”

Serv­ing as a kind of Boswell to the New York School (as ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism is some­times called), San­dler be­came close friends with many of its pro­tag­o­nists, in­clud­ing Gus­ton, Kline and de Koon­ing, who had a stu­dio in the East Vil­lage next door to the Tan­ager Gallery that San­dler also man­aged dur­ing the Fifties.

Many of San­dler’s mem­o­ries of the ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists are set in­side the Cedar Street Tav­ern. “It was a non­de­script place,” he says, “like thou­sands of other bars. But it was al­most ex­clu­sively an artists’ bar. The most like­able char­ac­ter was Franz Kline, who was there ev­ery night. He was a great racon­teur of shaggy-dog sto­ries. Pri­mar­ily, though, the talk was about art, and very lit­tle else.

“There’s an im­age of th­ese artists be­ing in­spired brutes or id­iots. They were not. They were enor­mously ed­u­cated and spoke beau­ti­fully. They were ac­tu­ally in­tel­lec­tu­als – the best of them, that is.”

At the top of the tree was de Koon­ing. “He was the most es­teemed artist at that time,” San­dler says, “be­cause he was such a great painter. Ver­bally, too, he was bril­liant. How­ever, al­co­hol was the oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease of that gen­er­a­tion, and he was not a good drunk. Nei­ther was Pol­lock.”

In the early Fifties, Pol­lock was liv­ing in a farm­house on Long Is­land, but he vis­ited the city once a week to see his psy­cho­an­a­lyst. “Then he would get drunk and show up at the Cedar Street Tav­ern to do a kind of Pol­lock act,” San­dler re­calls.

What did this “act” in­volve? “Break­ing stuff,” he replies. “Like pulling off the door of the men’s room. And he’d pick fights with peo­ple who re­ally wouldn’t hurt him, like Kline. Gen­er­ally, it didn’t amount to much – it was just spar­ring, a glo­ri­fied kind of kid­ding. There was never any great an­i­mos­ity. But it was a very ma­cho scene.”

Fe­male artists as­so­ci­ated with the move­ment, such as Elaine de Koon­ing (who had mar­ried Willem in 1943) and Joan Mitchell, were not shielded from this cul­ture of strut­ting machismo. “You told a woman she painted as well as a man,” San­dler says, “and that was a com­pli­ment. Women had to be tough. You didn’t mess with them.”

‘Pol­lock would pick fights –and once pulled the door off the men’s room’

When San­dler first vis­ited the Cedar Street Tav­ern, there was still a “friendly ri­valry” be­tween Willem de Koon­ing and Pol­lock, whose mon­u­men­tal Blue Poles (1952) has come to the RA from Aus­tralia.

“Pol­lock called de Koon­ing a ‘French’ painter, de Koon­ing called Pol­lock an ‘Amer­i­can’ painter – but those words had edges to them at the time,” San­dler says. “Pol­lock was re­spected as one of the great in­no­va­tors, but he never had the fol­low­ing that de Koon­ing had.”

Why not? “Well, Pol­lock was more no­to­ri­ous, but he didn’t of­fer younger artists ways to paint the way de Koon­ing did. If you tried to drip paint like Pol­lock, you ended up with a sec­ond-rate Pol­lock. But if you made a bad de Koon­ing, you still painted a great paint­ing, be­cause he car­ried with him the great tra­di­tion of Western paint­ing that Pol­lock turned against.” Pol­lock’s no­to­ri­ety was ce­mented soon af­ter when, in the sum­mer of 1956, he crashed his Oldsmo­bile con­vert­ible while drunk, and died.

As a group, San­dler says, the ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists were “enor­mously se­ri­ous. A sign of their se­ri­ous­ness was the way they dressed: soberly, in cor­duroy jack­ets and ties, do­ing ev­ery­thing to avoid the bo­hemian look. It re­minded me of the anec­dote about De­gas say­ing to the flam­boy­ant Whistler: ‘You be­have as though you have no tal­ent.’ Th­ese peo­ple lived by that.”

In part, this se­ri­ous­ness was a symp­tom of the times. “Ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism spoke very much to its mo­ment,” San­dler says. “The ‘hot war’ led al­most im­me­di­ately into the Cold War in 1947, the reve­la­tions of the Holo­caust, the atomic bomb­ings of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, the fear of more atomic war. It was a rather bleak mood.”

One artist par­tic­u­larly in tune with this mood was Rothko, who fa­mously said that he was “in­ter­ested only in ex­press­ing ba­sic hu­man emo­tions – tragedy, ec­stasy, doom and so on”. Like Bar­nett New­man and Robert Mother­well, Rothko lived up­town, and didn’t fre­quent the Cedar Street Tav­ern. Yet San­dler still be­came friendly with him while re­search­ing a book about his art.

“He was a heavy drinker, but not a con­vivial one,” San­dler re­calls. “How shall I put it? He was some­what morose. Life weighed heav­ily on him, and I think that shows in his work, which I find the most tragic of that group.”

To­day, San­dler owns more than two dozen works of art, mostly dat­ing from the Fifties and Six­ties. One is “a large painterly ab­strac­tion” by Joan Mitchell. “I’m look­ing at it now,” he tells me. “It was painted in 1956. By then, I was in close con­tact with pretty much ev­ery artist in the New York School.” He sounds wist­ful. “In­tel­lec­tu­ally and aes­thet­i­cally, it was just won­der­ful. I was right in the mid­dle of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism – and it changed my life.”

Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Lon­don W1 (020 7300 8090), un­til Jan 2 2017

Dif­fer­ent strokes: above, Willem de Koon­ing (left) in the Cedar Street Tav­ern where Irv­ing San­dler, be­low, first met him and his fel­low ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists. Their works on show at the Royal Academy in­clude Jackson Pol­lock’s Blue Poles, top, and...

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