‘Pollock? He was not a good drunk…’
Secrets of the abstract expressionists, revealed by the man who knew them best
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...