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Archive for June 12th, 2007

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My mother started studying art in the early 1920s at Hunter High School which was very advanced for its day not only in art teaching but in social attitudes. For example, the “young ladies” had life classes where they drew and painted from nude models (I don’t recall if both genders were used). She took up her art training again in the late 30s, three or four years after my younger sister was born, at a class run by the WPA Arts Project, in downtown Flushing (near Main Street), taught by Bender Mark. A couple of years later she started classes at the Art Students League under Yasuo Kuniyoshi. In the early 40s she would summer in Woodstock where Kuniyoshi and a number of other League students and teachers would vacation. (There were a number of interesting and well known people there. I remember seeing Lillian Gish, who was playing in the local summer stock theater that year (she always wore a sort of pink-tan slack suit – she looked good, truck drivers passing Deannie’s would wolf-whistle). My mother became friendly with Eugene O’Neill Jr a few years before his suicide.)

After a couple of years with Kuniyoshi she decided to get a studio of her own in Manahattan and “Yas” told her one was available in the building where he had his studio. This was an old, rather rundown place of about six floors on the south side of 14th Street called the Janice Building after the low-priced women’s wear store on the ground floor. My mother’s studio was on the fourth or fifth floor, an exhausting climb (no elevator, of course). This unlikely place actually had quite a history in the art world. At the time, not only Kuniyoshi but his teacher Kenneth Hayes Miller were there as was one of the Soyer brothers (I can’t remember if it was Moses or Raphael – Raphael, I think). She took over her own studio from Nahum Tschacbasov  who used it for the couple of years he taught at the League and, somewhere in the distant past, Jules Pascin was there – his name was written on the door. (Added 6/18/2008: I remembered the other day that Reginald Marsh also had his studio in the Janice building. I probably forgot because I found his work distasteful – especially the barage-balloon women.)

(Long after I left New York, perhaps in the ‘70s, the building made the front page. It was owned and operated by the Hyer brothers, whose office was on the second floor, above the clothing shop. It was Nathan Hyer’s duty to extract rents from his impecunious artist tenants, which he often did with considerable relish. Needless to say, he was not widely loved. He made the headlines by being involved in a fratricide, in the office. I don’t remember whether he was the shooter or the shootee.)

My mother’s studio was at the back of the building at the end of the hall. There was a door which opened on to two other doors, one straight ahead to her place and the other at a right angle which was the entrance to  Bob Barrell’s studio. Her room was very modest, less than ten feet wide and a little more than twice as long with one dirty window at the far end. She had a single day-bed and a small chair, an easel and a rack to hold canvasses and the place was pretty much filled up. We often had parties in the combined studios, sometimes they were planned, such as New Year’s Eve, but mostly they “just happened” usually on Friday evenings.

There was an unusual mix of intelligent and talented people at these affairs whose lives unfolded in often surprising ways. I’ll tell about them and their histories, some of which I have just recently gleaned from various Web sources (in particular, and sadly, the dates of death for many of them).

First, is the rest of my mother’s story. She did a few dozen good paintings, some in nearly surrealist style and a number of more conventional still lifes, portraits and the like. (One dream scene, literally, showed a red temple-like structure – derived from some 1930s era National Geographic photos of Petra that I found in a store on 42nd street – and a variety of shattered sculptures, some marble, some polychromed, which I titled for her “Look on my works”.) She had a one “man” show at Peter Beaudoin’s Gallery Neuf on 57th street. My father abandoned her and took up with a woman from his office – and she never did another painting. She died in a San Rafael nursing home on April 1, 2006 just a few months before her 97th birthday.

Bob Barrell was something of an enigma. I found that his colleagues in art, Pete Busa and Howard Daum were much better covered than he in the sources that I could find and neither of them had even a small fraction of his ability or talent. The whole group (including some others that I did not know about) was intent on using Southwest Indian color and design as a method of treating space and dimension. Bob was a brilliant draftsman, had a deeper understanding of color-plane theory (which I think must have started with Cezanne) and had a wider knowledge of the history of technique (he would quote Delacroix’s journal on Rembrandt’s over-painting and so on) than anyone I ever encountered.

He was totally inept at promoting his own work and he refused to take a “day job” just to keep from starving – he would say that he wouldn’t compromise his art but I think the truth was that he didn’t know how to find a job, was afraid of rejection. As a result he lived in poverty, seeking handouts from friends (my mother and his brother Lloyd among others) and occasionally doing “contract work”, drawings and paintings to order. A principal in one of the major galleries (Wildenstein?) had him creating sequences of erotic drawings for a secret, unnamed client. I particularly remember a set entitled Lot and His Daughters which were magnificent. He also did some book illustrations for Tom Sloane at Devin-Adair (which led to other things which I will take up in a bit). While rummaging around in the usual Web sources for “Barrell”, without success, it occurred to me to look for other book illustrations and the American Book Exchange (abebooks.com) came through. I not only found that he had illustrated a volume of Lord Dunsany stories for Devin-Adair, published in 1954 just as I arrived in California, but was able to find a copy signed by Barrell which I bought. I also found that he had illustrated a nature book for New American Library and an article in the College Art Journal which is on JStor, which I cannot have access to, says something about Barrell and the “new” Hayden Planetarium. If anyone reading this can gain access, please send me a copy of that article (three pages).

barrell-2a.jpg

The way he avoided starvation was painting – people’s apartments, usually friends or acquaintances. In another post I described our little cold-water flat on Sixth Avenue. The main room, which was on the order of fifteen feet on a side, was very dreary so we hired Bob to redecorate for us. We gave him a free hand, told him to do his damnedest. First, he discovered a wide, maybe eight feet, brick chimney on the Prince Street side that had been wickedly plastered over, stripped the plaster and cleaned the old sun-dried brick. Then he painted the four walls (which were punctured by windows and doorways) four different colors: a warm grey on the side with the chimney, an earth red on another, yellow ochre and – I forget. All of this was an application of color plane theory: the four walls no longer seemed to be attached to each other and some, like the yellow “retreated” (Barrell said that Jean Arp said that yellow recedes in an architectural setting – it advances in a painting). It was astonishing how the apparent space increased – no-one would believe us when we gave the actual dimensions of the room.

The last I heard about Barrell was that he was living in the Bowery. The Social Security Death Index shows his birth date as August 7, 1912 and his death in Middle Village, Queens on April 12, 1995. (Added in correction Feb. 14, 2008; from Don Merwin:

I remember Bob with great affection and was always a fan of his work. One slight correction: What I told you about Bob and the Bowery is the following–I was looking over a photographer’s portfolio (in connection with my work for the New York City Youth Board) and found a series on a day in the life of a Bowery bum. I immediately recognized the subject as Bob and asked about him. The photographer said that his model was, indeed, his friend Bob Barrell. He made a very convincing bum, but I do not believe that the photographer suggested that he was anything but a model for that role.The most interesting thing I know about Bob’s later life was that he became the mentor and friend of the pop singer Cindi Lauper who enjoyed great popularity a decade or so ago. I will try to find more about that–maybe your correspondent knows.)

 

One of Barrell’s friends was Leon (Something)-ski who was from Boyle Heights. He brought around a number of friends and acquaintances over time. Some of them were his co-patients at a psychiatric facility in Brooklyn called Hillside (I believe).

(Added after publishing: Don Merwin who was a high school classmate and lifelong friend sent me this note: “Hillside, the psychiatric facility that served Frank, Hilda, and many of the others who attended those parties, is adjacent to Long Island Jewish Hospital (which it antedates) and is on the Queens/Nassau county line. I think Hillside is on the Queens side.” Don and Frank and Hilda were other regulars at these parties. I will have much to say about Don in future posts.)

One of Leon’s friends was Norman Belkin who may have been a childhood friend from LA. He had a smooth voice like a radio announcer, was good looking and “on stage” most of the time. I heard that after he returned to LA he became a classical music “disk jockey” (another friend from my college days, Fred Grunfeld, had pioneered this form of classical music presentation on WQXR in NY). The available records on the Web show that he and a wife wrote several television and movie scripts, one for the “All in the Family” series. The SSDI shows: born Nov. 1, 1924 and died Feb 13, 2004 in LA.

One of the more unusual personalities to show up, part of the Hillside group, was Dave Panich who even then came on as a professional comedian but not of the stand-up comic variety. Once he said he had gone to a very expensive restaurant for dinner and I fell right into the straightman’s role: “Wasn’t there a large bill?”  “Oh no, it was a nominal bill, a nominal leg.” At one party he brought a scrapbook he had created by taking pictures from magazine ads and captions from other magazine ads and mix-and-matching them. It is hard to imagine or describe how clever and funny the result was. As one might guess, he became a very successful comedy writer, working on the pilot for “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”  and a number of episodes in that series. A little later he did several episodes of “The Monkees”. This was a new trend-setting style of comedy which influenced a number of shows for years thereafter.  (To some degree this sort of comic invention was started by Olsen and Johnson in their “HellzAPoppin” and is still noticeable in some of antics seen on David Letterman’s late night show.) He was born July 11, 1924 and died Nov. 30, 1983.

Perhaps the individual who became the most widely known to come to our parties was brought there by Norman Belkin (I think), Barbara Cook. She was very young, in her early twenties, had not yet developed a resume, but was already a mature and confident performer. She was always asked to sing at our parties (of course) and did so with grace and good humor. Leon and Norman called her the Earth Mother, a good natured joke about her figure. Her first leading role in a successful musical was in Plain and Fancy which was written by Arnold Horwitt, brother-in-law of a treasured college-mate of mine, Molly Bower. This coincidence always brings to my mind that wonderful “It’s a small world!” routine of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. (I’ll talk about Molly and her extraordinary career and family in some future post.) The thing I most remember about Barbara is her hair – she wore it pulled back but with such tension that it looked like the skin on her face was being made taut with her eyes appearing to be bulging as a result. I found this disturbing – wondering that she wasn’t in pain.

An infrequent participant was Tom Sloane, Thomas O’Conor Sloane III, Associate Editor at Devin-Adair publishers. (The Web reveals that Tom’s grandfather, the first T. O. Sloane was a pretty unusual individual as well.) Devin-Adair was (is?) a strange outfit. They published a line of agricultural books, a handful of right-wing tracts and a variety of Irish literature. One of his visits was done for the explicit purpose of introducing one of his current authors, Peter Kavanagh, to us. Kavanagh’s Story of the Abbey Theater was about to be published by D-A. Peter was one of the most interesting, entertaining, outrageous and outlandish people I have ever met.

Peter was a living caricature of the stereotypical bellicose Irishman. His idea of a good evening, well spent, was a verbal brawl, which he would start by taking a contrary opinion on anything you might bring up: “The Taj Mahal is white”, “T’is not, t’is grey!” At a New Year’s party in the studio I was sitting next to Peter on the “couch” and decided to have a little fun at his expense. I said, “Peter, how do you explain it? The Irish haven’t produced a great poet since Yeats died – now all the good poets are Welsh.” He took the bait, hook, line, sinker, pole and fisherman. He started huffing and puffing then started a rant: “The Welsh! The Welsh, they’re a degenerate race …  “  I couldn’t keep a straight face for long and he realized he’d been had.

The two central themes in Peter’s life and career were his impoverished rural origin and the fact that one of his older brothers was Patrick Kavanagh. He was obsessed with enhancing Patrick’s place in literature which, in turn, meant some sort of vindication of their provenance. (He made self-deprecating jokes about his country-rube upbringing. He told my mother that the way he took bath back then was to go out in the field on a hot day and plow ten rows to raise a sweat. This would wash all the dirt down to his feet and then he would wash his feet.)

This obsession with Patrick and his poetry fostered collateral causes. I was surprised to see the quote from Sean O’Casey in the Wikipedia article, saying that the Story of the Abbey Theater was impartial. As I recall (it has been more than 55 years!) Peter blamed the decline of the Abbey on Lennox Robinson, O’Casey and other prose playwrights by betraying its mission as a Poet’s Theater supporting the Gaelic Revival and Irish nationalism.

Peter got along on very little money by using his wits and reduced standards. He told me that he furnished his new apartment by wandering around the Italian neighborhoods with a cart and picking up furniture put out on the sidewalk for removal. “They throw away the most wonderful things: beds and mattresses, tables and chairs, couches, pots, dishes – everything one needs.” It turned out part of his motive was saving money for another project to help his brother.

Early in 1952 Peter simply disappeared. No one had seen him or knew where he was. In the fall of that year as I was walking through Washington Square at night, there was Peter in the southwest corner, watching a chess game under the street lamp, collar up to ward off the cold drizzling rain. We crossed over to Sixth Avenue and he started telling what had been going on. He had gone back to Dublin and with the money he had saved, started a newspaper with Patrick called, logically enough, Kavanagh’s Weekly. He and his brother wrote all the articles, using pseudonyms to make it appear that there was some staff, set the type, ran the press and delivered the paper to the few news dealers who would handle it because the news deliverymen’s union refused to do so. They got into fist fights with union members and others while making their deliveries.

It is hard to understand how or why this intentionally controversial little paper aroused such ferocious passion, even when it is explained. You have to be Irish, particularly from that time, I guess. Peter said that the Manchester Guardian gave them a very good review on its front page when they started, saying it was the best paper in Ireland. I doubt that an endorsement from an English newspaper improved their acceptance. He said that only two businessmen in Dublin had the courage to place advertisements with them, one being a Jew who ran an art gallery. The venture soon failed.

As we walked up the very wide sidewalk on Sixth Avenue, headed for the Howard Johnson’s coffee shop near 8th Street, a drunk was approaching in the other direction. Talk about telegraphing your punch! Half a very long block away, he had his hand extended. Peter continued his very animated narrative, not looking ahead: “One good thing came of it though, me brother’s finally seen the light and moved to London.” At this point Peter almost collided with the bum, whose extended hand was almost under his chin. Without missing a beat, Peter shot his hand out and said “Could you spare me a dime for a cup o’ coffee?” The bum stood there for a few seconds, his jaw going up and down without utterance and then he said “I asked you first!”

The last I heard of Peter was about a decade later when an item appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Public Library was custodian to a collection of letters between James Joyce and John Quinn, the lawyer who defended The Little Review when it was prosecuted for obscenity in the United States for publishing Ulysses. This correspondence was to be kept secret until 50 years after Quinn’s death. It was kept in a secured reading room, available only to authorized scholars who were not allowed to bring writing instruments or paper into the room. Peter was going in and memorizing the letters, a few at a time, leaving and writing down what he remembered, returning for the next segment and so on. Back in his tenement apartment he had built a homemade printing press from pipes, bedsprings, lumber scraps and whatever. He handset type and was going to print a limited edition subscription book which he was going to sell for something like a thousand dollars a copy. He got caught. As I recall the news item, there was a threat of prison for Peter, for what I do not know. The present-day account doesn’t mention that.

A couple of years ago I thought of Peter and decided to see what I could find on the Web. I found that his hometown now had a Patrick Kavanagh Center which appears to be intended as a tourism attraction as well as a shrine to their poet and that Peter was giving speeches and lectures there. I wrote an email to them asked if they were interested in Peter anecdotes and when they said they were, I sent the stories above. I never heard another word from them – I guess they didn’t like the stuff I sent. They had given me an email address for Peter but I never got around to contacting him. When I started on this post I found out that he had died at the beginning of 2006. Another regret to add to the pile.

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