One year before the landmark Ninth Street Exhibition, considered the public’s introduction to the work of the New York School Painters, a series of fascinating conversations entitled the Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 laid the groundwork for the bold artistic explorations to follow.
The idea of the Sessions originated in 1948, when the artists William Baziotes, David Hare, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko held a public lecture series entitled Subjects of the Artist, in a loft at 35 East Eighth Street in Greenwich Village.
The lecture series, and the community it sparked, became known as the Subjects of the Artist School, a name meant to emphasize that abstract art was a “serious” field of study for contemporary artists. During the time that the school on East Eighth was open to the public (through May of 1949), it served as “a physical place for everyone interested in advanced art in the United States to meet; the audiences averaged about 150 persons, all that the loft on Eighth Street could hold.” There were no admission requirements for the Subjects of the Artists School. Its promotional materials stated that “the school is for anyone who wishes to reach beyond conventional modes of expression.” It was well placed to serve the artist community of the neighborhood, located only a few blocks away from Cedar Tavern, a prominent hangout spot of the Abstract Expressionist artistic community.
In 1950, the building changed owners and was taken over by Robert Iglehard, Hale Woodruff, and Tony Smith, professors of arts education at New York University. While they renamed the loft building Studio 35, the space remained an important locale for artists to gather and learn from each other.
The Lively Friday evening gatherings at Studio 35 featured conversations and lectures from artists and critics galore, including Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and William de Kooning. But others from the larger community were invited as well, not just painters: according to the transcript of the Sessions, John Cage and other avant garde composers made an appearance, as did one “Richard Hulsenback, onetime dadaist and now psychoanalyst.” Joseph Cornell, known for his stunning found-object “boxes,” screened his never-before-seen short films for a captive audience.
While the casual, public Friday-night gatherings were a success for the community, some artists sought more formalized discussion about the uses of art, abstract art in particular, in the contemporary cultural landscape. An NYU arts education Masters’ candidate named Robert Goodnough had the idea for a three-day seminar, invitation only, to review and recapitulate the important questions raised during the Subjects of the Artist lectures. Taking place from April 21 to 23 of 1950, The Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 were moderated by Richard Lippold, Robert Motherwell, and Alfred H. Barr., Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). There was “no preliminary discussion of what was to be said; nothing was arranged but the dates, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons 4 to 7 pm, April 21-23, 1950.”
As Goodnough states in the introduction to his transcripts of the Artists’ Sessions, these conversations were improvised. “This text,” he says, “retains the spontaneity, the unpreparedness, the rises and falls of intensity and pointedness of the meetings themselves; though a certain pathos and loneliness appears from time to time that was not as evident at the time of meetings as it is on reading the original text.”
The artists in attendance included Janice Biala (more on her in an earlier Off the Grid post), Louise Bourgeois, Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Norman Lewis, Robert Motherwell, Richard Pousette-Dart, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne, and many more. In the transcripts’ introduction, simultaneously printed in Modern Artists in America (1950), the artists state: “Today the extent and degree of Modern Art in America is unprecedented. From East to West numerous galleries and museums, colleges and art schools, private and regional demonstrations display their mounting interest in original plastic efforts.” Yet, they warn, much cultural interest in Abstract art at the time was informed by “prejudice and confused by misunderstanding. In the light of its actual history, the more radical innovations and variations of Modern American Art rarely obtain recognition based on real accomplishment and in terms of its specific problem: the reality of the work.” The goals of those involved in the Sessions was to manifest a society in which “artists exist responsibly” within the “world of imagery and design in which [they] must exist creatively.”
The transcript contains many gems, and reads almost like a stage play. Artists quarrel and debate, and they create improvised “surveys” of each others’ artistic practices and beliefs:
“Barr: Could you raise your hands to this question: “How many name their works of art after they are completed?”
[thirteen raised hands to this question]
How many people name their works when they are halfway through?”
[six raised their hands to this]
How many people have their work named before they start on it?”
[one person responded]”
In another notable excerpt, the artists debate the notion of “artistic community” and the need for it, or lack thereof, at the present moment. They also discuss the role of museums in forming or disrupting community:
“Pousette-Dart: The museums can, at any moment, bless any one of us. The disaster is that they can cause disparity among us too.
Hare: I can’t see that museums have anything to do with the artist. In general, museums are involved with art as decor, while the artist is involved with art as a way of life.
Moderator Lippold: What we are leading up to is why each person paints or sculpts. Why each person thinks he should paint. Do we do it to be a success, to make money, understand ourselves, or what is the purpose: to describe our own creative nature? Why do we use titles? Where do we pick such titles? Where do we begin?”
Nearly sixty years after these meetings occurred, the transcript of Artists Sessions at Studio 35 (1950) offers a glimpse into the simultaneously intimate yet far reaching conversations of some of our neighborhood’s most noteworthy visual artists. The transcripts are available as a republish by Soberscove Press.