“I don’t go around looking for trouble, and yet these experiences often lead me out of sculpture to realms of danger — fantastic, literal, psychic danger.” — George Spaventa, ARTnews, September 1961
It is always exciting to find more strands of the expansive history in our neighborhoods; whether incidentally, or while following a direct lead. In this case, it was the latter that led us to the Whitney Museum’s archive of annual exhibition catalogs, spanning from 1932 to the present, while furthering our work to protect and recognize the area South of Union Square.
At 84 East 10th Street, just two doors down from Willem de Kooning’s famous 88 East 10th Street studio, there once was a Villager whom Elaine de Kooning called “a master of eloquent silences.”
George Spaventa, amidst these silences, was a sculptor, painter, and founding faculty member of The New York Studio School (founded in September 1964 in a loft on Broadway, and moved, after a successful first year, to 8 West 8th Street, the original site of the Whitney Museum), where he taught until he died. Born in New York on February 22, 1918, he studied at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art (288 East 10th Street) with sculptor Peter Agostini and the painter Nicolas Carone, and at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design (304 East 44th Street). He enlisted in the US Army as a non-combatant for three years, and after World War II, took classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in the Montparnasse district of Paris, France. This is where he met Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, a lasting inspiration in his life and work.
When Spaventa returned to New York in 1951, he lived on East 11th Street, and kept his studio at 84 East 10th (until he was evicted in 1970, spurring his move into Westbeth Artists Housing). He joined the New York School in 1955, and, with his peers, established what became known as the “10th Street Style,” an enormous moment in art history.
While he had been featured in group shows, Spaventa’s first solo exhibition was at the B.C. Holland Gallery in Chicago in 1962; and his first in New York was in 1964, at Poindexter Gallery on West 56th Street. Among scattered international shows, his work was shown at the MoMA in 1959, the Whitney Museum in 1962 (when Untitled Female Figure, pictured below, was selected for their Annual Exhibition) and 1966; and, posthumously, at the Gruenebaum Gallery on West 57th Street in 1980.
Despite this layered and noteworthy history, Spaventa never became a household name in his lifetime. Long after his death, however, his fellow artists and friends (to name a few: the de Koonings, poets Frank O’Hara and Stanley Kunitz, alleged lover Grace Hartigan, Esteban Vicente, Milton Resnick, and William King) held him and his art in very high regard.
“His work gives me the same feeling as chamber music — the scale reaches the sky.” — Esteban Vicente, 1979.
Together, they frequented the Cedar Tavern on University Place (more commonly called “the Cedar bar,” or simply, “the Cedar”) with a swarm of other local artists and poets. In a September 1961 issue of ARTnews, Spaventa painted a vivid picture of an evening at the bar that inspired a sculpture (although he did not say which one). One can see why fellow artist and founding member of the Studio School, Sidney Geist, spoke of Spaventa’s “excruciating sensitivity.”
“I had the feeling that a life situation created a sculpture. It was closing time at the Cedar bar. Someone, maybe the bartender, shouted that it was all over. There was a moment of silence and immobility and a current of deep feeling ran through the place. For a split second I felt that everyone was fixed in the situation: a woman in a booth hugging the wall; the owner leading three men out the door; a heavy-set man outside pointing east. They all seemed connected by a mystical logic; the man pointing east, pointing for a cab, was the only one for whom there was a tomorrow; for the three men there was no promise of tomorrow; the woman was hugging the wall because nobody wanted her.” — George Spaventa, ARTnews, September 1961 (ctn.)
On June 22, 1978, one week after Spaventa died in his Westbeth apartment at age 60, a piece by a man named Donald Bond was featured in the Suffolk County News. It reads as an electric account of the artist, their friendship, and another distinctive evening at the Cedar.
Bond wrote, “It was twi-light, a time to count oneself among a handful of Cedar regulars who routinely ignored the temptation to relocate in East Hampton for the weekend.” He and his fellow regulars were confused to see Spaventa enter the bar in a particularly stormy state, that night. It turned out that his girlfriend had left him, headed to East Hampton on her own…and had all of his paintings with her. Drinks were filled and refilled in silence. Then, Spaventa left abruptly, only to shock everyone again when he reappeared at 2 AM, “grinning ear to ear.”
He had taken a cab on the two-and-a-half hour journey to East Hampton, cut his paintings free — the canvases now frayed at the edges — from their stretcher bars, and rode straight back to the Cedar. The cab driver “was astonished by the madness of it all and drove back to Greenwich Village without a word to his passenger.”
“Later he told us, with the same earnestness Vincent Van Gogh probably explained away his lost ear, ‘she can walk out of my life…but not with my life.’”
Stay tuned here on Off the Grid, and on our frequently updated interactive South of Union Square map to learn more about other artists and luminaries who lived and worked in the area, and click here to support our ongoing efforts to extend landmark protections to this neighborhood.
A special thank you to Emily Hetzel and the team at Pittsburgh, PA’s Common Crow Books for preserving such an excellent copy of the Gruenebaum Gallery exhibition catalog. It served as a fact-checker and revealed years of art and scarce information; including glowing quotes from some of the legendary people who knew George Spaventa the best.