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Finding George Spaventa #SouthOfUnionSquare

“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

Spaventa’s Walking Woman (1956) on the cover of the exhibition catalog from “A Tribute to George Spaventa” at the Gruenebaum Gallery on West 57th Street in 1980.

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.”

“Georgio Spaventa” ca. 1950, by Walter Silver. Courtesy of The New York Public Library. Posed here with his sculpture, The Actor, dated ‘56 on its base.

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.

Hilton Kramer, “Intimate Sculptures of George Spaventa” January 11, 1980, The New York Times
Untitled Female Figure (1962, bronze)

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.

“Grace Hartigan, Aristodimos Kaldis, George Spaventa, Al Kotin in booth, at Cedar Tavern” by John Cohen. 1959. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum.

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.)

Seated Figure (ca. 1962, bronze)
Cat (1964, bronze)

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.’” 

The Kiss (ca. 1968, bronze)

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.

3 responses to “Finding George Spaventa #SouthOfUnionSquare

  1. Find myself stunned by this wonderful view into my Uncle George’s art and life. My brother and sister and I have many memories of George sitting with our family over Thanksgiving dinner at our north NewJersey suburban home. One of our Mother’s several older brothers, George was particularly fond of her and even painted her from an early photo that I display in my current NJ home. My siblings and I have followed his work and history as best we could and now see your research has produced even more insight into a life and personality we thought we new. Each of us has several original pieces of his work proudly displayed in our homes along with additional archival fragments about this man we came to admire greatly as we grew into adults. We also actually have a voice recording of George from the 1960’s in which he narrates an eerily somber short story he wrote about an experience he had while walking near 10th street in search of a source for watch repair. Also included on the recording is his telling of a weekend he’d then recently spent in the Hamptons with Jackson Pollock and others which included some fishing on Long Island Sound. There is also a separate recorded personal review by George of a lecture he’d just attended about the the art of the BauHaus movement, in which he expressed a less than favorable opinion of the lecturer’s position on the importance and significance of those works. Fascinating
    in so many ways, hearing his voice sends shivers every time. Thank you for the opportunity to share our experiences of this man, a legend in our family.

  2. Dec. 24, 2023
    Dear Ms. McClintock
    RE: Finding George Spaventa #SouthofUnionSquare
    Hello, I’m writing to you about this article on George Spaventa. I didn’t have an opportunity to read it at the time of its release in July, but discovered after receiving a notice from my brother that one of George Spaventa’s pieces was coming up for auction.. “The Walking Woman” pictured on the cover of his tribute catalogue mentioned in your article. I am of course Dan Osnato’s sister. He just beet me by a few days writeing you before I got the chance.
    Here is my interpretation of your article.
    George was one of seven siblings. Two other brothers and four sisters, one of which was my mother. Of course making him my Uncle. Growing up, in the 60’s and early 70’s my two brothers and I saw George every Christmas and Thanksgiving. We all knew our Uncle as the “Artist “in the family. We were taken by our parents to some of his exhibitions in New York including the one at the Whitney in 1966. Though at that time I was a fairly young child and did not appreciate the importance of what I was seeing. Both my brothers and I thought of him only as “Uncle George” He was a bit of an imposing figure; a big man, who smoked constantly, laughed a lot, probably dank a lot, and loved us kids. He died when I was in my early 20s, and remember going to his funeral as well as the tribute showing a few years later at the Gruenebaum Gallery in 1980. And later still, I was invited to the opening of a group exhibition called Works on Paper from the 1950’s and 60’s at the Sidney Mushin Gallery at Baruch College on East 22nd street in 1992. The exhibit was called “Paths to Discovery the New York School” it included the works of many of the then well-known New York artist from the 10th Street scene including paintings from , Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Polllock , Peter Agostini, Joan Mitchell and many others , including my Uncle George Spaventa! … I was thrilled. My take-away from that evening was terrific! Beside the fact that Georges work was included with so many big names of the era, I was most taken by how many of George’s collogues and piers approached me that evening and spoke so fondly of him and how much they had admired his talent. Now, So many years later, when reading this article, I thought to reach out and thank you for this recognition of his life, work, and his contribution to the Art scene of his time. Over the years since his death, my family and I have tried to keep George’s work “Alive” in the public eye. So this beautifully written article was most appreciated.
    I admire the efforts you are making to preserve the area and highlight places like the “The New School” as I used to hear it called, and people like my Uncle George Spaventa, who helped to shape new a generation of young artists with his teachings. Thank you again. Happy Holidays!
    Cindy Dudek
    P.S. The “Walking Woman will be at the Nadeau’s auction house in Windsor Connecticut on January 1, 2024.

  3. I came across this article today.
    At first sight, i was taken by the humanity of George’s work.
    In the early 1990s i purchased one of his “seated figure” as shown above in the article.
    It is the most meaningful object i have, and has the ability to keep me grounded when life seems uncertain.
    I am lucky to have it.

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