PRINT September 1965

An Interview with Friedel Dzubas

Q. Where would you place yourself chronologically in the development of New York painting since the Second World War?

A. You know, I am just by age what they call second generation, a second wave. But in a strange way, I never belonged to that second wave. After the early fifties, it settled into one large camp (aside from which, there were only a few separate figures), but that one large camp represented the people who were for de Kooning, or anything that de Kooning represented. Everybody on the outside of that camp never really managed to group around another center. (Late forties up to around 1953.) The situation in New York was such that de Kooning, spiritually and politically, exercised an enormous power and influence, whether for good or for bad. There was an aura around him, kind of like a secret saint, which Bill carried off with a proper arrogance. People either admired him or they teared him.

Q. Well, what was your relationship to the influence he wielded?

A. I, fortunately or unfortunately, didn’t belong to that camp. Outside of the pictures he showed at his first show (Egan, 1949), I was never that taken by de Kooning. My hero, and I was still young enough to have a hero, was much more a personality and a temperament like Jackson Pollock’s. Of the second wave, there were only two people, who in their feeling, leaned towards Pollock—and they were myself and Helen Frankenthaler. She led a more private life, but I mixed much more with the downtown group, by which I mean, the people of the early days of “The Club.” Most of these people had in no way arrived yet. Being financially, also, on very unsure footing, there was some feeling of belonging together, even if we didn’t agree on certain personalities. But this feeling also had to do with a mutual kind of search. The search was conducted individually, but when you were together with people, you felt that there was a dynamic process of growth—which didn’t relate to any form of acceptance. It was that which really connected us. If there was anything that related us, it was this not yet definite or channeled pushing.

Q. . . . a kind of unrequited ambition?

A. That’s right, and the still existing enormous pressure of the social world around us. You had a feeling of family belonging, of you and your friends against everyone else on the outside.

Q. What were your paintings like at the time, generically?

A. You know, from the beginning, I painted thinly, in physical property—a turpentine painter. That was something not very much in fashion, because there was a kind of Expressionistic solving of any idealistic premises, which brought with it a heaviness of physical matter, as if the very weight of the pigment was an essential part of the expression. I never quite fit. The way Bill worked at that period, he lent himself to be used in the way he did things. There is something in Bill de Kooning’s handwriting, his flick of the wrist that lends itself for other people to take off from. There is a kind of classic predictability in Bill’s movement. Now, with a truly Baroque talent like Pollock, that is not the case. It would have been much more difficult, or almost impossible, to use Pollock’s specific writing without directly copying it.

Q. Was there much materialization of the difference between Pollock and de Kooning among the painters of your generation? That is to say, was there considerable antagonism?

A. Yes. I remember, for instance, that when there was much discussion, there was much provocation. I remember a party that Paul Brach gave, around 1951—there must have been twenty people present—where I caused some sort of a bitter fight by questioning Bill’s absolute superiority. But I have forgotten on what exact ground.

Q. Could it have had anything to do with what might be called de Kooning’s “humanism?”

A. Yes, but just in the word “humanism,” there is something contradictory. I felt, for instance, when he started into the problematical “Woman” series that his painting as such became more and more dehumanized—anti-human, really. There was a kind of bitterness there, a kind of denial, a misusing of values and concepts. Somewhere along the line, you’re better off when you learn to accept whatever you have learned about your limitations, and work within them. With Bill, I’ve always thought that he felt he could never fail. I’ve observed him several times. I was on the same floor with him at 88 East 10th—and was aware of his working habits one summer out at East Hampton. And I was aware to what degree he was torturing himself, really, in forever trying to create some sort of absolute answer, an absolute masterpiece. I think that tendency itself is destructive, destructive to a man’s creative ability. I saw him in East Hampton starting something, and after the first week, people would sneak in to take a look. “Beautiful,” they’d say, it looked absolutely right. And then over the next two months, day by day, whatever was right he would slowly destroy, out of this incredible pride.

Q. Why do you call that pride? It seems to me almost like self-abnegation.

A. I call it pride because there is an assumption made that he is in a position to give the final answer. No man, no matter how he is in doubt, should make that assumption. Furthermore, no one is ever equipped to make that assumption. What we are also moved by in great art, after all, is not just the accomplishment, but to what degree within an accomplished piece, a man fails. That makes for his humanity, after all. To what degree from the point of his fallibility (which should be in the painting) it is an attempt for man to reach for some ideal, towards perfection. But it is the extent of the reach that we are excited by. It is as if—I felt then, and now—he used his great endowment in order to prove something else that had very little to do with painting. I still have a very old-fashioned feeling about painting. Art should be an act of love, not an act of rape.

Q. How did Pollock compare with this aspiration of de Kooning, and what effect did Pollock have upon you?

A. Pollock was a much more instinctual worker. Not that he, too, wasn’t a highly intelligent man, a highly sensitive man. But in the process of working, I think that he was less pursued by some sort of super ideal of perfection. Rather, he was much more determined by a more instinctual drive and satisfaction, in a more physical, less spiritual sense. I think it saved him, in that respect. But you know, if Pollock could paint good pictures and bad pictures, the attitude during the early fifties was that Bill just could not paint a bad picture. Everything was sacred. There was a kind of suffocating academy created right there. Everyone accepted it: people like Alfred Leslie, Grace Hartigan, and Mike Goldberg.

Q. And Kline too?

A. Yes, but Kline in a different way. He may never have expressed any doubt. Yet, you felt that Franz had his own domain. Underneath all that very amusing talk that Franz was capable of, that brilliant non­-sensical talk that he let fly, he kept reservations about many people. I thought he never felt that dogmatic about what he was doing. He never felt he had to make a point, or missionize or defend.

. . . There’s another issue which enters. You know, I have an acquaintanceship with Clement Greenberg. The role of Greenberg was strongly inter­woven with the scene, and this was acknowledged even by people who were not very happy about his presence. In fact, the attitude taken towards him then bespoke something very definite about the whole situation. Because, being the earliest and most profound spokesman on what was going on here in America, and having the admiration of the people that he felt were contributing to this development, very quickly his standing within that group deteriorated to that of animosity and belligerency towards him. It became apparent by 1950 that Greenberg thought more of Pollock than he thought of de Kooning! And for that reason, he became the enemy for many. In a funny way, a very feared, a very respected enemy—but certainly the enemy. And moreso, of the followers of de Kooning, of the second wave, than of de Kooning himself! Much more vehemently, naturally, because they had less to offer.

Q. Now, all this time you’ve been mentioning, essentially, an axis, composed on one front, of Pollock, and on the other, de Kooning. You haven’t as yet discussed those other artists.

A. You’re referring I suppose, to Mark Rothko, Motherwell, Clyfford Still, etc.? As for Hofmann, he was always outside this. He was respected—considered an elder statesman of the thing. But no one was concerned about what he was going to do next year, what is he painting like now. Whereas, Rothko was much more in it, and Motherwell, of course. But Mark managed—maybe because he was older and wiser, I don’t know—but he kept himself separate. He was friendly with everyone, but he never took part. And, I can tell you, most of the people I knew, they just laughed about his painting. They just didn’t take him seriously at all. He and Barney Newman were ridiculed. In the early days, opinion was that Barney Newman was just one of those things of Clement Greenberg. I remember a funny little exchange at Rothko’s first show at Sidney Janis, around 1955. I was very excited, I liked it very much. I came to stand, at one point, near Milton Resnick. Resnick, at that time, was still a vehement admirer and defender of Bill de Kooning. I asked Resnick whether he had seen Rothko’s show, and he replied, “Those goddamned Indian blankets! They bore the hell out of me.”

Q. So the de Kooning satellites had no use whatsoever for this entirely different kind of painting?

A. Absolutely not, and they had no use for anything that happened around Jackson Pollock. The moment Jackson was dead, though, it all changed very quickly—everyone turned out to be close friends of Jackson. The Club, by that time had become a fabled institution, but, actually, its days were over. By the mid-fifties, the Club was a kind of suburban debating society. It was really a holy bore to go there. You went there and looked around, and you got more and more depressed. The people who were exciting didn’t come anymore. They didn’t have to. They were making a little money, and lived a bit more comfortably. They felt more accepted. It was as simple as that. They didn’t need the lousy Club.

Q. What about the Cedar Bar during this period?

A. Well, the Club, at the beginning was very ambitious. We had a lecture program, intense symposiums, existentialism, the contemporary scene, European painting versus American painting. There was still a debate going on as to what was really pertinent. Of course, we were all enormously chauvinistic. Louis Carré tried to bring French painting here—I think it was 1951 or 52. He had rented a gallery on Fifth Avenue in the fifties. He brought Hartung, Bazaine, de Stael, about a dozen. And these people showed up, in comparison to what we were used to, as such weak sisters! It had nothing of the excitement, the freshness, inventiveness of what we had been delivering for the last eight years here. For us, it was like a final triumph. And then after that, you know, slowly French dealers came here to look.

Q. How did the activities of the American dealers shape up during this time? In what ways were they helpful?

A. They were very interested. In the early days of the Club, you would see Sidney Janis very often. Kootz would drop in. All the dealers would visit the Club! They would come downtown, climb up those four flights, and sit around with the boys. But, coming back to the Cedar. You know how painters are: they want to talk, not just listen to lectures. So it happened that during the lectures, two dozen guys would disappear and go to the next bar—which was the Cedar, wait out the lecture, and then come back to the Club, for an evening of dancing, drinking, whatever it was.

Q. What shows do you remember during this period which struck you as particularly exciting?

A. The most interesting show was that Ninth Street show, there’s no question about it. For the first time it was a voluntarily combined roundup of everybody who was doing something worthwhile. In that respect, I have to speak of Leo Castelli because he was very essential in bringing it about. Actually, he was the only uptown man who spent a great deal of his time, and helpful interest, on downtown painters. He got involved on a very personal level. I remember Leo carrying pictures out of Joan Mitchell’s studio. The Ninth Street show, consisting of members of the Club and affiliated people, was a real eye-opener.

Q. Could you say anything about this show called “Critic’s Choice,” organized at Kootz?

A. That was arranged by the strange combination of Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro. It was in 1950, and called “New Talent.” It was Kootz’s idea to bring together the second wave people whom Greenberg and Schapiro felt were the most promising and interesting. But there was a definite difference of taste between what Schapiro stood for, and the choice of Greenberg. I think there was some disagreement about Franz Kline. Schapiro didn’t want to include Franz Kline for some reason. But Greenberg insisted that Kline include one of those little black and whites, whereas Schapiro wanted—if Franz Kline at all—one of those color things that Franz had done before in the forties. It was amusing.

Q. Were you, and Helen Frankenthaler, involved with the problem of color expression in painting, and, if so, how did you solve that problem? What paths did you strike out?

A. Our involvement, or let me say, my involvement, was not so much leaning towards Pollock on the basis of an esthetic affinity. It was a leaning towards Jackson’s specific temperament. There was a kind of unexpectedness in Pollock, from show to show, that greatly excited and stimulated me.

Q. Now, I want to ask you about some of the theory behind this painting. For example, the gathering consciousness of ideas about gesture and action.

A. Yes, let me go into that. I have had misgivings about the mis-naming and mis-labeling of much of that kind of painting. You know, that which was later on called “Action Painting,” and which had something to do with the spontaneous, immediate act, directly demonstrating ideas and feeling, presupposed that, in order to speak truthfully, in order to speak straight, there should be as little a time lapse as possible between the occurrence of the idea and the execution. As if one felt that the shorter the corruptive time span between the immediate impulse and the manifestation of that impulse, the stronger, and, let me say, the truer that impulse could be realized. That is one of the ideas of “action painting,” I would say. There I felt that the people who used that label, including Bill, but certainly including most of the people who were around Bill, the second wave, had no right to that claim. Because I felt that they were involved academically and completely in an infinite qualification of the process. It wasn’t just the one spontaneous gesture; no, once they got one gesture down, they would, just by the heaviness of their pigmentation for instance, constantly qualify on that. Now, to what degree, then, they distinguished themselves from the academic process of painting, I do not know. Also, the very violence of the action gesture should speak strength and spontaneity. But that also became very doubtful because I came to see that their seeming violence and vitality was studied and brought intently about by nothing that had to do with violence itself. I mean, violence as an act, is an eruptive, spontaneous, singular gesture. The moment I qualify it, by making it more violent or less violent, or change from pink to blue, it certainly can’t speak about violence anymore. And then I can’t speak about the inherent vitality of violence. Therefore, a contradiction. My feeling, for instance, in regard to Helen Frankenthaler and myself relative to Pollock was, if there was something like “action,” then Helen Frankenthaler and I were much truer to this idea just by the very fact that we painted thin. I did not correct my movements; if they were false, I had to leave them false because I felt that the thinner I paint, the less I can lie, so to speak, the less I can qualify. If I qualify spontaneous action, I must lie. Either they deceived themselves, or they misused an illusion they didn’t quite understand. That’s why many of the people, as the fifties progressed, produced such empty looking canvases. There was a lot of motion, but that motion seemed to be empty and without meaning. You cannot mechanically materialize spontaneity. How can one direct spontaneity? One can only rely on the truth of the moment; one cannot rely on the truth of the past experience. These people never relied on the truth of the moment. They were scared.