PRINT September 1965

The Club

FOR NOSTALGIA-PRONE ARTISTS who frequented the Waldorf Cafeteria, the lectures at the “Subjects of the Artist” School and Studio 35, the Club and the Cedar Street Tavern, the decade following the Second World War was “the good old days.” Uncontaminated by success, artists were supposed to have been purer then, more comradely and preoccupied with artistic matters. For others—the careerists—the social history of Abstract Expressionism, once it became important, has been something to rewrite. With an eye to future position, they have tried to change the past. Both attitudes (aggravated by natural lapses of memory) have led to myth-making, which, like any distortion of past events, saps them of authenticity. The following notes attempt to reconstruct what actually happened. They were culled from dozens of interviews, personal experiences, surviving records and printed memoirs.*

Many of the artists who founded the Club met in the 1930s while on the Federal Art Project. Some got to know one-another at meetings of the Artists’ Union and the American Abstract Artists, or in Hans Hofmann’s school, or in such restaurants as Romany Marie, the San Remo, the Stewart Cafeteria on 23rd and 7th Avenue and the one on Sheridan Square. During the war, the Waldorf Cafeteria on 6th Avenue off 8th Street became a popular late-at-night hangout for downtown artists. However, they were not comfortable there; whenever the weather permitted, they gathered in nearby Washington Square Park. The cafeteria was a cruddy place, full of Greenwich Village bums, delinquents and cops. The management did not want the artists; they were coffee drinkers who preferred to eat where the fare was better and cheaper (like the Riker’s on 8th Street near University Place). To harass them, the Waldorf management allowed only four persons to sit at a table, forbade smoking, and, for a time, even locked the toilet. Therefore, a group of artists decided to get their own meeting place, and in the late fall of 1949, met at Ibram Lassaw’s studio and organized the Club.

The Club was preceded a year earlier by the “Subjects of the Artist” School, but the School was not its parent body, as has often been claimed. The two were formed independently. The School was founded by William Baziotes, David Hare, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko, all of whom had had one-man shows at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery between 1944 and 1946. With the exception of Rothko, the other three had been close to the Surrealist Government-in-Exile in New York during World War II. Clyfford Still participated in the initial planning of the School but did not teach; Barnett Newman joined the faculty somewhat later. To broaden the experience of the students, other advanced artists were invited to lecture on Friday evenings. These sessions were open to the public, and many of the artists who organized the Club either spoke or attended.

After one semester the School closed, and in the fall of 1949, Robert Iglehart, Tony Smith and Hale Woodruff—teachers at the New York University School of Art Education—and some of their students, notably Robert Goodnough, took over the loft, named it Studio 35, and continued the Friday evenings until April, 1950. Among those who lectured during the two seasons, 1948–49 and 1949–50, were Hans Arp, Baziotes, Nicholas Calas, John Cage, Joseph Cornell (who showed his films), Jimmy Ernst, Herbert Ferber, Fritz Glarner, Adolph Gottlieb, Harry Holtzman, John Hulsenbeck, Kees, Willem de Kooning, Levesque, Motherwell, Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Harold Rosenberg and Rothko. The final activity of Studio 35 was a three-day closed conterence, April 21–23, 1950—some six months after the inception of the Club. The proceedings were stenographically recorded, edited by Motherwell, Reinhardt and Goodnough, and published in Modern Artists in America, 1951. In the introduction to this book, the reason for the decline of Studio 35 is given: “These meetings . . . tended to become repetitious at the end, partly because of the public asking the same questions at each meeting.” The Club was to avoid this problem by limiting participation in its activities mainly to artists and by abstaining from any attempt at adult education.

According to a 1951 list, the charter members of the Club were Lewin Alcopley, George Cavallon, Charles Egan, Gus Falk, Peter Grippe, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, Landes Lewitin, Conrad Marca-Relli, E. A. Navaretta, Phillip Pavia, Milton Resnick, Ad Reinhardt, Jan Roelants, James Rosati, Ludwig Sander, Joop Sanders, Aaron Ben-Shmuel (who was at the first meeting but soon dropped out) and Jack Tworkov. They rented a loft at 39 E. 8th Street and fixed it up. The Club was governed by a voting committee, consisting of those charter members who remained active and others it elected. By the end of 1952, some twenty more were added, including Leo Castelli, Herman Cherry, John Ferren, Philip Guston, Harry Holtzman, Elaine de Kooning, Al Kotin, Nicholas Marsicano, Mercedes Matter, Joseph Pollet, Robert Richenburg, Harold Rosenberg and Esteban Vicente. However, the dominant force in Club affairs was Phillip Pavia who made up any financial deficit and arranged the programs.

All Club rules were determined by the voting committee without recourse to the membership. No policy established by one voting meeting was deemed to limit the actions of subsequent meetings. In fact, no one seemed to remember just what decisions had been made from month to month, and minutes were kept only sporadically. For example, as late as 1955, a sub-committee was appointed to define what a charter member was. To become a member, one had to be sponsored by a voting member and approved by the committee. A black-ball method was used; two negative votes (it had to be two because Lewitin always voted no) and a candidate was rejected, but this was occasionally ignored. New members were selected because of their compatibility and not because of how they painted. In the beginning, there was an initiation fee of $10 (sometimes waived for poorer artists), presumably to buy a chair, and monthly dues of $3; later, the dues was lowered to $10 or $12 annually.

Membership jumped quickly. By the summer of 1950, the original 20 had been tripled. An entry in the minutes a year later reads: “77 members + 11 deadheads.” Most artists who came to be labeled Abstract Expressionists joined within a few months, including the faculty of the “Subjects of the Artist” School, Rothko excepted, although he appeared now and then at the beginning. Frequent attendance, however, was another matter. The regulars tended to be those who had met at the Waldorf, and their friends who lived south of 14th Street. In 1955, a voting meeting limited total Club membership to 150. Each member in good standing was permitted to bring guests or to write them notes of admission. But few outsiders, if persistent, were denied entry; it was usually sufficient to announce the name of the member who was supposed to have invited you. At first, guests came in free; later, there was a 50 cent charge, presumably paid by the member, not his guest, to emphasize the private character of the Club. Initially, only coffee was served. Drinking liquor was not the thing to do; besides, most members could not afford it. Subsequently, a bottle was bought to oil up the speakers, and still later, liquor was provided after the panels, the costs defrayed by passing a basket. Games were prohibited, but there was dancing.

The Club was formed to provide a place where artists could escape the loneliness of their studios, meet their peers to exchange ideas of every sort, including tips on good studios and bargains in art materials (a perpetual topic). But there was a more compelling, though not always conscious, reason: mutual support. Reacting against a public which, when not downright hostile to their work, was indifferent or misunderstanding, vanguard artists created their own audience, mostly of other artists—their own art world. Further, for many, existing styles and their traditions—social and magic realism, regionalism and geometric abstraction—had lost their meanings, and new ones had to be discovered. Therefore, artists gathered to consider what such new values might be—and whether they constituted a common culture—and to find ways of describing and interpreting them. Their needs were urgent enough to keep “these highly individualistic artists together, their ideas criss-crossing and overlapping in a conflict that would tear apart any other togetherness,” as Pavia put it. “They faced each other with curses mixed with affection, smiling and evil-eyed each week for years.” (It Is,  #5, Spring, 1960.)

The Club was meant to be private, and informal. At first, every member had a key and came when he pleased. Meetings were generally pre-arranged by phone calls on the spur of the moment. However, the Club soon took on a more public and formal character, first by inviting speakers (prompted by the Studio 35 sessions), and then by arranging panels. (This move was strongly, but unsuccessfully, resisted.) In keeping with its dual purpose, free-wheeling Round Table Discussions, limited to members, were held on Wednesdays (until 1954); on Fridays, lectures, symposiums and concerts were presented which were open to guests who were mainly critics, historians, curators, collectors, dealers and avant-garde allies in the other arts. The programs, organized by Pavia until the spring of 1955, by Ferren the following year, and by a committee headed by myself from 1956 to the end of the Club in the spring of 1962, became the major activity.

In assuming a semi-public function, the Club both reflected and contributed to the changed nature of the New York art scene. During the late forties, shows by Pollock, de Kooning, Still, Rothko, Motherwell, Kline and other Abstract Expressionists in the galleries of Peggy Guggenheim, Howard Putzel, Betty Parsons, Sam Kootz and Charles Egan, received growing recognition. Such critics as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Thomas Hess and Robert Goldwater called public attention to these exhibitions. What had been an underground movement came out into the open. Convinced that the art they were creating was more vital, radical and original than any being produced elsewhere, the artists themselves began to demand their just due from art officialdom, or, to put it more accurately, to denounce discrimination. In 1948, a meeting called by artists at the Museum of Modern Art censured hidebound art critics in general and a statement issued by the Boston Museum of Contemporary Art attacking modernism. Again, in 1950, at the three-day conference at Studio 35, Gottlieb suggested that a jury which had chosen a show entitled “American Art Today, 1950” for the Metropolitan Museum be repudiated as hostile to modern art. A letter, signed by 18 artists, was sent to New York newspapers; this protest was widely publicized, and the signers labeled “The Irascible 18.”

The fact that the Waldorf artists organized a club rather than choose a new restaurant, as had been the practice, indicates a change in attitude. However, it must be stressed that the Club never had a collective mission or promoted an esthetic program. It is true that the majority of its founders worked in abstract modes, but they were a diverse group with intents as irreconcilable as de Kooning’s and Reinhardt’s. It is also true that most of the abstract artists inclined to Expressionism. Naturally, their art became the main topic of discussion, particularly because each member insisted on talking about his own work and experience—a novel turn in advanced New York art-talk which in the past had focused on the School of Paris. Moreover, the Abstract Expressionists generated a sense of excitement. As Goldwater remarked: “The consciousness of being on the frontier, of being ahead rather than behind, of having absolutely no models however immediate or illustrious, of being entirely and completely on one’s own—this was a new and heady atmosphere.” (Quadrum, No. 8, 1960.)

But the Abstract Expressionists abhorred all fixed systems, ideologies and categories—anything that might curb expressive possibilities. Extreme individualism was a passionate conviction: “We agree only to disagree” was the unwritten motto. Therefore, no manifestoes, no exhibitions, no pictures on the walls (size and placement might indicate a hierarchy), and, as much as possible, no names of contemporaries, lest through iteration some be made heroes and, as Goldwater quipped, to prevent riots. Pavia deserves special mention for keeping the Club neutral and preventing it from becoming the platform for any individual or group.

The early lectures covered many facets of modern culture. Among the speakers were philosophers William Barrett, Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Bluecher, composer Edgar Varese, social critic Paul Goodman, Joseph Campbell, Father Flynn of Fordham University, and art critic Thomas Hess. There were also parties held in honor of artists such as Alexander Calder, Marino Marini and Dylan Thomas. A selection of events in 1951–52 denotes the range of artists’ interests and esthetic positions:

Sept. 28: Martin James Jed an “Inquiry into Avant-Garde Art.”

Oct. 12: Peter Blake spoke on “The Collaboration of Art and Architecture.”

Nov. 9: “An Evening with Max Ernst,” introduced by Motherwell.

Nov. 23: Lionel Abel lectured on “The Modernity of the Modern World.”

Dec. 14: Abel again, on “Work or Free Work.”

The following week, Hubert Kappel spoke on Heidegger.

Jan. 18: The symposiums on Abstract Expressionism, prompted by the publication of Thomas Hess’ “Abstract Painting,” began. The first panel, titled “Expressionism,” consisted of Harold Rosenberg (moderator), Baziotes, Guston, Hess, Kline, Reinhardt and Tworkov.

Jan. 25: “Abstract Expressionism II”: John Ferren (moderator), Peter Busa, Burgoyne Diller, Perle Fine, Adolph Gottlieb, Harry Holtzman and Elaine de Kooning (who sent a paper which was read).

Feb. 1: “Abstract Expressionism III”: Martin James (moderator), George Amberg, Robert Goldwater, Ruth Field Iglehart, Ad Reinhardt and Kurt Seligmann.

Feb. 20: A conversation between Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, George McNeil and Jack Tworkov was moderated by Mercedes Matter.

March 7: A group of younger artists, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Alfred Leslie, Joan Mitchell, Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers was moderated by John Myers, continuing the discussion on Abstract Expressionism.

March 14: John Cage spoke on “Contemporary Music,” introduced by Frederick Kiesler.

March 21: James Johnson Sweeney led a discussion on “Structural Concepts in Twentieth Century Art.” The chairman was Peter Busa.

March 28: “The Purist Idea”: Harry Holtzman (moderator), Paul Brach, John Ferren, James Fitzsimmons, Ad Reinhardt.

April 11: “The Image in Poetry and Painting”: Nicholas Calas (moderator), Edwin Denby, David Gascoyne, Frank O’Hara, Ruthann Todd.

April 25: “The Problem of the Engaged Artist”: John Ferren (moderator), Abel, Cage, Denby, Navaretta.

May 2: Dr. Frederick Perls spoke on “Creativeness in Art and Neurosis.”

May 14: “New Poets”: Larry Rivers (chairman), John Ashbury, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler.

May 21: “Abstract Color Films”: Lewin Alcopley (chairman), Ted Connant, Eldon Reed, Bill Sebring.

Of all the subjects discussed, the one that recurred most often and that created the hottest controversy was the problem of community, of defining shared ideas, interests and inclinations. Much as the Abstract Expressionists hated the thought of a collective style, its possible existence concerned them. Attempts to indicate a tendency had been made earlier, i.e., a show titled “The Intrasubjectives,” with a foreword by Rosenberg, at the Kootz Gallery in the fall of 1949. The issue of group identity was also raised at the Studio 35 sessions in April, 1950. Gottlieb said, “I think, despite any individual differences, there is a basis of getting together on mutual respect and the feeling that painters here are not academic. . . .” Newman picked up this point, “Do we artists really have a community? If so, what makes it a community?” This question was central to the symposiums on Abstract Expressionism (Pavia called it “The Unwanted Title”) at the Club in 1952. Eight panels were entitled “Has The Situation Changed?” in April and May, 1954 and another series had the same heading in January, 1958 and February, 1959. Four panels, “What Is The New Academy?” in the spring of 1959 were continued in 17 statements by artists published in Art News, Summer and September, 1959. However, no consensus was ever arrived at.

Part of the difficulty in defining and clarifying shared ideas was the verbal style of the Club. Artists refused to begin with formal analysis, pictorial facts or the look of works. This approach might have implied that Abstract Expressionism was a fixed and established style whose attributes could be identified. Further, the idea of style assumed that making a certain kind of picture was a primary aim. This, the Abstract Expressionists denied. Indeed, most adopted an unpremeditated method to avoid style. The problem of how and why an artist involved himself in painting was more exciting to them than the mechanics of picture-making. The consciousness of being on the frontier, of being on one’s own, produced a new and heady atmosphere, but without models to fall back on, the sense of possible failure was intensified. These mixed feelings of elation, doubt and anxiety had to be communicated, partly because they fed into the work, and partly because the talk about them reassured artists that their essays into uncharted areas were not delusional.

Club members supposed that their peers understood how a picture “worked” in formal terms. Therefore, they tended to talk about the function of art, the nature of the artist’s moral commitment and his existential role (but with little reference to Existentialism). That is, they tried to transliterate their creative experience rather than the art object. Conversation was treated as the verbal counterpart of the painting activity, and artists tried to convey what they really felt in both. This created frustrating difficulties, because such ideas can rarely be checked against specific works. As Goldwater wrote: “The proceedings always had a curious air of unreality. One had a terrible time following what was going on. The assumption was that everyone knew what everyone else meant, but it was never put to the test; no one ever pointed to an object and said, see, that’s what I’m talking about (and like or don’t like). Communication was always entirely verbal. For artists, whose first (if not final) concern is with the visible and the tangible, this custom assumed the proportions of an enormous hole at the center.” Self-confession did lead artists to take liberties with, and to strain, language and logic, but there were compensations. What they had to say, they said directly (to the point of brutality), personally and passionately. At times, this resulted in incoherent and egotistic bombast, but more frequently, it led to original, trenchant and provocative insights. The verbal style of the Club also generated bitter personality conflicts, for, as Goldwater remarked, “Since the artist identified with his work, intention and result were fused, and he who questioned the work, in however humble a fashion, was taken to be doubting the man.” (Quadrum, No. 8, 1960.)

Some of the special flavor of the Club was caught by Jack Tworkov in an entry in his journal of April 26, 1952: “The enthusiastic clash of ideas that takes place in the Club has one unexpected and, in my belief, salutary effect—it destroys, or at least reduces, the aggressiveness of all attitudes. One discovers that rectitude is the door one shuts on an open mind. The Club is a phenomenon—I was at first timid in admitting that I like it. Talking has been suspect. There was the prospect that the Club would be regarded either as bohemian or as a self-aggrandizing clique. But now I’m consciously happy when I’m there. I enjoy the talk, the enthusiasm, the laughter, the dancing after the discussion. There is a strong sense of identification. I say to myself these are the people I love, that I love to be with. Here I understand everybody, however inarticulate they are. Here I forgive everyone their vices, and I’m learning to admire their virtues. How dull people are elsewhere by comparison. I think that 39 East 8th is an unexcelled university for an artist. Here we learn not only about all the possible ideas in art, but learn what we need to know about philosophy, physics, mathematics, mythology, religion, sociology, magic.” (It Is, No. 4.)

Despite the bluntness of the discourse at the Club, the panel format made it somewhat self-conscious and inhibited. The place for more informal and private conversation came to be the Cedar Street Tavern. Artists began to go to the bar when the panels got dull, or after them. Then, they started to gather there every night when the Club was not open. They arrived late and stayed late. In fact, there was an entirely different clientele in the day-time: New York University professors and students, and a group of horse-racing enthusiasts.

Unlike the Waldorf Cafeteria, the Cedar catered to artists. But its owners knew better than to make it look like an artists’ bar, for this would have attracted the public and would have driven out the artists. Therefore, no paintings on the walls, driftwood, travel posters and other arty emblems of Greenwich Village bohemia. Nor did the management turn it into a neighborhood bar by introducing television. Artists were also attracted by the food which was fair and inexpensive, and by the fact that credit was extended when one got to know the owners. However, the move to the Cedar did reflect a new affluence—in the switch from coffee to alcohol. Like the Club, the Cedar’s decor was neutral, interchangeable with thousands all over America, reflecting the artists’ desire for anonymity. There was nothing to distinguish it as an artists’ hangout; in the front, a bar; in the rear, tables. At one time a drab green, the bar was “remodeled” in the late fifties and painted an equally nondescript grey.

Lower middle-class colorlessness became protective coloration. It shielded the artists from the “creative-livers,” and the Beats, from Madison Avenue types who posed as bohemians after five o’clock, from the chic of all varieties who came slumming, and from Brooklyn and Bronx tourists who came to gape at the way-out characters. To further discourage these interlopers, the artists tended to dress soberly. Indeed, the Cedar typified a “no-environment”—de Kooning’s term for the milieu of contemporary man—no nostalgia, romance or picturesqueness. It may also be, as Harold Rosenberg has suggested, that an artist could best engage in finding his personality in as neutral an environment as possible. The very name, or more accurately, misname—the Cedar Street Tavern, for a bar located on University Place—symbolized, unintentionally of course, the refusal of its customers to accept fixed categories. An establishment that could not get its own name straight must be the right place for a group that could never decide on a name for its club.

The idea of mounting an exhibition of the works of Club members—like a big salon—was raised many times, but was rejected because it might indicate a trend or position and curb the open character of the Club. However, in the spring of 1951, it was finally decided to have a show, but not under the direct auspices of the Club. A group of charter members with the help of Leo Castelli (who, among other things, put up the rent money) leased an empty store at 60 E. 9th Street (next door to the studios of Kline, Marca-Relli and Ferren), chose the artists and installed the show. Sixty-one artists were listed on the announcement of the 9th Street Show, which, in the main, read like a Who’s Who of Abstract Expressionism. However, with the exception of Motherwell, painters who had been connected with, or close to, the “Subjects of the Artist” School (Baziotes, Gottlieb, Newman, Rothko and Still) did not submit canvases, a sign of their growing indifference to the Club by 1951. Most of the exhibitors did not think that the show would attract much attention, but it did. There was a large crowd on opening night, May 21, and the rest of the show was well attended (it closed on June 10). The 9th Street Show generated a sense of exultation, a feeling that something important had been achieved in American art.

After 1955, the year Pavia left the Club, the makeup of the Club changed. Older members began to attend less often, even though many continued to pay dues. The beginnings of this turn were evident as early as May, 1952, when a voting meeting was devoted to the topic of disbanding the Club because it had outlived its function. A younger generation took over, the “inheritors,” as Rosenberg called them, but that is another matter.

Irving Sandler



*Although still fragmentary and tentative, these notes will serve as the basis for a more extensive treatment in my book-in-progress on Abstract Expressionism.