(Speech - 1980)
I see by the lecture brochure for this winter that you have had Dr. Taylor, Dr. Kuspit, and Dr. Hope, all lectures on art. After tonight you will have two more lectures on art, John Lefbre and William Leiberman. After that you will have an old friend, Ted Roszak, the sculptor. That makes five lecturers on art, one painter and one sculptor.
Art history is all in books also, written sometimes well, sometimes badly, by critics and art historians, few of whom paint paintings. From the catalogue of my retrospective show at the State Museum at Trenton N.J. this past winter, I would like to read to you an excerpt entitled "Statement by the Artist". It reads: "At a very early age I knew that I wanted to be a painter; no other way of life held any attraction for me. This burning youthful ambition led me to the art school of the Nati onal Academy of Design, and since then I have never worked seriously at anything but painting, or to be exact, the visual arts. In the past I have had minimal success in trying to explain my work to others, so I must leave it to speak for itself.
So I will not talk about art, or theories of art, or the isms or the ops or pops of art.
Well then what can a painter talk about? He might talk about what it is like to be a painter - what it was like trying to become a painter in my time, my generation of American artists.
Let's go back to my original "Statement by the Artist" in the Trenton Museum catalogue. Actually it was cleaned up and what writers call edited, by Zoltan Buki, curator of painting at the Trenton Museum. It went more like this, quote, "When I finished my first oil painting at the age of fourteen, I felt I had to make a decision about my future. Where I was born and raised, on the east side of Manhattan, I could choose to be a respectable gagster and be rich; or choose to be a painter, which in 1921 was a very questionable profession. I chose painting, mostly because I had visions of skylit studios, nude models, and all that. It did not turn out like that at all.
I must have been the very model of what I later read, in a book I no longer remember, by a writer I no longer remember, who wrote the most succinct statement I have read about what an artist must be. He wrote: "An artist is the servant of his emotions, which are dictated by his psyche and cannot be ignored." In short, if you must be an artist, you have no alternative.
There were at that time no workshop art departments in the colleges. We had the Chouinard Art School in L.A., the Chicago Art Institute, the Pennsylvania Academy, The Boston Museum School, The Art Students League and the National Academy of Design in New York City. In these professional Art schools you could find, in one class, students ranging from the ages of sixteen to forty. This made day-to-day student contact exciting. I remember a forty-year-old painting student who, as a seaman had been around the world many times; half the year on the sea and half the year in school.
Unlike many of today's college art departments where the student must satisfy the demands of many teachers, we were free to work as we pleased, to satisfy our individual needs.
So we went to art school. The old time, free form, no degree art school. You paid for your classes, and when you had enough of that, you quit. I did hang in for seven years at the old National Academy of Design school, nine hours a day, five days a week, and at the age of twenty-two I quit. We had lots of study and training. But unlike the young doctor, lawyer, engineer, and so forth, who, in a reasonably short time after entering the field they were trained for, are remunerated for their work, the artist was not.
What does a twenty-two year old artist do to make enough income to stay alive? DeKooning painted apartments, Shahn did commercial drawings, I did framing; anything and everything. This is the schizophrenic time in almost every young artist's life, and, unfortunately, "young" goes on for a long time. In a review of one of my exhibitions when I was fifty years old I was shocked to read that I was a young painter. One actually had to live two lives: one to earn money in order to pay for the other life, devoted to the development and production of one's real work.
The story we liked was the one about a group of artists sitting around talking about the different kinds of painters - primitive painters, primitive professionals, amateurs, Sunday painters, professionals - when one of them says: "that's all nonsense, there are only two kinds of painters, there are amateurs and professionals, and the only difference between them is that the professional painter stays home and paints while his wife goes out to work."
Of course, the most luck was to marry a school teacher, mostly female at that time. They always had jobs and were out of the house all day. Perfect! I did not find a school teacher, but I was lucky enough! I met and married a commercial illustrator who could earn more money in a day than I could in a week. Things went along fine for a while.
Unfortunately, there came a time a few years later when everything fell through that big hole called the depression, and almost every one of us was on a W.P.A. arts project. I will name only a few of my friends who were on the arts project, as I was: Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Phillip Evergood, Adolph Gottlieb, David Smith, Ben Shahn, and on and on. It is today an impressive list of once unknown artists.
Despite the fact that we were all by now exhibiting artists in national museum shows and major Manhattan galleries, none of us could make much of an income from our work. A survey made by Elizabeth McCausland in the 1935-1940 period showed that the average income made by artists from their work was from $300 to $500 per year. So we lived and worked on the W.P.A. salary for $23.86 a week.
But we were constantly threatened by forces in Washington who maligned the project and regularly tried to have it terminated. Because of this constant threat we were forced to band together. We formed an artists' union, and it must have been the first time, and possibly the only time, that so many American painters, sculptors, graphics artists, designers, and art teachers were able to work together toward a common goal. I said we were maligned. We were threatened. We were also arrested while on a picket line in front of the then Hearst Journal American, which came out one morning with front page headlines calling the N.Y.C. Art Project communist inspired.
The government, paying us $23.86 a week, was not aware of the treasures it was getting from the artists, some of whom were to become the leading painters and sculptors of our time. One example is the Stuart Davis I saw some years later, in the green room at station WNYC. I had not seen this mural before. Having known Davis and his method of work, I could guess that he would have worked some four months doing that mural. At $23.86 a week the government had paid Davis $380 for that mural. In the art market today it could bring $200,000. There was also the mural done by Arshile Gorky for the Newark airport. This had been covered over with paint, and was finally restored only a few years ago. This was only a small part of the mural project.
On what was called the Easel Painters Project, the painters brought in one finished painting every four weeks. These were picked over and the best of them were sent to Washington. No one knows just what happened there - we just know that most of these paintings disappeared. Stolen? Misplaced in the some government cellar? Paintings by some of America’s best painters gone because our government did not care. Only a small part of these paintings were found, here and there, and are now in museum collections.
Finally the machinery got going again because of the start of the Second World War. Most of us who had never before had conventional jobs were able to get into defense industries. At this point I had a job making war maneuver models. I have not forgotten the first morning I went to work. I put on my best suit, kissed my wife goodbye, said, "Goodbye Paul" to our four year old, who asked, "Where are you going?". "I'm going to work", said I. The next morning, the same procedure, goodbye Liz, goodbye Paul. "Where are you going?" says Paul. "I'm going to work!" To which Paul remarked, "What, again?"
By this time most of us were in or nearing our forties. Reputable enough to start getting offers of teaching jobs. I was offered my first teaching job at the age of 39. I have pointed out that most artists made little income before the age of forty, and some never did. There are, however, at all times, a few men and women, institutions and museums who have the welfare of artists constantly in mind, who buy art, lend artists money to get them through bad periods, and give the artist a feeling that they have the right to be artists. I firmly believe that the greatest patron of the visual arts in our time is Joseph H. Hirshhorn, now a resident of Florida. No other single individual has bought more art, and cherished his friendship with living artists, as he has.
Then there are institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. The Guggenheim and the Academy give yearly money grants, and the MacDowell and Yaddo give creative artists a retreat in which to work.
The National Endowment For the Arts is a big step in the right direction - it does a fine job for theatre, dance and music. Mostly for group public performances. It does not do much for the lone creative artist. All in all nothing has changed much from my time - the young artists are still finding it difficult to continue working day after day without income.
American museums, I am sure, would purchase more works if they had more funds. Where the visual arts will go from here on is unpredictable. We are living in a time when an artist can work in any area of visual imagery from photorealism to the one color canvas. There is evidently an audience for the best work in all of these directions.
I just used an important word. Audiences. We need more audiences for the visual arts. All of the arts need larger and larger audiences. And the audiences need the arts because the arts enrich people's lives. Many of us travel across the world to look at the arts of the past. I believe that we should spend more time looking at the art of the present. We should support it, should buy it, or give the museums funds to buy it, because I am sure that much of today’s art will not only enrich our lives, but the lives of future generations.
Let me quote to you a statement made by a fine painter, dead at too early an age: "The American painter of today seems to be a man of tremendous energy and vitality, a frustrated member of society, who wants, above all else to contribute to the enhancement of life and ornament the environment with visual dreams."
In closing, I want to thank Mr. and Mrs. Roberts for the exhibit of my work in their gallery, Miss Betty Lou Curry for her quiet but invaluable help, and most of all Mr. George Bolge and his staff for their concentrated work and good taste in the choice and hanging of my retrospective show.