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 Abstract Art Online Legacy ~ Conversation Series

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Conversation: Philip Pavia on It Is Magazine and The Club

Philip Pavia was an extremely active member of the Abstract Expressionists from their inception right on through to the 1960s. During the war years, the Waldorf Cafeteria on the corner of 8th street and 6th avenue became a convenient meeting place for those artists. As Renoir once did with the Impressionists, Pavia stoked the fires of contention and kept the feuding white hot among the group. The Waldorf group eventually became the nucleus of the 8th Street Club, which started in the fall of 1948 with a Homage to Arshile Gorky.

With the influx of returning G.I. artists Pavia eventually found it very difficult to contain the ever increasing, squabbling group in a cafeteria setting. In 1948 he organized the Club with a charter and voting members that included Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick and others. In a few months the

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Club also came to include Harold Rosenberg, Phillip Guston, Ad Reinhardt, Elaine de Kooning, Pearl Fine, Mercedes Matter and others.

Pavia was the chief panel maker for seven years and, according to Thomas B. Hess from a 1961 Kootz gallery catalog: “…He was the tutelary host until 1956. He arranged every Friday night, symposia, parties, enthusiastic schism, revolution and vanguard skirmishes. A prime mover in the group and anti-group activities.

Pavia resigned from the Club in 1956 to publish It is magazine where he was the sole editor and publisher. His intention for the magazine was for it to become an extension of Club ideas. In this he succeeded all to well as It is attracted all attacks against Abstract Expressionism. In 1960 he returned to making sculpture.

I met Philip Pavia through his wife, the painter Natalie Edgar. I was eager to discuss the magazine with him since, in some ways, I discovered parallels between it and my journal Abstract Art Online. I found Philip to be gregarious and generous with his ideas, thoughts and especially with the oral history of those times. This conversation, orignally published in the January 2001 issue of Abstract Art Online focused on the origins of It is magazine.

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Joe Walentini: Can you give me a sense of the ambience of the times from which It is came into being?

Philip Pavia: Before and during the war [WW II] a few of us, Bill Dekooning, Franz Kline and myself began to meet informally at the Waldorf Cafeteria on 8th street. Two senior painters dominated the cafeteria: Aristo Kaldis and Landis Lewitin. After the war more people came and the group got bigger and bigger. We all lived on 10th street - I’ve lived within 2 to 3 blocks of here since I was 17.

JW: Was there anything special about 10th Street or this area in general?

PP: We couldn’t live in Brownstones and paint and here, there were nice studios and lofts, some with skylights. The artists worked here as the years went by but then they started getting apartments for their families. But they always kept their studios; Bill Dekooning kept a studio on 10th street for 20 years.

More than 20 artists worked in that one block. Then there was Washington Square Park - our “Little Paris”, full of refugees from Europe.Around the corner we had Jackson Pollock who lived a block and a half away. We were known as the 10th street enclave.

8th street had always been full of artists. Gertrude Whitney had a big studio house there. She made it into a studio / gallery / club. She was a model, a sculptor and quite well off, of course, and very generous.

Back then you would walk down 8th street and see all the artists. Down on Bleeker Street there was a bar, the San Remo, that was also a gathering place and served lousy beer.

JW: Who else was in the clique, the “Little Paris” group?

PP: Varese the famous composer was its leader. Marcel Duchamp and Varese were very close friends and Duchamp would come around the park.

JW: Were the French artists a unified group?

PP: Actually there was also Breton’s Surrealist bunch. Their hangout was a few doors down from San Remo’s - a restaurant called “Volpe”. In Washington Square Park they had their own quarters. Breton wanted only his own personal entorage, only his own artists.

JW: What was it like for women back then?

PP: Women really ran a lot of the art world - several of them were gallery owners. There was Peggy Guggenheim and her big gallery [Art of This Century]. During the wartime she was showing people like Kandinsky and Peggy was not afraid to tell any dealer or any curator off.She gave a show of 33 women in her gallery. Gertrude Whitney’s house was the foundation for the Whitney museum. Woman like Lee Krasner and Elaine De Kooning and others were very actively involved.

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It is, Issue One

JW: There was also Betty Parsons’ gallery. Did the end of the War expand the community a great deal?

PP: Yes, they all came home and from all over, as far away as California. Many of them were WPA artists.

JW: Did the war have much affect on your work?

PP: I don’t know how to explain it to you. There is something about the horror of war that gets inside of you even if you are just reading about [the events] the next day.

JW: During the war many Europeans were living here. Did you, as a group, have much interaction with them?

PP: Yes, we went to all of their shows - Kandinsky, Mondrian, Duchamp, Breton, Leger. Kandinsky was the head of the whole 

migration from Europe but he stayed. The Surrealists, you’d see them on 8th street or at the San Remo and they would say hello to you, maybe. “Duchamp’s Little France” we called them. We didn’t say “Paris” because they didn’t want to be called that. Duchamp used to come to Washington Square Park to see his friends. He liked it down here because he belonged to a chess club on 10th street.

JW: That’s right, I recall reading that Man Ray used to hang out there too with Duchamp. He [Man Ray] wasn’t good at chess but he loved to sculpt chess pieces. How did you get along with the Surrealists?

PP: They didn’t talk to us but we would talk to them. But we were still outsiders. They only wanted artists dedicated to Surrealism.

JW: That’s fascinating to me that you were considered the outsiders and yet they came here from Europe.

PP: They were refugees which was a big thing. Pierre Matisse’s [the gallery owner] son gave them a number of shows and so did Peggy [Guggenheim]. They kept the art scene busy the five years they were here. Then they all went back but they had terrific shows while they were here. Without the shows or publicity, we Americans were maturing an abstract art.

JW: So, once the Europeans left did you feel as though the terrain had opened up for all of you?

PP: Absolutely. We were just jokes to them and we felt inferior too. We used to see Mondrian and would stand ten feet away and were afraid to talk to him. But the Surrealists ignored Mondrian too.

JW: In spite of the Surrealists co-opting the contemporary art scene during the war, did you get a lot of strength from an intimate sense of community even while you weren’t getting the kind of attention you wanted?

PP: Yes it did help a great deal because we were confused. But Abstract Expressionism and the Club came out of a great deal of discussion. We liked the privacy and we liked the spoken word. The whole idea of dialogue was a hint to me. We started the Club with about 20 to 30 members. By 1952 there were 150.the Club got bigger and bigger and they pushed it all [the leadership] on me including the abuse.

JW: Running the Club and subsequently creating and producing It is were very time consuming. You didn’t return to making art full time until you had finished with both. Was it hard to back away from making art?

PP: It depended on whether you were an activist; there was a lot of activism. People like Duchamp and Kandinsky wrote a lot. It is was an example of non-writers trying to get ideas into a publication.

JW: What would you say is the major difference between the artists then with artists of today?

PP: We were concerned with sensibility then; its refinement of the senses. Today there is no sensibility. You might see someone using a lot of color today, but one guy could make a masterpiece out of color back then. Sensibilities create beauty.

JW: Yeah, that makes me think of Ray Parker in particular and of course, Rothko. What was it like to exhibit in those early days?

PP: We used to call them our torture chambers. There was a lot of talk about moods of the sensibilities

JW: Really?

PP: Well, you couldn’t be an artist in the middle of Ohio for example. You’d isolate yourself too much. You really needed someone to kick you. It was a way of teasing moods out of the sensibilities.

JW: In the fifties the critics like Clement Greenberg had a great deal of power over the careers of artists. How did they fit into the dialogue?

PP: Greenberg? He brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Art critics are superior artists”. He wouldn’t write anything about Abstract Expressionists because it wasn’t his kind of work.

JW: Do you think that’s because he couldn’t control it?

PP: Yes, he didn’t want anything to do with it - he hated The Club! Its invention of expression with abstraction. Greenberg recommended a whole generation of artists to review the Bauhaus as he hated Pollock’s pristine abstraction.

JW: That’s what I mean, that there was too much diversity to control. But then the classic dilemma is having one group of individuals making the art while another group writes about and critiques it.

PP: We tried to counter the problem with It is and a message of freedom for the inner sensibilities.

JW: What criteria or basis did you use for selecting content for the publication?

PP: I guess it was reading the American Expatriates; their dedication to freedom and the spoken word. But it was a difficult thing. People would say do this or you should do that and there were terrible feuds. They were much worse than anything today. But we didn’t wait for the art critics to make us cripples.

JW: With these really intense rivalries…

PP: Feuding! Come on, rivalries don’t make anyone spill their guts! Freedom makes you want to dig deeper.

JW: Well, okay, but what I’m getting at is that people then were exceedingly passionate about their work; about what they were painting, what they were writing and what they were saying. Do you get any sense of that today, that art-making matters in the same way?

PP: It’s not apparent to me, I don’t see it because there is not a good and active sensibility to drive the passion.

JW: Is it possible to create an It is today given the current scene?

PP: Yes! Start with the sensibilities of French thinking and end up with what the Expatriates said. Freedom is basically an act of autobiography: think of TS Eliot and Hemmingway.

But it was so much different then. The war was on and we were reacting to the terrible atrocities; to an extent everybody was sick. There was also the philosophy of the time that affected things, existentialists like Sartre.

JW: Where did the name for It is come from?

PP: Existentialism - I stole it from them.

JW: Did you attribute it to one particular philosopher?

PP: All different ones. It came from the idea of life force and Existentialism; you were born one day and were going to die the next. That’s in the books, you live for it, your IT, IS. I thought it was very good and overall it was accepted.

JW: You know, after reading It is today, over 40 years later, there is such an intimacy and freshness to it that I feel as though I literally know these people. It’s like you could walk down 8 or 10th street tomorrow, bump into anyone of those artists and immediately strike up a

conversation.  Was part of the motivation in creating the publication to preserve that sense of intimacy?

PP: I think I know what you mean if what you’re asking is, “were we aware of the roots of a sense of history?” Harold [Rosenberg] said, “If anything happens, Pavia, whatever happens, write it down.”

JW: Do you feel the sense of intimacy just came out the times because the community was so small and tight and that the publication reflected that?

PP: Well I don’t know how to answer that. You can read history but you always have to leave some history.

JW: You can’t know it all?

PP: You can’t ask everything.

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It is, Issue Two

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