The Club IT IS: A Conversation with Philip Pavia

Portrait of Philip Pavia. Courtesy of Natalie Edgar.

One must admit that no artist feels completely at ease at gallery openings, let alone while actually looking at the work on the wall or even talking about art at all. Maybe gallery openings in Brooklyn are a little bit more intimate than the ones in Manhattan, but it is fairly obvious that many artists still long for an idealized atmosphere, where they can feel comfortable enough to express their views and opinions of art. It is hard to imagine that galleries like Charles Egan and Sam Kootz of the late ’40s and early ’50s were identical to the impeccable and at times intimidating Larry Gagosian or Matthew Marks galleries in Chelsea today. However, collaborative galleries then and now share one common feature: they are organized and managed by artists. Such is the case with many current galleries in North Brooklyn, including Momenta, Pierogi 2000, Bellwether, 4 1/2 Projects, Im n iL, and Holland Tunnel, just to name a few.

One must also confess that upon hearing about the Abstract Expressionists and their intense debates and arguments about art at their famous “8th Street Club,” or afterwards at the Cedar Tavern, one tends to get a bit nostalgic and envious. Perhaps what really characterized New York’s intellectual life in those days was the perpetual contrariety between artists’ real desire for refined culture and their impetuous need to reject tradition. Painters and writers alike were in a unique predicament: even as they felt they were on the verge of being assimilated into the mainstream of society, their feelings of marginality and isolation became even more pronounced than ever. Together these impulses helped solidify an established art community, with a strong sense of camaraderie among its members.

Would you all agree that there is a collective effort to solidify and strengthen the present North Brooklyn art community? Early this past fall, all of the galleries met at Roebling Hall to organize the “Elsewhere” art event. It was an attempt to attract new audiences from Manhattan and around the world. There were panel discussions, artist talks, poetry readings, and performances. Most of us thought that it was a successful event and feel it should be done annually.

In addition, with the recent and alarming issues of eviction and proposed power plant sites, the realities of which have become unavoidable in the last six or seven weeks, we must acknowledge the admirable effort led by artists such as Deborah Masters, Eve Sussman, Kathleen Gilrain, and Jane Fine (where are the men? one wonders). Actions such as the creation of the Live/Work coalition are driven by the fundamental necessity to survive and to maintain a fair share of the rewards for artists’ pioneering and self-sacrificing efforts. If we only could bring such intensity into our artistic endeavor, we as a community could certainly benefit from one another. To help create a better critical forum for artists, I would suggest establishing regular panel discussions in conjunction with very specific curatorially themed shows.

At any rate, all the above concerns make me think of “The Club”—the legendary joint born in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, where artists held weekly meetings. It began as a purely social function but eventually evolved into panel discussions that focused on the internal struggle of art. The following is an interview with Philip Pavia, a distinguished sculptor, who was “The Club’s” organizer. He was also the publisher of the five invaluable volumes of It Is, a magazine written mainly by the gestural abstract artists of the New York School. When he is not working on his own sculpture, Mr. Pavia is currently writing a book about “The Club.”

Phong Bui (Rail): When I think of Abstract Expressionists, I think of the Great Depression, the WPA and, inevitably, the Second World War.

Philip Pavia: Well, first of all, we were all under the WPA. Then the war came but it had a different impact. There were very few of us around at that time: Bill de Kooning, Landes Lewitin, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, and a few others. That was it.

Rail: Did “The Club” come into being at the tail end of Robert Motherwell’s school, “Subjects of the Artist,” which I believe he had helped organize, along with David Hare, Mark Rothko, William Baziotes, and Clyfford Still?

Pavia: Oh, Motherwell was so involved with Surrealism. He was hanging around with André Breton and the rest of the Surrealists. They were a tight group. Breton was polite to us but we had little to do with him. I remember they would come down from Uptown to Motherwell’s school and would go afterwards to MacDougal Street in Little Italy for dinner. For most of us we would just go to the Waldorf-Astoria Cafeteria on 6th Avenue and 8th Street. It wasn’t easy to get a decent cup of coffee then, but the war kept us together—it was terrible. You never knew what was going on. The radio was on twenty-four hours a day everyday. You couldn’t sleep too well at night. In a way it made us become strong individuals. You didn’t take life for granted, though. It was terrific being under the [WPA] Projects, we would get twenty-one or twenty-two dollars a week. Imagine thousands of artists in all forty-eight states getting paid to work as artists. They really learned how to paint during the program even though everyone was doing all kinds of things; making caricatures, cartoons, illustrations—it didn’t matter. That was the point: they were practicing, training themselves, so that when Abstract Expressionism came around they were ready. If it weren’t for the WPA we wouldn’t have had artists coming together like that. When the war was over in 1945, all of a sudden it was a different story.

Rail: When exactly did the Club get started? Were you and Lewitin the two artists who were responsible for shaping it in the beginning?

Pavia: Well, the Club really got started in 1948. It was a significant year. Bill de Kooning had a terrific show of the Black and White paintings at Charlie Egan in April. Gorky died three months later. We did find a place but we had to postpone it until the first of September because of Gorky’s suicide. I had to call Bill de Kooning, who was teaching at the Black Mountain College, and let him know about Gorky’s death. My God, he was so upset over the news. When he came back that summer—everyone was also away for the summer in Long Island anyway—we all got together and started the Club right across from Hans Hoffman’s school. Of course we organized the first meeting as a memorial panel for Gorky. It was very touching.

Rail: Who were the participants of the panel?

Pavia: Isamu Noguchi, George Spaventa, Bill de Kooning and a few others, but, of course, every artist came because they all had enormous respect for Gorky. A year later, our membership had doubled. Things were getting very exciting. As the old saying goes: “If you want a good captain, he has to be a slave”—that was my role in the Club. A little order would help, I suppose. In 1951, we had the famous Ninth Street Show. You have no idea how crowded it was. It included practically all of the Club’s members—fifty or sixty artists. Frederick Kiesler came along and he said to me: “Pavia, you shouldn’t be in the show because you are Mr. Club.” I said, “Alright,” so I wasn’t in that show. But, eventually, the Club members wanted to include some of my small sculpture in other shows. Franz Kline hung the Ninth Street Show. I helped him a little bit but we didn’t let anyone else get involved. You know, by this time, Motherwell would come around more often with Clement Greenberg. I think he had gotten fed up with the Surrealists by this point.

Rail: We all know André Breton was very autocratic as a person and very doctrinaire as a leader. He liked being a sophisticated Frenchman who refused to speak English. He always had a translator with him wherever he went.

Pavia: To me it’s always about freedom. The difference between us and the Surrealists was that we didn’t believe in dreams. They did. It also had to do with the war. They came here to escape the war. Some of us had to go to war. You see the idea of going to the meeting at the Club and then going home and painting whatever you wanted was very exciting. Let’s go forward a bit.

After the Ninth Street Show, Kiesler brought some of the artists uptown to be with galleries like Sam Kootz and Charlie Egan. All of a sudden, the Club started to get big. Tenth Street became a melting pot. All of the artists moved there and, since it was so difficult to find galleries to show their work, artists came together and established cooperative galleries, Tanager and Hansa to name a few. There must have been about ten galleries all together. Most of them began to show works of the younger generations. All of that exciting activity kind of did it. The feud also got started. The guys began to argue among themselves. Everyone had their own idea about Abstract Expressionism. Bill de Kooning insisted that he wasn’t an Expressionist. He just wanted to worry about himself and his work. The term “Expressionism” after all did come from Germany, the Germans blamed it on the outside world. You know, “public domain” became the dirty words for us in those days. But, eventually, Bill de Kooning did become an Expressionist.

What happened right after the Ninth Street Show was that some of the artists became Abstractionists. They were more involved with the Russian Constructivists and the whole Bauhaus idea. The Bauhaus did spread their several schools all over the world—to Chicago, New Haven, Italy, even Latin America—but, for me, it wasn’t a painting school, it was more a school for applied arts dealing with graphic design and architecture.

Rail: By “Abstractionists” you mean artists like Ad Reinhardt, Rothko, and Newman.

Pavia: Yes. They were not regarded by us as Abstract Expressionists. They were coming from Brooklyn College. We used to call them “Brooklyn College Boys.” They didn’t like the term Abstract Expressionism anyway and we didn’t think their work had much to do with us either. It’s only later, when Greenberg came along, that the differences became more obvious.

Rail: So the club really began in 1948 and ended some time in the mid-1950s.

Pavia: Yes, that’s right. By 1955, I had to quit. It was getting to be too much for me. It was altogether about seven exciting years that I was involved with it. But, after a while, I wanted to have more time to focus on my sculpture.

Rail: How often did the artists meet at the Club?

Pavia: We met twice a week. Every Wednesday night we would talk and make panels for the following Friday night. Every other Friday night we also had Coffee Night.

Rail:  When people mention the Club they also talk of the Cedar Tavern. Was that because artists would come to the meeting at the Club first and then afterwards go immediately to the bar to continue their conversations?

Pavia: Well, that came much later. I mean later, when many young artists had heard about the Club and the Cedar Tavern, especially after the Ninth Street Show. Some even came from the Midwest to New York just to have drink at the bar so that they could be part of something exciting.

Rail: Aren’t you working on the book about the Club right now?

Pavia: Whenever I can. Otherwise I’ve been busy working on my own sculpture.

Rail: When did you begin to publish It Is?

Pavia: When I quit the Club in 1955 I told all of the artists I was going to have a magazine. They were all very sympathetic. Both Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg were strong supporters. They were frequent contributors. That’s how it was started. Of course, because I had to make some choices and selections of works to be included in some particular issues, I made a lot of enemies too.

Rail: That’s unavoidable. I like the magazine simply because it published many different artists writing about their work or about the subject of art in general. You even included excerpts from very interesting panel discussions, which I thought were well mixed between the artists and critics like Tom Hess, Harold Rosenberg, and Frank O’Hara.

Pavia: That’s true, but art historians never bother to mention the existence of It Is at all, you know. Anyway, all the artists considered It Is an important document of Abstract Expressionism.

Rail: Nic Carone told me about the Club and the magazine. From what I understand, the magazine didn’t particularly promote only the artists of the older generation. It in fact included many works by the younger artists like Allan Kaprow, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and John Chamberlain.

Pavia: That’s right. Tom Hess was especially helpful. Harold Rosenberg had the best mind, but Tom Hess had the terrific eyes. You know he was the chief editor for ARTnews for twenty-six years. He was the one who told me: “Pavia, your days are numbered. Everything is going to split up.” That’s the way things were going to be. The Abstractionists were going in their own direction, a lot of younger artists were beginning to experiment in different things. That’s when Greenberg came in. Did you know that he didn’t really like Gorky at all? It was just because no one at the time agreed with him about his view of Gorky, so, after a while he changed his mind. What Greenberg saw was an opportunity for him to establish his own idea and, to his credit, he capitalized on the time and the momentum in the art world to his advantage. That’s all. By then, everything was changing quite rapidly. Bill de Kooning, who was right next door to me, told me that he had to get away to East Hampton. He had enough of the art world.

Rail: That was the end of a vital chapter in American art. Wouldn’t you agree?

Pavia: I suppose so.



Phong Bui