JOHN E. SCOFIELD with Laila Pedro

John E. Scofield
Robert Motherwell: In the Studio
(Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 2016)

In 1975, Robert Motherwell bought a chair from a young sculptor and designer named John E. Scofield. The two developed a friendship and Scofield became Motherwell’s studio assistant. Scofield’s new book, Robert Motherwell: In the Studio (Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 2016), is a warm, informal memoir of apprenticeship, inspiration, and a friendship that endured until Motherwell’s death. On a late April morning, he and Laila Pedro visited Paul Kasmin Gallery’s exhibition, Robert Motherwell: The Art of Collage (April 14 – May 21, 2016). Surrounded by Motherwell’s collages, they discussed fast cars, assigned reading, and the importance of mentors.

Laila Pedro (Rail): You first started working for Motherwell in 1975.

John Scofield: Bob bought a chair from me called The Colored Chair for four hundred and fifty bucks. I simply called him up and said, “I got a chair, do you wanna see it?” and he said “Yeah, sure.” [Laughter.]

Rail: How did you get his number?

Scofield: He had invited me up for drinks on New Years Eve of ’72. I called him up and told him that he shouldn’t have moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, that it was a terrible mistake, and he said, “Well, how come?” He wasn’t angry, he just said, “How come?” I said, “Greenwich is an emotional wasteland,” and he said, “I know exactly what you mean.” We got to be friends and I would help him out a little bit for half a day or a day. In ’75 after he bought The Colored Chair, he said, “Gee, it looks like a Miró sculpture,” and I said, “Gee, thanks.” I had no idea who Miró was. I knew there was a thing at the Museum of Modern Art that was all shiny and everybody rubbed it in a certain spot and I thought, wait a minute, could that be?

I had to come up to speed really fast, which you had to do the whole time with him; he was a very intense, very smart guy, as you know. A writer. And he spoke in complete sentences that were fully edited and print-ready and so you had to be right there, or you looked like an idiot. There was a big reading list.

Rail: Can you talk about that assigned reading list? I thought it was so interesting. [Federico García] Lorca was the non-negotiable read, right? Which, of course, was important in terms of Motherwell’s affinity for the Loyalist cause, and the deep feeling in the“Elegies to the Spanish Republic” series.

Scofield: I had heard of Lorca but I didn’t really know anything about him, or that he was murdered by Franco’s thugs. Motherwell did a painting, At Five in the Afternoon (1948 – 49), which is the refrain of one of the poems. The translation that Bob had read in the ’40s was by Stephen Spender. Bob had to give a talk at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and he said to me, “I want you to come down with me so that you can help me do the driving, it’s kind of a long drive and I want to prepare some stuff and I may want to sit in the backseat and make a few notes or something.” We ended up giving Spender a lift back to New York. It was a very interesting ride: it was a big Oldsmobile convertible with the top up, it was night time, we were late, I had to drive really fast.

Rail: I bet you hated that!

Scofield: [Laughter.] It was one of those jumbo cars that passed everything but a gas station. On the ride, Spender said, “I hear you’re the last of your generation.” And Bob cleared his throat and said, “Yes, there are only three of us left.”

Rail: You mentioned in the book that you thought Spender felt jealous of Motherwell, I wondered if there is more to that story, because it’s hardly more than a single sentence in the book.

Scofield: People were always jealous of him.

Rail: Jealous of his intellect or his talent?

Scofield: Everything. Everything! His verbal capacity—he was a painter, but he wrote so much, and so well; he knew everybody—he really annoyed a lot of people. What they didn’t understand, and it took me the first of so many months to figure this out, was that the half of him sounding like the silver-spoon, holier-than-thou thing—half of it was self-deprecating comments if you really listened.

Rail: Yes, in that sort of flat, affectless way that takes a bit of an energetic mind to get at.

Scofield: You had to get into a rhythm. We just hit it off, even though we were about thirty-something years apart and I wasn’t interested in being a painter.

Rail: You had this shared love of cars, too.

Scofield: Yeah, by the time I was twenty-one I had had ten cars, trucks, and motorcycles. [Laughter.] I’d buy one for fifty or a hundred bucks and fix them up, trade them for something. I’d always been involved in motors and stuff like that and he loved cars. He was totally into California car culture. He would buy and sell cars like you and I would buy a raincoat. From H&M. [Laughter.]

But as I say in the book, those cars were emblematic. If you had a hobby of collecting stamps, they are convenient to stick in a book or pin to the wall; cars are a bit more unwieldy. But they were an inspiration. He would buy one because he liked the particular green and it would sit in the driveway. We would all look at it trying to figure out what it was that he liked about it, which would jazz him up! He would do a couple of green collages and after that he didn’t need the car anymore. [Laughter.]

Rail: I’m looking around to see if there is a green collage!

Scofield: This one here [McCartney in Brazil, 1978 – 79] is a very characteristic green. In fact, I wanted to buy a pickup truck that was exactly that green color and he wouldn’t let me; he said, “It looks like a telephone company truck.” So he made me get one with blue and white stripes. He said, “That’s more like Provincetown, get that one instead.”

Rail: Right. The Provincetown colors are more over here, these blues and whites and tans [Country Life No. 1, 1967].

Scofield: We had a big Chevy SUV that was just about exactly that: blue with a big white band. In that sense, his life intersected his work because he didn’t really have any hobbies. Everything he read and everybody he talked to, something that he bought, even if it was chips bag and he liked the stylized boat on the back—every single thing that he had contact with in the years that I knew him had to do with his art.

There was no daylight between his activities, his identity, and his art. That’s probably the most fascinating thing about the whole time. Another interesting aspect of that—which I think is true of almost all people who are hard-driving like that in business or art or whatever it may be—is that if you work with them, you have to be one-hundred-and-one percent on board. If that drops down to ninety-nine percent, they know it and they have to get rid of you. That happened with a couple of people who worked for us. Bob just couldn’t take it.

Installation view: Robert Motherwell: The Art of Collage, April 14 – May 21, 2016. Courtesy
Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Rail: It had to be total commitment all the time.

Scofield: Yeah. For the first year I worked seven days a week. I was getting paid for five days. You somehow had to be there, “So-and-so is coming for lunch, can you help us set this thing up? Bob Hughes from Time is coming out on Saturday to do a movie with a crew, can you make breakfast?” It was always something and everything was always quasi-emergency. Most of the time it really wasn’t but he needed it to be—so it would have all that frisson and all that energy.

The great advantage he had over all of his contemporaries was that he wasn’t suicidal—he liked life, he liked to drink and smoke—he enjoyed himself. By some pure luck, I didn’t meet him until he had heart operations and couldn’t drink anything. I come from a very hard-drinking family that, in a period of almost four hundred years in America, completely self-destructed. So if he had been drinking, it would have been a total non-starter for me.

Rail: So it actually came at a very healthy and necessary point for you.

Scofield: Yeah, it was a wonderful kind of intersection, the way you just put it.

Rail: Speaking of intersections, you’re a sculptor and a designer— a maker of things in the world. You have a very felt, labor-intense way of working. Did anything about your own process change once you watched Motherwell work?

Scofield: Well, the whole subject matter was a different thing. Bob was like a rock. He would say a couple of times a month, “All you can do is represent a block of values.” His block of values was what he called “The Structure of Modernism” so for three years all we talked about was “The Structure of Modernism” and everything that related to it. He would bring in C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures—everything from that to the Rothko scandal.

The very first thing I did for him as a real job, we took a ride up together up to the Adirondacks. The purpose of the trip was to get him removed as the executor for the David Smith estate. Smith had been dead for ten years. They had been best friends, and Bob was so distraught about the whole thing that, even after ten years, he didn’t want to go up there, but felt he should. His kids were the same age as Smith’s kids and very tight—they had keys to each other’s houses. So we drove up to see the house and property where the sculptures were arranged over the hillside. We looked in the window of the studio, the famous studio with all the metalworking equipment, which was set up like a goddamn apartment. We didn’t know who did that or why.

We walked into the house, and although nobody was there, everything was open. The whole basement was filled with tables and we were walking between these things. Going really slowly, Bob was taking everything in. We got to this kind of silver collar, shining metal thing, which was called The Lonely Man. Motherwell burst into tears and said, “Goddamn it, I never wanted him to live up here all by himself.” We just looked at each other and said the same thing at the same time: “Let’s get out of here.” We left; his eyes didn’t dry for another ten miles.

That was the beginning—that was the test. Before that I had borrowed eight hundred bucks from him and I’d paid it back already working at UMass, and so he liked the way I drove a car, and that I paid the money back, and we got along well.

Rail: You shared that “block of values.”

Scofield: Yeah. A few weeks or a couple months later he called me up and said, “Can you come work for me full time? I’ve got to do this big job for the National Gallery in D.C.

Rail: And you stayed friends his whole life. Can you tell me about how the book came to be? You haven’t been a writer your whole life—that’s not your natural environment.

Scofield: No! I’ve written a lot for my friends, and myself, but I’ve never been a published author before. As you know I got to be buddies with—just another crazy accidental thing—with Bernard Jacobson, whom I met at a Motherwell show. We ended up leaning against the same radiator and started dishing. He had spent the previous five years buying every Motherwell he could get his hands on.

So we got to be friends, and then he asked me to write a chapter of a book that he was going to do with several different writers, just a compilation of stories that I had already told him. I agreed, and I banged out 14,000 words, trying the whole time not to burst into tears out of missing Bob, but also striving to be truthful about the whole thing and not gloss over. He would have hated that. He was a pretty acerbic, tough guy.

Rail: But with such sensitivity; his work reverberates with feeling.

Scofield: That’s the thing. How do you get a guy who is smart, tough, ambitious, and sensitive? You certainly don’t find that on Wall Street too much, and you don’t always find it in the art world—all those things in one person. I live about 600 yards from Jasper Johns now, and I bump into him at the gas station every once in awhile. One time I said, “You know what Bob said about you?” And he said, “No, what?” in this protective, leaning-back way. [Laughter.] And I told him, “Bob [Motherwell] said ‘You and Rauschenberg and all your buddies, you guys were the cool artists. You saw all of us, the ‘hot’ artists, self-destruct, and you didn’t want to do that.’”

Rail: That’s a very intense moment. To go back a bit, there is also something special in this moment of you and Bernard leaning up against the radiator in that it recalls another Motherwell series, the “Opens”. I first met you and Bernard at a show of that series about a year ago [Robert Motherwell: Opens, May 1 – June 20, 2015, Andrea Rosen Gallery]. Those paintings all came from the accident of leaning one painting up against the other.

Scofield: There you go! That’s very interesting.

Rail: I think that’s part of the key to the sensitivity: this openness to accidents.

Scofield: That openness is unusual. When I grew up, very few grown men had that kind of thing. I was born in 1950, before Eisenhower was elected. There was a kind of conformist national atmosphere. You didn’t rock the boat, you were a gentleman, you wore a hat. As far as my experience growing up in the ’50s and ’60s went, Bob was a very unusual guy in that he had that receptivity that you’re talking about.

He didn’t invent collage, but once he got a taste of it he couldn’t stop. It’s like guys who restore cars: it gets to the point where it doesn’t even matter if they lose money on it; they just have to be in the process all the time. It takes them somewhere where they haven’t been; it was a similar atmosphere with Bob.

As I say in the book, it was like Lewis and Clark out there on the Missouri River, and there have been about a half-a-dozen Europeans ever on that river. We are feeling our way. To carry that analogy further, there were twenty-something guys on the expedition; they would send two or three of them at a time to hunt and bring back the meat that fed everybody. Bob had that same kind of focus with the need to forage materials. It didn’t matter if it was a new translation of Lorca, or a wrapper from the post office, or buying a car that was the right color or the right combination of colors: he went out into the world and would come energized and booming into the studios where we would be fixing a frame and he’d say, “I just found something!” And just the tone of his voice made you feel so happy—it was better than winning the lottery. He just had that; it was so fun! He didn’t know what he was going to do with it—but he knew that he was going to do something.


Laila Pedro

LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.