When We Lived on Dreams
A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir
Thames&Hudson, Inc., 2003
In a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1952, a young student of American history in the graduate program at Columbia University had an encounter with a painting that changed the direction of his life. As he describes the event, Irving Sandler tells us in his memoir that he suddenly “got” what painting is about looking at Franz Kline’s 1950 painting “Chief.” More accurately, perhaps, Franz Kline’s painting got him: “It was the first work of art I really saw, …Or, put another way, ‘Chief’ began my life-in-art, the life that has really counted for me.” Soon a fortunate chain of accidental encounters lands Sandler face-to-face with Kline in a booth at the Cedar Bar about six months later, a story even more remarkable if one considers that “Chief” was painted only a year and a half before, the year when Kline found his signature style and imagery, shown that same fall at the Egan Gallery in his first one-person exhibition, and was one of only two works sold; one to a private collector, and “Chief” to MOMA.
1952 was a time of fierce arguments and fiercer loyalties in the New York world of art. Picasso was “the guy to beat” (according to de Kooning), and one was either a Pollock man or a de Kooning supporter. Most of the downtown artists were for de Kooning. Life magazine had already run its famous Pollock article in August 1949, and while many of the artists felt the Pollock publicity was simply undeserved, an equal number thought the drip idea was just a “gimmick.” The principal writers of the movement were Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, both from a background in literature and left politics who were regular contributors to the Partisan Review. Their “Abstract Expressionism” was about authenticity on the one hand, and confrontation on the other. For Sandler, a Marine officer who had spent three and one half years in the Second World War, “Art was something that engaged me emotionally and mentally. That was definition enough, and it took care of all the theory I needed to know.”
The Cedar Bar and the Artists’ Club were the downtown meeting places for the artists, and Sandler began showing up regularly at the Cedar from 10p.m. to 2 a.m. “every night from 1953 to 1963,” and he would manage the Club (established in 1949) from 1956 to 1962. He had embraced art “for revelation… for meaning, for the illumination of my life” and was determined to explore that encounter as deeply as he possibly could. To this end he began jotting down pieces of the artists’ conversations, insights, arguments, gradually accumulating a unique record of the new art as it was being formed and articulated. Around this same time a friend found him a position managing the Tanager Gallery, an artists’ co-operative on 10th street. Not exactly sure what he wanted to do, although aware that a movement of great importance was developing all around him, he received a phone call one day from Art News’ legendary editor, Thomas Hess, who said that: “artist acquaintances had informed him that I had been hanging around…was some kind of historian…would I like to write art criticism?” The notes, observations, and conversations would become the groundwork for six years of review writing, and for the enormous project for which Sandler is best known; four hefty volumes that have appeared over the years to consider avant-garde art from the end of WWII through the post-modernism of the 1990s: The Triumph of American Painting (1970), The New York School—The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (1978), American Art of the Sixties (1988), and Art of the Postmodern Era—From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (1996).
Sandler’s writing combines fidelity, generosity, and clarity. (Who else could write of an artist, “No matter how negative or even nihilistic the outlook, it requires optimism of sorts to construct a compelling form for it”?) He describes his initial approach to writing with disarming modesty: “I did not have a personal literary style. Consequently I decided that the only way for me to write was clearly, which may have yielded its own kind of style… Moreover, I believed that I owed it to the artists to be clear. They were often mystified by reviews of their work.” Such generosity of spirit prompted Frank O’Hara, a poet, curator, and champion of the avant-garde to bestow the distinction “balayeur des artistes,” “sweeper-up after artists,” the title of this collection of memories. The French balayeur, the street sweeper, has instead of a broom, a tree-branch with which he not so much sweeps, but attends to the street. I remember thinking the first time I saw this that the job must be some kind of honorable post, perhaps for distinguished service to the country. In his tribute to Sandler, O’Hara includes himself as a balayeur: “and so do I (sometimes I think I’m in love with painting).”
In his reflections on the 1960s, Sandler focuses on his students and the artists’ groups that formed not only to protest the Vietnam War, while analyzing the structures of the society that brought it about. The Art Workers Coalition reflected the concerns of New York’s radical art community, and activism spilled into lecture halls and museums as well as into the streets. The memoir gives an interesting, perhaps too brief account of the author’s involvement in those activities, instead setting the scene for his reflections on the “new criticism” that grew out of disciplines such as semiology, linguistics, and de-construction. Sandler’s own volume on post-modernism grew out of his opposition to the critical method of journals such as Rosalind Krauss’ and Annette Michelson’s October, and he outlines his basic dissatisfaction with their analysis of art and dismissal of painting.
Sandler also gives a short account of the working of some of the organizations the author feels play valuable and supportive roles in the lives of artists, organizations he knows well because he has worked with them for many years, and of which he is rightly proud. Artists Space, which he founded with Trudie Grace in 1972-1973, grew of direct discussions with artists and the New York State Council on the Arts to provide much needed exhibition space for “unaffiliated artists”—those artists who could not, or would not, fit into commercial galleries. It became a model for similar organizations in cities across the country and around the world. He recounts, often with enthusiasm, sometimes with regret, his participation on the board of the Rothko Foundation, a brief directorship of the Neuberger Museum, a stint on Senator Edward Kennedy’s committee on copyright, and his membership on the Artists Advisory Board of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, the only art foundation in existence run entirely by an artist committee. Readers will be pleased to find the wary “I” has become the engaged “we” once more as the author finds a way to connect with the needs of young and older artists through new organizations.
This fine memoir closes with a moving and eloquent epilogue, a rare visit to Sandler’s personal backstage. I won’t give an account, because it rightly belongs to those who come to it having absorbed the book; however, it is fair to say that like Samuel Beckett, whom he admires, Sandler believes that we can rise out of our own muck. The effort may be great, but not impossible. He makes a convincing case that the best art is that very effort, and in the considered opinion of this reader, he’s right.