Researching the Club
In 2006, I embarked on a dissertation on Abstract Expressionism’s relation to spirituality, spanning from the 1930s through the 1960s (a dissertation that now seems comically impossible). I began researching the chapter on alternative spiritualities in the 1950s at The Club when I was a fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in 2008 – 2009. As I continued to find documents pertaining to all aspects of The Club, I realized, however, that instead of four decades, I should only write about six years: 1949 – 1955, the earliest and most consequential years of The Club. The Club, as the story would have it, was a bastion of macho Abstract Expressionist swagger. In reality, it was a community of diverse artists that toed no single aesthetic line and served as an antidote to the loneliness of the studio. My goal became to upset the assumptions about what the so-called Abstract Expressionists discussed most (not Freud, Jung, or Sartre) in order to reconsider their artistic projects.
Compared to other fellows’ work at SAAM, my mid-20th century topic was rather contemporary, but the historical record I was trying to piece together was as incomplete as one might expect to find studying 18th- or 19th-century topics. When one considers that the downtown artists met at least twice a week for the first five or six years, the historical record is rather thin, but as the sculptor and one of the founders of The Club, Ibram Lassaw, remarked during an oral history interview conducted by the Archives of American Art, “We didn’t think we were making history or anything.”
With the aid of the list of speakers and panels, then recently published in Club Without Walls, a selection of Philip Pavia’s writings, as well as Emory University’s recent acquisition of Pavia’s papers, I began documenting as many nights at The Club as possible. I started close, with the Archives of American Art, where the William Seitz papers and the small collection of Irving Sandler papers proved invaluable. Online search aids made my task easier, but often there were still unexpected finds, for instance, a likely draft of Heinrich Blücher’s talk, written in German, “What is Modern Style,” in the Hannah Arendt papers at the Library of Congress, which was easy enough to obtain. Other times, though, I had to rely on the help of archivists, who were kind enough to send me copies of materials. I discovered that the papers of the critic and poet Nicolas Calas resided at the Nordic Library in Athens, Greece, and contains an eight-page typescript with the heading “Begin with painting. Less abstract than music” that surely corresponds to his November 16, 1951 talk, “Less Abstract than Music.” It was not until my inquiry, however, that the archivist knew that this was a talk delivered at The Club.
Searching for well over 100 figures—some well known, others more obscure—was daunting and could continue indefinitely. Many holes remained, but the dissertation had to be written. In the years since, online searches have continually uncovered bits of evidence that weren’t available before. Papers are donated, collections are more thoroughly processed, obscure journals are digitized. New evidence always comes to light. Such progress is both exciting and frustrating.
But the historical record is never complete; people don’t always save the materials you want them to save or save anything at all. There is a tendency to think of the archive in its factualness, in its concreteness, but in a project like mine with so many voices, there are inevitable contradictions between these facts. One has to bring a certain imagination and creativity to knit the voices and ideas together into a narrative—one that tries to stay close to the historical record but does not tidy up the contradictions too much. When dealing with a single person’s archive, documents may remain isolated items with meaning only to that person’s individual trajectory. They can, however, acquire entirely new meanings when put into conversation with documents from other archives. It is what is in between these documents that is most often missing from the record, but precisely what constitutes the story.
VALERIE HELLSTEIN is a researcher at the Willem de Kooning Foundation and is currently finishing a book about Abstract Expressionism, The Club, and Cold War culture and politics.