F O U R
B E G I N N I N G S O F P A I N T I N G I D E A S
When I think of it now, there were parts of my life that were very strange, particularly those periods when I didn't know what to do. The time I thought of raising cattle in California, the year I worked as a chauffeur and a bartender for the Stearnses, the last few years of working on billboards. At the Stearnses' I had that octagonal studio upstairs, but I didn't know what to do when I got there. Whenever I come to a mental standstill now, I go back to those periods.
I've done a lot of paintings in my life but there were times when I was utterly at a loss for what to do next. When I look back I'm incredulous; I get mad at these former selves of mine and ask, "What was the matter with you? You didn't know what to do? Could you have started painting in, say, 1956?" The thing is, I lacked the abstract turn of mind necessary to transform the raw materials into art. Also, I guess I was too interested in trying to do well at whatever I was doing at the time.
By the late 1950s I'd begun to lead a double life. In the daytime I painted billboards and designed display windows for Bonwit Teller, Tiffany, and Bloomingdale's; at night and on the weekends I hung out with artists and painted. At first, I painted small abstractions. I idolized the great abstract expressionists and jazz musicians. They were my heroes, they were mythic people, and by the mid- 1950s American art was in full bloom. Abstract expressionism had made New York the art center of the world, and this transformation had all happened in ten years. Just think: Pollock's career was from
1944 to 1956.
I had a lot of copies of Life
magazine from the 1930s and early 1940s with articles about American and European painters in them.
The prevailing taste even among art critics was very conservative. We were so far away from "getting" modern art back then that at the 1937 Pittsburgh International Fair, Leon Kroll, a conventional, figurative painter, won first prize. Pierre Bonnard, painter of sublime, humid colors and jewel-like tiles, came in second! That always gives me an uplifting feeling whenever I think of it. One's contemporaries generally have it all wrong. That was the state of American art before it found its native soul. Europe had gone through fauvism, futurism, Dada, surrealism, Wassily Kandinsky, and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
, but as far as art went, you'd have thought Americans were still sleepwalking through the nineteenth century.
I met Leon Kroll once. His paintings were traditional— nicely done portraits and figures. That kind of art won prizes up until the
beginning of the 1940s. There was a big transition from 1939 to 1946. During the war European artists had come here— Max Ernst,
Roberto Matta, George Grosz, Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky—and with them came the transmission of new art from Europe to
America. The idea of what art was shifted radically. You could see a new sophistication coming in— the energy of the picture plane. Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Mark Rothko . . . It was as if the American spirit had revealed itself at last as a kind of howl in paint.
I came to New York to study art, and to meet artists. And where do you find artists? In bars, especially in the 1950s. Drinks were cheap in those days. White Rose bar whiskey was twenty-five cents a shot; if you had $3 you could get twelve shots— that would do it. Among the artists' bars was the old Cedar Tavern on University Place and Eighth Street, not to be confused with the Cedar Bar, which was also on University Place and came later.
The Cedar Tavern had been a workingman's bar and therefore cheap. It was just a long, narrow space with a room in the back. It
was where Pollock had kicked the bathroom door off its hinges and they left it that way. The fluorescent lights looked green. They had Audubon and horse prints on the walls. I can just picture the bartender right now— he had a funny eye, and because of that he
looked at you strangely. For dinner you could go to Nedicks around the corner and get a fifteen- cent hot dog. I began hanging out at the Cedar Tavern, where I went with the sole purpose of meeting the grand masters of abstract expressionism.
There was another place we used to go: the Waldorf Cafeteria on the Lower East Side; that place was really grim. Nothing but tables and bright fluorescent lights. People would just go in there and talk. Then there was another funny joint on the Bowery. A bar. I remember drinking beer there with de Kooning and Milton Resnick. A clean, well- lit bar with no toilet. The law was that you could go pee on the curb under the El, the elevated subway line that used to run above Third Avenue. That was the old- time law. You wouldn't think the Health Department would have permitted it, but it did, because it was dark under those elevated tracks. Then they tore down the El and you couldn't do that anymore.
There was a fierce amount of drinking in those days. I remember once being at Al Leslie's studio and drinking a whole bottle
of cheap scotch myself
. Somebody else there must've had quite a few because I dimly recall carrying him drunk down the stairs over my shoulder. That day I'd bought my first car in Manhattan, an old VW convertible, and I had it parked by the Flatiron Building. I told myself that if I could walk around the Flatiron Building, I could drive home. I couldn't. I had to lean against the building to hold myself up. Luckily, I took the subway home and left the car there.
Eventually, from hanging around the Cedar Tavern I got to meet Franz Kline. He was about fifty years old at the time, and like all
the abstract expressionists he dressed scruffily, in a pair of jeans or khakis with a stained, laundered T- shirt and penny loafers. Beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. I didn't know much about him. I heard he had a wife who was sickly but I never saw them together. He was a womanizer, always hitting on girls at parties; he often had a young beauty cornered against the wall. According to Walter Hopps, he packed a lunch and went to work in the evening and worked all night long. He would have his lunch about one or two in the morning.
You could find de Kooning in the Cedar Tavern pretty much every night in those days. He was a heavy drinker, and like most drinkers he had intense mood swings, from belligerent to amiable. De Kooning looked
like a painter—rumpled, paint-splattered overalls, a work shirt, careless of his appearance, smoking like a chimney. He was a very tender individual, outspoken and generous. He always had a lot of girlfriends. The stories of him getting in bar fights are, I'd say, greatly exaggerated. Okay, he might have hit Ivan Karp in the face with a beer can once at a party up near Nyack, but Bill wasn't the crazy, pugnacious character of legend. He was a happy- go- lucky guy who liked to drink. And when he went on a bender, his assistant Carlos Anduzia would stay with him.
John McMahon, another of Bill's assistants, knew de Kooning well by this point, and he told me a funny story about how he first
met him. "One day I was walking down the street," he said, "and there was Bill de Kooning. I saw him at the Cedar Tavern but I'd
never talked to him, so I crossed the street and said, 'Mr. de Kooning, I'd like to talk to you about painting.'
" 'Talk about painting
?' de Kooning said irritably, as if I'd brought up a thoroughly unpleasant subject. 'I hate
painting. Are you that son of a bitch from Yale that's been leaving notes under my door?'
" 'No, no,' I said, 'that wasn't me.'
" 'Aw, to hell with it then,' he said. ' Good- bye!' And he walked away."
A few days later John was again walking down the street early one morning, and there was de Kooning on the other side of the
street. De Kooning yelled, "Hey, come over here. Aren't you the one from Yale leaving notes under my door?"
"No, not me."
"Well, hell, then," he said. "Come on in and have a drink."
So at eight- thirty in the morning they went into a bar. "What are you having?" Bill asked. John said, "A Coke."
?" said de Kooning. "Hell, that's no drink. Have a beer."
He ordered John a beer while downing two or three gins.
"That was his drink," John tells me. "Gin, ginebra
After this, John went to work for Bill for the next fifteen years. Eventually I got to know de Kooning well. Once I went to see him
out in East Hampton, and we had a few drinks. After a while he said, "Who the hell asked you to come here? Get out, you son of a bitch!"
I got up, said good-bye, and left.
In a second he ran out, put his arm through the window of my car, and said, "Don't leave me, you bastard! Come in and have
De Kooning was always trying to think of ways to slow down the time it took for paint to dry. He tried mixing his paint with cooking oil—anything to retard the paint- drying process so he could keep working on his painting. At the time this seemed a bit nutty, but now I'm beginning to have similar thoughts.
In 1957 I was going out with a girl named Peggy Smith, who was a reporter for a local paper. She'd take me to different events. "I have to cover this story out in Yonkers," she'd say. "Would you like to go to W. C. Handy's birthday party?" "Oh yeah," I said. We went and there he was, the famous old composer who'd written "The St. Louis Blues." He'd practically invented the blues; now
he was blind and in a wheelchair, but beaming like Buddha and surrounded by family and friends. After an hour or so, Nat "King"
Cole got up and sang "Happy Birthday," and then his daughter sang "The St. Louis Blues."
Through Peggy I met the eccentric painter, collagist, and Dada correspondence-school artist Ray Johnson. A film about him was
made not all that long ago called How to Draw a Bunny
. Ray was very social and knew everybody. He asked me, "Would you like to go to a party at the Stevensons', friends of Jack Youngerman?" I already knew Youngerman a little bit. I saw these two young guys leaning against a wall who were good friends of Youngerman's: a kind of nervous Bob Rauschenberg and a stone-faced Jasper Johns. I just said hello in passing; I didn't get to know them till later on—again, through Ray. Ray also introduced me to Lenore Tawney, Agnes Martin, Bob Indiana (or Bob Clark, as he was then known), and Ellsworth Kelly. Claes Oldenburg, Henry Pearson, and I ended up attending drawing classes organized by Indiana and Youngerman, with Jack's wife, the actress Delphine Seyrig, as the model.
I was out of work, and one day I was walking by the Art Students League and I went in. They had a bulletin board with different categories: Jobs, Looking for Work, Apartments, et cetera. I saw a notice that said: "Wanted: Sign Painter/Artist." The job was up in Yorkville, the German part of town. I thought, Well, yeah, maybe I can get some work out of this, so I went up to the address in Yorkville, a candy store owned by this old German guy. A bunch of teenagers were in the back, and who comes in there but George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi. He leans on the counter and says to a group of guys, "Well, how did you do last week? Did you throw rocks on the synagogue sidewalk? Did you mess them up?" And they answered him very enthusiastically, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. We really messed 'em up." So I thought, George Lincoln Rockwell? Here was this white supremacist in a nest of fledgling neo-Nazis. I beat it out of there.
A few weeks later I was walking around looking for a loft down on Fulton Street. I was in a restaurant and asked the owner, "Do
you know of any lofts around here?" "Yeah," he said. "There's two artists living upstairs. Why don't you ask them?" So I went upstairs and knocked on the door. The door opened up. There's a bed on the floor and next to the bed a big flower planter and there's Jasper Johns standing in front of a white American flag, and I thought, God, is this another Nazi place?
As I was standing there in shock, Jasper who was very cool, invited me in. I had only been there a minute when in walked Rauschenberg, a skinny guy wearing granny glasses. "Hi," I said, "I'm a painter and I'm looking for a loft."
"Well, follow me," Bob said, "and I'll show you where to look." And he walked me downstairs. Bob was very shy back then, a
completely different personality from the outgoing character he became.
"Go in that store there," Bob said, "and you tell 'em you want a loft."
And then he left. I told the store owner I was looking for a loft. "I got one for fourteen dollars a month," he said. "Is that too much for ya?" You know, like a joke. It was just a room with a toilet and a sink, like an office.
"Nah, nah, that's too small for me," I said.
"Well, I got one four times as big for thirty- five dollars amonth."
It was a larger room with a toilet and a sink, but I was looking for something bigger, a place where I could live and take a shower.
I didn't run into Bob and Jasper again until I moved to Coenties Slip.
Excerpted from Painting Below Zero by James Rosenquist, with David Dalton. Copyright © 2009 by James Rosenquist. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.