Commentary Magazine


Scenes from the Cedar Bar

I came back from Paris in the fall of 1951, and found that New York had changed in the three years I had been away. People in Europe were speaking then about the imminent death of the old continent’s culture, but in New York something very different was being proposed about American culture, American politics, and especially about American painting.

An art club had been formed, which had its headquarters in a loft on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, and to which some of the best painters in the city, among them Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Esteban Vicente, and Philip Guston came regularly, as did any number of still unknown young painters who, because of the club, were able to make contact with mature artists already recognized for their skills. Thus it was that Gandy Brodie and Robert Rauschenberg found encouragement for the developments they later were to introduce into the world of the New York School. And at the painters’ club, in the excitement over the new paintings being produced and the feeling that finally the city had the kind of art that was quite worthy of it, the meeting of the already established and the scarcely known, the already famous and those merely hoping to become that, the skilled, the semi-skilled, and the unskilled, who, however, had aspirations, produced an atmosphere like that around a race track (I am deliberately using the metaphor Joyce used about Paris in the late 20′s and early 30′s; he said that because of the atmosphere there, it was the only city in which he could write).

In fact, the painters who came to the club were treated by most of the people there, who were not themselves painters but admirers of painting, like horses moving impatiently, sometimes hysterically, to the starting gate at the first of the three great race tracks from which sometimes triple winners emerge. A kind of miracle had taken place in New York City which had transformed the painters’ club on Eighth Street east of University Place into something like Lexington, Kentucky, on the eve of the Derby. And it’s to be noted that the social arrangements at that time for bringing young writers or aspirants in writing into contact with their elders and those who had assured positions in the literary world, had fallen off. There was a generational conflict already in the literary world, such as had not existed prior to that, and there was no such conflict among the painters. Moreover, the painters had remained bohemian in their way of life while the writers who had achieved some success strove for respectability and had moved to uptown apartments.

I suppose what I have described were the organic conditions that made possible the breakthrough in painting in the late 40′s and early 50′s of William Baziotes (whom my friend Matta, the Surrealist painter, had always singled out to me as a fine painter—though he always said Baziotes’s neckties showed there was something wrong with his color), also, of course, Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, Vicente, and all the other painters who contributed to what one critic, Tom Hess, called “Abstract Expressionism” and another, Harold Rosenberg, called “Action Painting.” Suppose one asked, though, whether any forms were produced or discovered by the painters like the multi-planed surfaces which the Cubists favored, like the dot or the splash of the Impressionists, like the stain which da Vinci had said five hundred years ago could have all the beauty necessary for a work of art. Was anything of that sort turned up by Abstract Expressionism? Those friends of mine who know art history tell me no, that what was new in the paintings produced during that period was the enthusiasm with which forms discovered in Europe from 1905 through the 1920′s had been rediscovered. In other words, New York City had provided a new, organic situation for forms of painting which Paris and the Parisian school could no longer nurture, and which had some of their richest, wildest, most fantastic developments in what ten years before would have seemed the unlikeliest place—New York City.

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On some evening in some month of 1952, at some party in someone’s apartment in the Village, Tom Hess, who was then at work on the book in which he described the new painters as Abstract Expressionists, asked me to give a talk on whatever topic I chose, at the Eighth Street art club. And I agreed to give the talk. Let me recall that evening: I was walking down Eighth Street toward the club, and two persons I met on the way, and whom I stopped to greet, urged me not to go on to the club to give my talk. The first was Robert Motherwell, whom I had not seen during the years I’d been in France, and whom I was glad to run into for he always talked intelligently about painting. As a matter of fact, I think he was the first person to herald the importance of Jackson Pollock, at least to me. I told him I was going to the club to lecture, and I think I even suggested that he come too, if only to hear my remarks. It turned out that he was not only unwilling to be part of the audience, he also wanted me not to appear before it. I said to him, “I can’t do that. I’ve given my word to Tom Hess.” Said Motherwell, “You know what the club is, don’t you?” I said I wasn’t familiar with it, but understood it was a new institution in the city, and important to the artists. “I’ll tell you what it is,” said Motherwell. “It’s Bill de Kooning’s political machine.” So according to Motherwell, whatever I thought I was doing in giving the talk, I was in fact serving the political purpose of a rival painter.

I left Motherwell on Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue and went on toward the club. But on the corner of MacDougal Street and Eighth, I ran into another painter whom I had not seen for quite some time. This was Attilio Salemme, whom I had known in the Trotskyist movement. Attilio was the brother of a commercially successful academic sculptor, Antonio Salemme, whom I had known long before I met Attilio. Antonio Salemme was bourgeois, conventional, and rich, and Attilio in all respects was just the opposite. Apparently he had for some years been painting seriously, and I was told, not by him, but by others, that the French ambassador to the UN, M. Laugier, had bought some of his pictures and singled him out as the most interesting of New York City’s new painters.

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After my encounter with Attilio that evening, I did find occasion to see some of his paintings, and I was very struck by them. I think there is one in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. What makes Salemme’s pictures interesting (this is a personal view, for I do not know what critics or connoisseurs have said about him) is their outstanding ing oddity. Little of the painter’s craft is involved in drawing the columns of colors he sets alongside each other against a white background, so you do not admire his pictures for their craft or skill, or even for any kind of thought either about the art of painting or about any aspect of real life. Let me put it this way: with most paintings, one feels that if one had the skill, the artistic feeling, or the knowledge of art, one might oneself have made that particular still life, that landscape, that abstraction. Salemme’s pictures are pictures you know instantly you would never have made or wanted to make even if you had the skill to do so, and hardly any skill, it seems to me, could have been involved in their production. There is some element of this oddness, this otherness, in a good deal of modern art. But in Salemme’s pictures one felt at once this otherness as oddly genuine and genuinely odd; certainly it was not the result of any deliberate effort to be odd on the painter’s part. Let us remember that Georg Lukács had made specialness the main category of aesthetic value. In any case, that was what I thought of Salemme’s pictures when I saw them some months after I had run into him.

I told him that I was going to the club to give a talk, adding, “I just saw Bob Motherwell, and he urged me not to go.” “He’s quite right,” said Attilio. And then I told him what Motherwell had said, that the club was Bill de Kooning’s political machine. “I agree with him,” said Attilio. To which I responded, looking at my watch, “If we go on discussing this, I’ll be late.”

So I went on to the art club and gave my talk.

Bill de Kooning was in the audience, and I think what I said in my talk disturbed him as it did several of the other painters there, though I had not intended to be especially provocative. I said, speaking as a layman, not as an art critic or connoisseur, that when I had first become aware of modern painting, I was often thrilled by pictures which were modern simply because they were that, quite apart from any superior aesthetic quality they might be said to have. Now, I said, I feel differently. I get a special pleasure from looking at paintings that are not modern. And if I look at a painting that is modern, I ask it to prove its aesthetic worth.

Well, this was not the right thing to say to members of the Eighth Street art club in 1952. The painters there were involved in making modern paintings, but I think few of them thought the word “modern” the right qualifier of what they were doing. They knew—and they were right in this judgment—that what they were doing was rather different from what had been done in modern art before them, so that to place their worth under the same rubric with the art which had gone before theirs was a misunderstanding of their effort, their motivation, their values. John Meyers, an old friend who had been managing editor of the little magazine Instead when I got it out, and whom I had known on the staff of View, was particularly upset. He was involved then in setting up the Tibor de Nagy gallery, which exhibited some of the finest new American painters, notably Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, and Robert Goodnough, and it must have been very upsetting to him to hear that paintings were extended a certain emotional credit simply insofar as they were not modern. It was modern paintings that he was interested in showing.

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Sonia Orwell, George Orwell’s widow (later Sonia Pitt-Rivers), when she wanted to make sure that those around would listen carefully to what she had to say, would dramatically fling her waves of heavy blonde hair back over her shoulders and announce, “The thing is that. . . .” The procedure was always effective. I once heard her announce to Robert Lowell on the subject of contemporary American poetry, “The thing is that . . .”; and he listened with maximum attention. So I am going to borrow her phrase to tell what it was about the Cedar Bar on University Place just off Eighth Street, only a block or so from the art club, that made it remarkable. The thing is that . . . in the Cedar Bar, ideas were in the air. How remarkable that is one will perhaps realize in reflecting on this fact: ideas have not often been in the air in New York City. New York has hardly ever been the place where original ideas were first formulated or expressed. It has been the place ideas visited first, having been generated somewhere else. Also, it has been the place where ideas were welcomed. In general, in the late 19th century, and the early part of our own, ideas relating to art or manners were originated in Paris, first of all, but perhaps also in London, or in Vienna, and only after that arrived in New York, from where they continued years later on to Chicago and to Los Angeles.

Philosophical ideas were in the air in Freiburg and Vienna in the 30′s and in Oxford during the 50′s. And all these ideas, of logical positivism, phenomenology, and the philosophy of language, finally made their way to this country, but not to New York City in any direct sense. They came to the colleges and universities in New York City, but also, and simultaneously, to the colleges and universities over the rest of the country. So that the University of California at Berkeley is in no sense more philosophically backward than are Columbia, Harvard, or Yale. And the ideas of structuralism developed by Claude Lávi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and others in Paris have also crossed the Atlantic, but have made no direct connection with what is thought or felt in New York City except for what is felt or thought by its university students. The sad fact is that New York City, too, is today almost as bankrupt intellectually as are the provincial cities of the country, for ideas no longer hit the centers of city life, but go directly to the campuses, where they are academicized by the various faculties.

But in the late 40′s and 50′s this had not yet occurred. The existentialist ideas of Sartre entered into the consciousness of city dwellers in Manhattan and, I think, had some effect upon the painters too. However, the ideas that were in the air in the 50′s, at the Eighth Street art club and the Cedar Bar, even if influenced to some degree by existentialist notions, were fundamentally ideas about the art of painting. It was the ideas of the painters and not of critics, connoisseurs, or art historians that were in the air, and you felt this as soon as you stepped into the Cedar Bar.

In a famous article written during the 50′s, Harold Rosenberg said it was a scandal that American intellectuals had ignored the development of Abstract Expressionism or, as he called it, Action Painting. In fact, he was one of the few writers (Frank O’Hara was another) who ventured into the Cedar Bar, though neither came there often.

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For my own part, I must say that the experience of ideas in the air is a very exciting one, and I think I can say, too, that the only time since the 30′s I have ever been aware of such a phenomenon was during the 50′s in the art club and at the Cedar Bar. Now while this was exciting and stimulating, it also had a negative side for one who was not himself a painter. For you were stimulated by ideas that had little relation to your concerns, and if these ideas actually inspired, the case was even worse, since the feeling of inspiration brought with it the conviction that it would result in absolutely nothing. Paul Valéry, in an essay on poetry and abstract thought, tells of an experience he had had of musical inspiration which should have resulted in a score; however, he was too lacking in the knowledge of musical composition to produce one. Well, that’s what it was like at the Cedar Bar: one not a painter was stimulated, but what was one who did not paint to do about it? So there was nothing scandalous about the fact that writers did not frequent the bar. The real question I had to ask myself was, Why did I go there?

I went because some of the painters had been friends of mine for years, and because the bar was the one indisputably bohemian center in Greenwich Village, probably New York City. But since the ideas that were in the air were those of painting, and since these ideas had little relation to my own concerns, there were bound to be misunderstandings in all the discussions in which I participated.

But I want to insist on this point: there was something living in that bar which gave vitality to the ideas expressed there. Once again, a set of organic relations can be separated from the formal structure to which they give vitality. Something had made the painters who came to the art club and the Cedar Bar at that time similarly enthusiastic about the employment in painting of non-figurative forms. What caused their excitement for these forms to that degree at exactly that time, I cannot say. This is something for the art historians. But it was the conjunction of the excitement with these forms that made for the life of the bar.

And so I think that by this time, one of our poets should certainly have written, in verses we would feel worth memorizing, of what things were like in that bar. “Arms and the man I sing,” Virgil began his epic. What would the verses we are still waiting for about the Cedar Bar have taken as their theme? Brawls and the brush, perhaps, for the Cedar was famous both for the painters who frequented it, and the fights they engaged in there. Jackson Pollock, who seldom came, for he lived in Long Island, outside the city, but who when he did come to New York was certain to drop in at the bar, gave it, I think, the atmosphere that stayed with it until the end, long after Pollock was dead and could no longer carry on as was his wont.

An ordinary bar it seemed at first, anyway, the first time I was in it, and that, of course, is what made the place’s fortune. An ordinary New York City bar of the 50′s, grimy, smoke-filled, noisy, filled with the drunk, the foolish, and the famous—though even those who were already famous in the early 50′s were not yet rich. Even Jackson Pollock was not yet rich, though everyone knew he would be, and Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning were not yet rich, but they were famous, which meant that they were already sought after by the rich and did not have to choose their friends from the poor alone. The bar was open late into the morning hours, and the painters were generally there, some of them, anyway. As I have said, literary people did not go to the Cedar Bar. In fact, some writers and editors deliberately avoided the bar because it was full of painters and painters’ talk. I remember asking the editor of Partisan Review, Philip Rahv, to go there with me for a drink, and he refused. He didn’t want to mix with the painters. “They have a trade-union consciousness,” he said, “and I’m not a member of the union.”

In one sense he was quite right about this. The painters did form an elite circle which regarded those not of it as against it, and by the way, they weren’t so friendly to one another. Ad Reinhardt expressed it this way to me once: “We go there to meet the very people we hate most, the other painters.” Actually, I don’t think Ad hated any of the painters, but some of them may have hated him, for Barnett Newman hauled him into court for having published a witticism about him, and the fights I saw taking place in the bar were often quite violent. I saw Franz Kline shoe-whipped by his girlfriend in a most savage fashion just a few years before his death, and Bill de Kooning told me that just before the place closed down he was involved in a fracas with the critic Clement Greenberg. Clem, according to Bill, had come up to him as he sat at the bar and made the accusation: “Why do you tell people that I got my ideas from you?” Bill said that he realized Clem intended to hit him, and so he thought it best to get in the first blow. He hit Greenberg on the jaw and then the two were separated.

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It was not an attractive bar in any normal sense of that term, but the painters came there, and this made others come. Probably the closest that we had to the Mermaid Tavern was the Algonquin Bar and Luchow’s in the days of the American Mercury, and we certainly did not have cafés like the Flore or the Deux Magots or the grand cafés of Montparnasse frequented by writers and painters. But in the 50′s there was the Cedar. It was drab, grimy, and chaotic, but beneath the noise and the hum of conversation, the talk about art and by the artists—by Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Bill de Kooning, George Spaventa, and Mercedes Matter, herself a painter of quality, though she preferred to be known as one who hung out with painters—beneath all the talk and noise and often desperate remarks, there was an extraordinary optimism, quite American in fact, about painting, and most especially, American painting.

As I’ve already indicated, the Cedar Bar was not in appearance different from any number of other bars in Greenwich Village at that time. Incidentally, it was not dominated by a television screen, as bars almost everywhere now are, and the absence of television made the presence of the painters more emphatic. What was significant about the bar and made it different from all others could hardly have been guessed by anyone who did not know those who frequented it. Should George Bellows’s painting of a prize fight have hung on one of the walls? Not really. It would have been appropriate there in view of the many fights and the many painters, but the very idea of appropriateness was not one congenial to the painters themselves. They did not want to mix on their canvases colors that would conform to any already established taste. At least this is what some of them said, notably Franz Kline.

Often, when I recall the bar and its lack of saliency for my own descriptive purpose, I’m reminded of a painter I knew slightly in Paris, a remarkable painter, but one whom one would never single out from a crowd as in any way extraordinary. This was Wols, said to be the illegitimate son of Walther Rathenau, the German statesman assassinated by a proto-Nazi under the Weimar Republic. Nicola Chiaromonte, the Italian writer, pointed Wols out to me one day as we passed the Cafe’ Flore, where he was sitting, a most unremarkable looking man. Wols’s wife, who knew Chiaromonte, got up from her table, came up to Nicola, and asked for money to buy Wols a drink. We both contributed something in support of what Chiaromonte told me was killing Wols, his drinking habit. Chiaromonte added, “He is the best painter in Paris today, and everybody knows it.” Everybody knew it, but no one did anything for him. No dealer wanted to show his work, no checks were flourished to get him to turn over any of his already finished works. But after Wols’s death, in 1951, I believe, André Malraux announced that Wols was more original than Pollock, and in fact that Pollock had taken his whole manner of painting from the Parisian.

The charge is quite unjust and does not reflect well on Malraux’s judgment or motives. It has, of course, boosted the prices of Wols’s paintings, but I cannot help thinking as I recall him, that had he been living in New York in 1951, his wife would not have had to beg for money for liquor from passers-by. Wols would have been in the Cedar Bar, sitting with Kline, Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, Vicente, and Spaventa. People would have made much of him. They even would have urged him not to drink, and it was my impression that his excessive drinking in Paris, though this required money, was at least partly due to lack of money, that is, money obtained by his painting, not by his wife’s appeals.

Had the unremarkable looking Wols been found in the 50′s in the nondescript Cedar Bar favored by the painters, he would, I believe, have been one of the main centers of interest. Dealers would have sought him out, and they did not seek him out in Paris. Someone would have compared him to Pollock and this would have brought a comment from Jackson. And the episode would have provided matter for an article in Art News or some other journal. From which we can see something of what it means to have a really creative art movement. For certain artists the difference between a creative scene and its contrary may be the difference between life and death.

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When ideas are in the air, people become more daring, sometimes to the point of rudeness. Without the ideas expressed by the Dadaists, would anyone have dared paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa? And the bar, as I’ve indicated, was a place where rude words were spoken and, in drunkenness, blows struck. Also, parties were arranged there with the expectation that rude words would be spoken and blows exchanged. I have in mind one particular dinner party at the New Jersey farm of a German professor of philosophy named Henzler, who had become friendly with Bill de Kooning and was trying to get him to take up some of Heidegger’s ideas.

Here are the persons Henzler invited to his dinner party: Bill and Elaine de Kooning, Mercedes Matter, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, George Spaventa, Milton Resnick, and several others. It was to be a big affair.

I don’t know how we all got out to Henzler’s farm, and I don’t know who brought Elaine, who had a broken leg, which was in a cast, but I do remember some of the details of the dinner party once all the guests were assembled. I don’t know what Henzler had intended for that affair—an intellectual discussion of Heidegger’s ideas? Perhaps, but this was not to be. He had a good dinner served us, too, and fine Moselle wine from Germany, which I don’t think the painters appreciated. They had one thing in mind, though, which they very quickly achieved; it was to transform the rather peaceful atmosphere of Henzler’s dinner table into something like the brawling, noisy atmosphere, charged with insults and epithets, of the Cedar Bar. They seemed to have gone all the way out to New Jersey just to prove that they had never left Eighth Street and University Place. They ate Henzler’s roast lamb, poured his Moselle wine on the floor, drank his scotch and bourbon, broke his crockery, made love in his bedrooms, and left on foot at four in the morning. Elaine de Kooning, in fact, walked with one leg in a cast all the way back to New York, leaving Henzler’s dining room, and his whole house, like a disaster area. I never saw him again at the Cedar Bar, and I don’t think he made any further attempt to convert Bill de Kooning to Heidegger’s ideas.

Why had the painters behaved like this? Most of them were gentlemanly enough, taken as individuals. Now I don’t want to insist that any of them was particularly well brought up, but on the other hand, I do not want to blame their behavior on bad manners alone. Their behavior is, I think, better explained by the kind of inspiration they felt, and which related to the advances they were making in non-figurative painting. And I think the feeling of having to be inspired in a context where the kind of inspiration one favors is irrelevant and not required, is likely to lead to destructiveness. What the painters did that night was to make a Jackson Pollock out of Henzler’s dining table and living room, a purpose he never dreamed they might fulfill when he invited them to dinner.

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So this was America in the 50′s, in the early 50′s, or at least a microcosm of it: energy, destructiveness, money—on the scene or coming on the scene, and an inspired movement in non-figurative art. I’ve often wondered: would the painters have behaved as badly had they been as skilled in painting landscapes as the French Impressionists in the 19th century, in painting interiors, or nudes like Bonnard? I do have the distinct impression that they might have treated Henzler’s place better if their inspiration had led them to paint objects like it or in it. But in non-figurative painting, especially painting like Jackson Pollock’s, who, as Bill de Kooning said, opened the door for all the others, the world is converted into a ruin of lines and colors, beautifully painted, to be sure.

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