Eight Begin: Artists' Memories of Starting Out
The interviews in Eight Begin are written as monologues in the relaxed confidence of a friend—most notably with Sally Hazelet Drummond, who discloses complete vulnerability before her listener. The invisible interviewer, attuned and sensitive, is Ada Katz, a former scientist who received a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research in tumor genetics at the University of Milan in 1955—known to many from hundreds of portraits by her husband, the painter Alex Katz. Here she’s edited herself from the interviews she’s conducted, allowing her influence to be felt by reverberation in much the same way she has informed her partner’s paintings. The approach never fails to convey her intelligence and grace. While physically removed, her telluric current remains and serves the larger project at hand.
Ada Katz’s questions—asked between March 17, 1974, and March 2, 1975—are vividly present in the answers given by Ronald Bladen, Lois Dodd, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Al Held, Alex Katz, William King, Philip Pearlstein, and George Sugarman. The artists were among a circle of friends who began their careers at Tanager Gallery on 10th Street, an artists’ cooperative that as Frank O’Hara wrote in Kulchur 6 in the summer of 1962 was able to “confer on a first show by an unknown artist a distinction pretty much unavailable to the younger artist elsewhere.” In September of this year, many of these artists’ works were shown together again in a felicitous exhibition curated by Irving Sandler at Loretta Howard Gallery in Chelsea, which hosted this book’s launch, reminding us: where and how does one begin?
Often we don’t know the details of even a close friend’s early home or city, although we may know generalities; in each narrative, candid and concrete disclosures come across as particularly fresh. The stories proceed with a swift pace, many of them beginning with “I was born,” and hopscotch from memories of a mother’s plain hair bun (Dodd), to the stench of pickled herring (Held, relaying his father’s desperate, Depression-era transition from trade jeweler to pickle vendor), to the shock of a plane crashing into the Empire State Building two days after arriving in New York (King—in July 1945, 11 people were killed in an accident caused by heavy fog). The passages range from 8 to 12 pages, in matter-of-fact Courier typeface. Their swiftness is also due, in part, to Katz’s removal of conjunctives—the ands and ors responsible for the run-ons in spoken language—which gives the reader a feeling of galloping across short, punchy sentences. It’s a fun and breezy way to absorb the narratives, particularly given the substantive information revealed.
What exactly is revealed? In lieu of spoiling the allure, it’s enough to say that these stories—along with their personal characteristics—also function as historical documents of an era in American history that is long gone. Massive, steely World War II insinuates itself into sentences about, for example, a poetry club at the shipyards (Bladen), or lying on the floor of the empty(!) Vatican Museum in Rome (Pearlstein). Nearly all eight artists had working-class backgrounds. Many of them were “servicemen”: Al Held and Alex Katz were in the Navy, Pearlstein and Sugarman in the Army. The G.I. Bill was crucial to these men’s art education. Cooper Union—a free school—instructed a few, some whose attendance seemed curiously incidental. (Dodd had no intention of going to college or art school, was in fact considering secretarial school, but a young teacher mentioned Cooper, so Dodd trekked from Jersey to take the test. King heard about Cooper but thought, “Union? I don’t want a union.” He took the test, got in, but decided instead to go to Columbia for architecture—his aunt was supposed to send him $90 for Columbia’s tuition and only sent $9, so King went to Cooper.) A couple also received Fulbright grants. In their day, the government supported culture.
Perhaps trumping even this institutional financial support was the timely, early support of individuals—teachers and peers. As Bladen says, “All the incidents which are important in relation to an art experience—and there are so many—revolve around being encouraged, being able to think of yourself as being part of the community of artists.” The 10th Street gallery scene facilitated this supportive drive, particularly because financial benefits were truly not on anyone’s mind (except as the hypothetical hope to one day show in the “uptown” galleries).
At the end of the story, the fact—the feat, really—that these people became artists (and remained so, successfully—four are still working today, 40 years later) is astonishingly illogical: line out a list of details, an order of events, and still the will, unexplainable, remains. In its lucid lack of explanation, Eight Begin is a gem of insight.