I RECALL A conversation I had in 1967 with Robert Rosenblum, I the Princeton art historian. It was at a party following the opening of an exhibition of the Fischbach Gallery in New York. His salutation to me was: "Are you still living in Washington?" While my memory is dim of the exact conversation that followed, I remember well his spirited defense of New York as the only place for an ambitious artist.
Today, nearly 14 years later, an oft-voiced dilemma facing many a young Washington artist is whether to abandon the local art scene and head for New York. In the past, the nation's capital was never considered a major art center but as more galleries sprout up along the Seventh Street strip and the museums here continue to offer quality fare to out-of-town curators, collectors and art historians, Washington is rapidly shaking off its image as a backwater art town.
In the early 1950s when I was starting out, the issue of whether to move to New York was not an especially critical one for artists. Most of us were satisfied to work here in Washington while keeping in close touch with the increasingly publicized experiments of the new Abstract Expressionists. New York was only a short train trip away and recent art developments were covered expansively in Arts News and Art Digest.
Of course, the Washington art milieu was considerably smaller in those days. There were the annual Area Shows at the Corcoran, the Whyte Gallery on Connecticut Avenue, and the lobby of the Dupont Theater which held regular shows by leading Washington artists. In addition, we had the Washington Workshop for the Arts on Massachusetts Avenue, the art galleries at American and Catholic universities, the Barnett-Aden Gallery, specializing mostly in black art, and the annual Area Exhibitions of the Society of Washington Artists. But that was about all.
Today, young artists are less patient in their quest for success and are more keenly aware of their options. Students frequently ask, "Do you think I should move to New York?" Despite considerably mixed feelings on the subject, I usually advise them to go.
First of all, an artist who achieves recognition on the Washington scene tends to remain a local artist. But an artist living in New York who achieves local recognition automatically becomes a national artist. This is simply a question of geography. The nationally known critics and the top media regularly cover the New York shows but give only passing notice to most Washington exhibitions unless they are of major museum quality.
A number of Washington's better-known artists who decided to give New York a try lend ample support to this thesis. They include Ed McGowan, Claudia DeMonte, Robert Stackhouse, Mary Beth Edelson and Ann Purcell. All of these people have had one or more exhibitions at leading New York galleries and, as a result, their names are known to a greater or lesser degree across the country.
Yet as my own career would seem to demonstrate, it is possible to remain in Washington while still participating in the highly competitive New York art scene. In a word, I firmly believe it is foolhardy to turn one's back on New York. It is the energy center, like it or not.
In my own case, I have had a one-man show at a leading New York gallery every year since 1963. Beginning with the Poindexter Gallery, later the Fischbach Gallery and most recently the Droll-Kolbert Gallery, I have always felt a strong need not only to show in New York but to keep in close touch with its unfolding developments.
If "art is information" (and I firmly believe it is), then the quality of informational input is higher in New York if only because of the large number of important exhibitions, artists, critics and dealers that one necessarily comes into contact with on a day-to-day basis. For example, in the early 1950s I was making a tour of the galleries. The ones to visit in those days were Sidney Janis, Kootz, Betty Parsons and the Stable. On this particular day, I decided to see a new show at the Parsons Gallery. It was by a painter whose work consisted of nothing more than one or two stripes or bands of color on a simple flat background. The artist was Barnett Newman, and his first show was roundly ridiculed. I didn't know what to think of this strange work and told Betty Parsons so. She said if you wait for a few minutes, the artist will be here. I did and Newman and I talked about the work for some time. He was a courtly man, courteous and modest. I continued to see and talk with him on various occasions until his death. He was good enough to come to two of my New York openings, and I've never forgotten that.
In 1963, I was hanging my first exhibition at the Poindexter Gallery. A young, sandy-haired man stood around watching as I tried different combinations. At one point, he politely offered a suggestion and I learned he was Don Judd, covering the exhibitions for Arts magazine. We had a good talk about my work. At the opening the next evening, I was surprised to see Andy Warhol, Ad Reinhardt, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Both Barbara Rose and Michael Fried reviewed the show for Art International. The point I am trying to make, at the risk of a bit of discreet name-dropping, is that the information input that resulted from these contacts had a lasting impact on my own art. Such exposure is not always possible in Washington, especially on a continuing basis.
During these years of trying to get recognition, I made four separate forays to the New York galleries.
In 1953 I was doing heavily impasto works on masonite. These paintings contained imbedded rocks and gravel and the paint was occasionally as much as one inch thick. Each work weighed at least 30 pounds. With all the immodesty of a beginner, I thought I had really stumbled onto something original. I built two wooden cases with handles and lugged the works to New York on the train. I showed them to Betty Parsons, who showed polite interest but nothing more. The next stop was the Kootz Gallery. Kootz, who handled Gottlieb, Dubuffet and De Kooning at that time, seemed genuinely fascinated with the paintings. He said he couldn't give me a show but referred me to the New Gallery in the Algonquin Hotel run by Eugene Thaw, a young man who has since become a blue-chip dealer. He was enthusiastic and promised to give me a show if I could get enough works together. Since I had only done three and changed my style soon thereafter, little came of this contact.
The next attempt came six years later. In the fall of 1959, I talked my wife, Flo, into taking an armload of my small Abstract Expressionist paintings around the New York galleries. She received a surprisingly warm reception at the first gallery she visited -- Leo Castelli. He even asked her to leave the works so that he could show them to his wife and Ivan Karp, his gallery director at that time. My wife phoned me in a state of euphoria. The next day, she reported sadly that Ivan Karp said the works were good but that Abstract Expressionism was out. She visited more than 10 galleries and almost everywhere the response was the same: no more Abstract Expressionism. The lesson: In art, timing is as important as geography.
In 1961, I photographed 10 of my latest stripe paintings and mailed a set of prints to 15 New York dealers. Polite letters came back from most of them, but one, Dick Bellamy, of the Green Gallery, wrote a warm note asking me to bring a few paintings to New York. A few weeks later, I did. He was enthusiastic about the work but, alas, his exhibition schedule was filled for the season. I failed to pursue it further.
In 1962, I rented a suite of rooms at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and decided to hang a one-man show of my paintings there. My intention was to invite dealers to drop by for a look. I sent them a preliminary letter with photographs and followed that with a phone call after the paintings were ready. When I told the manager of the hotel what I planned to do, he volunteered to paint the walls white for the occasion. To my amazement, I was visited by Allan Stone, Lawrence Alloway, Robert Elkon, Elinor Poindexter and Clement Greenberg. The next year, I had my first New York show at the Poindexter Gallery.
This approach, I am reasonably certain, would not work today. The New York art scene is far too competitive and overcrowded. Each artist will have to find his own solution. Of this much I am sure: There are other solutions short of moving to New York. I'll admit to being somewhat chauvinistic about Washington. I was born here and wild horses could not drag me away. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the local artist who chooses to ignore New York shortchanges himself and his art.