Coonskins, Redcoats & The New York School

Philip Pavia and Ad Reinhardt

A couple of years ago, the O.K. Harris Gallery organized an exhibition of late sculptures by Philip Pavia (1912–2005). Pavia died shortly after this tantalizing show of large primitivistic heads, his achievements as an artist largely lost to history. A photo of Pavia’s 1961 exhibition at Kootz Gallery appears in New Art City, the overview of mid-century Manhattan by New Republic critic Jed Perl. Other than that, you’d be hard-pressed to find documentation of the sculptor’s accomplishment.

Pavia is remembered as a part of the milieu that would give rise to Abstract Expressionism. In his book, Mr. Perl cites him primarily as a community organizer and publisher of It Is, a short-lived journal of the arts. Now we can read Pavia ’s own record of the beginnings of the New York School inClub Without Walls: Selections from the Journals of Philip Pavia, recently published by Midmarch Arts Press.

Pavia’s journals chronicle how he and his cohorts met informally at the misleadingly named Waldorf Cafeteria (actually a low-rent diner). Pavia describes it with a typically romantic flourish as “carve[d] out of living rock … a catacomb, with niches and small chapels for leaders and prophets from our art world above.” Regulars included the overbearing Aristodemos Kaldis, the enigmatic Landis Lewitan, the “serious thinking” Willem de Kooning, the affable Franz Kline and a host of others, such as Jack Tworkov, Beauford Delaney, Isamu Noguchi, Fairfield Porter and the dance critic Edwin Denby.

“The Club” came in to drink nickel cups of coffee and discuss Surrealism’s legitimacy, Europe ’s influence, and whether a painting was abstract by virtue of the speed with which it was painted. When the Waldorf upped the price of coffee to a dime, a new meeting place was needed. Pavia found an empty loft down the block and fixed it up.

There were frequent parties, with jazz concerts and dancing, but the panels that Pavia organized are the stuff of legend. Painters and sculptors bickered about their respective failings. People read poems mocking MoMA, critics and intellectuals. They formed cliques. “Sharpshooters” like Elaine de Kooning and Mercedes Matter heckled from the audience. Hans Arp, John Cage, Joseph Campbell and Max Ernst gave presentations. The architect Percival Goodman spoke on how “Artists Should Be Homosexual”—a talk that didn’t sit well, Pavia notes, with the critic Harold Rosenberg.

Within this contentious environment, artists began to think of themselves as a collective. Pavia states that the term “Abstract Expressionism” was self-generated: “We had finally found our name.” He admits, however, that “it was a name no one really wanted.”

Conversations were impassioned and sometimes silly. John Graham argued that Botticelli was Russian due to the feet of his figures: They are “hallucinations from the long march.” Michael Loew pointed to the weakness of expressionism: “No composition.” To which Milton Resnick responded, “Look me in the eye and say that balancing a composition isn’t straight from the (expletive) Bauhaus.”

Whether the bluster running through Club Without Walls is really indicative of the era or is just Pavia ’s style is unclear. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but to peg the New York School as an old boys’ club is generous. They were, in many ways, little boys acting out John Wayne–style fantasies.

Pavia, citing Hemingway, compares his peers to “bullfighters.” Franz Kline and art dealer Charles Egan accuse Pavia of “watching from the sidelines like Sitting Bull.” Panelists at the Club were like “a tribe of Indians … shooting from all sides with their arrows and bullets.” Editor Natalie Edgar pitches in by calling Pavia a “cowboy in the Wild West” —that Wild West being Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue . The burgeoning Abstract Expressionists considered themselves “Coonskins” and reserved the name “Redcoats” for their adversaries: established uptown artists and their “Surrealist army.” Be thankful Pavia ’s favored designation, “Noble Savages,” didn’t stick.

At one point, Oronzo Gasparo’s wife, the daughter of an Indian chief, yells at the guys: “You white-ass shitty painters—you’re just copying native Indian abstract painting as if it’s your own.” In this hairy-chested context, you can’t help but give Mrs. Gasparo a cheer.

Pavia explains the initial lack of women at the Club as an unintended result of World War II and a consequent dearth of policemen: “The prevalence of a criminal assault technique called mugging had become a great threat at night to everyone, but mostly to women.” Women nonetheless made their presence felt, among them Grace Hartigan, Alice Mason, Joan Mitchell and the ferociously independent Elaine de Kooning. “Where else could a woman have a chance to talk on art or heckle a man on art? … Nowhere else.”

Continuing the Old West metaphors, Pavia writes that the women “came in sheepishly and bounced out as colt horses.” “Nothing,” he adds, “changed the New York woman as did the Club.” Modernist yahoos on the side of feminism—who would have guessed it?

Toward the end of Club Without Walls, there’s a “Chronology of Life and World Events” that alternates between sensible, quizzical and hilarious. There are straightforward entries, such as “Israel Gains Independence” and “Gets Divorce in Virgin Islands .” And then there are oddball listings: “Attacks e.e. cummings for commentary on Krazy Kat, Offissa Pup and Ignatz Mouse,” “Argues with John Sloan About Jackson Pollock,” and a subheading that sounds like something from the Three Stooges: “Chowder-head and Mooching Society.”

These aren’t excerpts from Pavia ’s journals, though. They’re the handiwork of Ad Reinhardt, the painter known for his near-monochromatic geometric abstractions (and less so for his wonderfully acerbic sense of humor).

Reinhardt’s timeline is included for its references to the Club—or what he dubbed the “Abstract Expressionist Synagogue,” the “De Kooning Verein Club” and the aforementioned society. His sarcasm helps to deflate the reverence that Pavia ’s writings bestow upon the era and the circle of people he helped gather together.

Despite Pavia ’s fervor, most of Club Without Walls remains blandly agreeable and feels curiously third-hand. There’s a disappointing loss of immediacy in his writings. Pavia makes plain the camaraderie of artists who would determine the future of the international art scene, and all the minutiae recorded here will be an invaluable resource for scholars. For the rest of us, though, it’s an interesting but less than necessary read.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 6, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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