Tenth street in the 1950s

Tenth Street in the 1950s

Philip Pearlstein

The Tenth Street era for me began sometime in 1953. My wife Dorothy and I moved from a renovated apartment uptown to a 6th floor walk-up cold-water flat on East 4th St between 2nd and 1st Avenues. We moved because my time on the GI bill as a student, with it’s monthly allowance, had come to an end. I was studying art history at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, but I still had to complete my work on my MA thesis. My thesis subject was the work of the French modernist artist, Francis Picabia. I was also continuing to paint seriously. My paintings then were very influenced by the work of DeKooning. Franz Kline, and Philip Guston, mostly in the matter of brushwork and organization, but I was experimenting with subject matter. Two of my friends, Fred Mitchell who I had met before WW11 in college in Pittsburgh, and Joe Groell, who I met when I went back to college in Pittsburgh after the war, had become involved in the starting up of the Tanager Gallery. And it was through Joe (Fred soon dropped out of the gallery) that I got invited to exhibit in a couple of group exhibitions. A painting I had in one of those shows caught the attention of Clement Greenberg when he was looking around for new artists to include in one of a series of exhibitions that he called “Emerging Artists”. The show was held at the Kootz Gallery (Ad Rheinhart, in his annual cartoon for the year’s end issue of Art News magazine in which he satirized the art world, that year called the show “Emergency Talent”). Greenberg picked four or five artists from that Tanager show. The ones I remember were Paul Georges, Herman Cherry, and Ted Repke, who was Joe Groell’s younger brother. On the strength of that invitation I was invited to become a member of the Tanager.

The Kootz Gallery at the time was the most prestigious of the contemporary art galleries, and the exhibition drew a lot of attention. One of my paintings was reproduced in the NY Times, and the other one was reproduced, prominently, in ARTS magazine. ARTS, at the time was a thin publication with most of the black and white reproductions ganged up on a center-fold page. My painting was reproduced large in the center of the layout with  several paintings by current major artists reproduced small around it. The day after it came out I was invited to join an uptown gallery, the Peridot. However, I told Lou Pollock, the gallery’s owner, that I wanted to remain involved with the Tanager, and he agreed. So I had my first one-man show at the Tanager and the second at the Peridot.  Many years later I met the man who had been the editor of ARTS magazine then, Fitsghugh, and he told me he had done the layout of that page. I thanked him, and he said, “You know why I did that? I had just been fired from my job because I drank too much, and I was going to California, and I thought your painting was the ugliest thing I ever saw, so I used it to thumb my nose at the New York art scene.”

When I had that first solo show at the Tanager I had one of my most memorable art experiences. The artists whose exhibition was up, “baby sat” the gallery. One afternoon  Bill DeKooning, who had been sleeping like a Bowery bum on the outside metal staircase to the entrance of the building when I arrived, unexpectedly came into the gallery. He excused himself, and said, ”do you mind if I talk to you about your paintings? I looked at them before“.  I said I would like that very much. He proceeded to go to each painting in turn around the room –there were probably ten paintings in the room. He analyzed each one in terms of how I had organized it, and told me how he thought I could have made it stronger. It was an absolutely astounding experience.

On another occasion during a brief discussion at the Tanager, DeKooning spoke about Jackson Pollock painting, “Autumn Mist”, that had just been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum after Pollock’s death for the then fantastic sum of $30,000. He said, “I went to the museum and I looked at that painting for a long time and I decided that it was done by an intelligent man. You know, there is no other criteria, the work has to be intelligent.”  The Tanager gallery space was only about 14x25 feet, with a very small storage area behind the wall at the end opposite the front window, which was the whole front. So there were only three walls to hang pictures on. There was no heat in the building, but no one ever seemed to comment of the fact that the gallery was cold.  The walls were often given a coat of white-wash paint before a new show, the floor would be scrubbed with some strong mixture of bleach and water, and the toilet out in the hall was scrubbed up at the same time. Often it was Angelo Ippolito who initiated the cooperative cleaning effort after the hanging was decided on, and often it was Angelo who did most of the work. It was Lois  Dodd who made certain that the rent (40 dollars a month) and electric bill were paid on time during the early years, while the rest of us were usually late in handing over our ten dollar monthly dues. Lois had a baby son, Eli, who was the first baby I ever knew personally.  It was Lois who made the remark some forty years later that I think sums up the real tenor of those years, when she remarked, “Who ever would have thought that those would become the great old days?” 

I believe that it was sometime in 1955 that Sally Hazelet and I, and Alex Katz were elected to membership in the Tanager. Later, Sally’s father’s business became an “angel”, and helped to pay the rent. Sidney Geist was voted in as a member because he was smart. And he proposed a great project for us. Sidney felt there was a great need to define and present what was then commonly referred to as The New York School, in a logical, systematic way through a series of exhibitions. He proposed that since the NY School included artists whose styles were as diverse as De Kooning’s, Rothko’s and Reinhardt’s, we should present exhibitions of related groups of artists –and to publish a book. We were all excited by the  nervy character of the project, and we met for a series of evenings during which we discussed the work of every contemporary New York we could think of as worthy to be included. Names of the artists were put on individual pieces of paper and taped to a wall in Angelo’s studio. We then grouped the artists according to what we felt were their related interests. We labeled each of the group’s assigned interest: such as “artist as teacher”, “artist as magician”, “the private myth”,  “artist as abstractionist”, “outer space”, “description of nature”, etc. About fifteen categories were edited down to five major ones to make the project manageable. Surprisingly, the “abstractionists” –the artists whose work was devoid of subject matter- was the smallest category. Each of the five groups would be a separate exhibition. We refined our large list of names by trying to weigh the inventiveness and originality of each of the artists to be included. I remember those discussions as exciting, witty, irreverent and revelatory. Five prominent critics were invited to contribute essays –without being informed about the nature of the category for which their essay would be used as an introduction. A publisher was lined up. Rudy Burkhardt gave us several photographs to use as the cover and inside illustrations. As I was then employed at “Life” magazine doing page layouts, I designed the book and produced a sample dummy. We then sent out letters inviting the artists to participate, and to give us a black and white photo of the work they wanted to be represented by.  That is when the project unraveled. A couple of the prominent artists we did not invite pressured others to withdraw, including a couple of the critics.

A book with the same title ours would have had, and that followed my design did appear a year or so later.The critic Dore Ashton was the author of that one. Later we did put on an exhibition of one of the categories, that of “the private myth”. I was writing occasional critical articles for Art News then, and I wrote a short article about that exhibition. I thought that the whole process, including the denouement, was a valuable series of lessons about the nature of the “art world”, and how it functioned. 

My involvement in the daily life of Tenth Street ended when I accidentally set my studio on fire. In the fall of 1959 when I returned from a year on a Fulbright Fellowship in Italy, I sublet the studio, which was a large room that was directly behind the Tanager Gallery, from my friend Saul Leiter, the photographer. There I did my first large paintings, 6x8 feet, developed from the wash drawings I had made in Rome of the ancient ruins of the Palatine hill, and of the cliffs above Positano along the Amalfi coast. That room had been the studio of the artist, Pearl Fine. Her name remained painted on the door, which, because of the spelling of my last name occasionally led to some confusion on the part of visitors. I worked there for several months. Then, Saul’s step-daughter needed the space for her grand-piano, and her practicing. The second floor in the building next door that had been occupied by the Camino Gallery, became available when that artists’ co-op gallery closed. Lois Dodd and I shared the space for a few months until she moved into a house on 2nd Street. Then my friend Lester Johnson took Lois’ s place. Lester had the front half of the floor, which had lots of day light. I had the back half. Because of my teaching schedule at Pratt Institute (I never returned to my job at Life magazine) I was only painting at night under artificial light when Lester wasn’t there. Lester separated our spaces by a large white bed sheet hanging from the tin roof ceiling. The only water was from the sink at the back of my space. The storage rack that I had built was also in my space and held not only my work and Lester”s, but also Lois’s since she had not yet moved hers to her new space. I usually did not get to the studio until 10 PM, often trudging through heavy snow from Avenue A, and climbing over two or three bums usually sleeping on the staircase. As there was no heat in the building I would put a blue-jean coverall suit over all my outer clothing. Then I put on woolen gloves and a pair of earphones attached by a very long cord to my record player, and listen at high volume to my LPs of either Mozart’s Requeim, or Beethoven’s Missa Solemness at high volume, and I would paint until about midnight.  One night, when my wife Dorothy had just given birth to our daughter Julia, and my most recent paintings had gone off to the Alan Frumkin Gallery where my next exhibition was to be held, I went to the studio to start preparing new canvases. There was only one electrical outlet, and that was on the ceiling about 12 inches away from our storage rack of paintings. To prepare new canvases, that were raw linen but had already been stretched on the stretcher-frames I had constructed myself, I plugged in a hot-plate to the ceiling outlet to melt crushed rabbit skin glue in a can put it into a pot of boiling water. Suddenly the lights went out, the music stopped, and a 40 inch tail of flame was whirling around the ceiling from the electric outlet. Knowing that the floors above were occupied by several artists, and seeing that all our paintings were about to go up in flames along with the whole building, I grabbed the pot of water with the can of glue and splashed it up to the outlet. The flame flickered, so I ran to the sink and continued to throw water with the small pot up to the outlet, and the flame went out. I decided to call the fire department. I called and explained what had happened: the fire was out, but I thought it would be best if they would send over some one to check, just in case there was still fire in the electric conduit. The person at the other end told me I could have been electrocuted doing what I had done. A few minutes later the street was full of screaming sirens and fire trucks. A small crowd of the blocks inhabitants were looking for the fire, and I remember trying to explain what I had done to Pat Paslov and Milton Resnick. The fire-men rushed up the steps with me, burst into Lester’s space and saw there was no fire, but with their flashlights they saw his black graffiti-like paintings of large heads (that I thought were wonderful) and began laughing. Then they got tangled in the bed sheet that fell to the floor and tripped several of  them. They began slipping and sliding around in the gelatinous film of glue that now covered the floor of my space. The fire fighters with their flashlights and axes and water hose whooped with laughter, and the scene became a slapstick ending to my years on Tenth Street.