Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 (1950) offers intimate insight into the thinking of many of the twentieth century’s pioneering American abstract artists. The slim volume documents the salon sessions at 35 East Eighth Street in Greenwich Village on April 21–23, 1950, where the goal, as defined by sculptor Richard Lippold, was simply “to learn from conversation with my confreres.” As the book reveals, the discussions that took place predicated on obvious shared respect, curiosity, and exploration.
The book’s editor, Robert Goodnough, was studying for a master’s degree in art education at New York University when artists William Baziotes, David Hare, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko ran a public lecture series under the auspices of their cooperative school, Subjects of the Artist. The series ran from 1948 to 1950 and typically attracted a healthy crowd of about 150 people. When it was disbanded, Goodnough proposed a closed, three-day seminar to review and record discussion around key questions raised during the lectures. These new discussions were moderated, in turn, by art historian Alfred H. Barr Jr., Lippold, and Motherwell. Here, Goodnough has edited the transcripts into an elegant sliver of a book (trimming the original record roughly by half) and has included the invitation letter sent to Louise Bourgeois and the Letter of Permission sent to all participants. The text itself is dense with insights into the practices, personalities, and aspirations of Janice Biala, Bourgeois, Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Richard Pousette-Dart, Ad Reinhardt, and other artists who took part in conversations that would otherwise only be the fantasy of any student of twentieth-century art.
Over the course of three days, the participants grappled with questions about the conception and completion of their works, institutional and public reactions, artistic responsibility, interest or antagonism concerning mass culture, personal disclosures, professionalism, unions, emotional investment, and other issues fundamental to the act of creating and presenting work. Motherwell may have posed the sessions’ most vital question when he asked, “What then exactly constitutes the basis of our community?” This question is perhaps more intriguing than the conceptual and formal concerns raised because of how tightly history intertwines the artists involved in the New York School. The sessions at Studio 35 were held a year before the groundbreaking 9th Street Art Exhibition, the public’s introduction to the work of the New York avant-garde, but the participants were evidently eager to map out their creative relationships to one another and to investigate Hare’s query, “Do we artists really have a community? If so, what makes it a community?”
Part of the response comes through in Goodnough’s inclusion of a few striking instances of bureaucratic bickering. Practical issues, such as how participants should register their responses to questions (by a show of hands, for instance), humanize the discussion by offering reminders that the dialogues occurred in real time and that the historic figures conversed in very casual terms.
In response to Motherwell’s query about community, Hofmann enjoins, “Everyone should be as different as possible. There is nothing that is common to all of us except our creative urge.” That urge is, of course, grounded in issues of abstraction, but underlying such formalist and aesthetic concerns is the notion, articulated by Lippold, that “what we are leading up to is why each person paints or sculpts.” What follows is an engaging, jargon-free, and unpretentious discussion in which no conclusions are drawn and no dogmas are proposed, but where each person expresses a singular set of desires and attitudes and listens attentively to his or her fellow artists. “I want to know the outside truth,” Reinhardt says. “I think I know the internal one.”
Ana Finel Honigman is an art critic based in Berlin.