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Let’s Sit Down With Some Beer & Some Potato Chips & Pretzels & Talk About It
by Erik Wenzel

Physically, Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 is just the kind of handsome, little pocket-sized tome that signals that the fate of the book will be much different than that of the newspaper or magazine. There is something very satisfying about holding the slim volume with its black and white matte cover, or pulling it out on the train to read a few of the quick exchanges between artists at a roundtable.

The book is a series of transcripts from a three-day, top-secret meeting held in New York in 1950. In a foreword and afterword, the book quite succinctly describes the situation and its aftermath. Essentially, the roundtable discussions are the endgame of a co-operative art school begun two years prior by William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, Marc Rothko and David Hare. Focused on abstract art and its content, the school’s program was called “Subjects of the Artist,” but after just a year, it came to an end. However, the Friday night public lectures delivered by “advanced artists,” continued under the name “Studio 35,” for the loft’s address. As these sessions drew to a close, Robert Goodnough, a graduate student who’d been helping run the lectures, suggested organizing a series of closed sessions consisting of only the advanced artists in order to wrap up the project. The result was a three-day event of dialogue. The transcript, edited by Goodnough, eventually saw the light of day, initially as chapter in the book Modern Artists in America. Unfortunately, the content of the talks has largely been forgotten, aside from passing references in texts on the artists that attended, such as Ad Reinhardt and Hans Hofmann.

This is where Julia Klein of the Chicago-based Soberscove press comes in. The timing is right as Goodnough’s edited texts are finally brought to a contemporary audience since the act of conversation and open dialogue has become the material of art itself; this historic moment has a new currency and the topics are as relevant as ever. From shoptalk, like the issue of titling a work of art, to more broad concerns, such as audience and community, it is useful for artist and historian alike to have this primary source.

The book also dispels some entrenched assumptions about this period in postwar U.S. art. There is the oft-repeated anecdote about the wives (often artists themselves) having to serve coffee rather than being included in the conversations when Abstract Expressionists got together. While still largely comprised of white men, the Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 included African-American Norman Lewis and women Janice Biala, Louise Bourgeois and Hedda Sterne. In fact, Sterne drives a number of conversation threads throughout the book. Also revealed are the artists’ strong individual attitudes and approaches to art, hardly the cohesive group of Abstract Expressionists or “Irascibles” as they are historically presented.

What stays with me most from this book is a statement by David Hare. He begins with a stereotypical attitude of an artist, “I see no need for community. An artist is always lonely. The artist is a man who functions beyond or ahead of his society.”  As Hare continues, he makes a point we would be well to remember today, especially as we now confuse publicity with achievement in the art world:

“Some feel badly because they are not accepted by the public. We shouldn’t be accepted by the public. As soon as we are accepted, we are no longer artists but decorators. Sometimes we think if we could only explain it to the public, they would agree with us. They may agree in the course of years. They won’t agree now…they should not agree now.”

Aside from typos that are sprinkled throughout (a second edition is planned to correct this and revise other areas) Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 is well worth the read, a solid first outing for Soberscove Press, in addition to being a valuable resource.


-Erik Wenzel, Senior Writer Artslant: Chicago

Posted by Erik Wenzel on 3/14/11

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