Monthly Archives: January 2014

#24 taxi stories of an abstract expressionist

I had parked my taxi outside the studio at 102 Green Street between Prince and Spring, now the fashionable SOHO area of Manhattan. I was well up on the curb so as not to be hit by the trash trucks that operated out of this industrial warehouse area. At this time in 1969, we were not allowed to live in the buildings called lofts, and the truck drivers moving freight or trash didn’t give two flying hoots in hell if they took your door off when they made their lazy half-assed turns as they left the smelly garbage garage just across the street from our floor through studio. I’d zip by the studio for a beer and to check out the girl across the alley, a lovely exhibitionist with some real talent and no inhibitions! I just generally wanted to see what was happening in the neighborhood – and always make a few calls. The beauty of driving the taxi in NYC was that you could go home at any time and take care of chores like doing the laundry at the better, but distant, laundromat. With my tonnage of dirty clothes that just fit in the trunk of the Checker cab when gathered in my hammock laundry bag, well, I was off on the laundry adventure after the weeks of buildup. I glanced out the window to catch the show, and instead of the exhibitionist, I saw two guys with duffel bags coming down the fire escape. I was surprised they weren’t wearing Lone Ranger masks over their eyes, like the burglars in cartoon strips because they looked like those stereotypical burglars that tiptoe down fire escapes in a low crouch with knees bent and heads jerking left to right in anticipation of the coppers, as they looked up and down and felt the eyes of the world on them. I was in disbelief viewing the brazen daylight break-in and hearing the sharp metal pounding on the lock and hasp. I approached my open window to cautiously and curiously stick my head out, only to see that they had gone, but I could see that they had disappeared into the building through an open window. As I looked around I saw 15 other heads leaning out windows just like mine. I had no idea so many people lived down there and that nothing went unnoticed. A conversation started between buildings and someone said they had called the owner of the building, which was just full of rags, rubble, and nothing of value. I didn’t see the femme fatale of the block but she seemed to be growing potted plants – I hoped they wouldn’t block the view. We all exchanged robbery stories from window to window across the buildings, and I felt part of the growing artist community that in time would put SOHO on the map and become the real estate boom of the 1980s. From time to time, I saw many of these people rushing and carrying multiple bags with shoulder straps stretched to the breaking point under the weight of that day’s cargo, and as I had a taxi on the street there was always someone impatiently waiting for me with their load. I emerged to the abandoned quiet street from behind the secure sculptural steel door of Bill Tarr, the building’s owner and a good metal sculptor. Jan was a good-looking girl in her twenties from the Midwest, seems she watched from her window and ran down to catch a ride with me – mostly free rides unless she was going into troublesome midtown traffic. She was a blonde painter with boyish short hair and a great figure in tight Levi’s and revealing cotton T-shirts with breasts heaving breathlessly in the summer heat. She said she had to run down the stairs because she couldn’t get her window open to shout out, “Taxi!” I saw the City wear her clean Midwestern, healthy glow, into the New York hardened look of the struggle in only two years. She still had a smile for me when we met on the street but it was the New York, “Hi there, I’m in a rush!” smile as she started to look like she was really in a rush or simply frenzied. I never saw her work. She, like everyone else, was just another artist trying to get a bite of the apple, but then I never saw anyone’s work. I never saw Bill Tarr’s work except a few finished pieces around town. Elizabeth Egbert was just down the street and I knew her very well from the Art Students League Metal School out in Long Island City. We took the same subway, but I never saw her work. I guess it was around but her attributes were so wonderful that that was all I really saw when visiting her studio. There were two painters upstairs and I had visited them twice only noticing they were very ordinary. It seems they taught some place and college art was like looking at yesterday’s copy of Art in America. I never saw their work for more than 2 minutes but that was all it took. They spilled paint through the cracks in the floor, it was an upstairs advantage. With the climb to the top of the stairs being physically demanding and the nature of cheap acrylic paint watered down to a liquid state, I wished they could afford oils but alas and alack, not to be. Alice’s father the painter/architect John MacArthur Bateman had a studio just above Hans Hoffmann. In his studio, John poured large heavy 55-gallon drums of plaster into molds for architectural elements. It seems one day a plaster mold broke and sent 55 gallons of plaster pouring across his wooden plank floor that was also the ceiling of the studio under him, and the plaster dripped through the ceiling of the studio below. At the time, Hans had all of his paintings out looking them over for his upcoming show. Hans shouted upstairs in German for it to stop and that he needed help covering his work from the dripping plaster. Bateman along with his klutz brother-in-law, who had dropped the mold in the first place, came down to help. They used blankets and canvas in an attempt to cover the paintings, but it was too late. The plaster was setting up and the damage was done. Bateman put the best spin on it by telling Hans that his paintings needed that texture made by the pressed fabric and wet plaster and that the new tactile surface was in many ways more interesting. Now, he only needed to paint over the white plaster to get a far more interesting surface. Hans Hoffmann’s show was a success, and he would pop up to borrow plaster from time to time and talk with Bateman about materials. In the building next to us was another kid from the League and he always wanted me to come up to look at his paintings. He studied mural painting and worked as a sign painter. I went once and the beer was both rodeo cold and a label I didn’t care for all that much. That combined with the disappointment of his bruised pallet, muddy colors—well, it was troubling. In his building was a lovely woman in her late 30s/early 40s. She was a handsome gal and a very nice person who was a regular taxi fare. The walk uptown to Houston and over into Greenwich Village was dangerous in those days as the streets were abandoned for the most part and no taxis came into the area except to drop someone off. I picked her up several times and during a nice conversation she said she had been robbed! Her studio/loft had been broken into from the fire escape in the back of her building. The thieves broke out a window and went in through her window to her refrigerator where she had a cold bottle of wine and several beers that they promptly consumed along with crackers and cheese. The police tracked them over the roof to another building, down to the alley from the automatic descending fire escape that is counterbalanced so that when you step on it, your weight takes you down slowly without a jolt. Someone had figured out the mechanics long ago and simply regulated the descent by placing himself on the step that gave a comfortable feeling going down. If in a blaze, one could step to the end and the fire escape went straight down in a snap! As we were hashing over her losses she became somber as she told me of all the stretchers that were stolen – nearly 50 of the really good expensive ones made by the Lebron Brothers – and many tubes of new unopened Winsor & Newton paint along with their very fine brushes. She said, “They must have been in my place for several hours. I’m lucky I didn’t return and surprise the festivities.” I asked how she could make a time determination, and she said it was a lot of work to remove all her paintings from the stretchers! I asked if they had rolled up the paintings for transport and taken the stretchers broken down for the obvious ease of transporting them down the fire escape. She said, no, they had taken only her stretchers, paint, and brushes but left her paintings in a pile in the middle of the floor. Her face showed the rejection her work knew much too well. Artist and rejection wasn’t anything new. Jose de Creeft was a close friend of Pablo Picasso; they met while living in Paris after both escaped Franco and de Creeft saw his life’s work destroyed by Franco’s men using his stone carvings as targets to shoot at for the sheer joy of destruction. The Spaniards stuck together in Paris and frequented the same cafes for wine and conversation. Picasso was starting to gain the respect of many of the other groups of artists. One German Fauve who had escaped Hitler and sought refuge in Paris was painting in a small studio close by the café. From time to time he would ask Picasso to visit his studio and look at his paintings. Picasso always said, no, that he didn’t have the time. Picasso was rude perhaps because the fellow was German and de Creeft would say, “Pablo, you are a little hard on the fellow. Why not go by his studio?” This went on for several weeks, and one night Picasso broke down and went by the German’s studio. The next day everyone was talking about how the German had taken his life by hanging himself in the middle of his studio surrounded with garish paintings thrown around the floor. Jose de Creeft approached Picasso and said that he had heard that Picasso had visited the German’s studio. He was curious because he too had visited the studio only days before and he was just a German painter and everything was all right with the fellow. Picasso said he broke down after the German nagged him so much and went to see his paintings and they were merde de la merde, he had wasted his time. Jose de Creeft said, “Pablo, you didn’t tell him that, did you?” “Yes,” Picasso said, “the paintings were bad and I told him his paintings are bad.” De Creeft was in shock, and as he told me the story he became exasperated waving his 84-year-old hands in the air and grabbing his throat he said, “The poor fellow hung himself!” I said, “Did Picasso feel bad at what he had done?” And de Creeft said, “Picasso simply said, ‘What does it matter, he was a bad painter.’”

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