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New York nights: the Manhattan of the Abstract Expressionists

Published 1 September 2016

New York’s legendary Cedar Tavern and the surrounding galleries became the hub of the New York art scene in the 1940s and ‘50s. Morgan Falconer walks the streets where reputations were on the line.

  • From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    One of the frequent complaints of native New Yorkers today is how the city is all the same, and the same as everywhere else. You only have to glance into the lives of the Abstract Expressionists to see that their New York was a different place altogether.

    Back then, Barnett Newman could have a loft on Wall Street and remember Manhattan as a “compact heterogeneous cosmopolis”, a place where you could have the “feeling of living in two centuries”. Uptown was 20th century: when the writer Alfred Kazin had lunch on the roof of the Museum of Modern Art, he felt he was “swimming in the reflected surfaces of some great goldfish bowl. New York was gold skin, kaleidoscopic glass.” Downtown was where you found old New York – and the working artists. It was here, in 1934, that Jackson Pollock and his brother Sande moved into an abandoned commercial building sitting among piles of rubble and the shanties of the homeless. It had no heat or running water and visitors had to throw stones at the windows to get their attention.

  • The young and restless move to cities all the time to slum it while dreaming of moving “uptown” – figuratively or literally. But among the Abstract Expressionists, those who made their breakthroughs in the late 1940s, there were few with such ambitions. The Depression years – when many of that circle came to know each other – taught them to expect little. And the world of contemporary art in New York was tiny, with only a handful of galleries – names like Betty Parsons, Peggy Guggenheim, Samuel Kootz and Sidney Janis. “The public,” as critic John Gruen wrote, “stayed away in droves.” By day the artists would work, by night they would frequent “The Club”, their private talking-shop, or dance in someone’s studio – the tango, the jitterbug, even the kazatsky, the Russian folk dance beloved by Communists and Russophiles in the 1930s.

    And they would drink and drink and drink at the Cedar Tavern. In the garrulous man’s world that was New York Abstract Expressionism, reputations were established as much in the Cedar as in the galleries. Situated on West 8th Street during its heyday, it was nothing more than a long, narrow room with brass-studded leatherette booths (pictured above). There was little decor and the clock over the bar sometimes ran backwards; its walls were described as ‘interrogation green’. But for the painter Norman Bluhm (above, with Joan Mitchell and Franz Kline), and many others, it was “the cathedral of American culture in the Fifties.”

    Pollock, de Kooning, critics like Harold Rosenberg (below, seen centre talking with Irving Sandler) and Thomas Hess – they all passed through its doors. Kline was a regular. Tormented by his unhappy childhood and his wife’s mental illness, he was remembered as someone who would be there when you arrived and still there when you left. Pollock would bound in on Tuesdays after visiting his psychotherapist and would hunt down Kline, joking with him as much as baiting him. On one occasion, after Kline had admonished Pollock for criticising Philip Guston, Pollock pulled a swinging door off its hinges and hurled it at him.

    In the early 1950s, when the market for Abstract Expressionism began to grow, artist-run galleries began to pop up a few blocks away around East 10th Street. Galleries like Hansa, Tanager (shown at top), James and Brata were established as co-operatives, and artists lived and worked around them. The backdrop was dull – pool rooms, an employment agency, a metal-stamping factory – but the mood lively and do-it-yourself. One visitor to a group show in 1951 remembered sheltering from the summer heat under a sign painted by Kline.

  • For the most successful among them, there was also uptown. The better commercial galleries were mostly situated in lavish quarters near Tiffany & Co and Bergdorf Goodman on 57th Street. The dealers often came from rarefied worlds: before opening her gallery, Betty Parsons had been to finishing school and appeared as a debutante in the society circles of Newport and Palm Beach. Bridging this chasm wasn’t always easy for the artists. On one occasion, when Pollock had to head uptown – and dress accordingly – for an uncomfortable meeting, a friend remembered their car coming to rest at a traffic light next to a limousine. Pollock exploded, shouting, “Goddamn sons of bitches, dirty sons of bitches! Goddammit, I can wear a pinstripe suit, too!”

    Of course, as Barnett Newman noted, the New York of the 1940s wasn’t just a binary world of uptown and downtown, it was multifarious. Many disliked the Abstract Expressionists’ haunts. The critic Clement Greenberg described the Cedar Tavern as “awful and sordid”; Lee Krasner said the “women were treated like cattle,” and Frank O’Hara, the poet and curator, hated the homophobia. Tellingly, the next generation of New York artists would spring from different circles, and a different part of town. Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Robert Indiana lived around Coenties Slip, at the foot of Manhattan, with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg nearby.

    But by the late 1950s, when that new generation was emerging, the Abstract Expressionists were already starting to leave the city. Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner moved out to Springs, a pocket of the Hamptons on Long Island in 1945, as newlyweds; de Kooning followed years later; Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell would also take houses nearby. Today, Springs is just one part of the area’s playground for Manhattan’s business elite; then, it was a remote town of farmers and fisherman where life, de Kooning said, was “kind of biblical.” Pollock’s Long Island studio is preserved to this day, and the paint on the floor has sat there since he worked on canvases like Blue Poles (1952). But much else in the world of those artists has changed. When I took a trip downtown recently, I decided to find out what had become of the Cedar Tavern of Pollock’s day. I walked up and down, struggling with the street numbers until finally I realised that the site of the bar, and much else besides, has been engulfed by a vast, chain-store pharmacy. They do, at least, sell hangover cures.

    Abstract Expressionism is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017.
    The exhibition tours to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from 3 February – 4 June 2017.

    • Explore New York's artist hangouts

      Interactive map

      The fabled Cedar Tavern might be long gone, but there are still plenty of Greenwich Village spots where you can grab a coffee, or something stronger, in the New York of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and friends. Visit our interactive map for a tour of the top ten 1950s haunts to try.

      The Abstract Expressionists' map of New York

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