Carlos Villa: How long ago was that? What’s the date? Do you have a –
Arthur Monroe: Yeah, it was around, ’54, ’55. And so, I said, “Sure, you know, I’ll go along with you.” So, we went over and enrolled in Brooklyn Museum. It was just like walking in, you know.
AM: I said, “Do you want to get an advisor?” He said, “Sure, sure.” “Cool.” And then, we got a –
CV: Did your parents, excuse me, did your parents really support, you know, your thing for drawing and art and stuff as a young man?
AM: That’s a weird number. My grandmother got me started in art fundamentally.
CV: Oh, really? She gave you –
CV: She gave you materials and stuff. And then, you’d be with grandma and –
AM: Well, the way she did it was I’d ask her a question, like what is this or what is that? And then, she would draw it in her way. And so, that gave me a visual sense.
AM: And then, so, she showed me how to do a little landscape, a little this, and a little house. And this is a door. This is a tree. You know, one of those kind of things, which was very enlivening to me, I mean, as a kid, you know. But I took to it like, you know, as early as you can, like, you know –
AM: And, actually, I did more drawing and whatnot and coloring and whatnot before I learned to write or read. I mean, that’s how early she was an influence.
AM: And so, from then on, everybody knew that whenever there was a Christmas, a holiday, a birthday, here comes a watercolor set for me or a set of crayons or something. You know, they didn’t have to worry too much. Here give him that and he’d go in the corner and I would just takeoff from there, you know.
CV: Ah, that’s great. So, did you grow in New York?
CV: What part? Queens?
AM: Well, I was born in Harlem Hospital.
AM: And then, we moved to Brooklyn.
CV: Okay. And so, from Brooklyn, the next thing I know I was in elementary school. And when they found out that I had an interest in drawing, I didn’t have to do any classes. But I would paint these murals, you know, of George Washington crossing the Delaware and Monte Carlo.
CV: Oh, yeah.
AM: Jefferson’s place and –
CV: Oh, yeah.
AM: Mount Vernon, George Washington’s place. So, I would do all of these things in the back of the classroom on the blackboard with colored chalk to enhance the lessons that we were getting in school, so.
CV: That’s the best job.
AM: Yeah. I mean, I had – everybody would – oh, yeah, you don’t want to do those things. Why don’t you do one for my class, you know. So, I’d just go up and down the school. And then, I’d come back exhausted, ’cause then I’d have to really scramble to keep up with what the lesson was, you know.
AM: At any rate, next thing I know, they came from Pratt’s Institute. And they said, well, we’re gonna put you in a children’s class, one of the classes on Saturday. And so, I went and I was the only kid in the class. They were all adults. So, it was a bad orientation. I mean, it was nice to have gotten the acknowledgement, but, fundamentally, for me, at that time, it was, you know, they were all way and they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them.
AM: And I was in such a strange –
AM: Atmosphere, you know, I didn’t really particularly take to it, you know. So, I dropped out. But I continued to work on my own.
CV: What were you interested in drawing at that time and how old were you at that – were you in your teens?
AM: Well, we’re talking about – no, no, no, no, I was still in elementary school. I was –
CV: Oh, wow.
AM: I was under 12. I got that scholarship to Pratt’s when I was 12.
AM: And I was doing the classroom work between 9:00 and 12:00, let’s say, you know, in elementary school. I was almost ready to go to junior high school at the tail end of that. ‘Cause we would go to sixth grade in 44 and then from there, from the seventh to the ninth at junior high school and then transfer to high school. And then, from there continue on. So, between the time that I was entered into elementary school and the time that I went to junior high school, it was kind of like a free zone and, I mean, I was just always into it, you know, in every way you could think of.
And then, by the time I got to high school, the first thing they wanted me to do was to take up drafting. So, that they could point me in a direction of, you know, electrical stuff and architecture, which was okay with me. I mean, I didn’t care, you know. I still came home every day and I did my own thing. I mean –
AM: On top of that. And then, I had a girlfriend at the time, Jean, who still calls me today after all these years. And she still has one of my first drawings at that time.
CV: Oh, wow.
AM: That she had framed.
CV: Wow, could you describe it?
AM: It was a little landscape, you know, of some sort.
AM: There’s not too much description. It was an early effort at landscape, you know.
CV: Yeah. So, when you were in high school –
AM: She still has it.
CV: When you were in high school, then you became – you probably went right into art classes from –
AM: Well, they didn’t have art classes in high school. They had drafting.
CV: Oh, wow.
AM: So, I went right into drafting. And I didn’t last there very long either. I mean, they wanted me desperately to pursue that.
AM: But it didn’t take with me.
CV: So, what were you drawing? And you were then kind of very independent during high school?
AM: Very independent. I was doin’ all kinds of things, you know. I had huge scrapbooks and whatnot. We lost all of that when we got evicted. And so, I don’t have any of those as reference. I used to have piles of them, you know, things that I had done then, but that was my first encounter with real personal item loss.
AM: In any case, I more or less got over it, you know, but. Next thing I know, I was hanging out with a group of painters and one of them was Harvey Cropper.
And I had gone to work for his father, while I was going to City College and worked on Madison Avenue in an advertising agency. And I used to take my personal drawings and stuff to the guy, who was the head of the art department. He didn’t want me to come in the art department. And –
CV: How come?
AM: Well, because he thought that I was trying to be a fine artist. I didn’t know the difference hardly, you know. I mean, I didn’t pay much attention to the difference. And he thought – I’ll tell you a funny little story.
He said, “Well, why don’t you bring me some of your work? Let me see what I think of it.” So, I had this girl come over to my place and I posed her and I did a drawing of her. And then, I took it in. And I said, “Here, Tony.” Tony Palazzo was his name. He’d published a lot of books at that time. They’re still in the Library of Congress.
So, he was the kind of guy that if you had an appointment with him, you had to make it in the morning. If you came after 12 noon, he was drunk and he would stand at like a 45-degree angle. I mean, he would stand like this and he’d bent over like that. He was insufferable after 12 noon, but before that, well, he was as clean and as straight as the president. But by 5:00, you’d have to walk him to a cab, ’cause he couldn’t find his way to a cab.
CV: Oh, wow.
AM: I mean, that’s how bad he was. And he’d take a cab up to Grand Central Station and they’d point him in the direction of the train. And he’s just go – he was barreling down that ramp to get to his train. And he’d go upstate. I mean, you know, up to – I forget where he lived, somewhere.
CV: Mount Vernon.
AM: Mount Vernon. Something like that. He lived up – it was little – no, he lived in the place where they have all the yachts. Oh, I can’t think of it now. But, anyway, that was Tony Palazzo and Tony said to me, “Well, you know, I don’t want you being in this art department.” And I said, “Well, why, Tony?” He said, “Because these guys can’t do this,” pointing to this nude that I had done. And then, he’d step back and look at it, you know. He said, “Come over here. Come here. The next time you do a nude, try to get one that you don’t want to fuck, okay?”
AM: I said, “Well, what’d you mean by that?” He said, “Well, you know, I could see from the way you’re drawing, you know, you put all those rings around her titties and all these shapes in her hips, you know. I kinda have an idea of what you have in mind.”
CV: Well, that’s some art criticism for ya?
AM: Yeah. I said, “Oh, shit. Was it that obvious?”
CV: I know. Name of the game. Name of the game.
AM: So, you know, I kind of smarted behind that, but I realized what he meant. You know, I put too much of my own emotions into what I was doing. I said, “Now, I’ll back away from that, man.” So, anyhow, I was in that syndrome and then went to the Brooklyn Museum. That’s when I met all those guys, you know, Graberneck and Max Beckmann came through and Dickenson was there and Reuben Tam from –
AM: Hawaii. He was there. That was the first class they put me in was Reuben Tam’s class. And I thought, “Oh, man, this is miserable,” because I didn’t know one thing from the other about oil painting.
AM: Mixing oil paint was different than crayons and pencils and, you know, and charcoal and stuff like that. It was a totally different shift in the mindset. It would have been all right with watercolors or something like that. And it was a big, huge mindset that I had to change. And so, I struggled with it. But the next semester, I got more into rhythm and then I went off from there.
CV: This was in high school, during high school?
AM: No, this was after high school.
CV: After high school?
CV: What gave you the inkling of thinking about becoming an artist?
AM: Well, these same guys that had come to my place and said, you know, want you to seriously consider. And it was Harvey’s father, whom I thought was, probably, the smartest man in the universe. He was a guy who had – how can I put this – The New York Times used to send him every medical article that they had received for him to check the medical accuracy of whatever the hypothetical was being made in the letter. And that is, he would correct the papers of the doctors, of the Board of Health –
AM: – of every medical issue before they published. Now, he also took a liking to me. And every day after work, we would discuss some literary factor. He knew I was going to City College at the time, which was what we called it, City College. And, now, it’s called, City University.
AM: But we would discuss everything in literature, ’cause he read everything in literature, everything that they taught in college, you know.
AM: Didn’t have to worry. So, he insisted that I study painting. I thought it was a big risk. And I want you to meet my son. And his son was Harvey Cropper. And Harvey Cropper was the guy that Charlie Parker thought the sun set and rose on his head.
AM: And he used to stay in his studio. So, when I went to visit him, which was right around the corner from where we worked, first person I ran into was Bird.
CV: Wow, were you aware of his music?
AM: Oh, I knew about his music, man, since I was in elementary school.
CV: You were listening to a lot of jazz when you were growing up?
AM: Oh, yeah. You couldn’t help it. See, my grandmother was an incredible singer and my mother sang jazz too.
AM: She did this all during the war. And my grandmother, well, she was approaching 80 and she was still second soprano in a 150member gospel choir.
AM: The gospel choir was so heavy, that Eleanor Roosevelt used to fly out from Washington on Easter Sunday to hear them sing Handel’s Messiah. It was considered so beautiful, you know. That same church, Max Roach used to teach Sunday school there and played music in the band, the drum and bugle corps. In fact, that’s what I was doing with Max, before he died, was helping him with his biography and helping him to recapture those times when he played in the drum and bugle corps. And he wasn’t the leader the of drum section of the drum and bugle corps.
AM: There was a guy named Scobie, who could drum his ass off, man. This cat named Scobie was something else. But Max had the ambition.
AM: And with Max, by the time Max was 18 – mind you, he was just 18 – he had offers from two dudes that wanted him to play music. One was Duke Ellington and the other was Charlie Parker. Both, equally, wanted him and were fighting over him.
AM: So, when I was helping him with his biography, it was over those issues that made him great in Brooklyn and by Brooklyn standards. And that’s what we wanted in the biography. And then, he began to see the light. You know, jazz in Brooklyn was altogether different from jazz in Manhattan.
CV: How so?
AM: Well, Brooklyn had more of a fundamental relationship with the community and the musicians. And by that I mean, there were specific clubs in Brooklyn that played jazz and I mean played jazz. And you would go in there and the cats were lined up all around the road with their horns, those axes, waiting to get up on stage in a very small place, in a very small setting.
And the thing that I remember the most is that it was around some very fierce people. And they grabbed a dude by his collar and say, “Hey, man, don’t play none of that shit in here, you know. We want this to be down. Get, I mean, if you get down, then go ahead get up there, you know. But don’t come around her playing none of that little cutesy shit. We don’t want to hear that shit.”
AM: “We don’t wanna hear none of that shit.”
AM: And so, guys got up on the stage and played their heart out, man. And it always, like at The Club 78, you could go there and dance, but you couldn’t dance at the other places. You could just play your music and what fierce music it was, man.
CV: So, those are some of the first role models that you had with the jazz musicians?
CV: You know, and what about people that were fine artists? Were there any in, you know, that were accessible –
CV: – to, you know, looking at your stuff and, you know?
AM: Well, you know, Louis Graberneck was a very strong influence on me. And I don’t think he got notoriety in the strict sense of the word. And he was very supportive in that he made me his monitor, which I didn’t think that much of it, but, at the time, you know, other people thought it was a great opportunity for me –
AM: – to be that close that to somebody whom, you know, they had considered was a master.
CV: It was kind of a mentorship that he had with you?
AM: Yeah, in that sense, ’cause I would take care of the classes when he wasn’t there and he only came twice a week. So, the other times, I took care of the class. That is, I would set up the model. Set up the still life. Make sure everybody had all of their things and class ran smoothly. And that it started on time and ended on time. That kind of stuff. And then, when he would come in, he would be critical of everybody and do his critiques. And then, he would, you know, come over to me and give me a little special critique. And that was sort of my compensation for –
CV: Yeah, your reward.
AM: – yeah, for being the monitor. And he was the one who challenged all of the abstract expressionists. And he thought little of them, because they didn’t put the emphasis on drawing that he had, all except de Kooning. de Kooning, he thought, did draw and that maybe that was one of the reasons why it took him so long to develop, because he was such a draftsman –
AM: – that he put more emphasis on the drafting, than he did on some of the other things, like, you know, what’s his name, Philip Guston, he was into using all of the range of colors and blah, blah, blah, blah and all of the – he didn’t know what he was doin’ either, you know. Now, Graberneck, used to be very frank with me about, you know, who was doin’ what and who didn’t what they were doin’ and blah, blah, blah. So, I had a kind of jaundiced eye taking into account those opposing personality of somebody that I hardly knew his elbow from his asshole, you know.
CV: Yeah. When did you decide and what made you decide to come to California?
AM: Well, that was circuitous. When I was in art school at the end of the first or second year, we were trying to figure out who I was gonna study with next. And they didn’t have anybody that I could study with next. So, I had to think in terms of going to a different school. So, one of the girls in the class said to me, “Well, you know, have you ever been to Mexico?” And I said, “No.” She said, “Well, do you know anything about it?” I said, “No.” She said, “Well, I was in Mexico and I met this guy, who was very helpful and he’d probably be very helpful to you.” “Oh, really.” “Yeah. He was at the University of Morelia in Michoacan. So, if you ever go to Mexico, here’s his address and here’s how to look him up. And you go to the base out at this art school and that’s the University, enroll in the university and then, he will help you.” I said, “Okay.” And I’ll be damned and that’s exactly what I did.
AM: And so, I got in touch with Alfredo Salsi and he said, “Sure, man, come on in.” And I got into their patching and engraving and drawing class and we became very close. And then, he got into trouble and, eventually, later on. That took off into a friendship. And I liked him, because he was the only one that had studied with both Rivera and Orozco.
CV: Oh, wow.
AM: So, he dug on me and said, Mexico City and also in a –
CV: Well, you weren’t doin’ murals at the time were you?
CV: You weren’t doing murals at the time were you?
AM: No, but I was helping him.
CV: Oh, I see.
AM: Yeah. He did murals everywhere. They all wanted him to do murals as a matter of fact.
CV: What was your hit on abstract expressionism or abstract art?
AM: Well, considering when I was at the art school that’s when it was very strong and the abstract expressionists. I would double up at the school and go over to Hans Hoffman’s place. He had a studio down the street from me. I mean, right on 9th.
AM: And when he’d do in there it was like, damn, people would say, well, you better go into study with Hoffman, anyway, because everybody studies with him and everybody enjoys what they study. But I never really understood him, because he had this heavy, thick, German accent. And I couldn’t decipher all of it, you know, I mean –
AM: He would scratch on your board, you know, trying to make you understand certain things and it wasn’t getting through to me.
AM: But there were other people, they were. Like I understand Beckmann a lot better than I understood Hans Hoffman. And I understood Reuben Tam better than I understood any of them. And he was, I thought, the most abstract, actually.
CV: So, what –
AM: He had the most patience with me anyway.
CV: Yeah. So, what happened after all of this inspiration to go to California?
AM: Yeah, I go to California. I mean, I go to California because of another student in my class. And this one was Rosalind. She had written to me. I wrote back to her. She was in New York. But by the time I wrote back to her, she had left and had gone to California. So, her mother forwarded the letter to California. And she wrote me from California, when I was in Mexico, and invited me up to California and then up to Pacific Road and Big Sur.
And so, when I get there, she’s a good friend of Henry Miller and the people down at the pencia and all of that. So, we struck up a good friendship and hung out together.
And the next thing I know, you know, I was hanging out with Henry Miller, who was from Brooklyn, and who couldn’t get over the fact that I was from Brooklyn too. So, we used to hang out and rap about Brooklyn, you know, about the streetcars and about the swimming pools and about all the things that he knew when he was a kid and all the things that he didn’t know as an adult –
AM: – about Brooklyn, ’cause he took off for Paris and did that whole illustrious life there. So, Big Sur became a very big element with all the writers and painters, musicians and poets. And Eric Barker became a good friend of mine and Jeff Yolcutt, a Canadian poet. And the three of us used to hang out frequently all over Big Sur. And then, the people that owned the pencia. And then, ultimately, that led to Heidi and Mikar and all of the –
CV: Up here.
AM: Up here.
CV: So, you said –
AM: Well, actually, it happened down there.
CV: All of the people met down there?
AM: Yeah, mostly, because Big Sur was kind of like –
CV: Oh, yeah, of course.
AM: The center.
CV: Of course, yeah.
AM: There was Efraim Durner and, you know, Warren Leopold and I don’t know, Patrick and – I mean, it was just a bunch of people down there.
CV: So, that was –
AM: Patrick Cassidy and, gee, man, Jerry Kamstra. I met all these people, Bill Fortman, all of them, down in Big Sur. Betty Rivers, she was the wife of Bill Rivers, who was with the people that started the new phase in the Art Institute right here.
AM: Bill Rivers was very instrumental in that. Do you have anything of his here?
CV: You know, like probably in the archives, you know, probably, stored upstairs or, probably, in the stacks somewhere. You know, it’s like, you know, when I come to the library, you know, like, I come for a specific reason, you know. I mean, you know, like the kid, whoever I’m teaching needs certain information, I barely even, hardly look at the names. I just kinda know where books are. But –
AM: Everybody uses it in his own way, I’m sure. But I wanted to say that because there’s a very interesting connection. Bill Rivers and Betty Rivers, she was much more learned, ’cause she graduated with a master’s degree from, I think, Columbia. And she fell in love with Bill Rivers. They went to Paris. She was also an activist, a political activist. So, she was in tune with all of the hip things in Paris at the time. He was not. But they lived in a place and shared a place with Sam Francis, when Sam Francis went to Paris. So, the two of them hooked up.
Interestingly enough, Francis ran into – what’s his name, the one who wrote Museum Without Walls?
AM: I know you know him and I know him too just like the back of my hand. Malraux.
CV: Malraux, yeah, exactly.
AM: And brought him over to the studio.
AM: So, before going into Sam’s place, they had to pass through Bill and Betty’s place.
AM: So, he stopped and saw some of Bill’s landscapes and said, “Oh, my, these are great.” But because Sam didn’t speak French and Betty spoke fluent French, she engaged Malraux, who was happy to have –
CV: Somebody speak.
AM: – somebody speaking French. So, they had this marvelous conversation in French to her delight and much to –
CV: His delight.
AM: Yeah, he was very fascinated. But Sam Francis was very put out –
CV: Oh, of course.
AM: – by the whole deal and the idea was that Malraux was being entertained by Betty’s articulateness and engaged more and more of Bill’s paintings.
AM: So, you could see this collision –
CV: Oh, Jesus.
AM: – coming.
AM: And by the time Malraux goes in the back and sees Sam’s work, Sam is furious, but, at the same time, Malraux recognized that he couldn’t spend much time there, because Sam couldn’t speak French.
AM: So, he left. And Sam never forgave Bill for having – and Bill said, “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything. I mean, Betty knew French.”
CV: So, I –
AM: So, Sam thought that she should have brought him into his place. And Bill was saying, “Yeah, but, you know, she had the baby in one arm and she had Malraux on the other. So what you gonna do about that.”
CV: No, not too much. Not too much.
AM: Anyway, so, that was what was happening there. They were all anarchists in France, in Paris at the time and so –
CV: How many years was that and when did you get up to San Francisco?
AM: Oh, now, let’s see. I got up to San Francisco – well, it must have been right about 1965, I think, ’cause I had already been to Korea and came back. And I came to Big Sur – well, actually, to Pacific Grove. And that’s when I met two or three people, who said, well, why don’t you go down to Big Sur and live in the palazzo house and finish it. And then, you can paint and stay there for free rent.
CV: Geez. That’s quite an offer.
AM: Yeah. I did that. And then, I came up to San Francisco.
CV: What were you looking at then? What kind of work were you looking at and did it have any kind of influence?
AM: Well, I was still operating on what was happening in New York and what I was doing then, principally, with black and white ink, primarily. You know, at the time, we had all kinds of wild ideas. And one of them was, you know, color was the middle class subconscious habit, that was one of the theories. And you had to be very gifted with that capacity. Otherwise, black and white was a major thing in New York. At any rate, so, I continued with those kinds of early black-and-white drawings, extensive.
CV: Who was in the studio with you in San Francisco?
AM: Well, you know, when I came up from Big Sur, it was ’cause I’d gotten into this fight and quarrel with Tony Palazzo, who was insane. And so, I split, came to San Francisco and ran into Bill Fortman, who said, “Hey, man, I can get you a studio.” And he introduced me to Michael McCracken, who said, “Sure, why don’t you come in, share the studio together.” And he said, “Michael Bowen will be coming over.”
So, and the next thing I know, I was in there working and I heard this voice behind me say, you know, “Are you interested in maybe selling some of these things?” And I turned around and there was Dr. Wennesland there. And I said, “Sure.” And that’s how we met. And –
CV: That’s great.
AM: It went from one thing to the next. Mostly, you know, we’d do something and go over the radar and say, “Hey, you wanna buy this?” Or “Can we sell you this?” And, usually, he would, you know. So, he bought tons of things at the time. And that sustained us as much as we – ’cause we didn’t have any money. I mean, we’ve got – the rent was $50.00 a month. And, sometimes, it would take us a long time to make that $50.00.
CV: Who was your landlord, a, Reidar?
AM: No, no, a guy downstairs, who was a carpenter. And, you know, Foster and Kizman?
AM: That billboard. They used to have that studio that I had.
AM: And it was up over the carpentry shop.
AM: So, accordingly, I mean, he was used to having painters up there and that made it fantastic for us.
AM: $50.00 a month, shit. We didn’t have any heat. We had to make our own heat. We didn’t have a kitchen or anything. So, we had to go find food outside. But it didn’t matter, because as long as we could paint and work in the studio, we were happy.
CV: That’s great. How long did that go on?
AM: Oh, I would say that went on for a couple of years anyway. And I left there, because of Mayor Christopher, who was clearing the house and that’s when the western edition thing started. And that’s when I went back to Mexico and renewed my acquaintance with Alfredo Salsi.
CV: Geez. It’s all so interesting. I mean, it’s like –
AM: It’s amazing. In that period of time –
[Break in the Interview]
CV: That would segue into this, but –
CV: – the role of –
AM: Segue into this essay.
AM: I got two of them now.
CV: Okay. You got ’em focused?
Male: It’s comin’, yeah.
CV: Okay. So, yeah, what was going on in North Beach at the time that you got here? Now, you got here in about the mid-’60s.
AM: No, the beginning.
CV: The beginning of the ’60s.
CV: But, maybe, what ’58, ’59, ’60?
AM: No, right at 1960.
CV: Right at 1960.
CV: Well, what was going on? In your eyes, what was going on in North Beach? You know, what kind of setting was it? And what kind of setting was it for per se, you know, like an artist of color? What, to your mind, was happening there? And how did you fit in?
AM: It was interesting. It was very much similar to Greenwich Village. That is, North Beach had cafes and it had bars and it had plenty of parties and it had all kinds of wild people, you know, some of them literal characters, like Patty O’Sullivan wearing one of these –
AM: – big plumed hats, you know, and drunk out his mind or stoned out of his mind, you know.
AM: And then, Hube the cube.
CV: Hube the cube.
AM: Hube the cube and that –
CV: Linda Lovely.
AM: Oh, God, Linda Lovely was so beautiful.
CV: Oh. Everybody at the – we’re talking about the Bagel Shop.
AM: And all its progeny, because –
AM: It was just a ton of people there at all those places, the Coffee Gallery, Trias, Mike’s Pool Hall, Bagel Shop, The Place, all of them. And then, what was that bar up there that the writer used to hang out at. Oh, God, what was his name? The beautiful writer – McKee.
CV: Yeah, Charles McKay.
AM: Charles McKay.
CV: Yeah, he used to hang out at Gino and Carlos.
AM: Dino and Carlos, but it was another one on Grant Avenue.
CV: The Place?
AM: No, no. Across from The Place.
CV: Oh, yeah, that was –
AM: An Irish pub.
CV: Yeah, it was an Irish pub, was an Irish name.
AM: Yeah, it was something like that, Mooney’s?
AM: Mooney’s Irish Pub.
CV: Mooney’s, exactly.
AM: Exactly. Okay. There was that place. And then, there was all of those other little dipsy doovy places, you know, that lasted overnight, The Savoy, Tively, being on the outside.
AM: And then, of course, there was Enrico’s place on Broadway.
AM: And further down, there was a place by Kerkorian also, called The Enigma.
CV: Yeah, right, right.
AM: The Enigma was a nice little place and they had jazz in there as well.
CV: Jazz Workshop.
AM: Jazz Workshop was a wonderful place.
CV: It was a great place.
AM: And up over the –
CV: 12 Adler.
AM: And then, you had 12 Adler. And what’s his name has that place now. What’s his name?
CV: Oh, yeah, the guy that ran the Dilexi Gallery later on.
AM: Oh, you mean Jim Newman.
CV: Yeah, Jim Newman. And then, he also had a partner that started running the other gallery down in L.A. I forget the –
AM: Bob Alexander.
CV: Bob Alexander, you’re right.
AM: And Bob ran the Temple of Man.
AM: You know, I –
CV: Well, the thing was is that, you know, like, I remember reading like in James Baldwin’s Another Country –
CV: And the thing is is that, you know, like, in that book, it was just a very beautiful, very, very touching poignant tale of like people trying to find another kind of place.
CV: I mean, it wasn’t just they were trying to find another place, they found themselves in another place. It was like –
CV: – for me, you know, like transgressive behavior that revolved around art –
CV: – pretty much.
AM: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
CV: And, you know, like, okay, then that was Greenwich, that was Greenwich Village. But then, I definitely saw that, like, here we were in Vesuvio’s and we’d all be sitting down and we would all be, you know, just discussing stuff and everything. But, you know, the thing is, you know, it was one – I don’t know if it was happy family, but it was a family. But the thing is, is that you know like, I remember you describing the idea of artists of color, particularly, African-American artists, you know, like not necessarily being completely welcomed into the –
CV: – into the bosom of contemporary art. There wasn’t really that much there. But then, you know, at the same time, there was still a little bit of a apartheid separatism, you know.
CV: What would you say about that?
AM: Well, I attribute that to two things. One, first of all, we weren’t fully developed. And, secondly, it was their world, so to speak. And I never felt completely immersed in contemporary art scene as much as I felt immersed in the changing world. And to be involved in the changing world was to be anti and against what was happening in Korea, which I considered a larger expression of racism when it happened in the Philippines before –
AM: – the close of World War II and what seemed to happen, ultimately. ‘Cause remember, I also was a part of the NAACP and the push for a righteous place in America as a first-class citizen.
AM: So, I mean, I was always on the alert for those things, because I grew up with them and they were heavy in New York. So, transitioning into the art crowd and milieu was another way of being poor and being amongst the poor and neglected and/or unrecognized, etc., the way artists were. The way people getting out of the joint were. The way farmers are often treated, etc. So, I understood all of those things from maybe a slightly different point of view than a lot of the people around. So, it wasn’t unusual for me to take certain positions. And, a lot of times, those positions were not fully appreciated, I don’t think.
CV: Yeah. Your exwife used to be classmate of mine, Heidi.
AM: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
CV: And so, she was a classmate of mine. And she always use to describe you as being the leader all the time. Now, what did that mean?
AM: I don’t know how she got that, but in any case.
CV: No, that’s a quote.
CV: That’s a quote. She said, “He was a leader. You know, everywhere he was at, he was always head of the parade.”
AM: Well, I don’t know about that. She never gave me that impression. It was always the other way around.
CV: I could understand that.
AM: In any case, no, I don’t know what she meant by that. I know that –
CV: I think that she meant that you were a spokesman or you were right there with all of your friends, you know. Like you were right there, right in the fray.
AM: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
CV: And I think that that was what she, you know, I mean, it might have sounded like a joke, but I think that she really meant it as just where you were at all the time. You know, you were right in the middle of a lot of stuff.
CV: And, you know, whether it was organizing a party or whether it was a serious discussion. I don’t know, you know, like, maybe if we talked about some of those raps that you would get into you with folks. Like what were the concerns?
AM: Well, one of the concerns I had then at the time was that I didn’t understand why we had left out Native Americans in contemporary art movement. I never understood why we never really understood their symbology and their mythology and their connection to the spirituality of form. I was always arguing, maybe, from that point of view. A lot of times, I thought that was the one missing connection that contemporary art had not made fully with commitment. But, instead, we had joined the European mode of operandi as though we were the continuum of that. When I thought we came to America and our purpose coming here was to have been united with what was here. And so, I didn’t see any of those connections.
Later, I learned there were attempts, you know, at making those connections, like, what’s his name, Bernard – the one who married the photographer, Dorothea Lane.
CV: Oh, Dorothea Lane.
AM: Yeah. And who did Earth Nova.
CV: Who did who?
AM: Earth Nova. It’s in our collection in Oakland.
CV: God, I –
AM: Yeah, I know you know him.
CV: The name is escaping me right now.
AM: They’re escaping me, man, and I’m getting older.
CV: Yeah, right, I’m getting senior moments also.
AM: Yeah, but he was out in Utah and painting the Indians in the forest at the time. Yeah, his name was Bernard – oh, man. The one who did the painting of Skoll.
CV: Oh, God, I can’t.
AM: When they had that strike in the unions down on the waterfront here, he was – I know you know him very well. Bernard – well, anyway, it’ll come to me before –
CV: Do you remember Raymond Howell?
AM: Very well.
CV: Okay. You know, we’d like him to be in the exhibition also. But, you know, it was –
AM: He was self-taught.
CV: He was self-taught, but he was one of the incredible professionals that a lot of people looked up to, especially in the Beach, whether you were black or white or anybody. He was a very, very professional artist.
CV: I mean, and I say that in the best sense of the word. And then, there were a couple of artists there that used to hang out down at the Beach –
AM: Pennywell was one. George Pennywell.
CV: Yeah, George Pennywell. Bad Talkin’ Charlie Dawkins.
AM: And Charlie Dawkins. And Sargent Johnson.
CV: And then, Joe Overstreet.
AM: Joe Overstreet, but he wasn’t there that much. By the time I had come to California, Joe had left for New York. By the time I went back to New York from Mexico, four or five years later, Joe was just getting established in New York as a painter. In fact, I helped him. Carried some of his paintings too, uptown to this bar, where he had his first show in the basement. It was a lounge downstairs.
CV: Oh, that’s great.
CV: That’s great. That’s great.
AM: And he was on the Bowery at the time. And he was hanging out, you know, really hanging out.
AM: And, well, that’s how I got to know Joe.
CV: The art that I saw that I was aware of that you had done, I thought that some of the pieces that I had seen were very really transgressive. I mean, in the sense that you were using African-American or African material in your work. And I thought that, you know, like that was really out to be able to use those kinds of materials with your, you know, like with the ideas that you had about, you know, contemporary art. Could you talk about that a little bit?
AM: Yeah, you know, I never felt satisfied or happy with the way I handled things. And it seemed like –
Male: Do you want to hold that thought for a second. Change a tape?
[Break in the Interview]
CV: So, we were talking about paintings that I was familiar with in which you’re doing transgressive kinds of issues with one another. And I thought that, you know, like, the idea of using African materials along with what you knew of European-American contemporary art, I thought was very, very amazing. Could you talk about that a little bit?
AM: Yeah, as I was saying, you know, I never felt adequate enough. I mean, I never felt that I had the talent enough to go in the direction that I wanted to go in. And I never felt like I had the supported resources that I needed in order to sustain that kind of an interest. And so, there was one time when I really thought that it was just really, you know, a kind of a step in the direction that I really didn’t have all the ingredients to engage.
AM: So, I still feel bad about that. And I still am interested in the same thing. You know, I’ve always been looking for the breakthrough to heaven.
AM: You know, I mean, never really gaining that. But I had an interest, particularly – you know, do you remember a period I was doing in all those nails and –
CV: Yeah. Well, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
AM: Stuff like that and –
CV: That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
AM: Yeah. That’s when I was going through a very troubling period, you know, where I was trying to find something close to Bacoda.
CV: What were the years that you were doing that work?
AM: ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63. I had Pat Cassidy and all those people, they were bringing me all these nails. And the nail thing, I didn’t want to imitate Africa. I didn’t want somebody to say, oh, that’s Bacoda or that’s Burundi or that’s –
CV: Yeah, right.
AM: I didn’t want that at all. I wanted it to be as incidental as anything that we have a relationship with.
CV: Regularly in America.
AM: In America and in the American context. I know I spoke miles away from being able to achieve that. I think, the closest I came to making that statement was that one piece that I call The Prisoner. I don’t know if you ever saw that piece.
CV: Describe it.
AM: It was a circular shape, like that, with two holes. And it came out of a sailboat that I found up in Muir Woods. It was just this little piece of wood. And then, I found a grate from somebody’s barbecue pit and I put that over that. And then, I hammered these nails into it, into sort of a ground, a negative ground of cement. And that’s when I called it The Prisoner, because I realized that it was two eyes hopelessly looking out from this screen and hammered by all of these external factors.
AM: Which was hand hewn nails. And the reason I used the hand hewn nails was because they were hand made and they came from simply the 19th Century, when there was this mastery of trade –
CV: That was a pretty productive period for you, wasn’t it?
CV: And I was wondering, you know –
AM: But I lost most of those pieces. I don’t know where they are.
CV: That’s being an artist too. You know, I can’t remember where half of the stuff I did either is. But, you know, getting back to your own production, I was wondering about the idea of, you know, gallery situations. Was that part of what you wanted? Or was it work for your friends? Or was it work for just you?
AM: I never had a gallery.
CV: So, really, wasn’t even in the radar?
AM: I never had any gallery and I didn’t know of any gallery around. The only thing that I had that was close to a gallery is at Maxwell Gallery, Maxwell’s, Fred Maxwell, used to come by my studio, periodically, every so often, he was in the neighborhood or something. And he would take a few things and give me a few bucks. So, I asked him, “Well, why are you doing this, ’cause you’re not buying a piece.” You know what I mean?
CV: Yeah, I know. I hear ya. What is it? What is it about?
AM: Yeah, what is this all about, you know? And he said, “Well, because I want you to continue to paint, you know.” That’s what he said. But I didn’t know what he was doing with the things. He would just take them away, you know. He didn’t say, I’m going to consign this to the gallery and here’s a contract or something of that sort. So, it was a kind of a backwoods of way maybe laying some grain on this, because we didn’t have anything, you know, in the –
CV: Yeah, right. What was it? I mean, that’s a –
AM: Was it the Neverlands?
CV: Yeah, right.
AM: Was it generosity?
CV: Yeah, what was it.
AM: Was it – it wasn’t like, Reidar, who would say, “Okay, I’ll take this and, you know, here’s $50.00 or here’s” –
CV: Yeah, well, Wennesland was more authentic.
AM: He was more of a collector, I think.
CV: He was a collector. And he was very authentic.
AM: ‘Cause he got involved with the work.
CV: He got involved, yeah. That’s true. He got involved with the artist.
AM: Yeah, and he got very much involved in the artist.
CV: And it wasn’t just benevolence. It was a brotherhood patronage kind of thing with Wennesland.
AM: Yeah, and, you know, maybe the same thing to some extent was involved with Fred Maxwell, but I couldn’t read it that way.
AM: I mean, if he came back to life and said, “Well, you know, I was trying to do the same thing as Reidar was, only I had different visibility and different means and different kind of mobility.” You know, he might be able to make that argument, I don’t know. I’m just thinking.
CV: Do you think it was a race thing or?
AM: You know, it’s hard to say, because he was Jewish and, obviously.
CV: Yeah, right.
AM: He was into, you know, the survival mode. But he did another thing that I didn’t know about at the time. And I learned much later that almost all these galleries along the coast from L.A. all the way up to Seattle, he would sponsor. That is, they would sell these little boat paintings and little fishing boat paintings, you know –
CV: Oh, yeah, right.
AM: – all these little boardwalk paintings and, you know –
CV: Yeah, right.
AM: The house with the floral –
CV: Yeah, right.
AM: – pot in the window and –
CV: He would support those galleries?
AM: And he was supporting all these little galleries, man, left and right. So, you know, I knew that was a money scheme for him, but I didn’t think he was making that much money, but maybe he was. But I thought that was really pretty amazing.
AM: That he was supporting all of them down the coast. How long he did it, I don’t know. Did it really come to anything significant?
CV: Yeah, I don’t know.
AM: I don’t know that either. They seemed to me be like a splash in the pan.
AM: And away they went.
AM: And nobody knew the better, because they always kept their own autonomy. They didn’t become the Fred Maxwell gallery.
CV: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean in those days too, we’re talking about the ’50s –
CV: And the early ’60s, the art scene was not necessarily an economic thing where everybody could get rich all at the same time. It wasn’t really that, because Diebenkorn’s where going for 200 at about that time also. And so, there was kind of a real brotherhood there of artists and things. And I think, I don’t know, you were probably one of the more, you know, knowledgeable artists on the scene. What did you think of the whole atmosphere?
AM: Well, quite quickly, you know, I identified with anybody who was struggling to make some kind of a breakthrough and that’s what I –
AM: – that’s what I first saw here in the city and, you know, with all the people we ran around with. And that would include Artie Richer and Jack Pujaque and Tony, was it Tony Martin and Ted Bielefeld.
CV: A, Ted, good artist.
AM: Yeah. And then, there was, God, there was so many and they’re all in the Wennesland Collection.
AM: And I have pictures of a lot of those things that, actually, I may have in the camera. I could look through some of them.
CV: I was wondering, at the time that the Black Panthers came out, you know, like what did that do for your imagination or your reality?
AM: Well, that’s interesting, because I had always felt the political edge of painting, you know.
CV: Of course.
AM: I looked at people like Max Beckmann and how he was politically run out of Germany, you know, because of his beliefs. And then, Garcia Locker and, you know, I always thought, you know, the piece that everybody was raving about that they say almost drove Pollock crazy was Samuel Beckett’s piece, Waiting for Godot.
AM: Those were big raves in New York.
AM: And that really put you right on the edge of sanity and humanity. And then, I had seen my uncles and whatnot come back from the war broken men, you know, committing suicide, drinking themselves to death. And it was always a very painful thing to stomach, ’cause these were my heroes, you know.
AM: How could we have won the war and they come back broken. Didn’t make sense to me. And they didn’t ask for any help. And they didn’t get any. So, those were big sores, big gaping holes in my soul at the time that I couldn’t get above and beyond. So, they held me, you know. And then, of course, in New York, we were all starving.
AM: I mean, you know, and eat on the Bowery and get a meal wherever you could. And I remember once doing The Brooklyn Museum of Art wanting any of the students to do this what they call a copy of great paintings or whatever, ’cause they were having a big bizarre. So, they chose me to do Michelangelo’s David. So, I did this painting of David and thought that was the end of that.
But that weekend, I was so hungry, man, I went out onto the Bowery and they used to have these soup kitchens in the Bowery for guys. So, I go in there and get breakfast. You’d get a cup a coffee and you’d get a sandwich and a piece of fruit and then, a bowl of oatmeal.
So, I was eating this oatmeal. And right across from me, a guy was reading a newspaper, The Daily News, and on the back facing me was the painting that I had just done for the Brooklyn Museum. And I was looking at it, just thinking, this painting was looking at me from the newspaper that this guy held up, who didn’t know me or know anything about me or anything else. And I’m eating this bowl of oatmeal, barely making it. And I thought, what an ironic encounter. And I thought, hmm, this is really strange and I didn’t know how to really react to it. So, I just forgot about it and when on back to the place.
And, of course, it was outside the time that I had met Charlie Parker and all those musicians, whom I dearly loved, you know, and see Bird, you know, in the condition that he was in. It was devastating to me as it was to everybody else, you know, ’cause he was like – I mean, if art was going any place, it was gonna have to follow him. And he showed how hard it was to master something. And once you’ve done that the reward at the other end, you know, in his case, meant that he wasn’t even hardly able to make a living.
CV: When you experience anything like that, does that make, you know, because there’s a dearth of heroes or models or anybody, then you have to look to yourself?
AM: Yeah. And the question is, is that more important than, you know, talking the talk and running the route. I mean, ideally, just to be able to make that statement that you are compelled to get on with to have the strength and the will, the courage and all of those things to do that is the highest award, it seems to me. Whether you gain economically from it or not, it’s more important to have made the statement, than it is not to have done it.
And there was a famous quote about that. I can’t remember it just now, but it was all about, you know, if it’s worthwhile doing, then it’s worthwhile suffering to do it. And I always believed that and I still do.
But at the time, you know, I was thinking, wow, I mean, there’s so many things to get through. How can you possibly get all of those things worked out? I mean, there’s just so much work to do to get it done.
CV: And so little time to do it.
AM: And so little time to do it. And I remember when I was at the Brooklyn Museum, the same guy, Graberneck, one of the reasons why people loved him was because he could come up with these statements that just knocked your head off your shoulder.
And he said, one day in class, he said, “If you look at the whole breadth and depth of Western art, you can’t pick out ten painters who all of whom are masters that were able to do any more than ten paintings that were masterpieces.” What an indictment, I thought.
CV: Oh, wow.
AM: And then, when he went on to say, “Well, why am I saying that? What does it take to be a master in the Western context of this understanding? You know, there’s color. There’s line. There’s drawing. There’s composition. There’s immediacy in terms of what is the political going on. What is the religious going on? What is the interpersonal dialogue going on? How many of these painters have all of these things in one of their works? And then, find ten.”
AM: And we were just stunned. Stunned.
CV: Does that kill you for the rest of your career or –
AM: Yeah. It just sort of makes you realize, boy, that’s a big road. This is a long mountain.
CV: It’s a long mountain.
AM: It’s a long mountain up there and how are you gonna just jump outta art school and run cross town and become a master, because you’re able to sell something.
CV: Okay. You know, like you’re showing me, you know, like some of the writing that you’ve done in respect to the Beat Generation.
CV: And you’re also doing –
AM: Could I say one thing that I didn’t say?
CV: Sure. What’s that?
AM: That was the last time I recall hearing and believing that with art, you could change the world. That was almost everybody I knew then was looking at and forward to gaining some kind of grip over something that would change that something in the world that meant everything to you, whatever it was, poverty, you know, beauty, whatever your theme was. I haven’t thought about that for a long time. But it was something that I used to think about then.
CV: Well, I don’t know, you think about it, you know. Like, you’ve been doing it in actions, you know, besides painting. You’ve done it with your own definition of activism, where you’re bringing a lot of the unknown Beat Generation art back to its roots with the lady who was the director of the San Jose Museum.
CV: And you’ve been very, you know, you’ve gone back and forth to Norway dealing with your friend, Dr. Wennesland’s collection. And, you know, you’re doing a lot with your writing. And I think that, you know, like you’ve had a very, very ripe career.
AM: Huh. Well, I know I’ve done a lot, but it doesn’t seem like it amounts to a lot. I mean, I’ve done a lot of different things, but you know what I mean, it didn’t seem like it –
CV: It doesn’t seem like it, but then –
AM: – like it hit anything on the head, you know, and knocked it out.
CV: Well, we have a lot to look forward to, you know, like in the reading of your essay.
AM: Did you see the one that’s already on the Internet?
CV: No, no. Well, maybe could say something about that and then we could just close it.
AM: Okay. Okay.
CV: Say something.
AM: Well, you know, with what is it, the one down on Brannan Street.
CV: Oh, yeah, SOMArts.
AM: SOMArts with Jack Davis.
CV: Yeah, right.
CV: Yeah, right. I remember you –
AM: You were in that show.
CV: Yeah, I know, you gorilla curated that exhibition.
CV: You got yourself that truck from the Oakland Museum and you put all that art up and everybody was writing titles down and –
CV: – everything else like that. And you had a – what was it – one-month exhibition –
CV: – running concurrent with the exhibition that they were running over there at the de Young Museum.
AM: At the de Young Museum.
CV: Bad boy.
CV: Bad boy.
AM: I know. I know.