Sonia Gechtoff

Carlos Villa: Okay, I was wondering, Sonia, you know, like, I had a conversation, it was a recent conversation with Deborah.

Sonia Gechtoff: Yeah.

CV: And so, I was talking with Deborah about the idea of – about the idea of being an artist or being a painter then, being a woman and being an artist at that time, because, you know, like, there just wasn’t that much production, you know, out of, you know, like, women in general. I mean, it just took a very, very special person to take on the, you know, the role of being an artist at that time, and I –

SG: Well, that’s true. That’s true. There were – it was, however, much easier there than it was in New York at the same time.

CV: That’s interesting. That’s interesting. Maybe you could –

SG: From what – see, I wasn’t in New York, obviously. I was there, but when I came to New York, I got to know a number of artists who had gone through that whole period in New York, and the women here had a, I think, from what I hear, a much tougher time than they did in San Francisco.

CV: Oh.

SG: It was a large – first of all, it’s a much larger group of people here.

CV: Yeah.

SG: There was very much of a macho attitude on the part of many of the guys that would be my generation painters in New York. I have to tell you – I don’t know what Deborah experienced, but I never got that from the guys that I knew. Like, I knew Ernie Briggs and Frank Lobdell.

CV: Yeah.

SG: They were always fine with me. They respected me as a painter. I never got any of that from them. The only time that I got anything very particular was a few times – like, one time I was pushing my daughter, when she was very small, in a buggy up a hill somewhere there in San Francisco, and a guy who had been in the school with Jim and sort of vaguely knew us and sort of know we were painters – I don’t even remember his name – stopped me and said, “What is this? You have a child?” 

And I said, “Yes,” you know, “Jim and I got married.” And he said, “Oh, well, that’s the end of you as a painter.” And I laughed in his face and said, “Oh, yeah? Wait and see.” 

And maybe one or two other stupid incidents like that, but otherwise, I consider myself lucky that I didn’t come to New York at that time, that I went to San Francisco, because I escaped a good portion of what these other women, unfortunately, had to put up with here. Also, I’m glad that I wasn’t in L.A. at the time, because there, it was really bad. I – there’s a book that just has come out, which you should know about, about the Ferus Gallery.

CV: Oh, yeah.

SG: It’s just been published, and it’s a wonderful book. It tells the whole story the way it really happened, not the way the documentary that was made about it tells it.

CV: Oh, yeah.

SG: And the woman who edited the book, put the book together, Kristine McKenna, is a young woman from Los Angeles, and she interviewed me and a lot of other people, and if you go through the book, you’ll see that in L.A. there was a great deal of antagonism towards women artists. So, you hardly got anywhere, but not true in – I mean, I’m not saying there were a bunch of us, there weren’t, but it’s a very different situation between those two cities at that time. You should get the book. The book is called Ferus Gallery: A Place to Begin, and the publisher is Steidl, a very good, important publisher of art books, by the way, and it’s just been published. It’s a big book with lots of photographs of all of us, reproductions of our work.

CV: Oh, really?

SG: It’s – I’m sure you’ll find it’s very interesting.

CV: Oh, that’s fantastic. I will. I’ll take a look at – I’ll see if I could get it through Amazon.

SG: You can get it through Amazon. Somebody I know just ordered one from there.

CV: Well, god, every time, you know, you see a Ferus – a picture of Ferus Gallery artists, it looks like – you know, I mean, it – all – you know, they’re all blond or – you know what I mean? It’s like all guys. It’s – well, it’s –

SG: Yeah, well, that was the L.A. bunch. That’s exactly it, but the Ferus Gallery has an interesting history. When you read it, you’ll see that it was almost two separate galleries in its history. The first half of its time was started by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz, and it was most of us from the Bay Area, including Jay and myself. We were the two women, and then they had another woman showing there right after my show named Hilda Levy. 

I don’t know who she was, but they did show her, and then when Walter got a job as a curator as the Pasadena, he was already having difficulty backing – getting backing for the Ferus, money for it. And so, this awful man, Erving Berm, came in, took over, through out all the Bay Area people, including myself, and concentrated on the L.A. bunch, who were all male and all white. And that’s what happened to it, so when you read the book, you’ll really see how the history – how different it was from the beginning of it.

CV: Oh, that’s interesting. That’s interesting. I – yeah, and I was also talking with Deborah about her idea about how feminism, how it touched her or how it didn’t touch her as an artist. Matter of fact, she was saying that feminism kind of hurt the idea of the individual artist. What did you think about that?

SG: I agree with her. I agree with her. You know the problem with it? Now, that may not be true for younger artists than Deborah and myself, but for our generation, we made a point of not showing as women artists. We made a point of showing as artists, and particularly involved with the abstract expressionist movement, and so that was how we wanted to be recognized. 

I avoided, whenever it came up, for the most part, these exhibitions, and they came up later, which said, you know, they’re gonna show just women artists. I didn’t like that. To me, that’s a segregationist idea.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: And I wanted always, and still feel the same way, to be recognized as a painter, not a woman painter, a painter who happened to be a woman.

CV: Yeah.

SG: But, that was not the primary, you know, reason for why I should be recognized. I know that Jay felt the same way, and I assume that Deborah did feel the same way. That’s why she said what she said, because once they started pushing the idea of feminism in art, they got off the track, to a certain extent, about the art for what it really was. Then, it became more of something that had to do with a political statement alone, rather than – you can have a political statement in a painting and have a great painting. God knows Gloria certainly did that.

CV: Yeah.

SG: So did Picasso, and we can name a number of others.

CV: Yeah.

SG: But, you – if you make that the primary thing, then you’re gonna find – at least I’m gonna object to it, and that’s what I felt the feminist movement was doing, and that’s why I never really participated in it. Did she say pretty much the same thing?

CV: Oh, yeah. Well, she just said it took the individualism out of –

SG: She’s right.

CV: – of being an artist, so I mean, I – you know, like, I remembered, you know, like, when – did you know Bernice Bing?

SG: Bernice who?

CV: Bing. She – Asian painter that was –

SG: No.

CV: – here around school.

SG: No, I didn’t.

CV: Well, anyway, I think that she came probably, you know, like, after – you know, I know that she came after you. She was one of Joan Brown’s good friends.

SG: Well, that may have been after I left.

CV: Yeah, I think so, but you know, I mean, she was – you know, like, she was a lesbian. She was woman. She was also an Asian American painter.

SG: Yeah.

CV: And the thing was is that, you know, she was all of those things, but main thing for her was that she wanted to be known as a professional –

SG: Right.

CV: – and not – and a professional and an artist and not any of the other – any of the other –

SG: Right, that’s the same –

CV: – other things.

SG: Exactly. That’s the same thing that I’m saying.

CV: Yeah.

SG: And probably Joan Brown felt the same way.

CV: Oh, Joan was – Joan, I know, would be, you know, like, would’ve been the same way.

SG: Yes.

CV: Very much the same way, but then it would be – it would’ve been interesting, you know, the conversation that I would have with her about the idea of feminism in general. I mean, I – that would be – that, you know, that would’ve been an interesting conversation, but it’s just too bad we can’t have that, you know.

SG: Yeah, yeah, it is too bad, but I’m glad – I’m very glad that Deborah, you know, said what she said, because I would’ve assumed that’s what she would say anyway. But, it just makes me feel that, you know, you understand why those of us who are women and who are painters of that generation felt the way that we did and then why we felt that feminism was actually not gonna do us any good.

CV: Yeah, yeah. I was wondering about, you know, like, any – did you think, you and Jim ever think that you were gonna come back to the Bay Area, or were you just happy that you just left?

SG: Well, I have to tell you, there were mixed feelings here. In all honesty, Jim would’ve stayed out there a little bit longer. I really pushed to get out of there for two reasons. One was that I was having some unpleasant experiences with a couple of other artists, and I handled it rather badly. I think I was being a little bit naive about some things and felt that if I got out of there I wouldn’t have to deal with it any longer. 

And the other one made more sense in that Poindexter Gallery, which at that time, in New York, was one of the best galleries, had already shown a lot of interest in my work. And they had asked me to exhibit with them, so because we made a short trip in ’57 here before we went there permanently –

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: – before we came to New York permanently. And at that point, I talked to the people at Poindexter, so I came back to San Francisco with that already being offered to me, and then having this unpleasant situation just sorta compounded my feelings about getting out of there. So, I pushed Jim and myself maybe a year or two ahead of time, and I have to say, there was a third factor, too, and it was an important one. My mother died that summer.

CV: Oh.

SG: If she had not died that summer of ’58, probably I would’ve stayed a little while longer just to be there, knowing that she was having such a good time running that gallery.

CV: Yeah.

SG: But, she was – you know, she fell and broke her hip and ran the gallery in a wheelchair for about a month and then had this massive stroke that finished her off.

CV: Oh.

SG: So, when all of that happened, it was – you know, it just said to me, “Time to go.” However, about five years after we were here, maybe a little longer, maybe five or seven years later, I started to think that maybe we should think about not going back there permanently, necessarily, but getting a teaching job, either one of us, or both of us, and going back there for a year or so.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: But, we never really did anything about it, and I’m glad we didn’t. I have to tell you, in all honesty, I’m glad that I left when I did. That way I have wonderful memories of the place.

CV: Yeah.

SG: And I got the kind of things that were important to me from being there at that particular time. It was changing already by the time we left.

CV: Yeah. Well, you were – you know, like, it was – you know, like, when I was in art school, you know, when I first came to art school, I think that it was you, Jay and Joan and a little bit of Deborah, that – you know, and you guys –

SG: Well, Deborah left. That was the only reason why she wasn’t around that much.

CV: Yeah.

SG: She went off to Japan.

CV: Yeah, I know. She had this other thing that she had to do. She had this other inkling, which is just amazing, just amazing. But, you know, like, I was wondering, you know, like, what – you know, like, god, I – there’s just so many things that I wanna just talk about. I would like to hear how, you know, like, again, you know, like, a little bit about your mom and the idea of her running a gallery. Was she a gallerist before she –

SG: Yes.

CV: – came to –

SG: She had experience – she never owned one. This is the only one she ever owned that was her own, but in Philadelphia, she had run two separate galleries over the period of the mid ‘40s and the early ‘50s, and so she had quite a bit of experience by the time she came out there with how to run an art gallery. The artists that she was showing in Philadelphia, for the most part, were, from what I remember, the work was, I have to say, in all honesty, not particularly interesting. Some of ‘em looked like a rehashed abstract painting from the ‘20s. Some of them were more representational. 

She had a couple of good painters, but she didn’t have as interesting a group as she did when she opened her – the East-West Gallery. That was the, you know, the best group she ever worked with.

CV: Wow, wow.

SG: So, she had that experience.

CV: Mm-hmm. Oh, that’s fantastic.

SG: What she didn’t have, Carlos, was money. She had practically no money. She came out on a shoestring. Her brother, who was well-to-do, helped her to – you know, he sent her a monthly stipend. I mean, my father had died when I was 15, and unfortunately, by the time he died, he had been a professional painter and very successful, but the Depression and the stock market drop and the Depression, more or less, cut his, you know, his success and financial success a great deal. 

So, by the time he died in ’41, there wasn’t very much money left, and she – any money she made she made as translating, because she was a very good linguist. She knew about eight or nine languages.

CV: Wow.

SG: During the war, she did a lot of translating, and then she did these – worked in these galleries, and so by the time she got out there, she had very little money, except for what he was sending her, my uncle, and – but, she decided – that’s why I didn’t believe she was gonna do it. When she told me she was gonna open a gallery, I remember saying to her, “On what?” And she said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll work it out,” and I’ll be damned, she did. She was quite a woman. I mean, she –

CV: That’s amazing.

SG: – really was an amazing person.

CV: That’s great. You know, I had seen a – let me see, Lee Krasner, a Lee Krasner interview, and what she was talking about when she was – you know, she was talking about when she was in the art – not art academy, but the – I forgot what you – I forgot the name of the –

SG: You mean the Artist Club?

CV: Yeah – no, not the Artist Club. It was a school.

SG: Totito Bar?

CV: No, no, it was a school.

SG: Oh, no, it’s a school, oh.

CV: Yeah, it was a school. It was Art Students League.

SG: Art Students League, right.

CV: Yeah, and so she and a lot of other artists were basically trying to break Cubism by kind of blowing it up in the canvas, you know, blowing up structure.

SG: Right.

CV: And I was – and so, I was wondering, was that part of a strategy that you had coming from the East Coast coming West, or what were your ideas about, you know, like, abstract expressionism?

SG: Well, mine was a different situation. I was quite young when I went out there. I had come from a traditional background, both my – from my father, who was actually the first person to teach me how to paint when I was very small, and he always encouraged me to be a painter, so he gave me a real, you know, good start, but it was very traditional painting. And the art school that I went to, which I already said was the wrong one for me, was mainly dealing with more illustrational kind of art, which is nothing I was ever interested in. I was briefly influenced, before I went out there, by Ben Shahn, Max Weber –

CV: Oh, yeah.

SG: – Max Beckmann, who was the best of them.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: And that’s the kind of painting I was doing when I first arrived in San Francisco. As a matter of fact, Labeau gave me my first show there, and that’s what I showed was that kind of painting, and then it happened so rapidly, Carlos. Within two months, I think, after I had that show, I saw an exhibition of Clyfford Still and his students. He was no longer there. He had left, but the students were still around, you know, these ex-GIs that had been with him.

CV: Oh, yeah.

SG: And I saw these enormous abstract expressionist paintings, and I just couldn’t believe them. I had never seen anything like that at that point. I knew about Cubism. I knew Picasso. You know, I knew all of that, but my head was not involved with anything like what they were doing out there. 

It was such a mind-blowing experience for me. It just, like, completely revolutionized everything visually for me practically overnight, and I remember coming back to my studio and saying, “I’m not gonna do any of this junk anymore. I’m gonna paint entirely differently,” and I tried to figure out how to stretch large canvases, which I had never done. I’d only – you know, I’d been working on much smaller canvases, and how to work with the paint in a way that it seemed they were working it, and it just – it – within six months, I was doing 6- and 7-foot-high canvases in that style. And I – it felt as though a huge door had been opened to me, which it had, and it was at that point that I got to know Ernie Briggs very well, and of course, he talked a lot about what Phil had talked about and gave me a lot of ideas about Phil’s point of view and about painting, which was very helpful to me.

CV: Wow.

SG: So, while I was starting to do this kind of painting, I was also getting a lot of information from him and his experience. Also, I admired what Ernie was doing at that time.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: This is just before he left and went out to New York.

CV: Right.

SG: Then, I started – then, I got to know Frank through Ernie, and so this is all before I met Jim. Then, I met the rest of them at the school, including Jim, and got to see all the work, and by that time, I was already painting in that approach.

CV: Wow.

SG: So, that’s how that developed for me, and I say over and over again every time I’ve been interviewed that it was the best thing I could’ve done was to go out to San Francisco when I was that age, at that time and had that experience.

CV: Wow.

SG: That’s where it all got started for me.

CV: Wow. So, you were – but, you know, like, the – well, the thing was is that it wasn’t – you know, I mean, you were already flying, and you were – and it wasn’t like you just took off from San Francisco. I mean, you already were full-blown practically when you came here.

SG: Yeah, I was in another style altogether, yes, because I’d had a couple of shows in Philadelphia of that work that I’m describing, and then I had the show at Labeau, and I’d also been in one of the annuals at the Philadelphia Museum, which – or not the museum, Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia when they used to have annuals, which were very important. And I got into one of those just before I left for San Francisco, so I had all of that, yeah, but it was the kinda work that once I got out there and saw what was going on, I didn’t wanna do anymore.

CV: Yeah.

SG: But, you’re right. I had something – I didn’t go out there as a student any longer in the sense that I was coming from the San Francisco – from the California School of Fine Arts or anything like that. It was very different from the other people. I mean, for instance, Jay came out of Berkeley.

CV: Yeah.

SG: Deborah came out of, you know, California school.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: Most of all the guys that I knew, they all were from the school.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: But, I came out there from the Philadelphia setup, and so did Jim, by the way, but Jim being much older than I was – he was 13 years older – and by the time he got out there, he had already been painting very much like Mondrian for a number of years, and then he changed, too.

CV: Oh, that’s amazing. Could you describe the, you know, like, the atmosphere then when you came and – because I just imagine it to be incredibly electric.

SG: It was, you’re right.

CV: You know, and, you know, with all of you here, I mean, you know, coming together with, you know, like David Park was here, was – you know, it was all of these people. What was – you know, could you describe some of that?

SG: Well, David Park was one of the teachers at the school. He had been there for quite a while. I never got to know David very well. I met him only a couple of times. Elmer I knew better. 

Elmer – see, what happened in the middle of the ‘50s, as you know, is that David and Elmer and Diebenkorn, who I met several times, also, all then turned to figurative painting, so there was that kind of funny change that was going on between how they went from abstract painting to figurative painting. And then, David stayed with it. Elmer went back to abstract painting, and so did Diebenkorn, but the other people, like Frank, who I think, by the way, that Frank Lobdell is the one of the best painters that ever came out of that group, and he hasn’t gotten enough recognition for how damn good he is.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: He’s still alive, but I understand not in very good shape physically. Hassel Smith was a guy that most of us got to know a little bit better, because Hassel not only taught at the school, but I never took any classes with him. What he did is he ran a seminar once or twice a week in his own studio in his house, and he would ask a number of us to come and, you know, we’d pay like a buck and come up there. It was mostly we’d sit around and just throw the bullshit around for a couple of hours about painting, with Hassel doing a good portion of the talking.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: And so, he was kind of, in a way, a center for part of the discussion. There was always an interesting thing going on there. There were people who agreed and disagreed. They didn’t get nasty about it. It wasn’t, you know, an unpleasant thing, but there was – I’m talking about aesthetic disagreements now.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: So that, for instance, I remember Hassel knocking Matisse, and I remember sitting there and thinking, “This is really – I think he’s wrong here.” He didn’t really like European painting. Well, that he got from Clyfford Still, who had told all of his students to ignore European painting. I adored what Clyfford Still did, and I’ll always feel grateful to him for his work, but I think some of the things that he told his students he was awful. And you know, and there’s – he can’t ignore European painting. That’s ridiculous. 

So, there was that kind of thing, though there were all – the wonderful thing is that there were all these discussions going on, all this kind of – most of the time was spent painting. Everybody tried to put as much time as they could into painting. If you needed money, you got a part-time job and you tried to work as little as possible. You didn’t have to pay too much for anything in those days, and the main thing was to just spend most of your time painting. And then, when we would get together at various, you know places, for instance, at the – that bar, not the one that Leo ran, the one – the famous one –

CV: Place?

SG: – Vesuvios, yeah.

CV: The Place?

SG: And other places. The Black Cat I remember –

CV: Oh, yeah.

SG: – which is not place where you’d have a discussion, but we did a couple of times, and a lot of discussions with Ernie and Frank just one to one. It was a very exciting time in terms – especially for a young artist to learn about that approach to painting and what – this diversion to painting was the main thing. That’s what I remember so vividly is – was this absolute, total devotion to the act of painting and what it meant.

CV: Yeah.

SG: And I have never seen that since then anywhere else. Now, I’m sure it went on here in New York, but by the time I came here, that had passed, too.

CV: Yeah, I think, you know, like, when I was at the California School of Fine Arts, turning into San Francisco Art Institute, it was always, you know, like, painting was king or was the ruler of what we needed to do. And the thing was is to always be active, to always, you know, to – this was your religion.

SG: Right, yes.

CV: This was your religion.

SG: Yes, that’s exactly what it was. That was our religion. That’s the right word for it. That’s exactly it, and when I teach, and I do quite a bit of teaching – I teach advanced abstract painting and drawing here at the National Academy School of Fine Arts. Deborah’s also taught there.

CV: Mm-hmm.

SG: That’s what I tell them. I tell them about those days and what it was like, and I say, “If you could only feel that way or attempt to feel that way, you have no idea what an exhilarating experience that is to feel that way about, you know, painting.” And my students are always fascinated to hear about this, because you don’t get much of that anymore. What you get is a lot of commercialism. How fast can I get into a gallery, and how much money can I make on the painting? That’s what you hear.

CV: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I mean, you know, like, the way – it’s the media. The media just is, you know, is really the ruler at this point. People wanna become celebrities –

SG: Right.

CV: – just to be celebrities.

SG: That’s right, exactly. And that’s the way it is in everything, not just, you know, the visual art. It’s that way in all the arts. My son is a musician, and he has to deal with that all the time, so it’s just, you know, our entire society has gone that way.

CV: Yeah, it’s just really, really amazing. I – let’s see, I was wondering, you know, like, if we – you know, like, we would love to have, you know, your work in the exhibition that we’re tryin’ to do, but we don’t have a hell of a budget, and we were wondering if you had any collectors that would – you know, like, the gallery that we’re all showing at, our – is called the Luggage Store Gallery, and it’s a fully insured gallery. It’s basically –

SG: Where is this?

CV: It’s on Market Street.

SG: Uh-huh.

CV: It’s on Market Street, and it’s a nonprofit. It’s been going on for about 20 years now, and it’s a – you know, like, I can attest for it, and the thing is is that, you know, like, we would, you know, like, if you knew of a collector or someone that would care to lend a piece or a print or a drawing just to have you represented at –

SG: Right.

CV: – you know –

SG: Well, you know, there is work out there of mine. It’s scattered around in a lot of different places. What – the main places where they are you can’t borrow from are the museums.

CV: Yeah.

SG: I mean, they won’t lend to a gallery. I know that from past –

CV: Yeah.

SG: I have at least eight or nine things, including big paintings, in the – at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but you can’t get those. They won’t lend those to you.

CV: Yeah, yeah, they –

SG: There are things in different private collections, but you know, it goes back so far. I haven’t had any real contact with any of these people. I don’t even know who some of them are. I’ll tell you why. Do you know Adrienne Fish at all?

CV: Oh, yeah, right, yeah.

SG: All right, now Adrienne ran her gallery, 871 Fine Arts, for quite a long time.

CV: Yeah.

SG: For a while, she was showing both Jim and myself and sold quite a number of our San Francisco works to various private dealers out there. The only thing I can suggest to you is I know she’s not running the gallery as a gallery any longer. She told me about two years ago that she was going to stop that and just run the bookstore that she was more interested in.

CV: That’s exactly what’s happening.