Coming to America in July 1967 was so exciting. My arrival at Kennedy Airport and first impressions of New York remain with me to this day, clear and vivid. The first few weeks were spent at Great Neck, Long Island with Nan and Dick Hirshmann; forever dear friends. Every morning, I went with Dick in his Cadillac on the daily commute to the city. I roamed the streets; visited museums and galleries; gawked at the skyscrapers and sights; was captivated, and I am still to this day, by Manhattan.
Later, visiting relatives in Syracuse NY, my beloved Uncle Alec and his wife Lena, I visited the Albright Knox Museum of Art in Buffalo. I was greatly impressed, as I had been with the art museums of Manhattan; indeed overwhelmed. Then, in late August, to Washington DC and the Corcoran School of Art as visiting professor of painting............
In July 1967, I arrived at JFK; I was overwhelmed by my initial experiences in America. Recently, I came across a long letter that I wrote, two months later, to my parents about those first impressions. I have based the following on those recollections. . Please note that this was written in 1967; Britain was still recovering from wartime and food rationing. Obviously, I was staggered by the abundance of food and fresh fruit. I put on over 20 lbs in the first six months but I was skin and bones when I arrived; no more! Moreover, the differences between the UK and USA were a real surprise. I thought we spoke the same language, even that wasn’t true?! (RS 11/18/08)
Eero Saarinen CBS HQ NYC 1960/5
The smell of cigar smoke; the cop with revolver in holster belt; the noise, bustle and sheer size of the terminal were among those first impressions of Kennedy Airport Terminal NYC. I arrived with the crowds and confusion of international travel. I added to the confusion as I was carrying with me a chest x ray; I had been told that was necessary to enter the USA. Of course, all I needed was written proof but there I was with the actual x ray, which I took out of the large envelope and waived in the air! The immigration officer looked in amazement and gestured me through; as did the customs official. I was in America.
Nan and Dick Hirschmann were there to greet me; their daughter Gail and son in law Paul Becker had taught at Leeds. Nan and Dick had been to one of my lectures there. When they knew I was coming to USA, they insisted that I should stay with them on Long Island. I was going to for a few days; my stay lasted two weeks. I am eternally grateful to them, not only for their hospitality but their everlasting friendship. I became part of the family. On that arrival day, I needed to pick up some of my paintings and we drove over to the Customs office. The abstract paintings, about four canvases 18” x 18’’ needed to be inspected; the customs officer did so. Chewing a cigar, he drawled, “You ain’t no Rembrandt”!
The drive from JFK was in itself an experience, never forgotten. Stepping outside, I felt heat and humidity; smells of diesel and cigars. Dick drove a Cadillac; in England, I had driven a Mini Minor. I had never been in a car this huge; so big and vast inside that I was lost in the blue interior, cool and air conditioned. Dick was smoking a cigar; in those days, I smoked a cigarette and did light up. I couldn’t find the ashtray, touched something and the window opened automatically. Never been in a car with A/C and electrically operated widows and automatic drive; for me, everything was a new experience. Then there was the radio and wrap round speakers; commentary from the traffic helicopters overhead filled the car interior. “Midtown moving. 59 blocked. Take left on Brooklyn. Snagged on Van Wyck. Try Grand Central. LIE slow.” The Long Island Expressway is known as “the big lie” and it is that; for nothing moves fast on that expressway. The traffic was bumper to bumper; automobiles of every size, shape, style and color; slowly moving with radios blaring and horns sounding. Mixed with the cars were huge vans and trucks, enormous vehicles belching diesel fumes; there were a few buses. We were to realize that cars and freeways are a necessity in this vast country; road signs were numerous and a confusion of many numbers and unknown places. I was going to Great Neck.
Dick drove up to a ranch house, pressed a button on his visor and the garage door opened automatically; never seen that before. Nan’s car was parked in the double garage; a Thunderbird with everything automatic from top to trunk. More language differences as the bonnet became the hood and the bungalow is a ranch house and more and more! The interiors were large and spacious rooms, air conditioned and airy; cool in everyway. Outside was the swimming pool, large and turquoise, surrounded by lush greenery. Everything seemed strange and unfamiliar; the kitchen with all its gadgets and huge refrigerator was a novelty, only seen before in the movies. In the Old Country, there was never need for refrigerators; there were houses with outside toilets in sheds; nothing was automated. Much of what I was seeing was novel and new; even the simplest of things, like an electric can opener. All too much for me, I went for a swim in the pool.
That evening, my first in the States, we drove to Manhattan. As Dick drives past La Guardia, I catch my first glimpse of distant skyscrapers. Across Queensborough Bridge, the skyscrapers get closer and taller; I am in awe. Down a broad avenue, at the United Nations, I catch a glimpse of a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth; but the tall and towering buildings are what I see. The restaurant was dark, red plush and candlelight; on occasion, Frank Sinatra visits to dine, wine and play piano. This night, I meet friends of Nan and Dick; Jean is brash, blonde, loud and absolutely wonderful. She likes the Brits but hates “those frogs”, proclaiming that de Gaulle is “a bastard”. Jean is celebrating her birthday; we drink and eat too much. I have my first NY steak; bigger than the weekend joint back home! As the pianist plays, we sing “Happy Birthday” loudly and badly; then, naturally, “New York, New York”!
What an evening, what a meal; the bill more than I earn in a month of Sundays! Dick and Nan were generous beyond belief; I was never allowed to pay for anything; probably could not have afforded to anyway? Their hospitality and kindness, like many of their fellow countrymen, was unbelievable. They were proud of their country and, as New Yorkers, wanted to show off Manhattan. My first evening, after dinner, they drove downtown; along Fifth Avenue, stopping to admire Rockefeller Center. I remember stepping out of the car, looking upward; the shimmering lights of skyscrapers thrust upward into the heavens. Below, were the crowds of people, jostling and walking, window shopping and gawking. The traffic was noisy; yellow cabs and taxis abound; raucous and rambunctious. Then we drive on downtown; through the neon lights of Time Square and another stop to gawk at the floodlight Empire State Building. We park and walk around Greenwich Village; narrow streets of old brick buildings, crowds and hippies, barefoot and begging. Already, I realize that this is a city of contrasts: rich and poor, small and big, old and new. Later, this kaleidoscope of contrasts was to be confirmed throughout my travels. Our drive took us through the colorful streets of Chinatown; then we cross the river, homeward bound. I look backward from the bridge and see the shimmering sights and skyscrapers; I fall asleep in the back of the Cadillac. Only twenty four hours ago, I left my house in a small village in the grey mists of Yorkshire; now I was in America; what color and contrasts, unreal and unbelievable!
During those two weeks, I went in many mornings with Dick to his office in Manhattan. We get up early; Dick would navigate his way through the traffic, listening to the radio traffic reports, using every known short cut and back street. Dick could steer that huge Cadillac better than any taxi driver; we were always at his building by 7.30AM; whatever the traffic. His office was situated in the Toy Fair Building oFifth Avenueand Twenty Third Street; the Flatiron area is named after the Flatiron Building on Broadway. Dick and I would have a bagel and coffee in the downstairs deli; he would go to work and I was on my own until late afternoon. I roamed the streets; visited museums and galleries; gawked at the skyscrapers and sights; I was captivated and remain so to this day by Manhattan. I learned that Manhattan, an island thirteen miles by two, was one of five boroughs that constitute the city of New York. Some of the wide avenues can be seven miles straight; at intersections streets go from one river to the other, again straight. Distances stretch to infinity; perspectives are endless. Then there are the groupings of skyscrapers, going upward into infinite skies. The sun light and shadows add to the downtown diorama and drama; in every direction, up and down, much to see and gawk at, a never ending wonderment. Then there are the streets and shop fronts: endless signs, architectural detail, old and new, colorful and gaudy, refined and elegant. The contrasts are dramatic; from Madison Avenue to the Bowery; from Times Square to Central Park; from Harlem to Wall Street. The island is best seen from the water; the Circle Line Tours give a great cruise. The Staten Island Ferry is free and, on the return, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are reminders of how immigrants used to arrive.
In those first weeks, getting around was difficult; I could never understand the bus routes or the bus drivers! Many a time, I stood apprehensively at a bus stop and the door would open. I looked upward to the driver and timidly asked where the bus was going; the driver did not understand my question and I never could get his answer. I gave up on buses and walked. Occasionally, I would try the subway but was put off by the labyrinth of corridors and escalators, nonsensical signs, numbers and arrows, crowds of fast moving people, the darkness and dirt. I covered much of Manhattan by foot; sometimes Dick would drop me off and other times I would get a taxi back to his office. I saw a lot and now know Manhattan well; particularly the museums. I was not merely sightseeing; I visited as many art museums and art galleries that I could. I spent time at all the major museums: the Met; MOMA; Whitney; and Guggenheim. I was in awe and admiration of the great collections and exhibitions that I saw that summer.
The language is a problem: “Tigers nip Senators as Twins bow” was a newspaper headline; I had no idea what that meant. The language is different and there are real underlying differences and values. Difficulties occur, such as when looking for a post office or public convenience; both are well hidden, if they exist at all? In fact, the public convenience does not seem to exist; I did discover one in a Manhattan park and wish I hadn’t. Unlike England, where public restrooms are often grand Victorian edifices, not so in America for there are none? When I asked my American friends, they ignored the question or muttered that they do not have the time? I learned to find restrooms in museums and cafes. Once, I went into a café to find no restroom; I drank my large coke in great discomfort. Bars are even worse; I was used to pubs where people crowded into chat, socialize, play darts and have a few beers. In the first bar that I went to by myself, I found a long dingy counter with men sitting, staring at their drink, not saying a word; not a friendly place. I was uncomfortable and left.
Discomfort there may be but far more delights: drugstores with soda fountain counter and many ice cream flavors, such as butter pecan, mint chocolate chip, lime sherbet, maple nut, burgundy cherry, strawberry fudge, pineapple vanilla and peach fudge. The drugstore seems to provide most needs. Other than food and drink, there is the chemist counter; hardware and household goods; anything from saucepans to stationary. The counter menu offers beef hamburger, cheeseburger, clam chowder, club sandwich, Cole slaw, milk shake, root beer.
The letter to my parents goes on to describe my visit to relatives in Syracuse. I was fortunate as my aunt and uncle drove me to see the Albright Knox in Buffalo and visit Niagara Falls; I am not sure which impressed me the most?! I also was fortunate in that I saw EXPO in Montreal; I took a greyhound bus by myself to Canada; an experience in itself. A week was spent in Ohio with Gail and Paul Becker; they lived in Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland. I was seeing an America far different than Manhattan but I returned there for a Fulbright Scholars orientation at Columbia University. I spent another few days out in Great Neck, family and football and fun; then off to Washington DC. I ended that letter with a long list of words and phrases summing up those first weeks.
Skyscrapers; sirens; shoe shine; sun glasses; doors opening outwards; light switches in reverse; traffic on the wrong side; pedestrian not zebra crossings; walk don't walk; the main drag; deli; dollars, dimes and nickels; diet coke; cold beer; hot dogs; drive in movies; ice; popcorn; pizza; baseball games; touch football; county fairs; burgers; pancakes; pool; police cars; ice rinks; bowling alleys; neon lights; signs; billboards; colorful clothes; Bermuda shorts; ankle socks; helicopters; thick newspapers; thicker steaks; Radio City Music Hall; Macy’s; McDonalds; stocks, shares; outdoor markets; battle fields; canons; stars and stripes; fireworks; sunshine; hot humid; deepfreeze; supermarkets; malls; cartoons; characters; air conditioning; refrigerators; escalators; elevators; barbeques; barber shops; bars; faucet not tap; showers; doormen; cabbies; cops; street vendors; beggars; boom boxes; jukebox; conventions; bands; parades; cheerleaders; reunions; unions; fire trucks; family picnics; airports; airplanes; highway; gas; downtown; up state; shag carpet; people; places; contrasts. America 1967.
The Colonel was a collector. He was thought to collect art but actually collected butterflies and, so goes the tale, he was appointed dean at a cocktail party. At least, that was the story told me when I first went to Washington, DC.
I knew the Colonel had once purchased a painting and that was the reason for me being in America. A few years earlier, in 1964, I had gone to Leeds College of Arts and became senior lecturer in painting. The head of the Fine Art Department was Eric Atkinson who, one day, got surprise letter from the USA. The writer was the dean of the Corcoran School of Art. In his letter, Eugene Myers said that he had purchased a painting of Brighton pier from an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London. A young student, Eric Atkinson, had painted the scene in an academic, realist manner. Subsequently, unbeknown to his patron, he had developed into an abstract painter and was teaching at Leeds College, one of the most avante garde colleges in Europe. The letter said that Dean Meyers wished to suggest an exchange program between his institution and Leeds. Obviously, there was interest on both sides of the Atlantic for such an exchange. Unfortunately, the concept was based on misconceptions and misunderstanding from the very beginning.
In the 60s, Leeds College of Art had developed a reputation as being one of the most advanced colleges, thanks to an outstanding faculty led by a Harry Thubron. The term “basic design” was given to the course associated with Leeds yet the philosophy and teaching encouraged innovation and individuality as in no other school at that time. Visiting artists ranged from Yoko Ono to Walter de Maria and students were involved in many forms of art from film to performance. On the other hand, the Corcoran represented the most conservative and predictable approach to teaching art that seemed to pervade the entire United States, that is another story. Suffice to say this was not known on either side of the Atlantic and the discussions went ahead based upon misconceptions.
After discussions with the faculty, Ricky asked me whether I would consider going as I was the person most eager, willing and available to take a year off as an exchange teacher. Agreement was reached that I would go, for the academic year 1967/68, to the Corcoran as visiting Professor in painting and in return a faculty member of the Corcoran would visit to Leeds.
The teacher from Corcoran arrived at Leeds railway station and, in advance, we have been told that he would be wearing a tartan jacket and green trousers. To say the least, he was most noticeable on the station platform in the drab dullness of Yorkshire. The artist, another retired Colonel, shall remain nameless and was not the avante garde American artist that we expected, for his interest was in the misty mountains of Ireland not the hip art of the moment. Again, there was total misunderstanding.
However, the coming year in America was to change my life in many ways. Let me start with the story of the day, in early September 1967, that I arrived at the Corcoran, to be told the Dean was too busy to see me. I saw him in his office, scribbling away, and found out later that he was writing out invitations to a cocktail party at his house. I was not invited. The Colonel was a socialite, renowned for escorting rich ladies to social events. His faculty despised him. I was angered by the fact that I had nowhere to stay, with no arrangements for accommodation or anything in regard to my arrival. On the other hand, my counterpart was renting my huge Victorian house in Yorkshire, enjoying the comforts of my home and studio. I was outraged at the lack of any welcome. Fortunately for me, a member of the faculty was in the office and invited me to stay at his apartment. The faculty member was Brockie Stevenson, an anglophile, who offered me “a nice cup of tea”. Although I do not drink tea, most unusual for anyone from the old country, I accepted his hospitality. Without his kindness and friendship in those first few hours, I might well have returned back to England. My impressions of the Colonel were to worsen over the next few years.
Those early weeks in Washington, DC were difficult. Not only did I have to settle in to teaching in a new environment with new students, speaking a different language, but also had to find a place to live. The first apartment that I rented was on Scott's Circle and Seventh St. I accepted this small studio apartment as there was a swimming pool on the roof with views of the capital. However, as I settled into the apartment I found that the pool was being drained and was closed as of Labor Day. I could not believe that the pool would be emptied with the heat, humidity and temperatures in the 90s for weeks to come. Increasingly, I realized that the nation's capital was conservative and conventional with pool closings and clothing dictated by dates and seasons not weather or commonsense.
I began to understand that I was living in a sleepy, Southern town. There were a few hotels, no great restaurants, no theatre and a couple of movie houses. The town was designed for tourists with cheap motels and self service cafeterias. Actually, with limited funds, I was grateful for this easy and inexpensive food. As well as my classes in the week, I had to teach on Saturday in order to get money. In many ways, the teaching exchange had not been fair and equitable and living in America was much more expensive than England. In Saturday school, I got to know Sam Gilliam, now recognized as one of the great Afro American painters. At that time, like me, he needed the salary, even although a pittance. He was angry and frustrated with the constant notes that he received from the Colonel complaining that the classroom, where Sam taught, was being left dirty. There were they will paint marks on the stools. Sam and I agreed that studios are for making art, a dirty process. Recently, I met Sam at his opening at the University of Tampa. We laughed about those days 40 years ago as he remembered his dislike of and anger with the Colonel.
I walked to and from my apartment to the school. I enjoyed the streets of the capital, the monuments and museums. I became familiar with downtown. I had no car but, one fall weekend, decided to rent an automobile. Brockie went with me to get the car which I drove as he did not have a driver's license, most unusual for an American. Of course, on his salary from the Corcoran, he could not have afforded a car anyway. I was not used to driving on, what I considered the wrong side of the road, and had difficulty with automatic drive. I made big mistakes within the first hour of driving. In England, the traffic lights were on the corner of the street, not suspended in the sky. I went through three red lights, one after the other. Brockie was horrified as was the police officer who pulled us over, flashing lights and sirens on. He came out of his car, an impressive figure with revolver, truncheon, flashlights and handcuffs hanging off his belt. I'd never been close up to an American cop and had only seen them on movies. I did get the window open; he bent down, removed his sun glasses and asked what I was doing through three red lights. Looking up at him, I responded, “Constable, I had no idea that the red light was up there, hanging in the sky. I never saw the lights”. The traffic cop glared and thundered, “Gawd damn, I’ve got me a limey!” He checked by license, told me to be careful and waved me on my way. From that moment, I drove with far greater care and attention, realizing I was in a foreign land.
Even the language of the road was different and. When going down the interstate, I remarked, “What a nice central reservation.” Brockie looked around bemused. I told him that the central reservation the divide in the middle of the highway. He explained that was not so in the USA and that he had been puzzled as he knew of no Indian Reservation on that road. Many more confusing differences in the language that day from round a bout (traffic circle) to…… On that first drive we went to Annapolis and, much to my delight, visited the attractive and beautiful waterfront.
The art museums and art scene were great disappointments after spending six weeks in Manhattan with its modern museums and vibrant galleries. The biggest disappointment was visiting the art museums as I had come with much excitement to the nation's capital. Throughout the world, in other countries, the capital houses the major museums of art and culture of that country. Obviously, such was not the case in DC where, at that time, there was no evidence of the great modern American masters. Except for the Phillips Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, a fledgling venture on Dupont Circle, there was little evidence of modern art. In August I had visited the Albright Knox Museum of Art in Buffalo. I was in awe of the contemporary sculpture in the grounds; the fine collection and modern art in the galleries, with the extraordinary paintings of Clifford Still. I could not wait to get to the capital. I thought that if a small, industrial and remote city like Buffalo could how such an extraordinary collection, what treasures awaited me. What a disappointment to arrive and, in comparison, find little modern art in the drowsy District of Columbia. The Corcoran Gallery of Art had the only contemporary art on view; that was the work of Ronald Bladen and Tony Smith that filled the atrium. The sculptures were "Smoke" by Smith and Bladen's "X". These huge wooden works, built in situ, towered above the viewer, reaching up two storeys high; indeed, memorable.
Ronal Bladen "X" :sculpture in process of installation Corcoran Gallery of Art atrium 1967.
During my first year that in America, I gave over 50 lectures in 35 weeks; what is amazing about this number is that I organized the lectures myself. Before leaving England, I had decided to get in touch with the English Speaking Union. Originally founded in London in 1918 “to promote international understanding and friendship through use of the English language”, the English Speaking Union of the United States is headquartered in New York City with over seventy branches throughout the country. I gave lectures at eighteen of these branches throughout the country. The remaining lectures were given for educational institutions: art schools and university art departments.
I thought that as I was visiting America I could talk on British art and art education. I was put in contact with the ESU New York office and the executive director was most interested in me lecturing in the USA. Accordingly, I was put in contact with member clubs throughout the country. The honorarium was modest but travel expenses and accommodations were covered, offering a wonderful opportunity to travel, talk and meet people throughout the country. Travel and talk is what I do best.
In England, I had applied for and been awarded a Fulbright Hays travel scholarship which paid my airfare between UK and USA, much appreciated. I did have to attend an orientation meeting for Fulbright Hays scholars at Columbia University. Having spent six weeks staying with friends on Long Island commuting daily to the city and walking the streets of Manhattan, I thought that I was thoroughly orientated and assimilated into the Yankee way of life. However, my travels for the English Speaking Union opened up another world, the continental United States, populated with a rich diversity of different people, language and culture.
My first talk ever in this country was given in Petersburg, Virginia. Immediately, I realized that people in Virginia were more English than those living in England. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Queen still seemed to rule; fox hunts with the hounds took place amongst the woods and the greenery; and where afternoon tea and scones were served politely. Here, for the first time, I was to hear of the Episcopalian Church.
A reception was generously given, following my lecture, by my elderly hostess at her home. I noticed that members of the English Speaking Union, here and elsewhere, were elderly and of a world of yesteryear. Everyone was courteous and curious, particularly after my lecture which was a shock and surprise to those that attended. My audience had expected a talk on castles and churches with royal portraits and religious paintings of a polite and pleasant land, the old country.
With long black hair and beard, my appearance must have shocked them as did my presentation as I talked on British contemporary art. A few slides were shown of landscape paintings by John Constable and JMW Turner, then came images from “Op to Pop”, work by Bridget Riley and David Hockney. Even the sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were too modern for this audience, who sat silent and stoic throughout, although a few gasps came as slides appeared of the more avante garde work of my students. Nevertheless, my Welsh accent, loquaciousness, language and enthusiasm appeared to enthrall and entertain.
With Barbara Hepworth at her studio in St Ives Cornwall 1966. English Speaking Union thought "too modern"?
At the reception, one lady said, “I did not understand what you said but I loved the way you said it.” Another dowager came to hear me as she was an Episcopalian. I did not know what that was and told her so. She was most put out and said, “You must know, it’s our version of the Anglican Church?” To her relief, I replied, “I did not know that and I’m a member of the Church of England in Wales.” I explained that is what the Anglican Church was called in my native land and went gabbling on, a fatal error, facetiously saying, “Yes, I became an Anglican because the religion is founded on the love of women”.
The distressed dowager squeaked that was terribly wrong to which I responded, “Well, Henry VIII loved women, had many wives, alienated the Pope, split from the Catholic church and founded his own church, the Church of England.” Jokingly I said, “To me, that’s a church founded on the love of ladies”.
Obviously upset and offended, the elderly and suffering supplicant stuttered, “You are very wrong and cruel” and went on spluttering that, “The Church of England was founded by William the Conqueror.” She stormed off and I realized that although she was wrong, I should not offend her further.
Later that evening, after the guests left, my kindly hostess was bidding me good night, when the phone rang. She took the call, surprised, and handed the phone to me, saying, “The call is for you”. I answered to find the hysterical dowager howling over the phone, “You are wrong and I can not sleep until I correct you and say that the Episcopalian Church was founded before Christ, I know that is true, before Christ.” With that, she slammed the phone down and I never talked about religion again but I continued my talks on art.
From Fall 1967 thru late Spring1968, I gave eighteen lectures for the ESU in different states throughout the country: Alabama, California, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington DC. In some states, I lectured in different cities. In Alabama, I talked in Montgomery and Mobile. I visited the state capital and governor’s office. I was the fascinated that in the office was the official and resplendent state flag, divided into five flags under which the state had served. The four quarter and biggest sections were the flags of France, Spain, Great Britain and the Confederacy. In the middle, almost overwhelmed, was a small ‘Stars and Stripes’.
The influence of Britain was even more evident in Mobile where the top half of the city shield was dominated by the Union Jack. These signs of love and gratitude for the Britain’s support during the Civil War were evident through out the South. I was warmly welcomed. The expectation was that I would be talking on medieval castles and portraits of royalty. As I have said earlier, this was not the case yet people were fascinated to hear me, particularly my Welsh accident.
In California, I gave two lectures for the English Speaking Union. I was warmly received in San Francisco as this city was yet another British outpost. The city became one of my favorites with its trolley cars, waterfront, hills, architecture, museums, diversity, vibrancy and vitality. Los Angeles was totally different being a flat, endless metropolis, sprawling from the Pacific coast to the mountains and blanketed in smog; a city of freeways and endless traffic.
My ‘LA’ host was an Anglophile with an impressive house and great collection of contemporary British sculpture shown outside by the pool and among the bushes and palms. Of all the English-speaking Union hosts, I felt that he was the one most sympathetic and supportive of my presentation on contemporary British art. In fact, he had work in his collection by some of the contemporary artists of whom I spoke; most unusual and admirable.
The visit with him was also memorable because after my lecture, he took me to the Magic Castle that Hollywood club for magicians, conjurers and those involved with magic. A fun place of secret doors, talking parrots and magical paraphernalia seemed a suitable place for me, magically weaving my way through America with stories of art and artists from the old country.
Charleston with it’s elegant architecture, beautiful plantations, Spanish moss on the avenues of trees, stately homes with colonnades and the lush and lovely landscape. At that time, the South was still of yesteryear with gentry and servants. At one dinner party, I noticed with curiosity how the servants always appeared at exactly the right moment to clear of the table of one course and serve another. In the way of English aristocracy, the genteel manners of the South seemed of another era. The service was impeccable and timely; then I noticed that my hostess had a buzzer at her foot which she would push so that the servants would hear in the kitchen to know their service and attention was required. The days of that era were fading and now seem ‘gone with the wind’.
During that first year, as I lectured, I travelled across America; I realized that this land was a continent of contrasts.....
RS 1967/68 USA.
My first lecture at an educational institution was at the Cleveland Institute of Art. In October 1967, I was invited to talk by President Joe McCullough who had visited Leeds College of Art the previous year and was the most impressed with the teaching and philosophy. Accordingly, I gave my first college lecture in Cleveland. I remember the lecture because I was nervous and just before I was about to go on stage had visited the bathroom. In my haste, I left my trouser fly undone. Joe told me to zip up, so I was grateful to him not only for his invitation but for saving me embarrassment.
The lecture was on the British art education, much more avant garde and risqué than my presentations to the conservative clubs of the English Speaking Union. Not only was cotemporary art shown but also the work of students at Leeds. The foundation studies in line, color, shape, form and basic design were shown with colorful slides of happenings and events. These images were in stark contrast to traditional and academic teaching. Although Leeds students did figure studies, these were dynamic drawings of expressive line and frenzied gesture. The students did events using the figure with costume and color, in tableaus that dealt not only with the figure but with flagellation and fornication. The work was experimental, energetic and extreme, exploring and breaking boundaries in art.
The talk seemed well received, particularly by students of Cleveland Institute and it’s President Joe McCullough, who was most enthusiastic. Unbeknown to me, at end of October, there was the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Art. Joe shared his enthusiasm for my talk with other members who were college presidents and university deans. I began to receive phone calls from them with invitations to lecture at colleges of art and university art departments from coast to coast. I organized these lectures and travel myself without any secretarial or administrative assistance. I lectured in over thirty educational institutions in almost as many weeks. I tried to schedule my lectures geographically, giving a few talks within a day so when the institutions were near one another. In California, I gave three lectures in one day, thanks to flying by helicopter, then air taxi and limousine. Of course, as the saying goes “only in LaLa land”.
What is remarkable in the giving all these lectures is the fact that I organized the lectures and travel myself. In those days, I had neither secretary nor assistant except for my teaching assistant, Elliott Thompson. I was most fortunate for Elliott was mature, reliable and knowledgeable; being a retired Federal Government employee who had studied art in Paris. With confidence, I could leave my classes under his supervision whenever I had to be away. However, I usually arranged my lectures around my limited teaching schedule at the Corcoran.
So with an atlas and telephone, I went ahead and organized lectures at colleges and universities departments of art; often by word of mouth. I had many remarkable experiences and met wonderful people. However, my overall impression of arts education in the United States was that it was academic in the worst way and of yesteryear. How could a nation that was sending rockets into outer space have art schools still teaching perspective rather than perception? My recollections and opinions are summed up in the article “Up the American vanishing point”
(The following extracts are from an article that I wrote for Studio International magazine, “Up the American vanishing point”, published in November 1968)
As with everything American it is difficult to generalize, yet inevitable. The country is a continent, full of differences and extremes and without a national structure of education as we know it in Britain.
They are art schools, art institutes, departments in universities and state colleges, museum schools - all with different structures, finance, entrance requirements, courses and standards. Through personal experience in teaching, and visits to over forty arts institutions throughout America, during the last year (1967/68), it was this variation that was most obvious and confusing. Within these seemingly endless radiations was one similarity, the emphasis on the academic study of art, with every institution continuing to teach anatomy, perspective, watercolor, oils, modeling, sketching, life drawing and all such subjects, all taught separately, and, unfortunately, usually within the narrow confines and traditions of yesteryear.
Such study means that there is a real discrepancy between the studio of the school and the studio of the artists, between the work being done in the school and the art being exhibited in the galleries and museums.
One subject is of particular fascination: the drawing of the figure. The emphasis on this becomes paranoid and pathetic, for there is no real tradition of life painting as we know it in Europe. There seems to be a determination to compensate for this……The most absurd fact is that, in the Southern States, by state law, the model is not allowed to be nude. She wears a bathing suit or leotards, yet students have to draw her as though she were nude. One daring lecturer in Alabama did get a male and female model, both nude, in the same studio, but there were his objection to this, even though the models were wax dummies. In Florida, a faculty member commented ruefully that all his students drew the breasts pointing skywards, not realizing that without the support of bikini or bra the body may have natural sag: such incidents may seem extreme, but they do reflect the conservatism and conformity so evident in America.
Of course the great problem is finance…….so the quantity (of students, i.e. enrollment numbers) becomes more important than quality (of entrants).
The art department of the university has to conform to the narrow confines of the academic system, concerned with credits, degrades, production come and achievement: a system not sympathetic to true education, particularly within the visual arts. …..many departments appoint art historians to give…..respectability, and concern themselves with outdated subject matter and restrictive teaching. All this seems to satisfy the university authorities, who always think of art first when it comes to financial cutback.
……At a university art department it is possible to get tenure, after some years of the department, if elected and ratified by one's colleagues. In such an archaic system that must be sympathy for the faculty members, who had to be careful and abide by the system. Little wonder that open argument and creative experimentation are difficult if not dangerous.
The students differ also, especially in a previous art education. …..Sympathy must be felt not only for the pupil but for the faculty of the art school, frequently faced with students totally ignorant or the ill-informed about art. Entry requirements vary considerably. Some schools accept anyone.
……. there was ignorance of the British art school, its methods and approach. My many lectures became increasingly concerned with this aspect of the British Art Scene, particularly the progressive work of the Fine Art Department of Leeds College of Art. There was genuine interest in the work and attitude. Although some faculty showed open resentment, many were sympathetic, if not openly, and privately, for the tenure was not secure. The students had no such reserve and, even if not in total agreement, would comment on everything: joy at seeing no easels; astonishment at materials and equipment; excitement with the work; amazement at the permissiveness; happiness with happenings and events; and envy of the opportunities available. All students were acutely interested and eager to know more. Appreciated as much as anything was my willingness to talk, discuss, and argue informally.
In the corridors of certain art schools one sees tired nude sketches in pencil; conte copies the Swiss Alps from postcards; lifelike portraits of ladies in evening dress; drawings showing how to shade property; ballpoint scribbles of bony anatomy; and the vanishing lines of endless perspectives. In the studios are the easels, thrones, screens, skeletons, plaster casts, anatomy charts, and the dusty still life with plastic flowers….In the class are students of every age....all full of the honest endeavor but faced with many problems: timetables, lessons, hours, credits and grades: studying each subject, or just one, a few hours a week. Never being allowed to leave work out but putting everything away in racks and cupboards after each lesson, as different classes will use the studio in the mornings, afternoons, evenings and Saturday. (Unlike Leeds where students worked for prolonged periods, days or weeks, on pursuing the study of one aspect of art, e.g. color. Where studio space was assigned to a group or to individuals. Continuity of involvement, individual diversity and innovative creativity were encouraged and expected)
In the university, the student may have many subjects and has to abide by the timetable; art history is of slides postcards and reproductions; practical work, fitted in for a few hours, becomes the acquisition of technical know-how. These are the worst extremes. For there is a growing awareness and, among the younger faculty and older students, unrest. There are ideas, imagination and ability. Emerging are works in new media: light, sound and movement; in some schools, almost surreptitiously, among the pencil sketches and watercolor views.
There are those who do care. In all parts of the country there is evidence of awareness and involvement: the article went on to describe many innovative individuals and institutions across the USA….involvement with intermedia and all the possibilities….in art and education.
….although there is much evidence of change, the pencil and easel could still symbolize many American schools.
(Note: this was written in 1968 nearly 40 years ago. Much has changed but the interesting fact remains that in the 60s the art schools of Britain were much more advanced and adventurous. RS 11/07/07)
My visit, in spring 1968, to Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles was most interesting in every way. I had been invited by the president of the school to give a talk. He knew that I was involved in the avant-garde of art and art education. At that time, Otis was the most conservative of schools. I will never forget being shown a room full of armor. As I was in LA, I thought that the armor was something to do with the movies? I was amazed to hear that students did drawings, copies of the armor in a class ‘armor 101’? The faculty member thought that is what we did in the academies of England; how wrong can you be? Other classrooms showed evidence of outdated and archaic teaching; at odds with the image of the glitz and glamour of California?
In the evening, I gave a lecture on the work of students at Leeds College of Art which I described as ranging “from flagellation to fornication”. I was being deliberately controversial and confrontational, as the work was not quite that: more happening, performance and event; nevertheless certainly colorful and innovative and of the moment. The entire faculty walked out in the middle of my lecture! The students stayed and, at the end, I was given rapturous applause being regarded as a savior in their land. The students took me to a party where we talked and discussed art long into the night. That following morning, the students staged a walkout. The entire student body left their classes in revolt against the faculty and in support of my ideas. By far, this was the most dramatic reaction to my lecture; although, I must say, I found much sympathy throughout the nation, particularly amongst younger faculty and students, in regard to my presentation. Much has changed in American art schools since those years in the late 60’s; hopefully, for the better.