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Days of Yore by Lawrence Campbell

from the 35th Annual Exhibition Catalog, 1976
The exhibition traveled for two years throughout New York State

An art critic and writer as well as painter, Campbell taught and painted for 40 years, most extensively with the Art Students League in New York City. He also taught at Brooklyn College and Pratt Institute and wrote articles for magazines including "Art in America" and "Art News."

I well can remember how pleased I was when the members of The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors voted to make me a member of their society in 1953. I was only a few years away from art school, and so it was an honor to become a member of an organization consisting of seasoned veterans, some of them like Vaclav Vytlacil, Morris Kantor and Lyonel Feininger, genuine pioneers in the modern movement. If I mention Vytlacil, Kantor and Feininger, I should also mention Ben Benn, who had exhibited in the avant-garde Forum Gallery group in 1916, Jean Xceron, a great painter although not very known, lIya Bolotowsky, one of the earliest of the second generation of American painters to paint in an abstract style and Edwin Dickinson, who had stuck to his own kind of expression through thick and thin and had never retreated one inch in his interest in profoundly unfashionable things such as linear per-spective.

I was happy to be a member of The Federation because everybody in it was so staunchly independent: independent of the American Scene Painting of the 1930's, independent of the in-trends of the 1950's, so independent indeed that to have been an American Scene Painter in the 1950's would have been a mark of true independence. To remain faithful to the National Academy of Design (as was Edwin Dickinson) in this period was another sign of an attitude which I admired.

When I became a member we held meetings in Louise
Nevelson's house which was far east on the East Side at 323 East 30th Street. It was a narrow Victorian house squeezed between other similar houses, all with steep brownstone steps leading to the front doors. Louise lived and worked upstairs in a blaze of light. Downstairs where we met was always rather dark as though only 40 watt bulbs were ever in use. It was a long, tunnel-like room, with, on one side, the staircase, and on the other side a wall covered with paintings by Eilshemius. Their faintly dingy brilliance echoed the mood. If the room was gloomy, the meetings were not. The members who attended them seemed resolved to be independent not only of what was going on in the art world, but at each other also. No resolution was ever carried wthout a struggle that I can remember. George Constant was one of those who invariably spoke on every motion, and ques-tioned every assumption with penetrating irony. Nobody held this against him. He was one of the most popular members.

The people I remember at the meetings were Joseph Solman, Harold Baumbach, Theodore Fried, lIya Bolotowsky, Rhys Caparn, Minna Harkavy, Polygnotos Vagis, Henry Botkin, Paul Mommer, Theo Hios, Beulah Stevenson, Helena Simkho-vitch (who lived across the street from the famous Tenth Street Studio Buildings, which had not yet been torn down), Elisabeth Model, Dorothy L. Feigin, Boris Margo, Edith Bry, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart. Harold Weston was the President and a better one it would have been hard to imagine.
Since I had had experience in editing and book production, and was a regular contributor to the magazine Art News (very different then from the present magazine) I was soon drafted to write press releases and help Nathaniel Pousette-Dart with the printing of notices for exhibitions and for other activities promoted by The Federation. Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, father of Richard Pousette-Dart was tall, thin, elderly, always dressed in dark blue, and youthful in outlook. He claimed to be able to interpret character from handwriting. I was always meeting him in the automats around town to correct proof over endless cups of coffee. But I think it was not he but Henry Botkin who designed the catalogue for the exhibition circulated by The American Federation of Arts in 1955-56. I know I did the editing.

I made a small cash contribution to The Federation and so had the right to be listed as a patron in the back of the book. For some freakish reason I wanted to hide my identity under the name of Ignatz Mouse, one of my favorite comic strip characters. When Harold Weston and Henry Botkin heard this, they hit the ceiling. I agreed to a compromise. The Mr. I.M. listed among the patrons is really Ignatz Mouse who is really me.
We had exhibitions almost every year at The Riverside Museum, at Associated American Artists, six consecutive years at Wildenstein's and others. At one of the exhibitions at The Riverside Museum, all the members hung collages alongside their works. Each collage was supposed to be autobiographical. It was an amusing stunt, but the only one I can remember was the collage by Alice Trumbull Mason which used cash register tapes from the supermarket.

The Federation also held public debates at The Art Students League, and the one I particularly remember had as its speakers, George L.K. Morris, Will Barnet, Joseph Solman, and two who were not members of The Federation, Kurt Seligman and Manny Farber. I am not clear in my memory about the subject of the debate. Seligman made a prophesy that soon there would be a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. One of his students at Brooklyn College had painted a Crucifixion which had caused a great stir among the students who were all painting like paintings in The Whitney Museum Annuals. Selig-man felt this was a sign of what lay just around the corner. Manny Farber said something about bowel movements and self-expression which fell like a stone on the audience. Today such a comparison would not leave such a ripple.

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  » Dec 15, 2018  


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