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An Artist In America
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
I’ll tell you the truth about that. When I was a little boy, one of my uncles bequeathed me $3,500 for my education, which was a sizable sum in those days. And frankly, that did the business, all through my study in Chicago and my three years in Paris. Now you couldn’t do that today. My daughter, Jessie, cost more than that per year in Radcliffe.
In your various writings about this period, you seem to show a decided aversion to formal art training.
That’s true. And I ’ll tell you, since you’ve caught that by implication, that even in the modern art formulas I had the same distrust, and that’s why I never attached myself for very long to any of the modern movements, although I experimented with a good many of them.
Do you think your Populist background has anything to do with that distrust?
Yes. There has always been a slight resentment in me for any institutionalized forms of art, whether they are radical or conservative.
But do you see any direct parallels between political Populism and the form and content of your art?
People have seen such a connection, not just in the very strong strain of anti-intellectualism, but, well, it’s almost anticapitalism or antisociety as it was instituted at the time of the rise of Populism. Populism was a revolt of the farmers against the control of the market, against the rise of the promoter and the entrepreneur over the producer. This was something like the way I Ve felt toward the whole art establishment, yes, be it radical or conservative. I never got along with either of them. I made some effort, especially toward the modernists. But my art after 1920, and certainly after 1925, turned increasingly back toward the subject matter of my youth. Just the same, you want to understand here, my point of view has been exaggerated. I have never been totally negative about modern art, although I must say that back in my early days in Paris, even before the rise of cubism, it was a common belief among critics and even many artists, like my friend Leo Stein, that the disintegration of art would eventually lead, as it has, to an empty square of canvas.
Like the painting of Mark Rothko?
And many others before him. He was the one that became well-known for it.
During your early, developmental years in New York, how did you support yourself?
One of the ways I managed it came about through a friend, Rex Ingram, who was a director in the film industry’s early days in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He got me involved in 1914 as a set designer and general handyman, at seven and a half dollars a day. I worked for, I believe it was Pathé at first, and later with Fox. I had five years’experience with it, off and on. It was all very informal in those days, and the pictures were just sort of made up as they went along. I recall how the workmen, the designer, the head scene-painter, and myself would have dinner at Liichow’s to plan what we were going to do the next day. Then I would go over to the New York Public Library and look up what I could on the background of whatever the story called for. Then I would make sketches and go back to the film studio, where I would paint—everything was in black and white, of course—the backdrops, which were quite illusionary.
Did you ever work with any of the big stars of that period, like Valentmo?
I met him, I didn’t know him. I worked, now that I think of it, on the early planning of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse , and the cape that Valentino wore in that movie and the cane that he carried were mine. I had brought them back from Paris.
Did you ever do any more work for the motion-picture industry?
You mean on films? Yes. Walt Disney brought me out to Hollywood in 1946 to work on a picture that would have been sort of an American operetta about the life of Davy Crockett. Well, Disney had just put up a huge modern studio and was tremendously overextended financially, and his operations were actually under the control of a big New York City bank. And immediately the bankers started meddling with the story line. They knew that a large percentage of Disney’s profits came from showing his films in Latin America, and so they didn’t think it would be good business to have Crockett killed at the Alamo by Mexicans. So I suggested that we have Davy die in Congress from listening to all the oratory. They didn’t like that, of course. They wanted him to just fade gloriously up in the sky or something. Well, hell, I wasn’t going to have any part ofthat, so I sold my interest in the project to Disney for three thousand dollars and went home. I wish I hadn’t signed away my interest. Years later Walt put Crockett on television and made a fortune.