An Artist In America

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During the period before World War i you were part of the group that frequented the studio of Alfred Stieglitz and congregated at the old Lincoln Square Arcade at Sixty-fifth and Broadway. Wasn’t it in the Arcade that you were once stabbed by a girl friend?

Uh-huh. … Well, you see, fractions occur among the young, and I guess I made this girl mad, I don’t know over what. Actually, she surprised me. She’d have never gotten close enough to cut me if I had thought she was mad. The fact is that creative people attract women, for some goddamned reason. Wherever you find a bunch of artists, there’s always a bunch of women. I’m tempted to say that the female in our society has not been generally so economically conditioned as the male, and I believe that women are simply attracted to the sort of basic human things that an artist must deal with. But remember, these are special women, all of whom are themselves engaged in some artistic line.

I suppose one of the most significant things that occurred during this period of your life was the 1913 Armory Show in New York?

I missed it. My mother had taken sick, and my father thought I should come home to Missouri, so I didn’t see the show. But I soon saw what its effects were, and I participated myself in the next modern show.

That would be the 1916 Forum Show staged by the synchromists?

Yeah. You see, the bigger part of the critical response to the 1913 show was adverse, although the younger critics, they swallowed it whole. I know in the past I’ve said that show might have been detrimental to the growth of American art, but today I think it was a good idea that these new idioms were injected into the American scene, because we are, after all, an outlying part of European civilization, and it was therefore almost unavoidable that these new idioms should come in. As far as the larger question of how important the modernist movement really is, well, it will take us another fifty or sixty years to judge that.

When this country went to war in 1917, you enlisted in the Navy. Ton once explained that by saying you didn’t want “to interfere with the progress of any German bullets. ”

I used political influence to get into the Navy. The U.S. Postmaster General was Governor Dockery of Missouri, a close friend of my father’s, and the governor was in sympathy with the German element in Missouri who didn’t want to be in the war, too. It was that simple. You see, we all believed that it was simply a war between the big capitalist nations for control of the world’s resources. And largely that’s what it was.

W as your art affected by your Navy experience?

It certainly was. I worked a good part of the time as a draftsman, and that had a lot to do with my return to representational art. But what was equally important about this period was that I began reading American history again.

Then you consider your study of American history an important influence in your career?

Of course. That and having been introduced in Paris to the ideas set forth by Hippolyte Taine in his Philosophie de l’ Art . Taine would not accept the modernist argument that art had a separate existence from society, and neither do I. Well, at any rate, after I got out of the Navy, I set to work on a series of paintings about American history, and I worked on that project from about 1920 to 1926. Originally, I planned to paint ten “chapters” of five paintings each, which would depict the history of the country from its settlement to the 1920’s, but I only finished the first two chapters. These were exhibited, as I completed them, at the annual shows of the Architectural League in New York, and through them I gradually became known as a muralist. And during the same period, I executed my first genre paintings of American life during summer visits here at Martha’s Vineyard.

Did your marriage to Rita Piacenza in 1922 change your career?

I think it did. It made me a damned sight more peaceful. As a matter of fact, since 1948 she’s handled practically all the business. She’s a very good salesman, and it has been through Rita that I have actually been able to keep up competition with the New York dealers so that they’ll pay my prices. And she was very important in the beginning, too, in that she earned a good deal through her work in the fashion field. Then there was Dr. Alfred Raabe.

Who was he?