An Artist In America


Raabe was a Ukrainian who immigrated to this country and started practicing medicine in the Bronx. He just had an interest in the arts, and by chance he ran into me, and we liked each other. He’d come around to my studio every so often and collect a batch of my paintings and sketches. He’d put frames on them—it was a hobby of his—and then he’d hang them in his patients’ bedrooms. He must have sold hundreds of them to his patients, at very low prices. But I want to say something about that. Never, even when I became well-known and my pictures started bringing good prices, never have those paintings come on the market. I consider that quite a tribute.

W hen did you make your first important sale?

It was in 1922 at an exhibition at the old Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia. The purchaser was an eccentric patent-medicine manufacturer and art collector named Albert Barnes, and having Barnes buy one of my paintings was a great help to my reputation. Later, I helped him with a book on the arts that he wanted to write, but we didn’t agree very long.

Did Barnes ever send you one of his celebrated letters?

Oh, hell yes. Everybody got one. You know, Barnes was also an amateur psychologist, and he could really be devastating. Briefly, what he said was that my cockiness with regard to the arts derived from the fact that I was only a runt anyhow, and runts like me are always combative. He was a vicious bastard, but he did love art.

Is there any particular moment or period m your life thai you would consider a crucial turning point?

Well, if there was one, it was probably in 1924. My father had a cancer and was dying, and I went out to Springfield, Missouri, to sort of take care of him. While I was there I began to meet people I’d known, and in interim moments I went with my brother down in the Ozarks to see if that life I knew in my youth still existed. I guess that got me started walking around the rural parts of the South and West, sketching the people and joining in their revival meetings and helping them drink their moonshine. Some of my walking tours over the next decade, like the one I made through the Smokies, were prolonged, often lasting two or three months. Those areas were still full of adventure in those days, and some of it, like the time the coal-mine police confiscated my sketchbooks and chased me clear into the next county, got a little hair-raising. But I got along fine with the common folk, who weren’t as suspicious of outsiders then as they are now. I kept extensive notes on my adventures, and in 1934 I put it all down in a sort of autobiography called An Artist in America .

For a painter, you’ve certainly published a lot.

I suppose I enjoy writing, although at times it can be very annoying, and, as you know, the critics don’t like artists to be articulate.

Why is that?

The critics, quite frankly, prefer that artists don’t speak for themselves. They prefer a guy like Jackson Pollock, who was completely inarticulate. That way the critics have perfect freedom to say anything they like.

You don’t have a very high opinion of art critics, do you?

Well, there are different kinds of critics. I know certain scholars who might be called critics, and these men, like Ruskin and Taine, can be of immense value to you. You see, you may not believe in Plato’s ideas of art, but they are ideas, and very important. But you don’t ever get any ideas from the average critic, just fancy writing and a lot of trivial, personal observations.

In your book, the people you met on your walking tours all seem so, well, unaffected. Is it possible your view might have been somewhat romanticized?

Possibly. Certainly after 1926 these travels were an attempt to recapture the sectional culture of my youth. And possibly any of my art that pictured that would have the character of a romance. Perhaps I had a romantic view of it. That isn’t a bad word at all, in my estimation.

Do you think most parts of America are losing their sectional flavor today?

No question about it. The subject matter that I devoted my art to has practically disappeared. Not wholly, because I know areas where I could go out and live on a farm and refind it. But generally speaking, it’s a dying culture. It’s gone. And one thing about it, the town near that farm today will be just like any other town. I have really sort of lost my subject matter.

How did your assignment to do the New School mural come about?