An Artist In America

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A re you glad now that you didn’t get more deeply involved in the Marxist movement?

I got enough involved as it was, so that I was under surveillance for a while. When Bob Minor was active in the Communist Party, under the Palmer regime, when Attorney General Palmer was pursuing everybody in New York, I let Minor have our apartment for a meeting of the Communist Party. And of course that was found out and got in the hands of people in Missouri and used to lambaste me with there.

How would you describe yourself today politically?

I’m a very conservative man, always have been. I’ve tied myself to the traditions of the Western world in which I was raised, and have tried to perform within them. I Ve no idea to revolutionize anything. I know things are going to be revolutionized without me. It may well be that we’ve come to the end of the capitalist world, which has produced more freedom for the individual than any other system in history, but maybe too damned much. I don’t know. But it does seem evident to me that we’re not going to have nineteenth-century capitalism last through the twentieth, although if you say that, they call you a Commie, which is absurd.

You seem to have been called just about everything in your career, from opportunistic to anti-Semitic.

That anti-Semitism business was started by some of the young Jewish idealists who controlled the John Reed Club of New York. They used that charge to beat me with because I wouldn’t put a lot of Marxist propaganda in my murals, but that accusation died out with the fracas. The other names I was called didn’t bother me especially, although I did object to being called an opportunist. Still do.

How could you afford to paint the New School mural for nothing, by the way?

I got five hundred dollars for teaching that winter at the New School, and the Whitney Museum bought all the preliminary sketches. And then the Whitney considered buying a series of big sketches I had made for the rotunda of the New York Public Library, which had been rejected. But Mrs. Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney, decided that it would be better if I made a new mural for the museum’s library, and so they advanced me four thousand dollars. But when I finished the mural, they only paid one thousand dollars more, and I was so disappointed I got drunk at the opening and gave the thousand back. That was the last time I ever worked without a contract, and that was the beginning of the hard feelings between me and the Whitney.

Is it true that when the Whitney moved in 1956 to its new quarters, the museum actually offered to give y ou back the mural?

I was shocked when they repudiated it. I gave it to the museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The Whitney mural, I understand, had already aroused a lot of criticism, including a very hostile round-robin letter from your coinstructors at the Art Students League.

I don’t know what went on in the minds of those fellows to make them do that. Frankly, I do not know what occasioned the general animosities, either.

Do you think they were envious of you?

You mean at the attention I was getting? I can’t see that, since nearly all of it was adverse. And it couldn’t have been envy of my talent, because all of them were better artists than I was, and told me so. It’s curious, though. Even my friend E. E. Cummings, who was an amateur painter, got quite nasty and satirical toward me. He addressed me always as “the great American painter,” and I soon got tired ofthat and quit seeing him. I guess I can understand a little bit, because in those murals I broke with those aesthetic groups who were inspired largely by what was going on in Paris, and with the Marxists, the social realists who believed that art should be put at the service of the proletarian revolution. I fitted with neither of them, and things got quite violent. But then, everything was violent in the 1930’s.

Your friend Thomas Craven once wrote that because of the “rawhide individualism ” of your painting, you do not fit into any of the ready-made categories of modem art.

Maybe I don’t. But I’m tied in many ways. I’ve been influenced all my life by this, that, and the other school. And I can’t say that there is anything that I have invented in any of my art. All I Ve discovered was what was within reach of anybody in America. “Red” [Sinclair] Lewis, [William] Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Tennessee Williams—they all discovered the same thing I did.

Are those your favorite authors?

Mark Twain, of course. Those were the first stories I ever read, that and the Arabian Nights , and I still read both.