Interview with the Artist (1992)

George: I was always interested in art even in elementary school and I was encouraged by my elementary school teachers, especially one named Miss Denham. In the 30's when I was still in elementary school , the government had the WPA projects. They brought professional artists to the elementary schools and they had art classes after school. You had to be chosen by the teacher to attend these classes. Well, I was chosen and started studying after school with professional artists and I was encourage there also. Then, by the time I was finishing elementary shcool and just starting high school, I went in the summertime with Danny Woskopf to the Brooklyn Museum to draw sculpture by Malvina Hoffman which we all thought was just great. One day when we there we saw a sign, “Life drawing free”, and we investigated (we didn't know what it meant) and we found out that they had classes there in the summer three times a week for nothing. We went there and had this teacher who had a big influence on our lives and we drew from the models. Then when school started, classes continued on Saturdays and then the teacher started classes of his own in Manhattan and Broadway on Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays we drew, and on Sundays we painted.
 

By that time I was probably 15 and I was with him for at least two years every Saturday and Sunday. I learned he was a guy that was a social realist artist who believed the greatest artists in the world were the Mexicans and that's how I became interested in the Mexicans. People like Picasso he considered an experimenter, not terribly important. I studied there for quite a while and I really wasn't disillusioned until near the end because I remember he used to put our drawings up on the wall and one day we were doing portraits. We used to get models from Union Square, old people, poor people, and especially in the wintertime they paid them a buck to pose for three hours and they'd come up and sell us some candy and pose. Mostly old men and old women, and anyway we had those portraits of old men and we'd put them up on the wall and I couldn't tell my drawing from anyone else's. We were all so influenced by that guy, that we all drew the way he did. Shortly after that he kind of disappeared, the thing kind of fell apart, and I went to work at Cooper Union and started studying art myself.
 

I learned a lot from him, no question about it in terms of drawing, but it was limited. Actually, I found out not too much later that he was actually not a good artist. As an artist he never exhibited or showed, or nothing ever happened to his work.  In 1939, Orosco came to New York to paint a mural for the World's Fair and one of the students, who was of Spanish descent, got a job as Orosco's interpreter and she, like all of us, thought this teacher was the greatest thing in the world and she brought Orosco up to the studio to look at the teacher's paintings. The teacher had such an ego that he allowed the whole class to be there when this was happening, and we all thought that, oh here comes this great artist and he's going to talk about the most important, unappreciated American artist and his future's going to be made. Oh, Orosco came in and he was impressive too, because he was humpback, with only one arm. His eyeglasses enlarged his eyes and he couldn't speak English. We had all of these paintings up against the wall, one of us would turn the paintings around and Orosco would look at it and nod, and we'd turn another painting, until we went through all the paintings. Oh, all these paintings had to do with the terrible conditions in the United States, the Okies, mine disasters in Pennsylvania, all the things that our teacher had never personally experienced. At any rate it ended up that Orosco, through the interpreter, said, "Well, my advice to you is to paint the chair." After he left the teacher said, "Well you know he's such a great artist, but he's not much of a critic". But he's a great artist and that was that, but of course what Orosco was telling him to do was to learn to paint.

Dan: Where did you get your formal art training?

George: I went to Cooper Union at 17 1/2 in 1942 for one year, and then I went into the Army for three years and then I came out. The first year you had a foundation - everyone took the same thing. The second year you could major. I majored in commercial art, and I did that for one year, then I switched to fine arts. I did that for a year and then I graduated. I was a combat engineer in the Army. When the war was over I was still in the service and they had all kinds of programs for GI's to keep them interested. They had a point system and you needed so many points to go home. I went to England and studied art at Swindon University in Swindon and I studied stage design, painting and life drawing. I was pretty good although even there I hadn't really done anything in most of the years I was in the Army. I had a talent for stage design and at one time was thinking of going into it. In fact, when I got out of the Army I not only went to Cooper Union, but I went to the New School for Social Research which had a special theatrical school called the Dramatic Workshop run by Erwin Pascoto, one of the great German directors and producers of plays. I studied there very, very seriously for stage design.  At about that time I was engaged to your mother and we were going to get married, so I needed to earn some money to buy her a ring. I got a job in the Borscht Circuit up here in one of the hotels on White Row Lake as a stage designer, and I did stage designs for a whole summer professionally. That was the end of it. I never did that again.

When I finished Cooper Union I was already married - Mom was supporting me. I was also getting some money from the Army, so I went to NYU and studied all the courses necessary to get a degree. Because when I got out of Cooper all I had was a certificate. I had college credits for six months while I was still in the states. I went to the University of Pittsburg and studied engineering under the Army's Specialized Training Program. So I got college credits for almost all the sciences plus also credits for the art courses I had taken up in England. I got credits for everything. I went part-time for a year and a half and got enough credits just filling in. I didn't take any art courses at all - French, History, English, things like that until I got enough credit and got a degree.

So when I finished, but while I was going to NYU and I graduated from Cooper, I was working with Danny Woskopf and Roland Wise in a commercial art studio that we formed called PAS Studio. That's how I was earning a living, and then I thought about this teaching business. I took one course at Columbia University in Art History at the graduate level and I started applying for teaching jobs.

Dan: Tell me about your experience with job hunting.

George: Well, obviously everything was opening up. Remember, I only had a bachelor's degree and no reputation and no background. The only thing that I had that somebody might have needed was someone with the experience and training as a commercial artist and that's how I got my first job. I was involved with this printing company and we had these women who addressed envelopes there. I got a copy of a book that I think is called an Art Directory, listing all of the art schools in the country. I had them go through the book starting with A and sending printed resumes, nothing personal, to these schools whenever they had any spare time alphabetically. When they got to M, I got an answer from Michigan State University. I went out there and they hired me to teach commercial art which was what I did for the most part, then design. Later I started teaching drawing classes and then that's it.  It was a replacement position to replace a guy on sabbatical. Then he came back and another guy went on sabbatical. Then they kept me again and he came back and there was a little problem, no one else was going away and they still couldn't hire me on a tenure track. The Art Department kept me half time and they made me head of the Audio-Visual Center. They were just starting to work with television as well as audio-visual things -- everything was brand new them. That was supposed to be half-time also. It ended up that I was half-time in the Art Department and full-time in the Audio-Visual Department. It ended up that I was working one and a half times and working a lot and after two years at the Audio-Visual Center the audio-visual guy wanted me really officially full time for him and I didn't want to do that. I went to the Art Department and they had a position for me (tenure-track) and I was full-time in Art and that was it.

Dan: At that time you were not painting naturalistically.

George: I still had all the social realist training and I was doing that, but then I got interested in what everyone else was doing: Picasso, Cubism, Abstraction, yes. That's what I got involved in, never overwhelmingly but I was very interested in Cubism for quite a while. Then I got interested in Cézanne as the person I felt closest to and that influenced we for quite a long time in my paintings. Up until the time that I went to Michigan State, I had painted only one landscape.  Well, the Cubists took a lot from Cézanne anyway and I just related to the way he painted. Oh, I got very philosophical about art also - this business of the picture plane was driving me.


Dan: In what way did the idea of the picture plane influence your work?


George: Well the picture plane is a flat surface and the idea is that no matter what you must always make clear that you are painting on a flat surface and do not create illusions that destroy the surface.  Cézanne, I was taught at the time, and I found out later that was not so, was the most imaginative. Supposedly, that is, he would push things all the way back in space, but then in other parts of the painting he would bring them all forward. I got involved with other theories in how warm colors come out and cool colors go back. I believed all of this stuff until many years later when I revised my eyes and saw things a little differently.

Dan: And your experience with abstraction?

George: I was painting - I went to all of the new technical things that were going on. Jackson Pollock and drip painting. Jackson Pollock was really big, so I drip painted and then I worked with aluminum foil and beads. Remember the beads? I dropped them on my paint. I mixed sand in with the paint. I did all kinds of stuff figuring that was the way to be a good artist. I painted with Duco Automotive Lacquer. I loved it because it dried so quickly and then I moved on to Lucite and all kinds of odd mixtures until I got rid of them all. Actually I got rid of the quick dry aspect of painting because I no longer wanted my paint to dry quickly, so that changed things. When I came to New Paltz I was still painting abstractly. I guess some people would call it semi-abstract. It certainly wasn't realistic. In fact, in some cases when I thought the images were clear enough, people looked at them and still didn't know what they were and it wasn't until several years after I got here that it started to move representationally but now without philosophy, and it just happened and I didn't care.

Dan: What brought you to New Paltz?

George: I came to New Paltz to come to New York. That was the thing. Your mother wanted to get out of Michigan, I didn't mind Michigan so much but she wasn't too happy there. Some of my paintings, those little landscapes - remember I started doing mountains made up in my head and, of course, there are no mountains in Michigan. I was ready -- everything was just ripe for
me to come to this kind of place and I just lucked in that there was a position and I got it.

I was hired on as a dual appointment, the same kind of thing that I had those two years at Michigan state - half-time teaching in the Art Department, half-time doing mostly advertising for the college. In my capacity of advertising publicity I had to meet and get to know President Haggerty very well. I had to see him a lot and he was very involved in this type of thing himself. Everything had to be approved by him. We started having arguments about what could be done and what should be done. I had the assumption that he hired me because I knew that business better than he did but that seemed not to be the case. He just wanted someone to be told what to do and so we had continual arguments. One time we were putting out a brochure catalog for an art collection that was given to us and he wanted this cover for the booklet, which I designed, only to find out he wanted it printed on campus with the campus machine. I told him that it couldn't be done and we had this meeting in the printing rooms about 10-12:00 at night. I told him it was my understanding that we were going to have the cover part send out to a professional printing firm, that there was no way we could print it here on these presses. He said, "No way, this is an educational institution, we'll learn how. There are ways to print them and we'll print them here." I lost my temper, I used to wear a cap and I threw it on the floor. I had never done anything like that before or since and I walked out. Then I heard he stayed there until 2-3:00 in the morning and tried to print the cover which made him hate me all the more.  Anyway so the time came for reappointment and my situation was such that they had to give me tenure or I was out - he booted me out. He fired me - there was no vote.

I was technically unemployed and I was applying for other jobs and it looked as though I could have gone up to Buffalo State. Roland Wise was there at the time. He was pulling a few strings. I was called in by the president because I went to see all these people to find out why they were firing me; in those days they didn't even have to tell you. The [art department] Chairman called me and told me how hard he fought for me but the President was adamant and he wanted me out. Well I went to see the President and I told him the Chairman said he fought for me, and the President said, "He told you that?" and I said yes. Then he said, you'll hear from us later, I don't want to discuss the matter. They rediscussed it - I don't know what went on. Obviously, my Chairman was lying, I got called in again and they told me I could have a one year terminal appointment. That is, I could stay one more year and then I was out. Well, I wasn't going to stay but at that time things all went through Albany and some months later in late May we thought for sure (our house was up for sale and everything) they called me and said I could stay if I wanted to. I said, why what happened? He said, according to the the powers in Albany, a one year terminal appointment was illegal. I had to be dropped or kept, but the time to drop me was too late. Not only did they have to keep me, they had to give me tenure. I decided I liked New Paltz. Why should I go when I'll do my best to get rid of the president and I spent a lot of my time in the next three years getting rid of the president and was successful. Not me alone, but me and other people.

 

Thyra: Well they finally got rid of him because he was finagling. He was out very fast when they found out he was juggling the accounts.

 

George: Not for his own financial benefit, just used money in ways which had never been used. Using college faciities for his daughter's wedding and for power on the college campus. He ran the student government -- he took money from them.

Dan: And he drove away some art faculty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Golden Age of New Paltz

Some More Nuggets

George: Yes, he drove away in the art department Yebel Yutofsky, Al Wooly, and Gerry Leibling, George Wardlaw and some people in art education.  He tried to get rid of Ben Karp and that was a big mistake. So he failed with Ben Karp and me but he did get rid of some very good people.  It's all history, as I understand it he came as a very young man as a president. His father knew someone in education. He was an idealist, he believed in faculty governance, believed in all the advanced ideas but the school, when he came here wasn't ready for anything like that. It was a Normal School, middle aged women, hardly any men at all teaching education courses who did not want to run the college so bit by bit, he and his wife tood over and took all the powers and made all the decisions because the faculty would't do it and when times changed a new younger faculty were coming up, he couldn't change. He couldn't go back and the younger people were uncomfortable with it.  Your mother would get a phone call saying she was assigned to pour tea at this opening and she was a member of Faculty Wives but not because she chose to be but because she was my wife. They expected you to do certain things that in the past faculty did without question that the new faculty wouldn't do. They had a picnic up at the college campus, and I got a call saying I should park cars. I told the guy that I hadn't planned on going to the picnic and he was in a state of shock. He said I have to go to the picnic. I said, is it required? He said, well it's not required. Then I said, I'm not going. If I'm not going, I'm not parking cars. That didn't help either.

 

Dan: What was the New York art scene like at the time?

George: All the young artists were coming back from the war. They had no galleries and so they made their own galleries and all of the enormous amount of amazing artists that developed after that all came out of these galleries. Phil Perlson was at Tanager, Lois Dodd was at Tanager - that was all of the best of the Cooper galleries. My gallery which was Fleishman was a private gallery but it was on 10th Street. All the rest were private co-ops. Things were going on there. It was the beginning of expressionism, and also a kind of realism too because Perlson came out of that, but it gave places for young artists to paint. You know if you own a gallery you show. There were always plenty of artists, but the galleries were hard to get into. They had all the older more entrenched people and the younger people appeared on the scene en masse. It's hard to conceive but when World War II ended, within two years you had several million young people back in the States

 

Thyra: You can't believe what was going on then. It was like a resurgence.

 

George: One of the biggest problems your Mom and I had was finding a place to live and we really never did find one. We never did really. We finally got one though a little blackmail and we lived with your Grandmother for seven months.  Then we lived in an illegal condemned building for several months with no hot water, but we had a long wire going from where we were, down to the studio. She was working and earning about $30 a week and I was getting the GI Bill, as long as I kept going to school. If you think about the GI Bill as it is now with Vietnam and the Korean Wars, they've been stiffed. We had a real education bill. It involved the most people. But we had a group of people that were out of circulation for four years, sometimes five years so you had a country without an aristocracy, an intellectual aristocracy. There was no one - there was nobody here. We had few college educated people. The only way to get around that was to send everybody to college that could get into college and they would pay it. If anybody that was in the Army, if they could get into a college, the United States Government paid it. That means Harvard, Yale, anywhere they wanted to go if they would take them. The Army isn't going to make them take you, there are academic standards. The problem was never, can I afford to go to Harvard, the problem was getting into Harvard. They paid full tuition to whatever school you went to and they paid an amount of money that you could live on and they paid you for, in my case, art supplies, in other cases, books. If you were married, they paid you extra for your wife and it was possible to make it.

Thyra: It rejuvenated the country and the money just kept coming back. Inflation was a disaster though. During the war the inflation rate changed everything.

 

George: It was very exciting because people who taught in the colleges in those days - they still talk about those days because it was the best student body for three or four years that was second to none. I went into the Army when I was 18. I got out of the Army when I was 21. I went to college. By the time I finished up two years at Cooper Union, I was 23. I went to NYU at the age of 23 still going for my undergraduate degree and all of the students were in their mid-20's and they were married. That's when they started having married housing in some of these colleges and you never had that before and they were all busy and they all wanted to get out of college and start a life. Fraternities were a disaster area because GIs weren't interested in fraternities. They weren't interested in anything but their studies and they were the best students - the other students couldn't keep up with them. The classes were exciting because when a teacher told them something, it better be fact. They couldn't get away with anything because somebody always knew something and you had to be very careful with bullshit because these guys would get up and let you know.

 

SUNY New Paltz Art and Art History Department 1960 - Photo by Phil Panzera

1960 NP Art Dept.png