‘It was pretty heady’

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

What those hands have done: artists Manuel Neri, Theophilus Brown and Nathan Oliveira

San Francisco, August 2, 2011

Interviewer: Paul Karlstrom, formerly West Coast Regional Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art

WTB: I was born in Moline, Illinois, on April 7, 1919. My father, who was an eastern boy born in Massachusetts, was forced against his will to accept a job at John Deere Plows for an invention he had made. And he met my mother there, and we had a nice, big-enough house on the top of the hill where we could watch riverboats on the Mississippi go back and forth.

My father had 160 patents to his name. And one day, when I was about six or seven years old, my father and I were waiting for my mother, who was visiting someone in a hospital. And to kill time, he pulled out a blank notebook and showed me how to draw the houses across the street. I was fascinated. So the next day or two he gave me a blank drawing book which I kept for about five years, working on it continually — not necessarily every day, but I finally filled it up when I was about 11 years old.

When I was 11, I made a drawing of my father asleep, a profile in his reclining chair he used to sit in after dinner. He liked it, and so he framed it and entered it into a juried show for adults only. The juror, the sole juror, was Grant Wood. And to my amazement, I got third prize. And so sitting in the Davenport Art Museum the night, where the awards were given, everyone was quite surprised when they saw this little kid get up and go to the podium and reach up and get his prize and shake hands with Grant Wood — a big moment in my life.

PK: You surely knew who Grant Wood was at the time?

WTB: Oh, he was a hero. He was well known by that time.

PK: Were you in any way drawn to his style?

WTB: No, but I think he was very good at painting icons. And I still admire them immensely and am amazed that this Iowa hick became such a sophisticated man and such a good artist.

PK: Something more probably happened.

WTB: Oh, yes. I had already decided to become an artist, as we put it in those days. And I didn’t want to go to college, but my father said you could do anything you want after you go to college. After Yale. He wanted me to go to an Ivy League college because he couldn’t himself. He was too poor.

PK: You were the first in the family.

WTB: I was the first, yes.

PK: You must have been a good student.

WTB: Well, I passed the college boards, for what that’s worth. And the first year in college, I thought I would major in art, but the art department was so poor — we painted an empty flower pot on its side and an empty clay dish for one whole semester — that I switched to the music department, which was infinitely better. I loved music all this time, too. And the star, of course, there was Paul Hindemith, who became very important in my life and, to some extent, I in his, because I found out in the Army what happened to his mother and what happened to his wife’s mother, which was the reverse of what they thought. His mother was still alive and hers was dead. And all through the Army career, we corresponded.

PK: When we met in my old job, at the Archives of American Art, we met I think possibly mid-70s or perhaps a little bit later.

WTB: But when I came to California I knew no one. I came to California because I knew no one. I wanted to get away from all the fancy people I was revolving around.

PK: Didn’t you enjoy them?

WTB: I enjoyed them, but I thought I’d never find out who I was.

So I was at a house party that Samuel Barber got me on. And it was in Sardinia, and I became unhappy with being there. And I found out there was one flight away that day — it was hard to get off that island. So I packed all my clothes and went down to the beach and said goodbye to my host, who never forgave me, and flew back to Paris and got a boat the next day for America.

And then I went to my summer place where my family lived in New Hampshire. And I decided that I would never find out, as I said, who I was unless I went to someplace where I knew no one. I knew a lot of people in New York because I had lived there quite a few years.

PK: And you had lived in Paris for a while.

WTB: Two years in Paris.

PK: So I’m fascinated by what sounds to other people like a marvelous opportunity and a very comfortable world to be able to move in. It’s enviable, as a matter of fact. It sounds to me as if you felt almost suffocated.

WTB: That’s one way of putting it. In March of 1951, I was in Santa Fe on the advice of a friend named May Sarton [the poet]. She thought I should see the city before it was ruined by tourism. And there I met some interesting people. And one girl invited me to dinner with her boyfriend one Sunday night, and I said I would bring a bottle of wine. And she called me Sunday morning and said, “Could you bring a second bottle of wine? Some other people are coming.” And I said, “No, there are blue laws. You can’t buy wine on Sundays.” And she said, “It doesn’t matter.”

Well, the other people were the Stravinskys. It was their one night in town, and they were driving across the country. And, of course, I immediately knew who he was. But the evening went on very easily. They were anything but snobbish. And they invited us to breakfast. And as we were pushing Igor in the back seat with all the luggage, they all said, “Come and visit us in California.” Well, I’d never been there. And I thought I would never see them again.

The next summer, in 1952, there was a modern music festival in Paris, which I thought I would like to attend, so I did. And one day walking home I ran into the Stravinskys on a sidewalk cafe like Les Deux Magots. And I think his son and the son’s wife were there, too. And I thought the last thing I was going to do was say, “Oh, I’m Bill Brown. Do you remember me?” So I said nothing and walked by them. And just before I was out of hearing range, Vera Stravinsky said, “Aren’t you going to say hello, Bill?” And so I came back, and they were very friendly. And then she said just what I thought she would say, “We’re very busy here, dear, and we can’t see you. But there’s a Stravinsky festival in Holland next week, and we don’t have many plans and we’re staying at the Hotel des Indes in The Hague, and why don’t you come up and visit us?”

And I thought, well, that’s a pretty good invitation. So I got on the train and went up and registered at the hotel and in the late afternoon went down to dinner. They came in maybe a half hour later, and I was moved to their table. They had a car and chauffeur provided by the queen. So for seven days we made trips to various places like the Rijksmuseum. And it was marvelous. They couldn’t have been nicer to me.

The last day, we drove them to the airport and the chauffeur then drove me back to the hotel to pay the bill. I went up to the registration desk, and they said, “Oh, there’s no bill. The queen paid for it.” And so I got on a train for Paris and called my French boyfriend and asked him if he were free for dinner and he said no. Ten minutes later he called me back and he said, “Oh, you might as well come too. It’s another American.” It was Samuel Barber. Well, this goes on and on.

PK: But you had met him before?

WTB: No, this was my first meeting. Well, he liked me and he got me invited to a party in Sicily or Sardinia or someplace. And that’s where I jumped ship or took a plane to England, back to France and got on a boat and eventually did my coming to California.

I went to Berkeley. I was a remittance man, and my father thought it was time for me to be able to earn my own living, so I came for a degree at Berkeley so I could teach. And I did get a job, actually even a TA before I left the university — I think I was there three semesters. And then I got a job teaching at the Art Institute in San Francisco.

PK: Pretty heavy company. There’s something that drew these people to you. You were a natural fit.

WTB: I’ve never understood it.

PK: Really?

WTB: It’s something that I couldn’t see.

PK: In a sense you had to get away from that.

WTB: Yes. I also had a French friend who was writing a biography of Poulenc, the composer, and he became a very good friend, too, and he had a country house, and we stayed there. And I remember sitting with him in Paris Opera while they were doing his new opera.

PK: So you left that behind — a fascinating time of your life in the music world.

WTB: Yes, I was supposed to be studying with Fernand Léger.

PK: Oh, you were supposed to be studying art, right?

WTB: Yes.

PK: Because he actually took students. Is that right?

WTB: On the GI Bill.

PK: Yeah. But you worked?

WTB: Well, I would go to school. He was never there, but on Saturday there was a criticism. And I went to one, exactly one criticism. And you bring your drawing up. And his Polish mistress would say — Léger was sitting there — “Monsieur Léger does not like this. Next?” [Laughs]

PK: Oh, no. Really?

WTB: Yeah. And so I stopped going to school. I was given a wonderful studio, atelier, by a very close friend, Mary Callery, who was a very good sculptor. And she was a great friend of Picasso’s, to the extent that one day he called on her and brought 20 bullfight drawings and left them with her. And she thought it was a loan. And when she took them back, he said, “Oh, it’s just a little gift.”

PK: My, how times have changed.

WTB: Yeah. It was pretty heady.

PK: Too bad he didn’t include you.

WTB: Oh, he was nice to me, but no gift.

PK: You really weren’t immersed and engaged in making art?

WTB: No, no.

PK: Or even studying it?

WTB: Well, I did some drawings, but …

PK: So did that start in California? We’re looking at a painting, the first one of football players, I think, and they would say it was done in New York.

WTB: That’s in New York.

PK: So you must have been studying art in New York …

WTB: Oh, yes.

PK: … before California?

WTB: Well, yes. In New York through a classmate, Tom Hess, who was editor of Art News. Brilliant man, and he married a very rich woman. They had very elaborate dinner parties on Beekman Place, and I would be invited to these with the de Koonings and with Saul Steinberg and on and on. And particularly Elaine de Kooning took me under her wing and found me a place to live. And I saw them very frequently. So I got introduced to that whole crowd of artists.

PK: And these were visual artists — and pretty prominent people, either as artists or art writers like Hess. I guess you would describe him that way — art historian, critic. You were in a position — especially if you listened real carefully, I would think — to hear some very interesting conversations.

WTB: Well, I can tell you two stories that might mean something. When I first knew de Kooning, I asked him to come over and see the paintings I was making from war sketches in this tiny little apartment on the west side. And I put one on an easel. And he looked at it and he said, “Bill, your use of paint is stingy.” I said, “Do you mean it’s too thin?” And he said, “No, I mean it’s too stingy.” That was an art lesson that lasted a lifetime.

And he would let me come to his studio. And I remember seeing one of these great women paintings. And I said, “It’s just marvelous, Bill.” And he said, “The whole thing needs to be moved to the left 11 inches.”

PK: He said that?

WTB: Yeah. Whether he was being serious or humorous, I don’t know. He had a great sense of humor. He was very bright.

PK: What do you think you really drew from that and took with you finally to California when you came out to Berkeley?

WTB: Well, I think it made me somewhat of a snob.

PK: Yeah, you knew all these biggies that they were talking about out here in Berkeley.

WTB: Well, my first semester, one of my teachers was Erle Loran. He took a dim view of me. I remember he made fun of me the first semester. I was painting on a peel-off palette, and my brushes weren’t big enough. He laid it on me. And then I got a case of poison oak. Being an eastern boy, I knew ivy but not oak. And it started on my forehead and worked its way down non-stop to my feet. So I was out eight weeks. And I knew I would flunk the course. However, Elaine de Kooning wrote me a letter, and she didn’t have my address so it was just Bill Brown, Art Department, and it was pinned on the bulletin board in the hallway in the art department. And it just said de Kooning, it didn’t say Elaine. So when I came back, he came over right away to me and he said, “Do you really know de Kooning?”

PK: Who was this, Erle, who said that?

WTB: Erle, right, yeah. And so I got an A for the course.

PK: Even though he had disdain for your work until then. That tells you something about art school.

WTB: And when I went back that spring for a few weeks to New York, I went to Catherine Viviano, who was an old friend. She had a gallery where she was giving Erle a show. And she said the first thing that Erle said when he entered the gallery was, “Do you know a guy named Bill Brown?” And she said, “Yes.” And he said, “Did he really know de Kooning?” She said, “Yes, and he knew a lot of other people, too.”

We came back, and Paul [Wonner] and I were invited to dinner at his house.

Brown in his Berkeley studio circa 1955

PK: I would like to get more of an impression of your early experience of the Bay Area.

WTB: I came out to California because — precisely as I said earlier — I wanted to try to find out a little more about who I was. And I knew nobody in California. I knew the Stravinskys, but they were in Los Angeles. And so I decided to go to graduate school at Berkeley and get a degree so I would be able to teach. And I did. And I came out in the fall three days before classes began and signed up. And Paul Wonner was in three out of four classes the first semester.

PK: That’s how you two met?

WTB: That’s how we met. Well, we met, but he thought I was such a snob that he didn’t really speak to me very much.

PK: He got over it. How?

WTB: He got over it. I didn’t change. Anyway, it took a while, but then I could see from my point of view that Paul was the best painter among the students and also the faculty. So we did get together then.

PK: How old was he relative to you?

WTB: I think he was about two or three years younger.

PK: Because you were together a very long time. When did you become a couple?

WTB: I think by the end of that first year. We were together 50 years. He was my best critic and I think I was his best critic. We really trusted each other. And, well, I thought he was a marvelous man. Still do.

PK: It was very evident to people who knew you even a little bit — you two had a real bond, no question. Ann and I used to talk about that — what a lovely couple these guys are. We had no homophobia problems. Thank heavens.

WTB: You’re rare.

PK: What had an impact on you? What nudged you in the direction your art actually took?

WTB: I think it happened largely in New York with the de Koonings and that crowd. I stayed with the Rothkos for a couple of weeks. And I’m not crazy about his painting, but I am of de Kooning’s. And I met the rest of the crowd at these gatherings.

PK: In New York?

WTB: Yeah.

PK: But what about here? You came out here, and so far you haven’t I think mentioned anybody that was …

WTB: Well, Nate Oliveira and I were both teaching at the Art Institute at the same time. That was about 1953, and Nate lived in Berkeley and I had a car. And so we taught at the same time, so I’d pick him up and we’d drive over together and back. I don’t ever remember not liking Nate. And as the acquaintance went on, I began admiring him immensely, which is how I feel now.

PK: You’re associated both of you with the Bay Area Figurative first generation. And I suppose even though you’re older, as you said, than those founders, you …

WTB: Well, we were all pretty friendly. And Nate already began drawing with us when Paul and I were still in Berkeley. Because when the Life magazine spread on my football paintings came out, we moved down to Los Angeles from Davis.

Once Nate and I were two of three appointed judges for the annual contest of Bay Area Figurative painting. And I think Bill Morehouse was the third man. So the first day we sat in chairs in a line. There were something like 1,400 paintings to look at. So out of all those of that stack, we picked 32 pictures. The next day Bill Morehouse called in and said he couldn’t make it, so Nate and I had to finish the jurying ourselves. And Nate had an idea of putting around the baseboard the 32 pictures that we had already selected. We looked at them and I came across one and I said, “I must have been pretty tired yesterday to let that one in.” And he said, “That’s my jury-free entry.” [Laughs] And he was marvelous. He said, “Well, I think it would be a very good thing if we were a little more honest with each other.” That was his response. And it really didn’t injure our friendship. I was immensely embarrassed, needless to say.

PK: There’s something quite different going on in your work that distinguishes it and separates it from this group. And I’m really interested to know how you feel about what I just said — Oliveira, you, Bay Area Figurative.

WTB: I was flattered to be associated with these artists, but I didn’t see any similarities.

Nathan Oliveira and Theophilus Brown in 2010 | Photograph by Joe Oliveira

PK: What about Nate and his work? You were familiar with him; you’re familiar with the work. Presumably you would talk sometimes about art and other artist in the Bay Area, and I’ll bet you were pretty honest with one another.

WTB: Oh, I went out of my way to see Nate, like this driving him over. I went somewhat out of my way across the bridge to pick him up. And he invited me in turn when he was teaching at Stanford to teach drawing one summer simply because he wanted to see more of me. And I ate every night at the Oliveira house. So you see we really did have great affection for each other.

PK: You had a friendship. It’s possible actually to have friendships with people whose work you don’t admire. It’s kind of difficult, but you clearly admired his work.

WTB: Oh, very much.

PK: And you’re smart enough by far to look at that work and place it, and Nate did not place himself within the Bay Area.

WTB: No, I think Nate’s his own man. I can remember shows at John Berggruen of Nate’s — huge animals, whatever — and nobody else was doing anything remotely like them. In fact, it’s hard to relate Bischoff and Diebenkorn.

PK: So was Park the only real Bay Area figurative artist?

WTB: Well, you can start that way or you can say Diebenkorn was or I was or somebody, but you can’t relate them, I don’t think. I think everyone is quite individual.

PK: One of the things that strikes me about your work: There is an odd quirkiness. Often it’s the handling of the figure or the faces, the interaction, a kind of anonymous quality. And in some cases it’s sort of spooky. It’s not spooky that they’re all naked and a lot of them are men. That doesn’t seem spooky at all. It shows a certain enthusiasm, though.

WTB: Yes. How the truth comes out.

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