MG: I lived about 1937 on Riverside Drive, It was a Russian neighborhood, White Russian. Some Russians worked as doormen then, on Park Avenue.
GB: You told me you went to the John Reed Club during that time.
MG: Yes, along with many other artists, writers and composers.
GB: Many arrtists I’ve talked to attended meetings there. Many grew disillusioned. Did that happen to you?
MG: No, I never even got disillusioned: I was just confused. My sympathies were with that kind of thing. But somehow … it bothered me. Especially when they held trials. When the Moscow trials were going on, they imitated them, bringing some artists up on trials. William Zorach, the sculptor, was called in, and I happened to be there at the time.
GB: Why was he brought up on charges?
MG: Because he was sculpting figures for Rockefeller, some of which are still there. They accused him of prostituting art.
GB: But Rivera worked for Rockefeller. (There followed some discussion of Rivera’s work, Frida Kahlo’s work and that of Zorach; Golubov felt that latter was superior to his judges, but went back to the club, remaining a member.)
GB: So, tell me about your own experiences.
MG: I came to New York City from what was then Petrograd, in 1917. Kerensky’s provisional government was in power then. I studied in New York with John Sloan by accident. I stumbled into a place where he was teaching. I was about 14.
GB: After that you studied at the National Academy?
MG: Yes, I was a high-school drop-out, and I wanted to do art. I took a job in a commercial studio, thinking this was a good way to study art. I worked in men’s fashions. I ran errands, and then did work copying figures, but I hated to do that. It was no way to study art. I copied for Vogue magazine and others. But they turned it over to men who specialized in fashions and styles.
Not long after I got the job, someone came from Chicago. His name was Mark Tobey. I realized who he was; he was doing fashions in Chicago. He came to work at the same studio, 114 Fifth Avenue. He said to me, “You are talented, and you should go study at the National Academy of Design.” So I did … during the evening. I continued to work during the day, I drew from plaster casts for over a year; I felt very humble because I thought that I couldn’t draw as well as some of the others. I studied with an academician. At the time some of my instructors were Ivan Olinsky, Charles C. Curran, etc.
GB: How did you start doing abstractions?
MG: I had a chance to go during the daytime for a few months, and Charles Hawthorne, who was a very wonderful artist, was enthusiastic about good students. I was really inspired… I always had done abstractions. Even as a little boy. I didn’t understand anything, but I saw books, such as the Zohar in Aramaic, other ancient Jewish philosophy. Though I didn’t understand them, I was awed by those books.
GB: How did that get you to do abstraction?
MG: According to that philosophy, this world is only a symbol for the real world. So I looked for symbols, I read poetry: I sought to express what I felt. Like Shakespeare sonnets, and the images in them. I drew designs on the edges of the paper on which I’d make academic drawings.
GB: Did those look like your later abstractions, in the ’30’s?
MG: Did they have anything in common with this of 1938, for example (Shows a reproduction of Flight: Study in Brown, 1938 Fig. 2)
MG: Yes, I started this kind of thing very early. I started copying from a Doré Bible. My mother punished me, since it was against my religion; it was forbidden to draw from life.
GB: Did that push you at all to do symbolism? Abstraction?
MG: Yes, I continued doing it in secret. But I started making designs for no reason at all. Something mysterious…
GB: Yes, there seems to have been something within you.
MG: I have had an abstract mind since very early. I was always interested in sounds and textures. When I made fashion drawings, I had to wipe my brush on the edge of the paper underneath. This accidental mark would disturb me. I wanted to make order out of chaos. I started to put a line here and one there, to make visual sense out of it. I started to make landscapes of the mind. Maybe there’s another world, with a landscape like this (points to reproduction).
GB: Well, there is. In your head anyway.
MG: Yes, I’ve evolved it… consciously. After that, I always did it. My son found a portfolio of 2,000 works, works which I always just put away.
GB: You’re so prolific, and you jump around a lot.
MG: I started to analyze what makes me tick. I found out that certain things always fascinated me. Geometrical shapes, for example. Circles, squares, triangles, and what you can deduct and what you can add onto those figures.
GB: But that didn’t come out of cubism, did it?
MG: No, that’s just the funny part. When I was exposed to Cubism – not before the age of 20 – I had already been doing the same thing before. It intrigued me. Others may say that I copied Picasso and Mondrian, but I didn’t. It wasn’t necessary, although I enjoyed them and felt in sympathy.
GB: Was there any artist who influenced you?
MG: Only Cezanne … and the great masters. I felt that what I was doing was not much at all. If only I could paint a picture like Titian! Or Reubens…
GB: Yes, but Titan and Reubens already did it. You’re doing something else.
MG: Yes. I was doing realistic paintings and abstractions. For a while, I made a living from doing portraits.
GB: Did you literally have, say, ten canvases going in your studio at the same time?
MG: I always worked on many things at one time. Especially when I found myself completely abstract. I used the same colors on each canvas. I worked a lot in tempera. I used to make my own colors. I had to do eight or ten or twelve at the same time … usually all abstract. They dried very fast. Sometimes they came close to realism. Actually, I developed realism out of abstraction – the opposite way. I brought back realistic figures from abstraction; later I called them metaphysical figures. I wanted to paint figures that had a dignity beyond the ordinary ones you see. That’s how I developed figures. In order to paint figures, I did a lot of drawings, from memory, etc.
GB: What intrigues me is that there are so few artists who do both abstract – s-called – and realist work at the same time…
MG: Well, I don’t know. I can only speak for myself. I think there were others.
GB: Well, Picasso…
MG: Yes, as a matter of fact, I always had trouble with galleries. They always came to me. I never sought them, figuring I could make a living from my commercial work. So why bother with galleries? Betty Parsons came to my house in Brooklyn in 1944 to pick out a show I was going to have there. I showed her first only abstract pictures. She said, “These are beautiful, but I want to see the work in the room where you painted it. I want to be in the same environment.” I felt kind of strange because I had realistic works in there. She saw some of the figure paintings and asked, “What are these?” “Well, very often my abstractions are underpaintings for figure paintings,” I explained. “Oh, but you spoiled so many beautiful paintings by making realistic figures over them.” She explained to me that, “we are working to develop an American character from abstraction. One that is different from the Europeans.” And she selected only abstractions. And she said, “You have a visual slant. Why spoil it?” So we showed abstractions. I certainly felt I had enough of those anyway.
The reason I’m telling you this is I began to feel that the galleries wanted you to be identified with only one particular thing. You mustn’t deviate from that. So why can Picasso do anything? … At the Artists’ Fallery, though, I could show all kinds of things. Through that, other dealers, like Virginia Zabriskie, came to me.
GB: I’m still intrigued by your feelings about the relationship between your abstract and your realistic works. You told me that when you’re getting tight, and doing detailed abstractions, you use figurative work.
MG: Yes, later on I used them as a relief… to rest up on.
GB: Usually people think the other way around.
MG: I feel you have to use all your muscles. If you use only your arms, your legs will be weak. You have to balance it.
GB: So which is the arms and which the legs?
MG: One is relief from the other. Even today it’s very helpful. But I find doing figurative things so much easier. But why do things others have already done? The only way I can be really original is in the abstract areas. In doing figures, the only thing that would satisfy me would be to do something as good as Rembrandt or Vermeer. If I can’t be perfect like Vermeer, it’s no good. The accent will be on abstract. Later on I wanted to interpret the spirit of my environment, my reactions to New York City. It’s too big for me. I was scared.
GB: Don’t you sort of have to have a love-hate relationship with New York?
MG: Exactly. When I go there, I just can’t wait. I keep talking about it. I don’t care how dirty the sidewalks are, how the East Side smells. There’s so much… so much humanity. I think of New York as the future world.
GB: I’ve noticed that your earlier work is calm, and then it seems to speed up. It reflects the atomic age. The speeding up seems to reflect your times.
MG: If that’s the case, it’s unconscious on my part. I have no theories. It’s a question of how I feel. Of change, time, etc. A physical thing. I have no theory. But it actually works this way, I’ve noticed it myself.
GB: It seems you feel it innately.
MG: I’m not conscious of it. The only thing I’m conscious of is how to control figures I’ve developed. For instance, I’ve developed a fourth-dimensional figure in which I handle the same thing from different points of view. I found that I was influenced by old master paintings quite early in the museums and books. Rubens, for example, had an underlying figure eight. So did El Greco. Raphael used a triangular formation. In modern times, the square became very much the thing — for Mondrian, and even before, for the Russians. But I was always interested in the infinite – not the finite. I didn’t want to be confined to one particular corner. I wanted to be all over the whole field.
GB: Perhaps that is why you had to turn to abstraction. To get beyond.
MG: Yes, among other things, I wanted to have a musical quality. Something which is not there, but which is more important than what is there. To suggest … what can you do? You can only suggest. Of course I was so much exposed to music – constantly exposed. My art is a combination of many things. It is to be like a grown-up child. And I always felt good to know that the child was still in me. The child hasn’t gone away. I feel more that way today than ever because I’m afraid it’s going to run away and I want to capture as much as possible. That feeling … like seeing something for the first time in your life although you’ve seen it a thousand times. That kind of quality. Or something else. It’s so complex. But if I reduced it to symbols, it would be possible to do it. You can do it with sound, composing and organizing notes. Someone talking, a baby crying… all those voices, you organize them into one. This sound and the sound of words, I’ve organized into circles, squares and variations. The old masters have employed those figures, I’m sure consciously, and composed…
GB: What you took from the old masters was not their literal paintings, but the forms underlying them?
MG: That’s right. What was behind it all. And also what was behind that. Rembrandt hid it. He was such a profound technician… so many techniques. I used these things unconsciously. I found them in my own work. But then I used forms consciously. Why can’t I base it on the alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet?
GB: That’s what you’re doing now?
GB: How long have you been doing that?
MG: On and off, for years. The letter aleph fascinates me. I’ve done paintings based on A’s.
GB: The one on the easel now is based on the Hebrew alphabet.
MG: Yes, that’s Genesis. “In the beginning God created the universe…” In using all those figures, I combined circles and squares… and that’s how I arrived at a fourth dimensional figure. A set of suggested other dimensions…
GB: And that you do in a way by means of circular motions?
MG: Yes. The circular motion is the movement of the the third dimension. If you can imagine a point moving, it becomes a line. A line becomes a surface, and a surface becomes a cube. And if you move a cube, well this is infinite already. Because it suggests freedom. It’s a lifetime experience, unimaginable… but you can make it mathematically, so I decided to. A third dimension constantly growing out of itself.. a figure which includes all that. In other words, a spiral, in diamond shape. And I can go in any possible direction. I can make it all different ways not to make it mathematical, but to make it free.
GB: Do any of these consideration occur when you do a landscape or a figure?
MG: No, a landscape is different. That’s something else.
GB: How do you go about doing a landscape? I saw one here from last year. Is that from memory?
MG: No, it’s actually from sketches which I can show you.
GB: But in that you’re not interested in the same concerns?
MG: That to me is a sort of release. No theory involved at all. Abstract painting at this point is a combination of things I do. It goes beyond a landscape… to get the essence of a landscape in an abstract way. How this particular world would look from the top, the side… supposing I’m an ant. How would the tree appear to me? Or another kind of creatue?
How does it appear to a bird? I know what a landscape appears like from the air because I’ve been on a plane. But I used to imagine it before I ever went on a plane… as if I were a flying creature. For example, this one (Fig. 2). I had a flying dream, one which we often have when we’re young. I stopped having them. Usually they’re sex dreams. You fly through space, and you feel so good… this was a certain place which impressed me. Everything not painted was myself. I occupied all that space. All that light was myself…
GB: But then, almost forty years later, you painted Flight II (1978; Fig. 3).
MG: That was because I was already in a plane, flying over the same kind of a town.
GB: Is Flight II based on Flight: A Study in Brown?
MG: Only in a very remote way. Because it’s the same place, flying over a town in Massachusetts… I was in a very calm mood in the dream painting. And I was very sure of myself, enjoying the serenity. But in 1978 I was scared stiff, flying in an airplane. I’m afraid all the time now. I didn’t get over that. It’s a controlled composition. I was thinking about the form of the landscape, this V shape, a few key lines. I looked at it from that point of view, because I wanted to get the same thing. There is another, third version of the same thing.
GB: I like the analogy you made of an ant looking at a tree.
MG: Yes, there are an infinite number of universes. Countless worlds within universes… which I believe to be real. And that’s the truth. Anything is possible in the mind… my mind… no matter how absurd it appears. It’s a reality; it exists. You’ve thought of it all. So why not a world radically different? That you can imagine. A world in a different type of universe altogether.
GB: Do you find it you’re doing a realistic landscape, such as a tree, that your mind goes on, and you make it abstract? Does that ever happen?
MG: No, although I might be meditating on a tree. It took so many civilizations to make that tree. It started out a little seed I could put into my pocket. What could be more wonderful? I think about things like that. Or when painting a scene in New York. Why, there was a brook running through here on 23rd street and Lexington Avenue. It’s still there, underground, running through Gramercy Park. I’m painting something that is actually a brook underneath. That is just the surface, but the real thing is more than that. You dream about it. But when I paint it at least for my eyes… I call it the “seeing world.” I don’t want to compromise. Either I paint, so-called realistically, or abstractly.
GB: And you decide before you begin?
MG: Yes, definitely, absolutely. I got in the habit of preparing an abstract underground. I’ve seen paintings by Eakins in which he did that.
GB: You said you don’t want to compromise. What is that you don’t want to compromise?
MG: Well, if it is to be a visual thing my eyes see, let is be that. I don’t want to break it down into a cubist thing, like Picasso. I don’t want to break up reality. I’d rather deal with reality. If I deal with reality, it’s a reality of my mind, of my own feelings. That becomes reality. There’s no such thing as abstraction. Absolutely not. It’s a foolish word, but we have to use something to describe it.
GB: So that we can communicate.
MG: I never could accept it. To me abstraction is the real thing. Everything is abstract. You break up a horse into abstract shapes, the legs, head, etc. The parts look abstract. You put it together and it’s a horse. It’s the Gestalt, the whole. That’s what an abstract painting is. It’s a representation of part of the whole. And sometimes a part is bigger than the whole thing.
GB: Did you ever feel pressure to conform to specific movements which you weren’t doing, such as abstract expressionism?
MG: Well, yes, I must confess, I did. I did small paintings which I was tempted to blow up big, when I saw the success certain abstract expressionists were having.
GB: Let me ask you. Have you ever wanted to be anything but an artist?
MG: I was tempted to become a good athlete, a good tennis player, when I was in my 20’s. I used to envy people who were good athletes.
GB: What are you working on right now?
MG: Well, it doesn’t have much to do with ideas as with painting itself; it’s a marriage of literature and paint.
GB: What kind of literature?
MG: Philosophical… the essence of poetry. I’m very much interested in Emily Dickinson. I’m crazy about her poetry. She’s like Sophocles and the Greek poets. There’s a need to express the essence of things, even little things. The smell of things, and people… that’s the impossible. I can write about it, if I have enough talent. But to paint it… that’s what I’d like to do. I’d have to find symbols. Maybe use constructions, not just paint. Combine… like they do today.
GB: Have you done any?
MG: No, I haven’t because I don’t have the time or the place or the materials. I used to do sculpture; years ago at the Academy, when I drew realistic figures, always with all the hair on the body, I used to think in terms of figure compositions. I was pretty good at it, and won prizes. They would assign us subjects, like Rebecca at the Well. Well, I wanted to compose figures. So I made small clay figures, composed them, and made drawings from them. I was only 17 or 18, and I never had enough space. So I did drawings from different angles and lightings, then destroyed the figures and used the mass of clay to make something else all over again. I destroyed a lot of stuff because of lack of space. I’d like to put things together now… make constructions, like others are doing.
GB: Like who, for example?
MG: Oh, like Nevelson. I did have some ideas about that kind of thing. Putting together objects, pieces of furniture, etc.
GB: It seems to me that for whatever the reason you always had in mind what you wanted to do. You never had to search for ideas, motives.
MG: No, in fact it’s crazy how many ideas I have now that I don’t have a chance to use. I wish I had some talented students.
GB: Maybe you should write them down, or have somebody record them.
MG: But when I write them down they become theories…
GB: I know, but it is better to have them down.
MG: I did have some students, but they weren’t that good… I feel now that time is short and I’m jealous of every moment that I have. I want to finish what I’m doing right now. In fact, that keeps me going. I live longer.
GB: Yes, artists do live longer, I think… creative people.
MG: Well, I’m seventy-five.
GB: Look at Chagall, Miro, Rubenstein…
MG: I was in the hospital a year ago and was almost at the point of death. I said to the doctor, “I’m not afraid of death; I’m only afraid of dying. Death is nothing but a change in position. It’s natural. But I want to have a little time to finish a couple of paintings that I’m very keen on finishing.” He said to me, “My God! Look at Picasso! You can live to be ninety like Picasso if you play your cards right.”
GB: Yes, I think so.
MG: So, I just keep busy. Well, I do have a lot of ideas. It’s fascinating to me. After all, I can’t work as fast as I used to; it takes me longer. But sometimes I wake up at four a.m. with an idea, and run quickly to make a sketch. You have to do that, even it it’s three a.m. When you’re younger it’s easier.
At the time of this writing, Greta Berman was a Chesterdale Fellow of Twentieth Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and instructor of art history at The Julliard School, both in New York. She has published numerous essays on American art in Art in America, Arts, Gazette des Beaux Arts and Art Bulletin, and a book on WPA mural painting, The Lost Years (1978, Garland Press).