Gonzo Chronicles Two

Arthur Yanoff Hipster and Jewish Artist of the Year

By: - Feb 16, 2014

Arthur Yanoff When I was living on the Cape I got a letter from two then unknown doctors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. They were inviting me to join them. (International Foundation for Internal Freedom, IFIF, 55 Kenwood Avenue, Newton, Mass.) I turned them down. I did it once (LSD) and did not like it. I never wanted to do it again.

(Leary and Alpert decamped from Newton to the Millbrook New York estate of heiress Peggy Hitchcock and later Mexico as the heat turned up. They were giving LSD to visiting VIPs. I got the silent treatment when I asked trumpeter Maynard Ferguson about his time at IFIF. In Hitchcock’s NY apartment, apparently, during a trip Charles Mingus fired a shotgun into a wall. Bummer. For visitors to the Newton manse there were burlap sacks of morning glory seeds which were discovered to be a hallucinogen. They are now sold after being soaked in poison.)

I didn’t like the experience.

Charles Giuliano Were people dropping acid at Coffee Corner? Was that a subject of conversation?

AY As I think about it there were probably more alcoholics at Coffee Corner. People drank so much in those days it was a part of the culture. One of my friends, a very bright guy, became a heroin addict. He said to me “Guys like you never become hooked on drugs. You’re different. You have something else. You’re a painter. You’re obsessed with art. ”

I think that things exist by degrees. By comparison. None of us at the time envisioned a culture that would become so dangerous and violent. The drug scene at Coffee Corner was for the most part bohemian recreation. It was rebellion against the bourgeois. When I meet with folks from that scene we talk about the crazy stuff and the partying. The innocence that we really were compared to what goes on today. If someone scored a nickel bag and it was no good they would scream and yell, you burned me, you burned me. Then that was the end of it and they walked away. It just wasn’t what it is today.

There was a certain carry over from the romance of Paris. We were young and romantic.

CG Talk to me about the scene at Speedway Avenue (Allston).

AY I discovered Speedway Avenue through Doctor Martin.

CG Did you drive over there? (It was inaccessible by public transportation.)

AY Car? I did not learn to drive until I was 29. When I was 16 my father told me I wasn’t mature enough to push a kiddiecar. In Boston I didn’t need one. (Always a hassle to park particularly during winter snow storms.) I was likely driven there by somebody who had a car.

CG For the record Speedway Avenue, a short dead end street, was so named for the famous racing car mechanic who operated a small garage there. Across the street was the single dwelling a small house or cottage.

When I first visited it was a crib of an African American guy, Juno, who with his girlfriend Andrea, was on the scene in the Square. He was a really sweet, innocent guy who was into collage and painting.

AY Juno was a close friend of mine. He was very interesting.

CG He found and rented the house. Somehow Bill Cardoso managed to push him out and take over. At the time Bill was working as a journalist for a trade publication. And dealing grass on the side. I once went with him to his office where he used the mail scales to weigh some pounds. I thought that very odd. This was long before he met Susan and was hired by the Globe as its New Hampshire correspondent. It was while covering the New Hampshire Primary that he met Hunter Thompson and what Tim Crouse, an old friend of mine from summers in Annisquam, wrote about as The Boys on the Bus. When Tim left the Herald Traveler for Rolling Stone I took over his gig as rock and jazz critic.

When Cardoso ran Speedway it was a hangout for hipsters. There was an endless party and people like Doc Martin and Al the Arab would crash there. Sugar, an upscale hooker, would fall by with tricks to score some weed. At that time it was possible to have all of Boston’s hipsters in one room at the same time. The scene was really small and intense.

Now and then we would load a car to visit the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street. We knew the doorman who let us in without the cover charge to hang in the back at the bar. On one of those nights we heard Coltrane perhaps the same gig that you saw. The set was just one long improv. Elvin Jones had a long drum solo as did bass player Jimmy Garrison. During his fifteen minute solo the band left the stand and went out for a smoke. Then they all came back and blew a lid on the tune. I had never heard that before. That was probably 1965 or 1966 and Trane was dead by 1967. That night I remember him going off to score with Lowrider who I later met as manager of the Texas blues singer and guitarist T Bone Walker.

AY I’m thinking about how open it was a Walton’s. I used to bring my dogs there. I had a staff terrier and a 125 pound mastiff. They would lie down by the tables.

Because of the BU theatre across the street one time there was a group of actors who came to Walton’s. They are not well known today. One of them was Jan Sterling (April 3, 1921 – March 26, 2004). She was with Jack Warner of the Hollywood Warner Brothers. They invited us to join them. Perhaps they liked the local color. We had a wonderful conversation. It got really, really loud. Frenchie, the guy at the counter, told us to be quiet. I went to the counter and told him, you know, these are very famous Hollywood celebrities. He said, I don’t care who they are. If they don’t shut up I’m throwing them out.

CG Tell me more about Speedway.

AY I can’t remember how often I went there. Dr. Allen had a night job as a cabdriver. Or he had a car. So we went with him and Dr. Martin. I may have gone with other people. I did see you there. Perhaps that’s where we met.

As I said we all read a lot. So I think we ended up in conversations about books.

CG Bill had a journalist friend Larry Novak (Nobby) who read a book a day. I knew him at the Herald where he was a part of an investigative team. He broke his leg at some point and we pushed him around the Newport Jazz Festival in a wheelchair.

AY Hanging around Bickford’s (The Bick) in Cambridge was more upscale than Coffee Corner. That’s where I met Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlofsky who were hanging out at Harvard. I didn’t know him, but apparently, I was the spitting image of (folk singer) Geno Foreman when I was in my 20’s. When I was in Harvard Square a woman chased me and kept calling me Geno.

Somebody told me that Ginsberg liked Cezanne so I talked with him about that.

CG Let’s talk about you as an artist. When did you begin to exhibit and how were you supporting yourself.

AY I had a rude awakening. My family didn’t realize until it was too late that it was hard to make a living as a painter. I didn’t want to try to sell my work until I was at least 30. I needed development. When I got out of art school through friends an eye doctor, who was a collector, came to my studio and bought a bunch of paintings. For money I did a bit of this and that. I was a stage hand for Sarah Caldwell’s opera company. I worked in a book store. Eventually I was with Portia Harcus Gallery. There were other galleries I showed at before that.

She had a wonderful gallery and showed great artists. We’re still in touch.

CG Did you know the Boston artists she showed?

AY I was friends with Friedel Dzubas (1915 to 1994). Sandy Slone, Julie Graham, Susan Shatter (1943-2011). I was very close to Ken Moffett when he was at the Museum of Fine Arts (curator of contemporary art).

CG Through Ken did you meet Clement Greenberg (art critic 1909-1994)?

AY Yes. I did. We became good friends. I was part of a group Boston Painters and Sculptors. It included Lucy Baker (later married to Moffett), Jill Nathanson, and a lot of other artists. Ken used to bring people to crit sessions. One day he told us that Clem was coming. At the time I was trying to do abstract painting. With acrylics which I had never used before. I was throwing it and it was just a mess. It put the canvases up on the wall. He looked at them and said this is awful. It’s just a mess. He said you have no feeling for this. I told him that I brought some other stuff. I had a box with small works on paper. He looked at them and said these are great. You should just work from nature. He said abstraction freed Pollock but it will do nothing for you. That’s how we became friends.

He was right. I have to set things up and work from them. I don’t work from my head. Pollock and Chagall could do fantastic stuff from their head. Jules Olitski and Noland. This is how I work. I told Portia I can only work from what I see. She said what difference does it make? I tell students it’s my limitation. I do encourage them to work from memory.

So much that’s said about Clem is mean and nasty. It’s just not true. He never tried to get people to paint a certain way when he came to the studio. All my colleagues say this. He just encouraged them to do what he perceived to be their strongest work. He was very supportive and I dearly miss him. We had a lot of fun together. We also spent time in Bay St. Paul which included six Canadians and six Americans. Tom Barron and I were recommended. We spent a month up there and actually got paid. Karen Wilkin was also very helpful. She was a critic I met through Ken Moffett. Through the group.

CG Were you in any of the MFA shows that Ken organized?

AY Yeah. He gave me a one man show at the MFA. You were there at the opening. It was a show of works on paper. You were there. It was a wonderful evening. I bred dogs so there were people from the art world and the dog world.

CG Dogs!

AY When I lived in the country I got involved with predator control and livestock protection. When I talk about my paintings its very difficult. You either sound too modest or too immodest. It’s awkward and hard to explain paintings. With the dogs though there was nothing at stake and a relief from painting. I was one of the major experts on using dogs to guard livestock. My dog was on the cover of Dog World magazine.

Since I was a kid my father was into dogs. He took me to kennels. I have studied a lot. I got involved with behavior psychologists as well as Patricia Adams Lent. She started the American Working Terrier Association. I’m still a field trial judge. I had a whole program with Kerry Blue Terriers for sheep guiding. I also worked with a very rare breed Castro Laboreiro Portugese sheep guiding dog. I don’t speak Portugese. Did you know that Yiddish was my first language?

CG You told me that you have been honored as Jewish Artist of the Year.

AY Yes. I was. It came through the organization Israel Bonds. A woman called me and told me that I was named Jewish Artist of the Year. Then she quickly said, don’t hang up. I thought it was a scam.

Why me I asked?

She answered it was through the internet. They were looking for an abstract artist and I have a Hasidic background. The ceremony was in Washington, D. C. and I had to wear a tux. The year before Annie Liebowitz, the photographer, got the award. I rented the tux from Barrington Outfitters. He made sure to get me just the right one so I wouldn’t disgrace the town.

CG Why did you move to the Berkshires?

AY I was living in New Mexico. That’s where I met Marsha. I met a man who was involved with the Lubavitch Hasidic group. He wasn’t himself Hasidic. But in New Mexico he said that I was a fish out of water. He said you won’t be good at pumping gas so we’re sending you back to New England. I work with the Hasidim here in Springfield. I did their Western Wall project. It became a touchstone for identity questions which are hard to answer.

CG How did you reconcile being an artist with your Hasidic heritage. What did your parents think?

AY My great grandfather, who I met as a child, was so religious than nobody could live up to him. He ruled the family. He was a very scholarly man. There were no photographs or paintings in his house. Nothing.

My mother got me into it. I was sick in bed and she drew Mickey Mouse for me. I copied Mickey Mouse. They loved color and didn’t care much for serious representational art. It didn’t matter to them. Most of the museum people loved my mother because she loved abstract painting.

I drew all the time. My parents would have loved it if I became a rabbi, cantor or something like that. They were a religious family. My aunt Molly came to visit and she knew what artists were like. She said this is a terrible decision. Do you know what they’re like? Do you know what kind of lives they lead? Do you know what type of people they are? Do you know what they go through? So his hand should fall off.

CG Have you seen the play Asher Lev?

AY I read the book.

CG You don’t seem to have come from a repressive family.

AY If you come from a religious family they don’t see themselves as repressive. They see it as expansive. It’s your obligation.

I did get thrown out of Hebrew school.

I would ask Who is God? The teacher said God is God. It went on and on until he finally said Out. I studied privately with a rabbi for my Bar Mitzvah.

CG To what extent are you and Marsha religious.

AY I don’t paint on the Sabbath. She comes from a religious family. I walked into the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Brookline. There I was greeted by the rabbi who was the head of the academy. On the walls there were plaques to my family. My uncle I was named after, my father, my grandparents. I said to him, you know I’m not much of a Hasid. He looked me straight in the eye and said "Once a Lubavitcher always a Lubavitcher." Once I got deeply into my work all of my abstract painting comes out of it. That experience of the Lubavitch Hasidim. On my father’s side I’m related to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (April 5, 1902 – June 12, 1994) who was the Rebbe of the Lubavitches. He was a Kabbalist.

CG Have you studied The Kabbalah?

AY I did a whole series of paintings based on Isaac (Ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi (1534– July 25, 1572) who (was a rabbi and mystic in the community of Safed in the Galilee region of Ottoman Palestine. He is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah, his teachings being referred to as Lurianic Kabbalah. While his direct literary contribution to the Kabbalistic school of Safed was extremely minute (he wrote only a few poems), his spiritual fame led to their veneration and the acceptance of his authority. The works of his disciples compiled his oral teachings into writing. Every custom of the Ari was scrutinized, and many were accepted, even against previous practice.)

That was a traveling show. It was organized by Yeshiva University Museum.

At my mother’s funeral the rabbi said “She liked abstract painting because she came from a Hasidic background where they were steeped in the Kabbalah."

A lot of the great abstract artists happen to be Jewish; Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler

CG There have also been a lot of Jewish hipsters and comedians like Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Shelley Berman, Wallace Berman and Allen Ginsberg.

AY As a group we have a real sense of the absurd. There’s a certain survival instinct considering our history.

Gonzo Chronicles Part One.