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Objects and Postulates

An interview with Peter Barton
The ArtBank, Castleton-on -Hudson, NY
By Emily E. Hassell

Emily E. Hassel: We’re sitting here in your exhibit in Castleton-on-Hudson, NY, a few minutes south of Albany right on the waterfront. I’m looking around and I’m wondering how you got into art in the first place.

Peter Barton: Yes, the exhibit is part of the Hudson

River Quadricentennial Celebration, so it’s not the usual situation. And there is this wonderful old bank building right here on the river’s edge and that’s a hard space to turn down if you’re invited to use it. I’ll provide some photos for the interview.

But to get to your question, I entered into formal art training when I began studio classes with an art teacher named Wesley Hollenbeck in Greenwich Village. I was about to start my first year at Fordham Prep School in the Bronx and there was no art taught there, so my father arranged for me to take art classes a few nights a week and weekends. He was a commercial and industrial designer, and he often worked with artists and draftsman in that area who freelanced for him and he took me with him when he went to their studios, so it was familiar ground.

EM: That was pretty young. What sort of art were you doing, or studying at that age?

PB: It was 1957. I remember, because it was the year after Jackson Pollack died. Coop galleries were gathered around 10th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues and all the artists had low-rent studios down there. There were bars and cheap restaurants, and coffee houses were in vogue in the neighborhood. There were probably a dozen galleries on those few blocks at any given time, some perennial and others coming and going. Let’s see, Hansa, Brata, Phoenix, Birgé, March, The Area, Fleischman, and so on. Hansa was started by Hans Hoffman’s students. Oh yes, and Wilhem De Koonig had a studio right there at about number 90 or 92 10th Street and started the Tanager Gallery with friends. It was supposed to be called the Red Tanager, but the other artists thought that was too corny and took off the ’Red’. So there was plenty of art of all kinds all over the place.

Hollenbeck was an art teacher and a commercial artist, but he was very fascinated with Dada and Surrealism, a devotee, you could say, and he»d been to Europe to meet all those Café Voltaire artists and he taught that technique; psychic automatism, chance composition and concepts like that. Dada artists were all rigorously academically trained and very disciplined draftsman and did certain things every day relating to their art practices, drawing from the figure and a plein air and he stressed regimen and routine as the foundation for deriving inspiration rather than sitting around and waiting for lightening to strike. Genius, he said, came from dedicated routine not big ideas. And also his wife Stephanie—at least I think they were married— was a Freudian therapist—what were called at the time ’lay analysts’— and Freud was the progenitor of Dada and, even more so, Surrealism. I was in the thick of things right there at the start even though my perspective was from a kid’s point of view. All these people were adults with all that went along with that notion from a child’s eye view.

My student time spanned four plus years there, so there were a lot of times when I was more involved than others. It was just a neighborhood, so most of the people in the neighborhood were unaware there even was an art scene; it was just where they lived. NYU is right there and the Art Student’s League, so with the cheap rent it was also a Mecca for students and all the stuff that goes with a college-town atmosphere. In those years there was no art anywhere else in America but New York City and that was the center of the literary, theater, Jazz and Folk Music cultures—lots of Jazz clubs there. But basically the American culture didn’t care about art so it was a high brow world tucked away in a tenement-type district.

EM: That seems like a lot to be taking in at such a young age. Were you able to grasp all of that?

PB: Well, it was just there. I can’t say I took it all in, of course not. I was partaking of my little bit, is all. That 10th Street scene was the vortex of American culture at the time, believe it or not, although no one remembers it very much now. It was compact and all right in that one place.

My aunt, Katryna, [ka-treen-yah] was a clothes designer and an authority on Renascence fabrics, The Renascence and fabrics from the Romanov and Hapsburg eras. So I was not completely alone, I stayed with her and her husband Michael lot of the time not that far away, uptown a bit in the Gramercy Park area. My uncle—he was actually my father’’ cousin—was what they call an incanabulist, an authority on printed matter from the mid 1400s up to 1500, and type fonts, calligraphy, that sort of thing. He worked with my father’s business on occasion. Kay, as people called her, supported many of the 10th Street Galleries, bought art and threw parties for artists and theater people, had a fabulous, and what today would be a priceless, collection of contemporary art, although she didn’t think about it in investment terms probably. She was just buying art from within her circle of friends. Small pieces mostly but by David Smith, Richard Stankiewicz, Alan Kaprow, Fred Mitchell, Jane Wilson, Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, Sol Lewitt, all the usual suspects, not to mention artist quite famous at the time but who faded away when Pop art and new art forms shot to s=center stage. In many ways I was in her world and felt that way about it; more so than being in any sort of hip Bohemian art scene. That awareness came a bit later. She knew the Baron Heiner Thyssen- Bornemisza pretty well. Good luck spelling that. He had the largest collection of Old Masters in the world.

So Kay took me everywhere; to plays, poetry readings at coffee houses, and the like. She introduced me to new books, like Advertisements for Myself by Mailer, the Dream Merchant by Capote who was just rocketing to fame, Catcher in the Rye, Dharma Bums—she adored The Beats even though she herself was very straight and aristocratic, even affected I guess. Of course the Beat Poets were always around there, Corso, Ginzberg, Bouroughs, you couldn’t go out in the streets without seeing one of them. And the coffee houses: Jonny Mitchell’’ The Fat Black Pussy Cat, Cafe Wha?, The Epitome coffee house and art gallery started by a little painter named Larry Poons, and the big one of course was Café Figaro where the proprietor, Tom Zeigler, showed experimental films in the basement—oh, and Café Rienzi which was a Russian Bolshevik hangout. And the bars, Cedar Bar, Manetta Tavern, Stanley’’, Dillon’s, and McSorley’s where beer was a dime—all the artists drank and ranted in those places. I didn’’ go to bars of course, still don’t, just to eat at one or the other after openings and for lunch and such. Cedar Bar had the best lamb stew in The City. There is a lot said about the level of discourse at the bars, especially Minetta and The Cedar Bar, but I preferred the coffee houses and ethnic breakfast restaurants where the students socialized, Ukranian, Hungarian, Polish kitchens, some on the second floor which were unlicensed and super cheap.

I was a Jesuit prep school kid and had that other thing going on as well, so was pretty conservative in my life habits and it isn’t like I was on the scene, I was just thrown off the dock and into the current and as time went by, it all began to gel at one point and another. We lived way out in White Plains, New York, so I did a lot of commuting in those days on the Grand Central Railroad Line. I had a pretty strict regimen of studio practice, drawing in the morning, painting in the afternoon or evening classes which we sometimes skipped in order to go to an opening or a play or a Beat or Umbra Poets’ reading—the Umbra Poets were black poets for the most part—or one party or salon thing or another. I think it robbed me of a lot of may passions because I never had to earn my way into the art world, I was just set down among all these dour grown-ups and saw these famous types being rather unpleasant a lot of the time, drunk, angry, complaining, but by the time I was fifteen or so I could talk to these guys at openings and social events because I was in touch with the issues and being so young they were polite and most of them were teachers so were used to student questions and having young people around. For whatever mystique that area had in terms of the underground hip scene, it was essentially a place where high school and college kids ruled, in the coffee houses and Washington Square Park and like that; lots of prep school kids from Connecticut and Long Island and New Jersey, so I wasn’t really a pig in parsley, there was a student strata there. Xavier Academy, a kinship Jesuit school to Fordham, was right there, on 15th or 16th Street, I think. I almost transferred there to limit the commuting but didn’t. I don’t remember why unless it was that the campus at Fordham was like a county club, pastoral and meticulously kept.

EM: So then how did you get to Cornell which seems pretty different from all that?

PB: In 1960a new coffee house opened called the 10th Street Coffee House. It was opened by a Cornell Law graduate named Mickey Ruskin. That’s more the era of real connection for me. I would have a couple hours to kill between or after classes and sit in there reading or doing my Latin homework, and I got to know him and a few people to say hello to, guys like Donald Judd and Robert Smithson and so on. Judd couldn’t type, so after looking at shows he’d sit in there for hours writing the reviews meticulously by hand. He wrote for Arts, one of the only art publications at the time. Again these guys were way older than I was and not famous at the time, so it wasn’t like I was friendly or anything but they knew me from Michael and Kay’s parties and I picked up a lot of conversation about everything under the sun. Smithson and Judd were good friends at the time and Judd knew Kay pretty well. She was extremely beautiful, very elegant and she was a collector. The two most beautiful women around there at that time were Kay and the painter Jane Wilson who had been a model. Kay didn’t like Smithson, though. He was a bit crazed and always talking mile a minute and into the occult. The coffee house was right there across from Tanager Gallery and next to Catherine Birgé Gallery so everyone was in there all the time, and a lot of Mickey’s Cornell friends, writers mostly who freeloaded unabashedly. I got to know Mickey pretty well; otherwise I wouldn’t have known anything about Cornell I suppose. Thursday nights were poetry nights, as I recall, and it was packed, unlike the art openings where hardly anybody showed up. I should have been a photographer; I’d be sitting pretty today. But you know, no one even remembers the 10th Street art scene or the Coffee House today. Mickey opened several other restaurants, Les Deux Megots—megot means cigar butt in French and no one recalls whether it was straight up or a pun on the Paris restaurant and they just didn’t know how to spell Magots—The Ninth Circle and after that Max’s Kansas City in ’66 or ’67. He opened it on New’ Year’s Eve of 1966, but it was opened to friends a month or so before that as I recall. I was at UC Berkeley at the time so missed the opening, but it took the art world by storm and made everything happen for so many artists. The restaurant and club entrepreneurs used to call anything above 14th Street Kansas City, as in, ‘You may as well be in Kansas City’, but when Mickey sold The Ninth Circle, he told me that part of the deal was that he couldn’t open another place below 14th Street.

EM: So Mickey Ruskin was your first connection to Cornell. What year did you end up applying?

PB: Oh, that was in 1961. It came about because Hollenbeck—my first art mentor—opened a second floor gallery for his students on 11th Street, around the corner from the coffee house. He didn’t have professional students actually, most were like a mailman or a secretary or budding actress—dedicated dilettantes pretty much. I was the only kid and that didn’t really sit well with them I don’t think. They were all in the Naturalist Society—nudists. That’s how they came to get together in that group. Not that anyone sat around naked during classes, but they went to nature camps and out to Wesley’s Fire Island house in Saltaire to the nude community there. Such liberal-minded people were called ’progressive’ then. But we did draw from the nude models, sometimes their daughter, Julianna, who was my age or other young women from their group, so I was already drawing from the figure right away, probably at my first class. What happened with Wesley was, the minute you began taking his classes you were drawing because you worked with the model, but he also gave you certain mental techniques; for example, every day was a different color. So every day you had to draw ten things you found that were the color of that particular day in your notebook. He had everyone keep a notebook going religiously. Ten yellow things on a Sunday, ten blue things on a Monday, and so on. So you never had to figure out what to draw or be particularly inspired, you always had more subject matter and drawings at your disposal than you could handle. You could walk into the world every day seeing different parts of the world around you. I drew this fire hydrant in the neighborhood over and over again because he liked you to do several points of view of a thing when you could and this fire hydrant was right outside Oldenburg’s Storefront Studio which was an actual storefront so I didn’t know it was his studio and performance space until some years later. It was beautiful, very gothic very sculpted. I saw this photo someone took from inside the storefront looking out to the street and there was the familiar fire hydrant. But it all originated from life drawing and honing your drafting skills from the figure—hours and hours. It was grueling at times, especially since I had a full class schedule at Fordham and never let them know I was drawing from the nude figure, of course.

EM: So your show at the Hollenbeck Gallery was about what exactly?

PB: The show was called ’Memory Chairs’. It was based on staring at one chair or another for twenty minutes or so and then walking away and drawing it from memory; an exercise in ‘thought symbols.’ I must have done hundreds of these sorts of memory exercises in my day.

So two guys walked into the gallery and after looking for awhile, walked over to talk with me. One was Peter Kahn, head of printmaking at Cornell. Peter’s younger brother was the better known artist, Wolfe Kahn, who showed at Hansa Gallery. The other guy was Alan Solomon, a teacher at Cornell, in Art History I believe. Alan went on soon after to become director of the new Jewish Museum on 59th street. He died very young, less than a decade later, but was in with the art dealers Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp and helped launch a lot of the emerging artists at that time, like Lee Bontecou and Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, for example. It was Peter who twisted my arm to apply to Cornell, even though I had already been accepted at Pratt, my back-up choice, and was planning on applying to Yale that year. But for some reason I applied to Cornell and sent a portfolio without even going up to Ithaca for interviews. Months later I was accepted at Yale and had no second thoughts, but Peter called me one day to ask what was going on and when I told him I was going to New Haven he went a little hyper and said, ‘No, no, no, you’re coming here, you’re coming to Ithaca! We’ll bring you up to see the campus, yaddha, yaddha…. They put me up at the Statler in the Hotel School, gave me the tour and he invited me to dinner at his house. He had six or seven daughters and lived in a charming farm house outside of Ithaca so it was an unusual late summer evening as I recall. His father was a famous European violinist, Emil Kahn, so there was a lot of music and joviality and warmth and art all over the place. They got me grant money in a roundabout way and I went to Ithaca instead of New Haven. Of course it was spectacularly beautiful in Ithaca and New Haven is kind of dismal and dreary. That and I had a lot of relatives in New Haven and I was born there, actually; so were my parents and both my brothers so, at the time, Ithaca seemed like an unexpected and almost liberating alternative. But I acted impulsively, no doubt about it. I always wonder about that decision, to this day, and often think that I made two mistakes in my life—or rather one mistake two times. The first was not going to Yale for undergraduate school; the other was not going to Yale for graduate school. I went out to UC Berkeley instead for my Masters because of an exchange program they had with the AAP College.

EM: Why such a mistake?

PB: Well, I’m speaking tongue in cheek, I did fine and really got to love Ithaca, but Yale has dominated the art world since the Second World War, maybe longer, and with a degree from there you can always march right into the best galleries and get your portfolio seen—but whatever. Even today, they just built a 36-plus million dollar sculpture facility. This while, for over a decade now, Cornell has been fighting over a new architecture studio building and have been through three or four contentious designs at a cost of probably a hundred thousand dollars in competitions, selection panel dinners, and what have you.

My first disappointment was that the Art Department at Cornell was just that, only a ‘department’ not an art school. It’s attached to the Architecture College. But having come up through The Village, Ithaca was dry and academic and the arts on the campus are all separated. Music is in liberal arts, Dance is someplace in the Design Department or something, Poetry is in the English Department and there was no connective tissue, no concept of the arts being in the same family. Architects were walking around in blazers and shirts and ties and looked like dentists and I had done that in prep school and was hoping to escape that. That and no one knew anything about contemporary abstract art which I found odd, and so on. They taught traditional method and I was past that. I can understand for new students who knew nothing about art it was necessary, or whatever, but still it was very retroactive. I was already an artist in my own mind, hubristically at least, even though I had not developed a personal vision and needed the regimen of studio practice in order to keep motivated, so it was like going all the way back to the beginning. Zero arts culture! The teachers were into representational art exclusively, Hudson River Landscape School, fruit bowl Still Life, and so on, and decidedly against abstract notions especially of the European or Paris School variety. So I floundered around some, skipped class a lot, failed French and dropped out after the first semester unceremoniously. I figured I’d get a cheap studio on the Lower East Side and just get down to living somehow.

Because of Kay I became interested in the downtown theater and played with the idea of doing acting or playwriting, you know. But I was a hopelessly bad actor, too self conscious. I talked the Fordham drama department into doing a production of Waiting for Godot, a very far out concept for them, but they did it. I got a small part as the guy sleeping on the bench in the first act, but was pretty bad. Acting is very hard. My father was actually supportive of the idea. He wasn’t that into college. He said if you had talent why sit at a desk and study what other people had already done. He used to tell me all the time not to worry about money, when the time came there would be more than enough. I didn’t realize he meant this ideologically not in tangible terms. Either that or the expected a windfall never happened. He was very successful so I never worried about making a living. Besides, I was in a Jesuit school and there it was all about a vocation and right livelihood not about finding a profession. The so called Bohemian life never fascinated me from the troubled genius point of view which I thought was way overdone anyway. I never felt rebellious or troubled in any way. Existentialism was a complete mystery to my way of thinking. But it was all right there in the East and West villages and it seemed crazy to go all the way to rural Ithaca to learn what they didn’t even know existed for some reason. My parents never exerted any pressure on me to be perfect or get grades or anything and they just thought I would be an artist, everyone did, so nothing other than that was expected of me, just being there in the artistic life. Myself, I wasn’t sure but I went through all the motions.

EM: How feel about leaving?

PB: About dropping out of school you mean? Well, feelings at that age were not always attached to incidents and mine were existential you might say. There never seemed to be any consequences to my actions one way or another. I was romantically and courageously adrift and exhilarated, I recall, a real Dharma Bum—but it lasted only a few weeks. I stayed with Michael and Katryna who were planning on setting me up with a studio and a stipend. One day the head of the sculpture department and my student counselor, Victor Colby, called me up and said, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you showing up?’ He was a tremendously nice person and a good sculptor, the best up there by far. See, what the Art Department really wanted was male students and it had more to do with that than what they may have thought about my dubious art talent. Telling me that sort of popped my ego balloon, took the stigma out of their attention on me. He said as much and meant it. His pitch was that I had ‘a lot of leeway’ that I could use as I pleased, because art students couldn’t fail out. Failing French didn’t matter. I could just take it again which I did. There was noacademic pressure. He thought I was nuts to turn it all away on a mood swing. More or less told me to get over myself and snap out of it. So that’s what I did. I looked over the situation and while it was a good deal all in all, it was so parochial there that I was less than enthusiastic at the time. It wasn’t anyone’s fault or anything; it was just the way things were up there in those days, traditional, and it wasn’t the right fit for me. But arrangements were made and I was given a sort of white card to audit any classes in any department on campus. I had an aggressive intellectual curiosity instilled in me by the Jesuits and also by the intellection of the European art movements, but didn’t want to bother taking tests and working for grades. I just wanted to understand what was going on without this immense barrier of tests and grades standing between me and what I was interested in. That turned the tide and I was always grateful to Victor for giving me the smelling salts, making the effort for whatever reasons. I realized that the entire campus was a giant cookie jar and I had the chance to broaden the subject matter of my art form dramatically and maybe even take my life in another direction altogether. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a practicing artist I just wanted to live the life of one as was expected of me. I moved out of the dorms, took an apartment off campus and brought my car up so I could travel down to NYC whenever I wanted. I realized I had to start to get serious and things broke open for me. I lived in Ithaca like a townie and wasn’t really that engaged in collegiate life.

EM: So with these additional influences, what kind of art were you doing?

PB: Well, I stuck to my Dada and Surrealist training methods, drawing every day, especially figure drawing, kept elaborate notebooks, and drew from the world-around which was mostly nature in Ithaca. Eclectic, let’s say, to be generous to myself. Suddenly poetry, literature, the history of science, creative writing, art history and then more art history, and so on, so my universe took a quantum leap away from the easel and that specific downbeat urban groove. What I was looking for, or maybe I was just expecting it to happen osmotically, was a synthesis; an art form which was more about the life of the mind rather than life in the world, not an art seen only with the eyes. It would just evolve, crystallize. So you can see the empirical paradoxes I was wrestling with at the time.

It was an unusual era for academic culture, too, because everyone could relate to Abstract Expressionism through Pollack and Kline who were recognized even in popular culture publications like Life Magazine. Especially scientists who saw painting that seemed so much like the things they were looking at through their microscopes and telescopes every day. Unseen dimensions were then quite common so the Bohemian stigma was temporarily turned off. That’s the reason I felt it odd that the Art Department pretended all that didn’t exist. I spent a lot of time with science students and teachers for that reason wandering the halls and eating in the cafeteria up on that part of the campus. And I spent a lot of time off campus as well and got to New York once every few months, many of us did that and car pooled, because I only had to submit five pieces of art or a portfolio of drawings at the end of the semester, more or less, and I was able to do that fairly easy and wasn’t missed in studio classes. I used other students’ notes and covered the bases for elective course tests, Government, Biology, whatever, and ratcheted down the studio hours which were twenty-five to thirty-five hours a week. There were always crash study cooperatives where four of five of us got together and sussed out the main points the teachers emphasized and went over the previous year’s tests, so it was not all that difficult to pull through the electives. I wasn’t on the rigid academic grid that Cornell put so much emphasis on. In all I spent, I think, three semesters away from Ithaca anyway, twice going to Europe and one term at the New York City Program which AAP set up down there for awhile. I took some of my elective courses at Hunter College, Geology at the Museum of Natural history, and studio practices at the Art Student’s League. But the value of the Cornell Art Department began to register because they had a great visiting teachers’ and guests’ program. Jacques Lipschitz came up, Enrico Castro-Cid came up, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Hollis Frampton, Josef Albers—although Albers came to visit the architecture department—and visiting teachers like Charles Ross from Berkeley who was with Dwan Gallery in LA and he was really a revelation in the West Coast sculptural style; and in the New York City Program we went right into the studios of the big artists—Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol’s Factory, Stella, and so on. The painter Paul Bracq was the director of that program and he knew everybody who was anybody.

But what really made me turn the corner was a lecture by the architecture professor Colin Rowe my sophomore year sometime. Rowe was internationally acclaimed as an apologist, as they call it, for Modern Architecture, The International Style as it is known, an expert on Wright, friendly with Le Corbusier, van der Rohe, Gropius, understood The Bau Haus—and whatever. He was also friendly with the painter-architect Roberto Matta Eschauren who had been a draftsman in Le Corbusier’s Paris studio before becoming famous as a painter. Matta’s son, Gordon Matta Clark, came to the architecture department a year behind me, so Roberto was around from time to time. Gordon and I went to Bolton Landing once to visit David Smith. It was funny because it was arranged by Peter Kahn, I think, for the program. We were the only two people who could go that day for some reason. I didn’t know who Gordon was at the time so when I realized David knew him it sort of took me off guard. That sculpture over there, [in the ArtBank] Solyaris, is in a way influenced by Smith’s Cubi series, Cubi XIX to be exact.

It was at Smith’s studio on the terrace that day, ready to go to a major exhibit in New York at the Marlboro Gerson Gallery. There’s quite a story to that afternoon but for another time. Smith died the next year, 1965 the same year Roberto had a major exhibit at the Cornell E. B. White Museum and it was the first timer I saw Gordon, his twin brother Sebastian, and their father together. You had to rub your eyes because they all looked so much alike. Gordon went on to skyrocket to fame in the art world in the 70s. But he died tragically of pancreatic cancer at the zenith of his life and career. Sebastian committed suicide a year or so before Gordon died. He jumped from the fire escape of Gordon’s studio on Crosby Street in SoHo. Gordon has a tragic stream in his life. In his sophomore year he was driving to New York City with three other students, fell asleep at the wheel and hit a tree. One passenger died and the others, including Gordon and a post-graduate sculpture student named Michael Melatonov, were really messed up. I rode down to The City with Gordon once and awhile, so was relieved I wasn’t on that particular trip as you can imagine. So there was a sobering trail in this guy’s life that I’m glad didn’t rub off. We were both raised Catholic and there was an unspoken connection between us.

But to get back on the subject, Rowe’s fundamental tenet was how The International Style of architecture rose out of Cubist esthetic theory in general and Cubist painters specifically. I mention Gordon in this context because he hated the International Style and made his career in sculpture dunning everything about it. He called himself an ‘anarchitect’ and really meant it.

But the very first lecture that I heard by Rowe galvanized me and right there turned my life around. He got abstraction for what it was. Here was an irrefutable link between art and architecture which provided me with a path to explore, if not altogether to follow, that wasn’t wedded to the other arts, to the Bohemian world. It was revolutionary but not rebellious. The reigning point of view among architects was that they made walls for paintings to hang on and courtyards for sculpture to sit in and that was the extent of it—but not Rowe. He came to Cornell with 4 other professors from the University of Texas with a new way of teaching. They were called The Texas Rangers and they changed the way architecture was taught in the Ivy League, maybe everywhere. They came, if I’m not mistaken, the year before I got there, not sure about that. I mean, for example, they emphasized lots of attention to isometric drawings which related structures and design to the flat surface plane, like a painting. They discouraged the sculpting and shaping of a building's mass in favor of the visualization and arrangement of architectural space. But he held salon evenings at his home and also at the modern homes of wealthy intellectuals in the Ithaca area, so I had first hand experiences with modern design and how it translated to real structures and space and saw and actually felt the way modern art sat in these sorts of environments.

It was incredibly influential to my state of mind if not my studio practices. More than that, here was a person I really admired for his whole approach to life. His read architecture as a vocation more so than a profession. He did design buildings from time to time, but basically he was an esthetic theorist-slash-philosopher and I saw this as the possible road for my own artistic life, though not in architecture which, as a total life style and with all those slide rulers and drafting tables and plumbing considerations was not so appealing. He often just put forth thought structures for his class, like a quote from Gropius or Mies van der Rohe like: The whole of modern architecture can be seen as a reexamination of the wall, the roof and the column and then ask students to make a design based on this reexamination. With those sorts of philosophical Haiku, and he had many of them, he could completely alter your perspective of form and space in a single expression. And he had a head-in-the-clouds demeanor and I felt for the first time I’d met a man who had a lot of my own over-cerebral personality quirks. I hated the notion of becoming a teacher which was the core emphasis in the Art Department. If you wanted to live as an artist it meant you had to become a teacher. That to me was the kiss of death for raw creativity. So, if for no other reason than Colin and Victor Colby, Cornell shaped my life. I often saw Rowe passing on the campus quad with his head down and hands behind his back deep in contemplation. That and I think I invented a new way of learning accidentally; the come- and-go-as-you-please method. I’m not sure I answered your question, but….

EM: Not exactly. What I’m trying to get at is what did your art look like after Dada, Cubism, Science, your introduction to architecture, and so on? Did you move from representational abstraction to pure abstraction as you call it?

PB: Well, yes right there with architecture and its Cubist origins and through this realization of other dimensions in nature I began to draw upon the universal landscape, incidents along the trail of thought and unseen realms. I began working out pure abstract possibilities. I think I would characterize Cornell as part of a sequence of educational experiences that were like gates that opened one after the other in my life. I took art classes in the summer at The Art Students League which was heavily Cubist in its dogmas; Barnett Newman went there; the painter Jean Xceron was a big influence there; John Graham and so on. David Smith was connected there, so was Judd for example. So ASL was a real studio art school. That and all of these artists were captivated by Cubism so the themes were pretty consistent and cohesive in real life terms. I wasn’t just willy-nilly flopping around. So it was through these gates that I was able to keep shaping and reshaping my mind and this process of discovery, these persistent ‘Open Sesame’ experiences that were so much more important to me than the object of art itself, or, at least, the making of objects was not so important. It’s hard to say exactly, but since there had never been any demand made upon me in any part of my life to achieve or be perfect at anything, I was content just to be in the state of mind of art, much more so than doing studio work and making stuff.

Besides, when I did go to more experimental places, such as one time I emptied a bin of scrap metal onto the cement floor in the sculpture studios and my fellow classmate, Joel Perlman, helped me tap-weld the pieces together as a sample of chance and circumstance theory and exhibited an example of Cubist fragmented planes, the professor— Gentleman Jack Squier, as we called him—came in, took me by the back of the neck with one hand and gave a demonic laugh and told me stop faking it and get down to work. It didn’t really bother me that much. In retrospect it was not a well realized work of art probably, although Colin Rowe said he liked it. I was never rebellious to authority especially in my art. I was kept aloft intellectually by the larger dimensions at Cornell which were all directed towards worlds we didn’t see with our eyes, the space that architecture gives form to, micro and macro realms of science, what in those days they termed ‘from atoms to stars’ thinking that those two dimensions were the finite outer limits to the universe in both directions of human discovery. I suppose I was always far away in my head and too far adrift to fiddle around much, and that did bother some people who felt I was an under-achiever which I maybe was at that time in terms of actual product. I stayed in my journals and notebooks most of the time, read voraciously, and was a visitor to campus life rather than a participant in it and didn’t look to the teachers for their approval. Since I had no intention of becoming a teacher grades didn’t matter to me although I got good grades just the same, out of the plain curiosity more than from intellectual application. I was looking for the means to translate all these influences into visualizations, but it meant that I needed something other than traditional art practices to do this. But just what was always over the horizon.

EM: So this new subject matter wasn’t translating into art objects or paintings?

PB: Well once you’ve seen cells operating inside a tree and get the clear awareness that molecules and atoms are not science but nature itself, it becomes difficult to bring this awareness forward in a relevant way. How do you sit in front of a tree and draw only what you can see with your eyes at the expense of everything else that you know is going on, everything that embodies the meaning of what a tree actually is which is a living body of knowledge, a giant bustling organism? For me, of course, it was a private struggle to make sense out of all that visually, as you suggest. But yet, it was part and parcel of the process of forging a personal cultural evolution of my Self so I wasn’t at all troubled by it, I simply had to be patient and let things take there natural course until another gate opened and another path presented itself and another epiphany banged me in the head and eventually my own personal vision would materialize, just like Hollenbeck said it would. Art for me wasn’t a matter of what was right in front of my eyes, but equally, or maybe even more so, what was going on in back of my eyes, stuff too abstract for the eyes to handle. In that way, space was more important for me than what I made to put into it. Because of Rowe, I always had a hard time coming up with anything that could top the wonderful experience of an empty gallery or empty wall. So when I had a gallery show my senior year in Franklin Hall that was just yellow found objects that had visual curiosity—I mean I painted some of the objects yellow and it was not like I just found the right yellow things—it did not go over well at all. I hadn’t actually sculpted anything so how could they give me a passing grade? I took the show down prematurely because I didn’t want to defend myself against that scrutiny or let them think I was seeking their approval. I can think of it in retrospect as a personal slight to my self importance, but in point of fact I probably did not make the case all that well for the situation I was proposing. The actual objects weren’t strong enough to make the case for a new art form or visualization concept probably. Or maybe it was a good show, I don’t remember. That and I was already withdrawn into a deeper solipsism; beached in my own world which was also my own mind. Had I made a better attempt to communicate with, say, Victor Colby, who was my advisor and a good sculptor, I might have pulled it off. I was beyond listening. Like Jack Squier, they thought I was screwing with their heads, which in the Dada sense, I was, of course I was, but not in any wise guy sort of way. That was the artistic response indigenous to that art mode, that’s all. I could have played those years better, but when I think back, I played it the way that seemed appropriate to the circumstances I found myself in. Or when I put four red squares on the wall and a description that read, ‘Imagine four red cars and the things that cars can do. Now, take away the cars and see just the red,’ they thought it was an unfunny joke of some sort. I remember Peter Kahn said it was fine,’ …but remember you have to turn in real artwork by the end of the semester’.

Oddly, I developed no rapport with Peter once there in Ithaca. But it was okay. I wanted to stay in the prefrontal part of the brain where space and color and form registered before the optical signals travel back into the lower brain and identify what you are seeing, like a car, or table, or chair. Once I see what something is, it renders it common to my mind and I am far less engaged. So you can see that those Dada and Surrealistic interpretations were giving way and the subject-less-ness, let’s call it, of Abstract Expressionism was very lucid. In fact, that formed the basis of the debate between the European and New York School of thought. Europeans, especially the French, needed recognizable ‘things’ on their canvases. This awareness was really something that being at Cornell was doing for me, pitting me against views of what art was supposed to represent. That, as you mentioned, was aiming toward pure abstraction. But it was unformed and I wouldn’t get things sorted out for many, many years to come. By today’s outlandish artistic standards, of course, these concerns seem quite silly, but for the time it was uncommon to push the margins that way.

EM: At what point did you switch to sculpture as a major? So much of your early education or training was in painting?

PB: Well, there’s a story behind everything. I wasn’t very interested in sculpture because it was obsessed by its nature with big, clunky objects and forms and this idea of representation and non-representational form was more limiting, although David Smith figured it out. I went to university to paint. The Art Department was in a very old building, Benjamin Franklin Hall. There wasn’t much inspiration from the cramped spaces and creaky old floors there. While next store in the Architecture Department, still in an old building itself, but it was all about glass walls, light and shadow, open terraces and rooms, and capitalizing on the framework of the space itself for visual discourse. And in these tight art studios there were some twenty, maybe twenty-five women, coeds, so it was a very estrogen-rich environment, let’s say. All the teachers were men of course. But there was an old foundry building out behind Franklin, perched right on the edge of the gorge—there are lots of gorges in Ithaca—and it was bright with large vertical factory windows, open spaces, cement floors and a clerestory running down the length of it. They had just opened it as a sculpture area the year before we got there, I think, so there were almost no students using it, just a few graduate program students. It induced me to major in sculpture to get away from the girl school atmosphere so the only three men in our class all went over there and that’s how that came about. It was Joel Perlman, David Barten and me. The fourth man in our freshman class, Roger Greene, transferred into architecture. And not a single woman came over to sculpture, not that it would have been so bad having a more balanced proportion, but that’s the way it went—chance and circumstance strikes again. Joel had already discovered welded sculpture, there was a set of oxyacetylene torches someplace, and I recall, so clearly, that I had just discovered the Pragmatist Philosophers, Charles Sanford Pierce, John Dewey, and William James, and I was all up into that, so you can see the difference: Welding torches or Philosophy? I remember because going through my head was this fundamental tenet that drew me to Pragmatism: ‘Ideas solve problems, so ideas are truth; problems change, so ideas change, so truth changes.’ That kept running in my head over and over that whole first semester of sophomore year in The Foundry because it was humorously apropos. Like Colin Rowe who was flesh and blood presence in my life, Pierce was to become a philosophical presence. These two men colonized my consciousness. Understand, I didn’t know what I was doing yet, so neither did anyone else. But I was gathering the bricks and mortar to build a ladder to the stars—or so I hoped. I was cultivating my imagination at the expense of being on the ball in reality.

EM: So we are here now years later in this exhibition. Do you see those years reflected in any way?

PB: I am still doing exactly as I was doing back then, only I’m much better at it now, I think. I call this show ‘Postulates’ because that is what these pieces of art are. Not objects but iterative of conceptual objectives. They are in this form right here, but can take many forms later on. The architectural-scale metal maquettes or models are balanced in those positions not braised or welded, just leaning up against each other. I can’t move them and then set them up again the same way twice. They are propositions that can take many forms, can be realized in any number of different sizes, placed in any kind of site context, in many different materials, can be plain metal or colored in some way and are actually meant to play more with sunlight and shadow than they are meant to be looked at as sculpture in the traditional sense.

The other series, the colored rectangular planes, speak to pure color realized in geometric riddles. In a singular esthetic experience you can get the full intent of the complex steps that brought me to this visual incident. It is clear that such an incident emanates from a state of mind and that such incidents can only be created from a state of mind, and are not imitative of anything else. They are complete in themselves and are the exact moment they portray, incidents that occurred while in that state of mind. This is that arrival point I mentioned earlier, the place that opens naturally if you let it evolve and don’t force it. When I turn off the noise inside my head it becomes an empty space. When I let that space ruminated for awhile, these visual impressions slowly come into view. I say this speaking for myself but I know that the same process is true for every artist. That’s how it works. This is the process I was getting inklings of at Cornell because I was focused away from solely art and let in a lot of other influences. This is what I was after then as well but the full awareness didn’t materialize until many years later.

In addition to a full time studio art practice, Peter Barton is the Executive Director of the Architecture Omi Program at the Art Omi International Arts Center and on the Advisory Council for the .com Website Architecture for Art. He lives and works in Hudson, NY.

As an artist and curator, Emily Hassel engages in a variety of extended creative arts activities such as sculpture, painting, poetry, photography and nature programs. She is one of the co-founders of 345, an artists’ cooperative in Hudson, New York.