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Sculptor Joel Perlman
In his studio at 250 West Broadway, NY, NY
Interview by Peter Baton

Sculptors cannot live in an ivory tower. They have to deal with architects, engineers, truckers, crane operators, builders of foundations and bases. The need to relate to all these outside specialists forces sculptors to keep there feet firmly on the ground. To this ongoing dialogue with both white and blue collar specialists, Joel brought an exceptional ability to work harmoniously with all whom he encountered.

--Andre Emmerich, Gallerist

Metal sculptor Joel Perlman lives in the TriBeCa District of lower Manhattan in a loft studio he has maintained for more than 30 years. It was here that I caught up with him for an interview covering our student days and travels together, which, to both of our amazement, created a friendship that has endured for more that 47 years.

Peter Barton: The sculpture foundry opened the year we arrived at Cornell. Do you think that having that factory-like facility influenced your later decision to become a sculptor?
Joel Perlman: I think having the Foundry certainly helped. It helped you, it helped me, it helped everyone because it moved us out of a couple of dark, dingy rooms in the basement of Franklin Hall (where all you had to work with was clay and plaster) into a huge space where you could do absolutely anything, welding, building—yes, I wouldn’t say that I would not be a sculptor if it weren’t for the Foundry but it definitely helped.

PB: During those years in Ithaca, Colin Rowe and the so-called ‘Texas Rangers,’ celebrated teachers of the International Style or Modern Architecture, dominated the architecture school. Did this modernist approach, or for that matter being in an architecture college, have any effect on your development as an artist?
JP: I think that it definitely did. Not so much stylistically, although I was very interested in the International Style. I think the best thing was the close proximity of the artists to the architects. A lot of the architects took classes in sculpture, I lived with architects, I was often in the drafting rooms late at night when they were working out ideas, and I couldn’t help but have a very healthy interest in architecture. And it was great to have   Colin Rowe there and the ‘Texas Rangers,’ because they had a very, very high standard of excellence and Colin was obviously a great pedagogue, a great teacher, so, yes, it was always stimulating.

PB: The college Of Art and Architecture, as it was then known, was well known for several aspects unique to its programs. Bringing artists and teachers in from elsewhere, like Charles Ross who came from UC Berkeley, Chuck was a stable artist at [Virginia] Dwan Gallery in LA at the time, and the English sculptor Stuart Brisely, and visitors like Paul Braque, Jacques Lipschitz, Enrico Castro-Cid, Jason Seley, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Roberta Matt-Echaurren, Allan Kaprow, Wolf Kahn, to name a few. You subsequently went to study in England your sophomore year, in fact we went together as you recall; what motivated you to take this step, was it something that came through a CAA program or something you did on your own…?
JP: No, chronologically I think it was a bit later in fact. It might have been junior year or beginning my senior year, because I remember when I came back I still had one more term to go and then I graduated, I think. But it wasn’t organized by Cornell, I think we were just so turned on by Brisely, he used to build all this crazy stuff out of broken furniture. It made me interested in England, it was also when The Beatles and The Stones were just happening, and as you also know we were interested in motorcycles, we bought motorcycles in Oxford, we rode around Europe, but it was something that just happened, the time was good, we had been in Ithaca for several years already, and I think we wanted a change and it worked out very, very well. You could say that I got started at Cornell or got interested in being a sculptor, but it was in England that the deal really got done, when I went to art school in England.

PB: That was The Central School, wasn’t it?
JP: The Central School of Art. It was a very good school in that it was very technically oriented; it was conceived as the sort of the English answer to the Bauhaus, and they had bronze casting, they had industrial design, and it all kinds of stuff we had not yet been exposed to at Cornell; The Foundry came much later in terms of casting bronze, after we were gone, but it was a real eye-opener, and the fact that art students were doing art all day every day, it wasn’t taking a sculptor course, it was signing up for a life of sculpture and I was very impressed by the commitment of the students, by the involvement of the teachers, so that by the time I came back from England that first time it was pretty clear where I was going. I met Brian Wall, William Turnbull, the Israeli sculptor Menashe Kadishman, and I am now, 45 years later, still in touch with all of them. They were all sculpture and it showed me that it just had to become the most important thing to you; that you had to have everything else that happened come after doing your sculpture. They were very good role models. 

PB: You learned welding in Ithaca but you did a lot of welded sculpture over there as well, didn’t you?
JP: I started at Cornell and there is the famous story that we still kid about. There was a graduate student who was doing a little gas welding, Jeff Pocklin, and I asked Jack Squier, our mentor, ‘So where’s the welding?’ He sort of laughed. Jack was sort of tall and handsome and he looked down at me and said, ‘Well, Sonny Boy, this is an Ivy League institution and you can learn welding downtown at Ames Welding Shop.’ So I said, ‘Great. Fine. How do I get there?’ and I went there with bikers and truck drivers and farmers and I really learned how to weld so that by the time I got to England I was already a welder.

PB: And you met your first wife at The Central School, the painter Ann Thornycroft who is quite a prominent painter now in LA, right?
JP: Yep, this is true. This was my first serious involvement. Ann was a wonderful painter, and very, very English, and I was completely taken with her and we did get married a few years later. We went out to Berkeley for a year and then we went to Bennington and subsequently the marriage disintegrated. I guess we were very young and we were both very ambitious and I think I made a lot of mistakes and if I were older and a little more together I probably could have done a better job at being married.

PB: Also in our class, a year behind, was someone who came into sculpture for a brief period of time, ‘Little Tillie.’
JP: Oh yeah, Susan Rothenberg became one of the great success stories of Cornell. When she was at Cornell she was obviously very talented, but was doing a lot of partying and was one of the most popular girls and I think that maybe the year after we left she probably wasn’t doing enough work and maybe it was Victor Colby asked her to leave for awhile and get it together. She subsequently went on to become one of the most important painters of the last several decades. It doesn’t surprise me; she was always very energetic and very smart and just had to sort of harness it all. But it’s exciting to see one of our own who has grown up to become a mega star. For my sixtieth birthday my wife Nancy asked me what I would like and I said what I really want is a work by Suzie Rothenberg and she somehow got a hold of Susan, got a hold of Gemini [Graphic Prints Limited] and got me this wonderful print. But I think a lot of people from Cornell of that era really emerged in the art world.                     

PB: Yes there was Little Tillie and her roommate Big Tillie who happened to be Mary Woronov. Mary became Mary Might and starred in Chelsea Girls, an Andy Warhol film made by Gerard Malanga. Mary was on the Cornell studio program and that’s how she got to The Factory, Warhol’s studio on Union Square.
JP: Yes, the studio program was great! We were very plugged into New York because of that program. I actually was never in the studio program because I grew up in New York City so it seemed a little redundant, but the studio program was really great. It was right there close to Max’s Kansas City and everyone you ever wanted to meet or talk to hung out there. At night you’d be sitting at a table and there’d be Barnie Newman and all of the artists of that time and that was the best part of that program. You were a Cornell student, but you were at Max’s at 3 Am. It was very, very good. It helped a lot of us make that entry into New York. I think that in many ways the art scene was smaller and more accessible in those days, but the Cornell program was a great success.

PB: Yes, for everyone involved. I hear they are starting the program up again. I was talking the other day with Roberto Bertoia, former chairman and still a professor at the AAP Art Department and he told me that they are going to energize that initiative again. He feels it is a rare and important opportunity. But, yes, there were some incredible people in Ithaca at the time, Gordon Matta Clark, whose father of course was Roberto Matta Eschaurren and his mother Ann Clark the painter; there was Alan Saret another architect who went stellar but is now more or less a recluse in Brooklyn; and the friend of yours, the architect who was brinking when he died in a fire in Amsterdam or something like that….

JP: Donald Evans! Evans was a dear, dear friend of mine. He was living in Amsterdam and got caught in a terrible fire, but Gordon Matta, Alan Saret, Suzie, they all emerged very quickly in the New York art world. It was just a great, great time. You just felt anyone could come here and if you had the right stuff that somehow the art world would find you. I still have some art work of Donald’s.

PB: He was the anti-Richard Serra, making these miniature postage stamp paintings… There was also an exchange program between Cornell and Berkeley and several of us went out to the Bay Area. You, me, Blue Mingus, another architect and one of your roommates… I recall you said we should look shop for surfboards, neither of us knowing what northern California was really like. What was your take on Funk Art, the mode of that time out there and your being a city kid from Manhattan?
JP: I’m not sure whether we actually had an exchange program. Part of it was that Jack Squier had taught there and he knew Richard O’Hanlan, who was the chairman of the art department at the time, so he was able to get us all out there pretty easily, and I remember when we went out there and I think you were with me, we got off the bus in Oakland and it was like Time Square or something, it was very urban, and we felt ‘Where is California? But I thought it was a great experience, quite different from our Ivy League education, and it Chuck Ross was one of the people who got us interested in going out there; he was extremely far our, way ahead of his time, his long hair, whips and chains, and his Macrobiotic eating, nothing like any of us had ever seen, and his work was very interesting. He made a whole show in The Foundry and shipped it out to the Dwan Gallery. But I really think that made us interested in going out there and it was a great time; there was huge political unrest, and I remember half the time you’d go up the hill and there’d be a tear gas cloud hanging over the campus at Cal. Again, it was a very important time for me, if not stylistically, just in terms of eye-opening and we had some very impressive teachers, Peter Voulkos, Jim Melchert, Bob Hudson; so I think we got one thing in England, we got something else in Ithaca, we got something else in Berkeley, and we had a lot of stimulating, unique experiences in the 60’s. I haven’t stayed in touch with Berkeley the way I have Cornell, but I think very fondly of my time out there.

PB: Oddly, there is no art on the campus in Ithaca. At Berkeley they have an open art program for art in all buildings and anywhere on the campus because they have an arts council that brings art there. At Cornell there has been little or nothing except the Jacques Lipschitz sculpture Song of the Vowels on the corner of the Quad by the library and one Jason Seley, up near the Hotel School I think. I remember the Lipschitz was called the ‘Peanut Butter Duck’ in a campus publication. It’s always been an artless academic environment on the Cornell campus.
JP: Well, again, this was through Jack Squier who, before he gave his life to Cornell, was very plugged into New York and knew all these people, knew the importance of getting these people up to Ithaca and we did get Song of the Vowels and a visit from Lipschitz because of him.

PB: I recall Lipschitz saying that he actually was the first innovator of welded steel sculpture. He was recovering from an illness and the doctors told him to take it easy so he got a welding torch and began making small wire pieces and models. Of course, later Jason Seley came to chair the art department and he was also a welded metal sculptor, chrome car bumpers in fact. But you have taught throughout your career. What schools or programs do you feel offer the best avenue into the career artists’ networks, New York City and so forth, the way Cornell did for students in those days?

JP: I taught in England a little bit and I enjoyed that very much. I was a roving teacher and I would go to different schools all over the country and it was a good way to see England and meet people, but I taught at Bennington for three years, in Vermont, which was at the time a remarkably main stream place. That was nearing the end of the so-called ‘Greenberg Era’ and being the sort of person that I am I rubbed the powers that be there the wrong way and so had three years of contentious relationships at Bennington. Yet again I did learn a lot, it never hurt me, and that’s where I first met [gallerist] Andre Emmerich who became my dealer for many years, but all the time I was in Vermont I had an eye on coming back to New York. I firmly believe that New York is still the center of things and that you are best served by being here. When I came back to The City I didn’t teach for one year and I was kind of miserable being out of the whole art education system, I felt kind of lost. So I called the School of Visual Arts and I asked if they had any jobs and they said, ‘Oh no; we only hire well known people.’ And in that year a lot of things happened: I had a show at Emmerich, I think I got a Guggenheim, and I got a call from Visual Arts and they said, ‘Would you like to come teach here?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ I’ve been there now for over 30 years; it’s a wonderful school; it’s very professional; we have an incredible amount of students who emerge in the art world very quickly; it’s wonderfully centrally located; it’s 5 minutes from the galleries in Chelsea; it’s near all the museums; and it’s very much like art school in England. So, it’s kind of a question: If you’re very, very serious and very focused I don’t think it’s a bad idea to just go to art school and get professional very early. Art schools are now are more well rounded. SVA has academics, but it is still basically a studio school. For me it turned out the best possible way by having my Cornell education, having some art school experience in England and then finishing it off at Cal. But I would say that the kids at SVA really have a leg up in the art world. By the time they have graduated they will have shown their art in student galleries, they may have worked in artists’ studios, they may have worked in a gallery; they know where to go, they know what to do, they are very focused and they are very professional. I think where I teach now, SVA, is a good place, if you know that you absolutely want to be an artist.

PB: Back to Cornell, you still have a lot of friends who are architects…
JP: Yes, definitely. Jonathan Stouman, Alan Chimikoff, Alan Klein—architects have been really terrific over the years in that they have gotten me many commissions. In fact the first really big commission I got was through Mario Schack, who was one of the architecture professors, Jack Dobson and I remain very close… the bonds you make at Cornell really last forever; here we sit 40 something years later and it’s just like we’re sitting around Noyes Lodge, so yeah, I think it was great to be with all those guys. They were, I think, more professional that we were. I was very interested in architecture but I couldn’t have done the Math, I couldn’t have done Structures, I definitely could not have dealt with clients and worried about the plumbing and the toilets and that everything had to work, so I think I ended up in a spot that is best for me.

PB: Then there was your roommate, Blue Mingus, who was still Jim Mingus in those Ithaca days. Are you still in touch?

JP: Yes, I’ve tried. The last few times I’ve been in Florida I called him but he never returned the calls, so I’m not sure what’s happening but I always try. I think there’s nothing more important than staying in touch with friends and we have this group from Ithaca that will always be friends. Richard Heinrich is another friend from Cornell. Richard and I are joined at the hip. I mean, we bought this building together, we’re both
Sculptors, his studio is right on top of mine, so it’s very convenient if you need another opinion, if you need a hand… I think that we both understand what goes on being a sculptor; in many ways it’s not an easy trip, and there’s a mutual respect among sculptors so it’s very convenient to have one right upstairs. He was in the Agriculture school, but was always in The Foundry, took all the classes and he was definitely one of us. So, the guys I was close with at the beginning are the guys I’m still close with today.

PB: A few years ago, sometime around our 35th Reunion, CU President Hunter Rawlings
and the then Provost Biddy Martin decided to test the waters with the College of Architecture, Art and Planning—Planning wasn’t part of the College during our era, of course—by asking the dean at the time, Porus Olpadwala, and all the chairs of the various departments to justify in writing why the College should remain together and also to write a document saying how they would see the state of their departments at CU if the three departments were split up. Subsequently there was little debate and a universal hue and cry went out from alumni to back off that initiative. The aim was, and is still, to situate CU with MIT and Stanford as a technical university and deemphasize the arts altogether. Where were you on that particular issue?
JP: I think it would have been totally disastrous and I was very involved in trying to keep the AAP College together. You may have a different point of view on that. I mean, just based on my own experience I just would not be who I am in terms of being an artist if I had not been with the architects. I’m glad Biddy has moved on to Wisconsin, I’m glad that we have stayed together as one college, and that fight actually brought a lot of us back together, In fact, our friend, Bob Blakely, who is on the Board of Trustees and had taken some sculpture courses, was an absolute champ. He understood the whole power structure, he was very good politically and he and Jack Squier often brain-stormed during that time. Maddy Handler was our—as Alan Chimicoff calls her, ‘The Cyber Yenta,’—she kept everybody in touch by email so after a couple of years we did keep the College together. So I, for one, am a preservationist when it comes to that.

PB: That was a significant group of architecture students in the early ‘60s; Bruce Abbey went on the become Dean of Architecture at Syracuse, Fred Koetter became Dean of Art and Architecture at Yale, and so on….
JP: Yes, and I think Tom Beebe is head of architecture somewhere in Chicago, a great pedagogue in his own right. A lot of those guys went on to the forefront of educating the next generation. Alan Chimacoff taught at Princeton for many years.

PB: Switching back to the subject of galleries, your first gallery was the Grovesnor in London, right?

JP: Grovesnor in London, yes; then Emmerich in New York, and now Kurous in New York.

PB: Has the gallery system changed for the better the worse for artists, especially emerging artists?
JP: Well, that’s a two-part question. I think that galleries are not as important as they were when we broke in. In the early ‘70s when I came back to New York, if you were in a gallery you were like a made man; and if you were not in a gallery, you spent a huge amount of time trying to get in a gallery. Once you got in, people would take you more seriously. People would see you on the street and they’d say, ‘Who are you with? When’s your show?’ And if you didn’t have an answer you were just flurrying out there in space. So I was very lucky; being at Bennington hooked me up with Emmerich and I did get an absolute mega connection in terms of a gallery very early on, and I would never say that it was not a great help. It made people take what I was doing very seriously; Andre was one of the most brilliant people I ever met; for twenty, twenty-five years he was right there in my corner; he helped get my work into big museums; he gave me ten or twelve shows; he was just absolutely the greatest art dealer you could ever have. So it was very important for me. But things are different now. True, there are maybe ten times as many galleries now than there used to be, but I think there are also ten times as many artists; there’s a huge amount of artists in New York. When we came down here in the ‘70’s, all the sculptors new each other, everybody somehow had some connection, some place to show; there seemed to room for everybody. Now, there are just so many, I think something like, what, 80 or 100 thousand artists in the New York area? And the system cannot accommodate all of them. It cannot show them all. Some of the things have come full circle. When I came, there was not much real money for young artists. Then in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s it became a lot about money. Now again, there’s not much money around so it’s getting back to art which is much more important. But, in truth, I think it was much easier then. There wasn’t so much competition; there was painting, there was sculpture, there was printmaking, photography was starting to happen a little bit…. I mean, now the borders have expanded so much with everything from performance, to conceptual, to altered photos, to virtual this and that, but not everyone wanted to be an artist when we came. It was a very special thing. Somehow we were all, every one of us, able to emerge and get into shows and survive as artists. Economically it was easier. We all had lofts in SoHo, you know, for a couple of hundred dollars a month you could have this just totally huge space, we were all very good at getting free materials off the street, we were very resourceful…. I’m glad that I started when I did; I would not like to be starting right now. Today, real estate is so crazy in Manhattan young people can’t afford to live in Manhattan. There’s a whole other world out in Brooklyn, it’s very exciting, there’s galleries, everything, but it’s all a lot tougher, it’s a lot more expensive, so I’m glad I did it when I did.

PB: What about the future. Born and bred, cast into the stones of New York City and you’re hunkered down here. Any plans for maybe retiring for a few months of the year someplace else, anything like that?

JP: Well, you know I think, in truth, artists don’t ever really retire. I suppose they just find us on the studio floor one morning, when we’re, hopefully, 95 or so. I spend about three months of the year out on Eastern Long Island in Watermill and I have a big studio there; I can drive my truck in and out it and so I do a lot of my big work out there. We also go out there every weekend we can and for vacations, it’s not too far, about two hours away. My wife Nancy and I have talked about what it would be like to live in the country one day once our kids are through with school. Our boys, Jack and Sam, are ten and twelve, so we have eight years in The City for school for them. I don’t think I would ever live full time out there, I don’t think I could give up The City, think I would always keep a studio here and a place to stay. It still amazes me how much art you can see in a day or two here and in a couple of days recently I just saw everything from early [Carl] Andre and [Robert] Morris, to Tony Smith, to some new stuff that I could barely comprehend, but between seeing a lot of art and seeing a lot of artists and having all that feedback I’d never totally leave New York.

PB: Looking back across all of it, is there any one teacher or artist who you would credit for having motivated a seminal shift in terms of your art practices or in just being an artist?
JP: We had some terrific people come through the studios in Ithaca. I still remember Frank Stella coming through with his cigar at eight o’clock in the morning and I remember Paul Braque looking at a piece of my sculpture which had a lot of clamps on it and said; ‘That’s great! That’s great! Leave the clamps on.’ So the visits were really terrific, but if I had to blame one person for my becoming a sculptor it was Jack Squier. He was very influential in my life. We’re still constantly in touch; I see him in Florida, I see him in Ithaca…. Jack really stepped up and somehow showed me the way, how to do this, how to make it happen and how to grow up and be serious. I remember at one crossroads he really helped me out. I’d been in school a couple years and like many parents my Mother was really worried that I’d starve to death as an artist. She kept hammering away at me. She’d say, ‘Why don’t you be and architect. You can do your sculpture at night.’ I said, ‘Ma, I don’t want to do my sculpture at night.’ It was kind of like being in the ring with Joe Frasier, she was very tough and she’d never back down, so I remember I had lunch with Squier when he still lived over in College Town, and I said ‘Look, I’ve got a problem, I want to discuss something with you, I don’t know what to do.’ And, you know, I told him about all the heat from my Mother and he said, ‘Look. We’re only going to have this discussion once, but if you are an architect and you’re very good and you’re very lucky, in 20 years you might be designing your own stuff. But, if you’re a sculptor, age 20, right now, you can be your own boss.’ And I heard, ‘Be your own boss!’ and that was it. It was never a question again. I wanted to be my own boss. Somehow I was going to do it. So, in a couple of sentences, Squier really straightened me out. And, he’s been a great guide and a beacon and an inspiration to me ever since. I mean, you’re lucky if you run into one person who can help you out. And I would say it is definitely him.

PB: Just to close then, this is the Class of ’65 Web site. As an artists and an educator, is there anything you think the AAP College should do in order to help artists get an edge in the New York City art world?

JP: Well, as I’ve already said, I thought the old New York City studio program was great. I know something about the new one because their studio is a few doors down from the studio where I teach and I’ve been up there several times. It’s more for the architects at the moment and there’s no real place to paint or sculpt, but if it were me I’d
I try to have an actual New York art program again. You know, get a funky loft that people can work in, and many times talking to the dean I said that if you really want to do this I would be happy to participate, I think that Richard [Heinrich] would, I’m sure that you would…. It was great for us and it would be a way of making sure that the Cornell artists are not isolated, that they feel, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ Yes, I can survive in the real art world.’ So, they should think about a New York program. That and they also should continue the program for visiting artists. I think they still do have artists come up to the campus, but when we were there artists were coming through all the time. It was absolutely great. You and I can both remember what people said, the way they looked when they came swooping through The Foundry, and so I think that that’s something really easy to implement. Those are two things that would be really easy to do. Obviously there are Cornellians in the art world, I know the people from our decade better, I’m sure there are some younger people as well, but if you want to guarantee that it happens,  I would say New York Program and visiting Artists Program. Visiting teachers don’t have to come for a full term, you know, it’s hard for people to pick up their lives and do that, but they can certainly come for four days or a week and it would be enormously interesting for students.

For a more comprehensive look the artist’s art Joel Perlman, A Sculptor’s Journey, has been published by Abbeyville Press.