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Gallery Ehva features contemporary and early Provincetown art and offers 2-week long off-season residency program. EhvaLAB is our hands-on art making by gallery artists and friends.
Ewa Nogiec, Director
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Artists represented by Gallery Ehva:
Richard E. Smith
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74 Shank Painter Road
P.O. Box 1426
Provincetown, MA 02657
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Peter Busa, untitled (Still Life), oil on canvas, 44 x 55
Excerpts from ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW WITH PETER BUSA, AT PROVINCETOWN, MASSACHUSETTS, SEPTEMBER 5, 1965, INTERVIEWER: DOROTHY SECKLER. Permission from "Art Times".
DS: This is Dorothy Seckler interviewing Peter Busa in Provincetown on September 5th, 1965. Peter, I'd like to begin with some discussion of your early background, when and where you were born and the kind of family background it was and anything in your childhood that may have predisposed you to become an artist.
PB: Well, my early background was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I come from a long family of artisans and artists. I think there's been an artist in my family as far back as we can trace. The family is of Sicilian origin. My father was an Italian craftsman who was specialist with religious murals, and he did commercial murals for churches. So my early stimulus was by accompanying my father on Saturdays, helping to wash his brushes and filling areas for him to that art and the craft aspects of art came to me rather naturally through my father's own interest.
DS: He continued to do this work in Pittsburgh?
PB: Yes, he was one of the outstanding commercial church decorators and muralist. As a matter of fact, he became rather well known at it. He had a large firm that employed about twenty-four people. Most of them were Italian immigrants that used to do very involved gold leaf work on bank buildings as well as churches. He had a repertoire of that material that was handed down to him, a kind of lost art. Nowadays that doesn't exist as much as before.
DS: So at an early age you had all the tools of the craft under your belt, as it were. You knew you were going to be an artist. Did you decide that pretty early?
PB: Well, it wasn't a question of decision. I sort of fell into it. My father didn't particular encourage me because he was interested in having me become an architect. As a matter of fact, I enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology first year course in their basic course, and was in the architectural department. But as I grew with a little more independence I decided I wanted to major in art and I repeated more or less some of the training that my father gave me and also through the tutelage of Raymond Simboli who was extremely important in my development. He was an artist who was teaching at Carnegie Tech at that time and a close friend of my father's. He was a well known Pittsburgh painter.
DS: Then you arrived in New York this must have been about the beginning of the depression and a period that, you know, ushered in a great many things. Social consciousness, as the thirties went on, of course not immediately. But what did you actually find when you came here? What year would that have been, Peter?
PB: Well, I think that the Bernays Scholarship which I received in my third year at Carnegie Tech, I actually didn't graduate. I was stimulated to turn by Alexander Koslow who was a great teacher and the person who introduced me to the basic fundamentals of cubism. And through Koslow I came directly to New York and while I enrolled at the League studying with, of all people, Thomas Benton. In that group I met Jackson Pollock and his brother, Sandy, as well as Charlie who was monitor of the class. You may remember Bruce Mitchell as well. And it seemed to me that in that particular environment I learned as much from the students as I did from Tom Benton, because it was a very stimulating group of students. But much more effective for my own development in New York was my friendship with Arshile Gorky. And it was Gorky who helped me a great deal by introducing me to Stuart Davis who was perhaps my most fundamental influence of the turn of my work from a Modigliani type of influence to perhaps a more flat and oriented attitude toward two-dimensional structure that has preoccupied me since.
DS: That brings us to a very interesting chapter. But before we leave Gorky and Davis, did you actually study with Stuart Davis? Or was this a sort of personal contact, informal?
PB: Well, I studied at the Art Students League. And right after that period of a year with Benton and I did some lithographs, I went immediately on the Art Project. And through the Apr Project I didn't actually study with Davis, although I wasn't his assistance I was assigned to teaching in those days. I used to see Davis quite regularly, as well as Gorky and they would look at my work and give me comments and criticisms, which was to me much more valuable than if I had been in a class because I did them on my own.
DS: I'm very much interested in the WPA projects and its effect upon the artists. Did you say that even in a limited way you had been working on the Project with Davis at all? I know that the other thing was more important, but was he involved?
PB: Well, Davis had done murals. Davis did some of the most significant murals even today as you see them. As you know, the whole look of the WPA project brought out one of the most critical aspects of ideas in relationship to the development of art. And one was the concept of we were all concerned with social consciousness and so on. And even Davis at that time was president of the American Artists Congress as you well know. And he himself was involved in it. But nevertheless there was a sharp schism by all the abstract artists in relationship to the ones that were working with subject matter. And my work, if you know my painting, The Organization that was exhibited at the New York World's Fair in 1939 was one of the five abstractionists in the whole show. So I took my clue early from an abstract orientation and became quite involved with the idea that form and content rather than being a separate thing, as the Marxists pointed out, was to me one, one idea. And that if you had form you also had content.
DS: Just for the record, how long did you work on the Projects? And were you always on the Easel Projects?
PB: No, I started originally, as I said, on the teaching project. And I worked in the Brooklyn Museum teaching project as well as the Brooklyn Art Center with men like Davis and Ralph Rosenborg. We all taught for a while. Then gradually Burgoyne Diller took an interest in my work, who was head of the Mural Project. And he was able to give me a commission to do a mural. And this one mural that I did was for a religious chapel in the city penitentiary, the Riker's Island Penitentiary, which was for the professional staff there and their families. It was called the Catholic Chapel. And there I did my first semi-abstract mural.
DS: Is yours still there?
PB: One of my panels, as I understand it, is still there. And that's the one directly behind the church, behind the alter. There was another one by Lechinsky and Maurice Block, I believe his name was, who is now in Paris and paints in an Impressionistic manner. Theirs was a mosaic mural which was still there. That was executed.
DS: Peter, that's a fascinating history. When did you leave the WPA? Under what circumstances?
PB: Well, the WPA gradually, as you know, deteriorated to where they removed the artists from these projects and when the war broke out I was one of the very last to stay on it. This is the most amusing part about the WPA. That's the part that I think led to my more recent development. And this goes through the period of from, let's see, the first year that I was on the Project, that I was on was 1936. And from 1936 to 1940 is a kind of grand basis for me to go to what I would call a post graduate school of training which would be similar to what a lot of students do today when they get their undergraduate degree and then go and do advanced training. And it was a sort of school for learning for me. Not that I feel I didn't achieve anything of any significance but I think that that particular period led me into the period where they were making arm bands on WPA for the armed services because, as you know, Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, war was declared, so the few remaining artists seemed to have a nucleus of abstract artists that were on his project. Some did posters. Some did murals, photomontage murals. And I remember a particular project that I was on. Lee Krasner, who is Mrs. Jackson Pollock now, was the head of that particular project. And we were supposed to do murals. And on this was Jerry Kamrowski, myself, William Baziotes, and Jackson Pollock. The most unregimented group of artists that you can imagine as far as carrying out a project. And in this particular environment Mr. William Baziotes was instrumental in getting all of us to practice therapeutically automatic drawings. And from there on my interest in art took on an aspect where the doodle was glorified. And I had a re-understanding, you might say, of Paul Klee as well as through Bill's insistence on the surrealist use of the automatic change.
DS: Did you then begin a series of paintings or drawings working completely in an automatic ....
PB: Yes, I did drawings that would resemble doodles today. I don't know of course, they were still reflective of the interest of working flatly. There are a couple that I can show you relating to this period.
DS: I asked you the medium in which you were executing automatic drawings and to what extent the automatic drawings than affected the work that you were subsequently to do. Did it affect you by bringing more organic images?
PB: Yes, that's a very good question because it wasn't until the late forties that my work became much more involved with the total flat Indian space than the early period. But it was a kind of sidetracking development where the surrealist images were bound to predominate because one can only do these automatic doodles so much then they become mechanical and they repeat themselves. So that the same kind of symbols seems to have come out and as a result of that practice I began to realize that there was a schism between the purely plastic and formal approach and that which was engendered by the unconscious where the private and personal symbols would predominate and have overtones of surrealist imagery which you say, very pronounced in Gorky's development later on as well as the amoeba-like shapes of Miro as well as Gorky.
......Well, I showed in group shows, but I had only one one- man shows at Peggy Guggenheim's.. . . Well, as you know, in 1945 I showed some work at Peggy's in group shows, not only in the Autumn Salon, but in several shows. William Baziotes had his first show there in 1945. As did Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell.
DS: And you kept in touch with this group to some extent during your war jobs?
PB: To some extent but it was rather sporadic because some of us worked at jobs to earn a living and some didn't have to earn a living so they kept right on painting. But my own production was extremely limited because of my work at these war jobs. And I was married in . I shipped that. But that didn't seem to affect my production. I worked all during this period of 1942 to 1946. Then after a one-man show at Peggy's quite a few of my works this was right after the war, so have closed it in 1947. So in that period everybody was scurrying around to different galleries. myself with a gallery on Third Avenue, Carlebach Gallery where I had a show in 1943 of my period that would be directly related to my own development which was American Indian influenced paintings.
DS: How do you get involved with American Indian forms? Did you take a trip through the west? Or was it simply by looking at what you saw in museums?
PB: Yes, it's an entirely different attitude to what a layman would feel, that you'd have to go somewhere endogenously or meet Indians. The most stimulating source of the influence of the examples of work that influenced me, as well as people who were interested in it long before me, which was Steve Wheeler and Robert Motherwell, was the Museum of Natural History. And rather than frequent the Metropolitan, as we had all done when we were younger, we used to spend a great deal of time at the Museum of Natural History. And in those days they didn't have the streamlined exhibits. Very often they were covered in dust and you had to ask to see it out of the bins and out of the glass cages, so that today many of the objects that were considered just curious are now, it's thought of on the same level as examples of Western culture. But it was through the stimulus of the grand collection not only at the Museum of Natural History but also the Brooklyn Museum, and later on through Eddie Schenk there that I saw a great many things which influenced me to work in a concept that was completely removed from my earlier training of Cubism where you had objects in their relationship to the space around it, but where you had a total idea where you couldn't tell the difference between the object and the so-called space around it. It all seemed to have equal emphasis as far as the spatial consideration. And that was the most stimulating force which had kept me interested in this type of structure to this day.
DS: Peter, to repeat a question on this fascinating territory that we're now getting into on the role of the primitive influence on American art at this point, American Indian as well as other primitive influences, what I originally asked you was if you could help me to disentangle which particular primitive arts were relevant for particular artists and for yourself and the group that you were in touch with at that time and I know how you are prepared to dig out a very interesting answer.
PB: Well, let me put it this way, there was an attraction to every particular culture in its beginnings rather than its high point of development. Instead of the late Renaissance it was the early Renaissance, and it was put to me even more clearly by David Smith who told me once that he was attracted to the early Italian rather than the late Italian. And I think this was typical of most artists with any genuine love of the reasoning that went behind these primitive cultures. And that was for the economy of their forms, for the simplicity of their direct statements, and for their unfettered quality that was based upon the virtuoso-type of statement. There was a basic attraction to all these cultures and whether it was the early Italian or the early Greek it nevertheless had its influence.
Peter Busa was a central figure in the New York School, a truly original thinker, and a pioneer of modern art. Though difficult to categorize, his work was clearly influenced by his close associations with Matta, Pollock, Motherwell, Baziotes, Kamrowski, and Hofmann.
His early work is of two types. The first was based on the automatic technique of the Surrealists. The paintings of this type rely heavily on poured or dripped paint and date from the mid-forties typically. The second type of painting was more geometric -often angular- and these paintings were heavily influenced by Native American design motifs. These are commonly referred to as "Indian Space paintings." Busa's Indian Space paintings date from the late thirties to the late fifties. After abandoning Indian Space for styles more closely akin to straightforward abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction during the sixties and seventies, Busa returned to an evolved form of Indian Space painting in the eighties.
In his introduction to the catalogue for Peter Busa's 50 year retrospective exhibition: Life Colors Art, Robert Metzger summarized Busa's career by saying: "…Busa has presented problems for…art historians since his highly original and diverse body of work and his mastery of styles…have made him difficult to pigeonhole. His expansive repertory of forms defies translation into verbal language for they reveal truths which cannot be expressed in words. …despite his successful exhibitions with such leading galleries as Peggy Guggenheim, Carlebach, and Bertha Schaefer he [has not yet] made it into the celebrity bandwagon of dealers,…collectors, and the art press. The personal poetry and awesome range and depth of his body of work remains one of the great undiscovered treasures of Twentieth Century American art…."
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