Pavia, citing Hemingway, compares his peers to “bullfighters.” Franz Kline and art dealer Charles Egan accuse Pavia of “watching from the sidelines like Sitting Bull.” Panelists at the Club were like “a tribe of Indians … shooting from all sides with their arrows and bullets.” Editor Natalie Edgar pitches in by calling Pavia a “cowboy in the Wild West”—that Wild West being Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. The burgeoning Abstract Expressionists considered themselves “Coonskins” and reserved the name “Redcoats” for their adversaries: established uptown artists and their “Surrealist army.” Be thankful Pavia’s favored designation, “Noble Savages,” didn’t stick.
At one point, Oronzo Gasparo’s wife, the daughter of an Indian chief, yells at the guys: “You white-ass shitty painters—you’re just copying native Indian abstract painting as if it’s your own.” In this hairy-chested context, you can’t help but give Mrs. Gasparo a cheer.
Pavia explains the initial lack of women at the Club as an unintended result of World War II and a consequent dearth of policemen: “The prevalence of a criminal assault technique called mugging had become a great threat at night to everyone, but mostly to women.” Women nonetheless made their presence felt, among them Grace Hartigan, Alice Mason, Joan Mitchell and the ferociously independent Elaine de Kooning. “Where else could a woman have a chance to talk on art or heckle a man on art? … Nowhere else.”
Continuing the Old West metaphors, Pavia writes that the women “came in sheepishly and bounced out as colt horses.” “Nothing,” he adds, “changed the New York woman as did the Club.” Modernist yahoos on the side of feminism—who would have guessed it?
Toward the end of Club Without Walls, there’s a “Chronology of Life and World Events” that alternates between sensible, quizzical and hilarious. There are straightforward entries, such as “Israel Gains Independence” and “Gets Divorce in Virgin Islands.” And then there are oddball listings: “Attacks e.e. cummings for commentary on Krazy Kat, Offissa Pup and Ignatz Mouse,” “Argues with John Sloan About Jackson Pollock,” and a subheading that sounds like something from the Three Stooges: “Chowder-head and Mooching Society.”
These aren’t excerpts from Pavia’s journals, though. They’re the handiwork of Ad Reinhardt, the painter known for his near-monochromatic geometric abstractions (and less so for his wonderfully acerbic sense of humor).
Reinhardt’s timeline is included for its references to the Club—or what he dubbed the “Abstract Expressionist Synagogue,” the “De Kooning Verein Club” and the aforementioned society. His sarcasm helps to deflate the reverence that Pavia’s writings bestow upon the era and the circle of people he helped gather together.
Despite Pavia’s fervor, most of Club Without Walls remains blandly agreeable and feels curiously third-hand. There’s a disappointing loss of immediacy in his writings. Pavia makes plain the camaraderie of artists who would determine the future of the international art scene, and all the minutiae recorded here will be an invaluable resource for scholars. For the rest of us, though, it’s an interesting but less than necessary read.