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An interview with Eldzier Cortor.


LO: You've been based in New York for decades now. But maybe you could tell me a little bit about when you were in Chicago.

EC: There's a difference between the two places, you see. When I was in Chicago you could just come in and knock on the door of somebody's house, but here in New York you have to make an appointment and things like that before you see somebody. In New York, you don't just descend on somebody. In Chicago, all of a sudden, they're a friend--I mean, a friend even. In Chicago, you just knock on the door!

Chicago--they were very welcoming. I remember during the War, they had soldiers coming in, and they had what they call the USO. Soldiers could meet and dance with the girls who would be there, and they'd invite the girls home to meet the family and whatnot. And when the GIs came back, they were welcomed. These are guys from farms, farm boys a long way from home, so sometimes they want to take you to meet their parents. The young men in Chicago were like country boys, nothing more, you see. I don't know if it's like that now ...

I remember the Newberry Library, where I did a lot of research before I went to St. Helena Island. There was a park nearby; it was called Bughouse Square. And they had dialectics and debating there. It wasn't someone making a public speech but a group of people making different speeches, different arguments here and there. Someone would be debating over here, and someone would be speaking their mind or some theory over there. There would be arguing. And then there would be back-and-forth with the audience. You would think these debaters were homeless, but no, they were the smartest people. This was during the Depression years, you see. They used the library to keep warm, and they were very knowledgeable because they would read while they sat at the library. The protests they have over here at Union Square--it comes from way back, as a matter of fact, in Chicago. I don't know if Chicago still has anything like that. You know, things get torn down. That's what I fear: who was it that wrote that book, You Can't Go Home Again?

They had quite a bit of writers in Chicago. Thornton Wilder was there. Gertrude Stein came and visited the University of Chicago. She had [Alice] Toklas with her, and everyone thought they were scrubwomen! Because they were five-four and they didn't have anyone with them. Wilder was a friend of theirs. Even [Jean-Paul] Sartre and Simone [de Beauvoir] came to Chicago.

What do you remember of the artists who were in Chicago from the 1930s through the 1950s?

I remember Motley! Willard Motley. He lived on the West Side, as a matter of fact, I think. And then he moved to the North Side. Because he lived up there, he would always use the Newberry Library. But his brother, Archibald Motley, was on the South Side. They were both such nice guys. Willard worked in a dress factory, where the owner also became interested in art, so Willard could stop once in a while and write down little things. He had a trunk full of notes that I guess he was assembling for his book [Knock on Any Door (1947)]. That's how he wrote that. He also wrote something about me and the other artists, like William Carter, that he visited on the South Side. It was an essay about all the arts of the town, for the Urban League's little publication.

So Motley was writing about the artists of Bronzeville. What about Gwendolyn Brooks, did you know her?

Yes, Gwendolyn Brooks had a painting of mine. She was an introvert, more or less. I used to know her husband. He was a mechanic, an automobile mechanic. He fixed up some of the cars I used on my trips. I had a Rosenwald Fellowship and went on a trip to the Georgia Sea Islands to do research. St. Helena Island, that's where I stayed. There was a Penn School there, run by the Quakers. After the Civil War, land was given to the former slaves there, you see. They owned the land--forty acres and a mule, you know. And the Quakers came there to teach them a trade. And the Penn School--I have a hunch that the place now is like golf courses. But the beautiful beach they had there! No one went there. You'd find ex-Confederate graveyards and things like that. Collapsed mausoleums, all moldy. Everything like that, you see, from another year, from another period. I painted some of that. I sent some to Howard University because I knew a number of the professors there, like Horace Cayton. They bought some drawings and things. That's what paid my way sometimes, for the trips. Cayton helped me with my fellowship for the Sea Islands.

I asked about Cayton and his family when I was in Chicago this year. There was a whole family--I painted his mother's portrait, as a matter of fact. I painted his sister's portrait, too. Cayton eventually went to California. But in Chicago he was in with S. I. Hayakawa at the Parkway Community House. Hayakawa was Japanese-Canadian. A lot of Japanese people came through to Illinois at that time because in California they were being put in internment camps. When they came to Chicago the wealthy ones went where the rich people were, and the poor ones came to the South Side. Hayakawa taught semantics down there. You know what happens: time passes, and .... He became head of the university [San Francisco State University], and he became a reactionary. The students were protesting. Time passes, and another group comes in.

So you knew Horace Cayton and his circle quite well. Did you ever cross paths with Richard Wright?

I read Native Son when it was published. A lot of my people didn't care for Wright's book because he hit on certain things, you see, that people didn't want to hear. That painting in Chicago, with the people in the bed [The Room No. VI (1948),p. 124]--I probably didn't get that from Wright's book, but there's a chapter where the fellow [Bigger Thomas] is on the run, and he's going down the alley, and he sees the couple in bed with the family. There's a child with them. It was a common thing--a family in one room. I remembered that from the novel. And that's what I know the painting by, how I know it's in Chicago.

Wright was very left-wing, but later on he changed. He went to Paris and became interested in the existentialists. He knew Sartre and de Beauvoir. I met both of them in Haiti. I was there with Harlan Jackson, and I used to teach at the Centre d'Art. Sartre and de Beauvoir happened to be there on a weekend. I photographed Sartre with Jackson. I had remembered seeing a play of Sartre's at the University of Chicago, where my wife Sophie used to work. It was at a little theater there.

Speaking of Wright's politics, were you involved at all in the Leftist politics in the 40s?

Everybody was. Everybody was slightly pink in the Depression days. I was an artist on the WPA [Works Progress Administration] in my early twenties; I was twenty-one or twenty-two. My supervisor on the Project was Norman MacLeish. Remember, his brother was the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish. I was a youngster on the Project, but most of the artists were older. Ivan Albright was on there. It was Florence Arquin who ran the Federal Arts Project in Illinois. She was always driving Albright nuts. He painted too slow. And she would point to the painting and say, "The clouds--there are too many phallic symbols in those clouds there." [Laughing.] She would drive him nuts.

What was your relationship to the South Side Community Art Center? Did you know Margaret Burroughs?

I knew Margaret Burroughs. There's still a bust of her at the South Side Community Art Center. It's so funny how that place just grew. You can't say one person started it. It's ended up in many people's hands. One person leaves, and it's turned over to another person. Now when I'm there I look at the board [of directors], and I say, "Where is Horace Cayton?" Or "Where is Marion Perkins?" I'm meeting people, and someone will say, "Oh, I'm Perkins's grandson." That's the person I'm meeting. I don't meet the son of Perkins, I meet the grandson.

I was telling them at the Art Center about a fashion show they would have, called the Artists and Models Ball. I would say it was an attraction for the black debutantes. Something your daughter would go and see. When I was there they did a little fundraising with it.

There was a fellow at the Art Center by the name of Peter Pollock. They don't think of him much there, but they owe so much to him. He was a real terrific guy. He worked for the Art Center, and then he worked for the WPA, and he was like the legman for getting this person here

This interview was conducted in April 2015 at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity and thematic continuity.

And putting this person there, getting the carpenters there and things like that. Then he went to New York and worked at the Metropolitan Museum. Lots of those people came from Chicago, went to New York.

I have a photograph of you in Chicago sitting in a huge chair. Was this taken at the South Side Community Art Center?

Wayne Miller took that picture. That was my apartment. My studio. It's a Victorian chair. On Perry Avenue in Chicago is where you had a lot of wealthy people. A lot of the meatpackers lived there--Oscar Mayer, the Armours, the Swifts--because the stockyards were near there. They used to have those Victorian mansions. Across the street from the Art Center, too, they had some. Madame [Ernestine] Schumann-Heink, an opera singer at the time, had a mansion like that. When the Depression hit, that's when it started happening--breaking up those places. It was a whole different atmosphere then, you see, and those people weren't anywhere around anymore. So the mansions became rooming houses and things like that. I don't know if they've torn them down, or if they still have them there. So this chair was in the Salvation Army. It was salvage, second-hand. The modern rooms were small, so the Victorian furniture came out of the homes.


Photomontage of models' portraits, 1949 Artists and Models Ball catalog. Courtesy of the South Side Community Art Center.

I wanted to ask you a question about a picture. I'm going to show it to you: It's one that you gave to the Art Center last fall. It's called Trilogy No. II, Verso.

I have another Trilogy, too. I studied and then taught printmaking at Pratt Institute [1972-1995], When I was at Pratt, I was in my woodcut phase. We had been in Paris visiting Stanley Hayter at his place Atelier Dix-Sept, and they turned us on to a place [in New York] called the Printmaking Workshop, the Bob [Robert] Blackburn Printmaking Workshop. Everyone that was into printmaking would end up there, unless they got a press and opened up a print shop of their own. I wasn't very commercial with the prints. I didn't sell that many, so I'd only print up fifteen or twenty. But I'd never put down the number I printed on there. I figured, if they start selling I'll just print more.

You'll notice that some of my paintings have a little chop at the bottom in Japanese. Well, that's a Japanese print. It's just made with watercolor tones, you see. I knew a Japanese fellow in New York, [Junichiro] Sekino; he gave me that chop. He wrote my name out in that little Japanese print. He used to correspond with me from Japan. We used to send Christmas cards to one another over the years.

Is your work--is what you're doing--related to abstraction? I think your work sometimes appeals to people who like abstract art.

No, I wasn't abstract, you see. Even from the beginning I knew that. When I was a student at the Art Institute [of Chicago], we had a whole array. In the "History of the Arts" course, they took us through the whole thing. And when I was coming along later on the WPA, we had different types of artists. When I did those things, like going to the Sea Islands and places like that, abstract art didn't do anything down there. They did pulp things: the people and things like that, you know, was the material.

I knew what they were doing with abstraction. I went to the Institute of Design, as a matter of fact, and I could understand why they didn't want you to know perspective. If you were caught with a knowledge of perspective and color schemes .... They didn't want you to be knowledgeable. The point was to make you modern. As long as you learned some terms. That's what the Bauhaus was; it was terms. They were against breaking laws, you see. You learned a language. And the art was like that, too. It's just words, if you notice; that's what these things are. Tom Wolfe wrote a book called The Painted Word. Jackson Pollock was really nothing, you see. It's just words! I think that was a mistake.


You mentioned the Bauhaus. Sarah Kelly Oehler, a curator at the Art Institute, told me that you had met some of the New Bauhaus artists when they were in Chicago.

I went to school there with [Laszlo] Moholy-Nagy. Prairie Avenue was at a distance from it. The Bauhaus, the Institute of Design--that became part of another school.

Right, it's the Illinois Institute of Technology.

I think [Serge] Chermayeff, the architect, took it and went to another institution. And it became the Illinois Institute. It surprises me that the art department is still there. They didn't want you to have an art education. They did a lot of things that were functional. You'd understand why these buildings were here and other buildings were there. When you entered that school they just wanted you to be modern. Well--it was a welcoming place. "Glad to see you!" at the door. I told you about that knock at the door. The Bauhaus was next to the Chez Paree. That was a nightclub. I don't know if it's still around.

Now, can you tell me about your experience as a student at the Art Institute?

The knowledge that they gave you at the Art Institute really filled me in. The education there was very fulfilling. If I was traveling in Europe and I was standing on the street there in certain places, I knew that this was where the king had his head chopped off or something like that. You could pass by Victor Hugo's house. You knew you were right at the spot where something probably happened. You wouldn't need a book to refer to. You would know from your art background, you see.

The history of art course covered the whole thing. I have the book, Art through the Ages [1926], by Helen Gardner. Kathleen Blackshear did the illustrations in the book. That's like a Bible there, Art through the Ages. My "History of the Arts" pages--the teachers [Gardner and Blackshear] wanted you to use their book, you see, but I couldn't get a hold of the book at the library there--so I just wrote up my own investigation of things. I used to write them out like a composition, then turn in the pages. They put them up in the hallway sometimes.

And they took us over to the Field Museum to see African sculpture and all types of things there. You know, the Field Museum was fabulous. The showcases were old-fashioned; it used to be handwritten cards at the bottom of different displays. So if you're in Chicago and you go to the Field Museum, then you know those Greek columns that are women with baskets on their heads--that's called a certain kind of column. And then if you're in Athens or Mykonos or somewhere in Greece you know what kind of columns the different columns are. I was once in Egypt .... You have to start from there to go to Greece, you see. I went to see the sculptures of women, the heads. And I went to see the pyramids, too. Because that was the history of art.

Tell me more about your travels. When you were in Haiti, were you painting and teaching?

Oh yeah, at the Centre d'Art there. They loved me in Haiti! They took me in. They gave me a job--first time I had an income. I would take the people up in the hills and hold class there; we'd set up an easel. You know, France has a pull on Haiti just like we have. That's regional down there: Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. And that's why I went. It's very French. People speak the patois, and the bourgeoisie, they speak Parisian French. I learned the patois myself. I stopped off in Cuba first, then Jamaica. I just blew through Jamaica; I was more like a tourist there. I spent more time in Cuba--you know, Fidel Castro .... And in Haiti, they had the Centre d'Art, and they also had these so-called folk artists there. That was another group. You know how we have a Horace Pippin type of painting? Some of their artists had been to France, and the painters weren't painting like the realistic Haitian painters. They were doing voodoo types of things because they were selling to people like Charles Laughton and different movie stars that would go down there and buy these little folk paintings.

I liked them, and they liked me. I had a visa. I could have stayed the rest of my life there. A lot of people there were in and out. Like in Mexico. They give you so many weeks or months to stay there, then they put you out of there, across the border. But I could have stayed there the rest of my life.

I wouldn't go back there now because it's so violent. I have that woodcut, L'Abbatoire [1955]. Writers have said that was during the [Francois] Duvalier period. They say, well, there was that slaughterhouse. No, Duvalier wasn't there when I was there! You know, he fled to France, and then he came back. That slaughterhouse--that was just a drome, a French iron building. Like a stockyard. One day me and this fellow artist went down there to the big drome. And did it smell--you know, it was like the one they had in Chicago.

Did Katherine Dunham go to Haiti, too?

Yeah, she came after I was there. She tried to be like a Doctor [Albert] Schweitzer down there. I don't know how she got into that because she was really a dancer ...

And she was an anthropology student at the University of Chicago ...

... and an anthropologist. She lived at Pauline's Bath. Napoleon's sister had a bath down there. It was a big complex: There was a house, a plaza--like a villa, almost. Trees and a pool--a big pool, like a swimming pool. And they called it Pauline's Bath.

Speaking of the University of Chicago, did you ever go to any exhibits at the Renaissance Society?

I exhibited there. I had a painting there, Southern Gate [1942-1943], that's at the Smithsonian now. It's the main painting of mine at the Smithsonian. I don't remember the director who chose my work at the Renaissance Society. You know what, the University of Chicago didn't want too much publicity. I don't think they even put the exhibit in the paper. They didn't want their gallery to be too much of a public gallery. They wanted it to be for students. You would just walk in. It was like the Gates of Ishtar at the Oriental Institute: you would just walk in.

I remember they had a gate there [Cobb Gate] at the University of Chicago. I don't remember if it's still there. Bert [Robert Maynard] Hutchins was the president. He closed down football! He said the only exercise he got was in the spring. Anyway, they had this big gate: It was animals on both sides and in the center. They were different animals, from a weasel on up to a lion. They went all the way up to the top. And they were fighting, snapping. This one was trying to keep that other one back. What do you call that? A pecking order. And at the top was the lion.

My wife Sophie worked at the University of Chicago, at the law school, just as a stenographer. She taught at the Art Institute for a while. She was a dancer with Anne Rudolph downtown. They had a Martha Graham kind of dance. It was also like Isadora Duncan. They broke with the ballet. The dancers could be plump and different shapes but fit in, you see. They weren't into the ballet.

When did you move to New York?

I was in New York several times before I moved there. I used to take a bus from Chicago--the thirteen-dollar bus--and after a while I would stop off at Washington, too, and sometimes I would sell a picture. The reason I was in New York is because they had galleries, you see, and it was more professional, the galleries. There was the Associated Artists Gallery on 57th Street. They started selling prints--affordable prints. That was the early days of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and people like that. I was in that gallery, too, and sold through them. That was in my early twenties. Peggy Guggenheim also had a gallery there on 57th Street. The Art of This Century, it was called.

It's marketing with New York. They package it here. The artists in New York were all fragmented: some lived in Brooklyn, and some lived in Manhattan. But New York is able to merchandize everything. In Chicago it's free; it's just free. It's not packaged in Chicago.

Did you know Ralph Ellison in New York?

Yes. He came to visit me once. I knew his wife, Fanny Ellison. She bought a painting of mine. A flood scene [Southern Landscape (Southern Flood) (1944-1945)]. They have it in the collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Ellison came down and visited me. I lived down on Cherry Street, on the Lower East Side. It was a naval yard, and I came there during the war. People were moving the heck out of the neighborhood, so half the building was empty at that time. I got an apartment for fifteen dollars a month, and after a while I began to tell all the other artists, and a lot of them began to move there. I remember a woman, a player on Broadway; she was in Lysistrata when it came in from Chicago, and she got an apartment in the building. Different people like that. The building became an artists' place. 466 Cherry Street.

Ellison lived up by Riverside Drive, and I knew why he wanted to live up by Columbia. He could schmooze with people. I was in with a sculptor by the name of Jason Seely, and he said Ellison liked to schmooze with the professors. That was his world. He didn't want to be down there with the fishmongers like I was.

I never read Invisible Man, but I remember the advertisement. (1) It shows a sewer with a hand below it. I knew the fellow in the photos. Fellow's name was [John] Bates, a muscular guy. He was a bouncer for the Savoy Ballroom. He liked artists. He was interracially married, so he came down to Haiti to live, and that's how I struck up with him. Then he came to New York.

I went to Columbia. I still lived downtown, and I'd always end up going to Brooklyn by mistake. I knew Ralph Mayer and Hans Mueller. Mayer was into the chemistry of paintings. Mueller was woodcuts. And I remember the impressive statue at Columbia, the Alma Mater statue. I loved that kind of classical sculpture because I had traveled in Greece.

During that early period in New York, who were the artists that you were really attracted to? What kind of work did you like to see?

I used to like to go to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Peter Blume, the Mussolini head [The Eternal City, 1937], Sort of surreal. And the [Pavel] Tchelitchew, the tree of life [Hide and Seek, 1942], It's a tree with little children around it. I don't know if they put those things away or what. The Museum of Modern Art, they've changed their whole look now. You know, as I say, it's funny how time goes by. It's like going back home. You know, they've torn down things, and it's not the same. So maybe it's best to keep your memories, you see. Like I'm sitting here talking to you.

(1/) The "advertisement" for Invisible Man is Gordon Park's photo-essay in Life magazine (25 August 1952) depicting scenes from the novel. John Bates, an amateur boxer in New York, was the model for the invisible man in Parks's photos.
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Author:Olson, Liesl
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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