When “the Club” Ruled the Art World from East 8th Street
In the fall of 1949, a group of the most renowned artists of their time who were part of the Abstract Expressionist movement gathered together to fix up a third-floor loft at 39 East 8th Street. In the months that followed, the loft, which came to be known as “the Club,” evolved into a center of the New York art world and the lives of Village artists. For many, this was more than a meeting place to discuss intellectual and artistic ideas. The Club was a kind of “church” or “group therapy” center, a place to play music and dance, and enjoy each other’s company.
Some of those counted as among the Club’s founding members were Conrad Marca-Relli, Franz Kline, Joop Sanders, Milton Resnick, Giorgio Cavallon, Ibram Lassaw, Lutz Sanders, James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Lewin Alcopley, Philip Pavia, Frederick Kiesler, John Ferren, Jack Tworkov, Landes Lewitin, and James Rosati.
Some of these artists had been gathering in the Village since the late 1930s, and later at the Waldorf Cafeteria at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street. However, by the end of the 1940s, the Waldorf Cafeteria’s management was increasingly hostile towards the group, insisting they buy second cups of coffee, closing the bathroom to the artists, setting a limit on the number of chairs at a single table, and complaining if they moved chairs from one table to another. In the summer of 1949, the artists sought an alternative meeting location that would belong to them alone, much like the many other social and ethnic clubs that had existed in the Village. The space the artists envisioned would serve as a new meeting spot that would solidify their formal position as artists in the city. During the 1940s, they were still outsiders in the New York art world, with the exception of Jackson Pollock, who had achieved some public recognition due to a 1949 Life magazine article.
At first, the group moved their get-togethers to the sculptor Ibram Lassaw’s loft in a now-demolished industrial building at Sixth Avenue and 12th Street. Shortly thereafter they found the space at 39 East 8th Street, which measured thirty-three feet by sixty feet. It was leased by a commercial artist from New Zealand who rented it to the group for $80 per month, and $250 or $500 dollars (depending on the source) for the “key money,” most of which was paid by Philip Pavia. The building was also home to a ticking factory, and feathers often spilled into the stairway leading up to the loft. Its location was perfect since it was in the center of the artists’ community and less than a block away from the Cedar Tavern at 24 University Place.
The artists removed drawings and photos that littered the loft walls and got to work de-installing the partitions that divided the space. Per Milton Resnick’s request, they painted the walls white. Giorgio Cavallon set up a sound system and a record player and sculptor Ibram Lassow made a large table. Together they assembled an assortment of furniture they would later deem “bourgeois” and replace with wooden folding chairs. Willem de Kooning and Lutz Sanders (or James Brooks – depending on whom you ask) disassembled the kitchen’s restaurant stove, boiled each part, and put it back together.
The Club officially opened in October of 1949. To celebrate the first idyllic months, the members organized a Christmas party for their families. In preparation, they covered the walls and ceilings with large collages, which they left in place for New Year’s. The party that carried the Club into the new decade lasted three days. “This is the beginning of the next half century,” Pavia declared. There was a sense of optimism, community, and artistic and intellectual revelry propelling the Club forward from the onset.
A second tier of “voting members,” and a third tier of “members” were soon added to help pay for the place. According to some, there were two main “rules.” First off, “no women, communists, or homosexuals” were allowed, and secondly, two charter members could deny a future applicant membership. As noted by Mary Gabriel’s 2018 book Ninth Street Women, however, the first rule was likely discussed but never implemented. Painters Perle Fine and Mercedes Matter were early members, Elaine de Kooning joined in 1952, and musician John Cage, who was gay, was an important member as well. Non-artist gallery owner Charlie Egan, and art writers Harold Rosenberg and Tom Hess were all also a part of the group. Communists were not banned, but communism was never discussed at the meetings. More officially, the group agreed that no art would be displayed on the walls, and that the Club would not accept sponsorship from gallery owners, critics, or curators. Generally, the group sought to build a community place where people could self-express and defy convention free of social hierarchies. However, as with many collectives, responsibility for the upkeep of the Club was held – whether by choice or by default – by one person, Pavia, who bore the burden of collecting dues and cleaning up after events. Apparently, de Kooning was one of the only members who stayed after events to help him straighten up and do the dishes.
The Club eventually organized formal Friday night lectures and panels featuring artists and thinkers who were invited by members and paid with a bottle of liquor, if they were paid at all. Those invited included philosopher Hannah Arendt, literary scholar Joseph Campbell, mathematical historian Jean Louis van Heijenoort, and composers Virgil Thomson and Morty Feldman. The Club also hosted frequent rap-sessions and parties after exhibition openings. Gabriel emphasizes the abundance of dancing that took place at the Club, quoting Philip Pavia: “Franz [Klein] and Joan [Mitchell] would dance ‘until they rolled on the floor dancing horizontally.’”
The 1950s were critical years for many of the artists involved, and the Club offered a grounding site which bolstered their connections to one another, their confidence, and their status in the broader society. However, by the time the Abstract Expressionist movement had become the heart of the New York art world and put New York at the center of the international art community, the organization itself was no longer sustainable. 39 East 8th Street, along with all the other buildings on this block between 8th and 9th Streets, University Place and Broadway, were replaced by new construction in 1955 (read more about this and their replacements here). By varying accounts, the Club ceased to exist by the late 1950s or early 1960s. But although short-lived, it was a significant part of this pivotal time in New York and America’s history.