The Stable Gallery: In Conversation With Nicolas Caroneby Phong Bui
As part of the Rail’s ongoing effort to bring resources and historical awareness to the current dialogue in our ever-growing art community, I wrote an article several issues ago about The Club, and was able to interview Philip Pavia—the sculptor and organizer of The Club and publisher of It Is magazine. It was The Club that provided the informal yet critical format for panel discussions which included various topics: painting, sculpture, philosophy, music, anthropology, and on some occasions even heated political debates. Now, with the recent addition of new gallery spaces beyond the Williamsburg area—Greenpoint, Dumbo, and Bushwick—it would seem timely to follow up with the story of the legendary Stable Gallery.
The Stable Gallery began as a real horse stable on Central Park South, but it was more than just the first to convert an industrial space into an art gallery, a concept which anticipated fashionable Soho and the new Chelsea galleries. The Stable was also famous for having a broad and democratic philosophy. Besides the Stable Annuals, which involved the most established artists of the downtown scene at the time, it also showcased many young and emerging artists like Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Joan Mitchell. In addition, it resurrected the eccentric and unique work of John Graham and Joseph Cornell.
The Stable Gallery was a perfect passageway for other galleries to come and pick their artists or to observe its unorthodox and experimental spirit. The following is an interview with the distinguished painter and teacher Nicolas Carone, who was the assistant director of the Stable Gallery’s first three or four crucial years. Carone was also a founding faculty member of the New York Studio School and the former director of the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy.
Phong Bui (Rail): In 1951, the members of The Club invited 61 artists to each submit one work for a big group show. It was called The Ninth Street Show. The appeal was that it included most, if not all, the artists of the downtown scene—the older and the younger generation. It must have been exciting to see the work of Kline, de Kooning, or even Kewitin next to Fairfield Porter, and Louise Bourgeois, and Michael Loew. From what I’ve read and been told by some of the participants, it was a great success.
Nicolas Carone: Well, it was a success because it was more like a social event that anything else. Nobody was with a gallery in those days, especially the younger artists who were still trying to figure out what was going on, I mean in their own work. It was good for them to come to an event like that because they could meet the older artists, see what the older artists were doing.
Rail: Didn’t The Ninth Street Show consequently turn into the Stable Annual? Wasn’t that how the Stable Annual came to be?
Carone: I’ll get to that later, but first the story began with the Alexander Iolas who was running the Hugo Gallery at the time. I’m sure you remember the Blood Flame exhibit organized by Nicolas Calas and designed by Frederick Kiesler. Anyway, Iolas was a great friend of mine and given his background it made sense that someone like Eleanor Ward would be attracted to him. Iolas came from a mix of Egyptian and Greek origins. He was very handsome and at one time a ballet dancer. He had a strong interest in esoteric philosophy. You can imagine the sophisticated European circles of Surrealist artists like Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, and many distinguished ex-patriots that were accessible to him. Even the formidable Donna Maria Ruspoli—she was a Princess—and the Marquis de Cuevas were helping Iolas with the gallery.
Rail: What about Eleanor Ward?
Carone: She was working for Christian Dior as a representative promoting The New Look. You know she primarily came from the fashion industry and had no experience in the art world. But she had this friend with a real horse stable building on 58th Street and 7th Avenue right by Central Park South. Since the friend had a long lease but was quitting her business—which was making mannequins, papier maché window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, all those fancy uptown stores—well, she was willing to give the space to Eleanor. The first thing Eleanor did was to put up a casual Christmas show with all kinds of Sunday painters and dilettantes. It was not serious at all but it got a lot of attention. It even got coverage in the New Yorker and many things were sold. Just to remind you, Eleanor gained the backing of a wealthy man because of that Christmas show… and that’s when she came to Iolas and asked his advice. He came to see the space and agreed to help her as a curator. Well, through his gallery, he put up a big group show that would officially introduce the Stable Gallery to the art world. The show included the obvious names of the modern Italian artists like de Chirico, Modigliani, and Morandi—and it also made exceptions with some other work like Fazzini and de Pisis. My work was included in that show as well.
Rail: But with all of Iolas’s European connections, how did that have anything to do with the undercurrent scene downtown?
Carone: See, you have to understand in spite of his involvement with the Surrealists and even the Neo-Romantic artists like Pavel Tchelithew and Eugene Berman, he knew there was a new climate in the making. So, to his credit, having seen an enormous space like the Stable, he thought it would be a perfect opportunity to show some large abstract paintings.
Rail: You mean Abstract Expressionist paintings?
Carone: Not quite exactly. He had some notion about showing some young French painters like Matthieu, I suppose, as a way of prefacing what was to follow in New York. Anyway, things didn’t work out with Eleanor Ward, so Iolas terminated his relationship with her.
Rail: So when did you enter the picture and what was your role at the gallery?
Carone: Well, I met Eleanor through Iolas, I came in right after he left. The truth of the matter was she didn’t know what to do next. I tried to propose to her all different kinds of paintings that could be available for showing in the gallery. In fact, I showed he a big article about the Betty Parsons Gallery and the New Paintings in Vogue magazine, you know, with Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clifford Still. I said to her, “that’s the new painting, the new avant-garde.” She responded right away, “Yes, that’s what I want.” I told her, in that case, she would have to give me some time to find young artists qualified to have a show because most of them didn’t necessarily have enough work. They were still working things out. No one could make a statement overnight, anyway. You see, at that time, making a statement was paramount. That would have meant who you were. You could be the most talented guy in the world but if you didn’t make your statement you were out. That was one of the big reasons why most artists didn’t show their work until they were older. Don’t forget de Kooning did not have his first one-man show until 1948. I believe he was about 42 years old.
Rail: Yes, at the Charles Eagan Gallery. In any case, most of the older artists like de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, or Kline, or Gorky were already with other established galleries. So you didn’t have much choice except to find good artists among the younger generation.
Carone: [laughs] That was my intention anyway. For instance, I came to visit a collector friend of mine’s apartment and I saw a big painting by Edward Dugmore that I liked. You know Dugmore and Ernie Briggs were from the West Coast where they had studied with Clifford Still. They came to New York at the height of everything that was happening. They were considered outsiders, but I didn’t care too much for all of that. I liked his work. So we gave him his first show at the Stable. That also gave me more time to look for other artists.
Rail: So it would appear to be good timing because from the Annual you could certainly pick and choose all kinds of artists and invite them to join your gallery.
Carone: Actually a friend that made it possible for me besides Philip Pavia and Conrad Marca-Relli at The Club was Jack Tworkow. He instigated the whole arrangement. I suggested to bring The Ninth Street Show to the Stable, Tworkow spoke to Pavia and some other artists, and they were all for it. That’s how the Annual came to be. But again that was just the Annual—otherwise most of my friends like Philip Guston, Marca-Relli, Vincente, they all wanted to join Charlie Eagen because of de Kooning. Guston finally got in. You must understand the whole climate then was about de Kooning. Critics like Tom Hess, Harold Rosenberg, they were busy building up de Kooning. De Kooning was the hot painter. Pollock was already in South Hampton drying out, so to speak. He already made his statement. He was seeing his psychiatrist and Lee was protecting him from everything going on.
Rail: I think the whole phenomenon of de Kooning versus Pollock simply rests on the fact that in de Kooning’s work, because he was trained academically and had more skill than Pollock, the visual vocabulary and the evolution of his process appears to be more cohesive. It’s really not a matter of judgment. I am just making a personal observation. What I mean is that de Kooning’s work is more tangible for emulation. After all, practically the whole second generation of young artists were painting under de Kooning’s influence, both abstractly and figuratively. In Pollock’s case it was different. Pollock’s influence didn’t really stop with Clement Greenberg and his circle of artist friends, such as Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, or Larry Poons—even though part of its appeal for them was the decorative side of his late drip paintings. Pollock’s greater spiritual legacy continued right in to the Happenings with Allen Kaprow, also with Earth Art and Michael Heizer, and with Robert Smithson. Anyway, what happened next?
Carone: I went to see a group show at the Samuel Kootz Gallery. I saw Cy Twombly’s paintings for the first time. They were painted mostly in black and white with enamel house paint. The surfaces were thickly painted but smooth at the same time. They looked like a combination of Franz Kline calligraphy and that wuality of Ryder’s—painterly and glowing. They had a real plastic sensibilities. Both Eleanor and I went to see him in his studio. A few days later, he came to see the space and liked the idea of the gallery and eventually agreed to show with us only if we would take on his friend Bob Rauschenberg as well. I liked Cy’s work and his discretion, so we put up a two-man show with his and Rauschenberg’s work together.
Rail: Cool. Didn’t you also mount a show of John Graham at the Stable? How did that happen?
Carone: Well, I had a very strong idea about the Stable. I didn’t want it to be just a gallery that only shows abstract paintings. I told Eleanor that we needed some figurative artists but whose work had to have a strong metaphysical basis. Of course, when I read Graham’s book System and Dialectics of Art, like everyone else at the time, I knew right away that this was a man who knew. He was a great connoisseur really. I asked among my friends but they didn’t know where he was. As every one of us knew, Graham was important to Gorky and de Kooning’s formative years in the late ’30s and early ’40s but the whole art world was different by the ’50s. Anyway, I knew a man named Don Braider who ran a local bookstore near my home in East Hampton. He was the one who told me where John Graham was in South Hampton. The strange thing was that, before Eleanor and I went to see him, I found out that Graham was married to Ilena Sonnabend’s mother. That means he was Leo Castelli’s father-in-law.
Rail: Yeah. That’s a really strange fact. Please go on.
Carone: You wouldn’t believe it. When we invited Graham to have a show at the Stable he came in to the gallery and he was thrilled. He even suggested a retrospective of his work. He said that he could arrange to get a lot of his work from the Philips Collection in D.C. You would be surprised at the range of his work. Most people identify Graham’s work with his landmark cross-eyed women with all kinds of esoteric symbols and writing on their face or neck. I saw paintings that were like Barnett Newman’s, I mean long before Barnett became the painter as we know him. It was an amazing and haunting exhibit. Every single painter in New York came to that show even though we didn’t manage to see one painting. In spite of all of that, some of my friends were against the idea that I was showing John Graham’s work. They had the same reaction when I showed Joseph Cornell earlier.
Rail: Was the Cornell show through Iolas’s connections?
Carone: Yes. I knew him through Iolas. Believe me, only a few supported me with this idea. Noguchi loved the Cornell show and because of that he later joined the gallery. And later Jack Tworkow and Joan Mitchell and even Myron Stout came in.
Rail: How would you compare the Stable with other galleries like Martha Jackson, Pointdexter, and Tibor de Nagy?
Carone: Well, at the Stable Annuals many galleries would come and pick and choose their new artists. After three and a half years I had to quit my job because my own paintings demanded more time and I needed to have my own career as a painter. As a manner of fact I quit the Stable in order to show my work at George Stampfli’s gallery. It was alright with Eleanor. I left on friendly terms. She continued to consult with me later on so I still remained somewhat involved.
Rail: The Stable Annual came to an end in 1957.
Carone: It was unfortunate. Abstract Expressionism was nipped at the bud. It was forced out to make way for Pop Art. Yes, everything comes to an end.