I was in Detroit for four years before I went to Black Mountain at the age of sixteen. I wanted to paint, and high school had no meaning for me. I was at Black Mountain on and off from 1951 until it closed in 1956. It felt very, very comfortable to me. I studied writing with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Bob Creeley and painting with Joe Fiore. He was a very good teacher and his class was important for me. Then Vicente came down for a summer.
I took some theory classes with Stefan too, and Fielding Dawson and I took cornet and trumpet lessons with Wolpe. Wolpe wasn't an odd figure walking down the street as there were a still a number of Europeans. He was Jewish and secular and I loved him for this, as I had been raised by a father who was a socialist and a Zionist and vehement about reform Judaism. Stefan brought another thing to the whole place because he'd been to the Bauhaus, and Berlin, and Israel. He was a true oddity. Because I was one myself, I didn't want to be identified with him. At the same time I really truly liked him. He wrote a lot of music down there at Black Mountain. He wrote music for a production of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, which I was in.
Friday nights were a lot of fun. People got dressed up, put on records, and danced. Stefan would go to the piano all of a sudden and start doing something, sing at the top of voice very enthusiastically something that was on his mind. Stefan depended on Olson a great deal and would demand things that Charles couldn't provide, as Stefan was always worried about money. He would always ask, "Are you working, how is your work," in a way that Americans don't take to. I was reading Spinoza at the time and we'd talk. We both adored Spinoza, the first secular Jew. I think that's one of the most marvelous things that can be said about you. I'm not a religious person, but I'm a spiritual person. I deal with it in my work all the time.
There was that competition between him and Cage. Cage was so much more devious and clever that he sometimes made Stefan look a little foolish. John had that way about him that made Stefan look like someone who wasn't quite sure of what he was saying. It would make Stefan very, very nervous. Stefan would sometimes go away red-in-the-face mad. I found it very awkward. But Black Mountain had a lot of artistic competition going on. David Tudor and M.C. Richards were much more for Cage, and Stefan was isolated.
Stefan had very strong opinions about painting, and he understood abstraction. Creeley, Duncan, and Stefan saw paintings, but Olson's ideas were off-the-wall. Wolpe told me that Klee would throw a lot of stuff out and that he would rummage through those bins and sometimes find things that he thought were terrific and keep them. Stefan told me how his brother and sister and he rebelled against their father, who kicked them out of the house. They were on the street and they put together a little act. Stefan wore pantaloons and they sang and danced for pennies. They lived this way for quite a while. I met his brother once in New York. He'd lost an eye from being beaten by the Nazis. They looked alike, but the brother was much taller. At Black Mountain he was always talking about going back to Germany.
The first time I came up to New York from Black Mountain, he gave me an address at Second Street and Second Ave. When I arrived a fire truck was there and the building had burned down. I phoned Stefan and he said there's no room to put anybody up at his place. He told me to go to a cafeteria at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and wait for a phone call. He phoned and said you can stay at Shapey's for a while. Ralph Shapey and his wife said you can stay for two nights, but that a young French composer is coming over for the first time to America and we need the space for him. Pierre Boulez showed up and I spent a day showing him around New York. We saw each other one time after that. They found me another place to stay in the West Village. In New York, I kind of apprenticed myself out. I stretched canvases for Motherwell and Gottlieb and Newman, and hung out with the abstract expressionists.
I saw Stefan at the Eighth Street Club a number of times. Stefan and de Kooning had a good relationship. I know he did with Franz [Kline]. When I worked for Mark Rothko, he mentioned how much he liked Wolpe. Wolpe seemed very comfortable in their presence. He loved painters. Stefan took me over to meet Varèse. I was in their house two or three times. I think they liked each other. Varèse impressed me. I remember the Varèse piece on Stefan's sixtieth birthday concert. Stefan bought two small paintings from me for $75. I'd go there and he'd give me $20, then $10, and then I'd go with them to dinner, and they'd give me $15 more.
Stefan was manic depressive. There were days when he'd be bouncing down the street, and other days when he looked as though he'd lost everything. He would treat you that way personally. It showed in him all the time. There was a conflict. He told me when he was very sick, you've got to learn to not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. You're a lot better off when you can do that. He was really sick the last time I saw him in 1971. He said, "My head is still working. I can work, but I can't myself physically in tune with my head. The music's there, but I can't get it down. I get so damn, fucking frustrated." And he'd kick things with the slippers that he wore. Then he'd eat some yogurt to cool down.
Basil King (b. 1935) attended Black Mountain College from 1951 and completed his apprenticeship as an abstract expressionist painter in San Francisco and New York. His art reaches through abstraction back to surrealism and forward into a new approach to the figure.