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Estéban Vicente

I was one of the members of the Eighth Street Club. I don't know whether Stefan was a member or not, but he was a friend of everyone, and he used to come very often with Hilda. At the same time in that period, when there was a concert of contemporary music, the audience was the artists and the musicians, nobody else. In painting it was the same. An opening in New York City in a gallery--who were there? The other painters and the musicians too. So it was like a family. And eventually always he appeared. At that time, it was beautiful in that sense, because everybody was close. There were disagreements and discussions, but yet was this human aspect that was very fine. And Stefan was very much part of that in Black Mountain, too, and everywhere he went.

From the moment I met him I had the feeling of a superior man, as a man with a great integrity, a real sense of dignity that these days is gone. So from that moment on we became very close. Then later I went to Black Mountain College, where he was, and I remember a piece, Battle Piece, he called it. He told me that he thought that this Battle Piece was related to a painting of mine. I remember I was with him in Madrid once. He came with Hilda, and I was there visiting, so I took him to see the frescoes of Goya in the little chapel in Madrid. And we spent the whole time together there, and it was a wonderful experience with him. [...] A very warm person, very human, full of passion. He was the most decent person I know. No malice, nothing like that. He was not competitive, he was not playing politics, he was free. And that, to me, is the image of Wolpe.

He had a mind. Coming from the North of Europe Wolpe had that power. My suspicions are that he was keen about the Expressionism of Germany, very much so. But I don't think he was affected by the things that happened later, like the surrealism in painting. I believe constructivism was also important. Because I remember for instance that when he was talking about music at Black Mountain and other places, one thing that was stressed so many times were the intervals. And intervals, to me, were very related to painting in many ways. In painting's terms the interval is the space between forms. An interval becomes a form itself. Intervals in painting are very instrumental, because they didn't exist with the impressionists. By instinct the man that had that without trying to specify except in the work itself was Van Gogh. The interval to me is part of the whole structure of the work and its form. So that's what he was talking about in relation to music. When Stefan talked about intervals and all the elements, it is exactly the same as what happened in painting. These problems in painting have been clarified in the twentieth century only. The aspect that did that was Cubism before anything else. Cubism is a purely plastic movement. Surrealism is not, it is a literary movement, not plastic. Surrealism in painting is an addition to something, it is not fundamental. But Cubism is the essential of the whole thing. What comes from Cubism is that everything should be solid, everything should be related, and moving. And I think Stefan did that. So Stefan in that sense was keen about Cubism. I was very receptive to the structure especially. He was so clear and so solid, in a way, that it relates to my ideal in painting too, which actually, I think, comes from Cubism. So I see similarities between things that happened in Germany in that period in music more than in painting. Because Expressionism is fine, yet doesn't have the structure that the Cubists brought back into painting. And this cubist structure is related in a way to Wolpe's work. That's my theory. So I remember the quality of his sound in the music, the way it was related, the way it was put together, very solid. His music on the one side has the background of the part of Europe where he comes from, Germany, and on the other is what he is as a person. It's a combination of things, the structure in his music and this kind of freedom is what I call Mediterranean. So he was really a very complex person. Wolpe was a very incredible person in many ways, and full of mystery. What remains in spite of everything as a memory is his passion, his emotion.

I don't think he was interested in Primitivism the way the painters that time in Europe did it, like Picasso and everybody else, looking at Black art, and the African art. I know he loved Cézanne, but I think he loved also Juan Gris. I think the cubism of Picasso was important, but Bracque too. I prefer Bracque. Not quite Léger, more Paul Klee. He sometimes talked about Klee. Paul Klee I think was much more in his feelings than any other painter. Paul Klee has been it seems to me one of the great influences in painting in this country. Stefan was more a man that was involved with something basically formal, and yet with the formal has the freedom to move. [...]

When I came was when Albers left [Black Mountain] and went to Yale University. And the man who took over was Charles Olson, the poet, a wonderful man, an incredible man. And Wolpe has been there already for some time. Stefan was very much aloof in a way, and yet part of the whole thing. I could not think of him being part of a group. Stefan was very involved with any kind of thing that related to life, but at the same time he was aloof in his own way. He was not the type that by nature needs to be involved with others in terms of ideas about his work. I remember that he and Olson went to Texas to see a very wealthy old lady, asking for help. They didn't get anything from her. [...]

Wolpe was very much involved with nature. Very much the opposite of Varèse. Varèse didn't like nature. Varèse couldn't stay in the countryside ten minutes. He needed the city. And by the way I think the music of Varèse is fundamentally the sounds of the city. Stefan's isolation [at Black Mountain] was a need in order to do what he had to do at that point. Otherwise, certainly, the city to him was very important, as much as the countryside. To him both were important.

Another thing is he didn't have nostalgia, which is very healthy. He was involved with actuality, reality, the reality of the moment. The interesting thing to me is that from the beginning he looked to me physically like a Spaniard, physically. I didn't know if his family was Sephardic. To me he was a Spaniard completely, his face, his temperament.

A first generation abstract expressionist, Spanish-born (1903-2000) painter Estéban Vicente's work can be found in virtually every major museum collection in the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim. Vicente is one of the last surviving members of the New York School of artists, whose members included de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline. He recently presided over the inauguration of the Estéban Vicente Contemporary Art Museum in Segovia, Spain. Interview: AC, New York City, December 1984.


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