Just over a year ago, I heard Irving Sandler lecture at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, about A Sweeper-Up after Artists , which at the time he must have been finishing. What was so striking was not just the quality of the audience or the first-handedness with which he dealt us just about every card in the living memory of the New York City art pack, but the warmth and generosity he projected.
In the past 50 years, he has either known or today still hangs out with the best artists working in and around the city. He tells us that for ten years he spent every night at the infamous Cedar Street Tavern, nursing a beer while his artist friends did the more aggressive drinking and talking. He tells great stories about the famous and speaks candidly about the temperament and ambition of artists such as Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein.
With this book standing in my mind as an authentic history, I can think of no better way of getting a taste of what Sandler has "swept up" than to highlight what he read to us that evening on 92nd Street.
The first story he chose started when he and a couple of friends set out to make one of his now-legendary films of artists in action in their studios.
The year is 1955 and they have lugged the camera, lights and all the other paraphernalia of old-fashioned film-making up three flights of stairs to "Bill's", Wilhelm de Kooning's studio.
"I said, 'OK Bill paint!' He had a stunning picture in progress, and he painted on it in a Pollock-like-according-to-Namuth's-film manner. Our camera followed the flailing brush and dancing feet. It couldn't have been better as film."
A few days later, Sandler bumped into Bill on 10th Street and asked how the painting was going. "I dumped it," he said. When asked why, he said, "I don't really paint that way, what I do is spend most of my time sitting in a chair, trying to work out what to do next." Thinking that would make a very boring film, he told Sandler he just acted something out for the camera. When reminded that people would think he really painted that way, he just laughed.
Another film was also set in Bill's studio. This time it is a party, attended by Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala. Bill greets them at the door, but no one else takes much notice, Dalí gets involved in conversation with a small group, then Gala says something across the room to her husband in Spanish, and they leave immediately. The one Spanish speaker in the room told us what she said just after they had left. "She said there's no money to be made here - let's leave."
Tens of stories such as these are hooked together to reconstruct this very important segment of the story of American art.
The best art critics, like the best obituarists, are brilliant dinner guests, good talkers, mines of information and are always itching to tell you the stuff that the formalities of their job prevent them from writing.
This book is a dinner date with some who can take you from Pollock through Vietnam to Chris Burden. Not just a powerful tool for students and scholars, it is a book worth reading for pleasure.
Stephen Farthing is a Royal Academician resident in Manhattan.
A Sweeper-Up after Artists
Author - Irving Sandler
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 384
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 500 23813 8