Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Painter Tom Schultz : Ab Ex, the Cedar Bar and a Ticket to Ride

by Richard Whittaker , Feb 20, 2024


 

 













photo - r. whittaker

One Sunday afternoon, nine months before this interview took place, I happened into a little art opening at the Catherine Heirsoux Gallery in Kensington. I’d discovered the little gallery a couple of years earlier and was intrigued by the hand-thrown ceramic pieces on display. I knocked on the door. No one answered. On a number of visits over the next year, I found it closed. What was the story there?
     Let me back up. With the pandemic, I’d started walking in neighborhoods I hadn’t walked in before. It’s how I discovered the “Kensington Circus”—an area of shops around a large traffic circle. There was something about the place that stirred my intuition and kept me coming back, striking up conversations, and looking for what was whispering to me. Just up the hill a few blocks, for instance, a chance encounter with an 87-year-old Egyptian woman opened into to an unforgettable conversation that I featured in w&c #40, and later even brought to a performance at Berkeley’s Marsh theater. Another day, I was surprised when I noticed “Universal Chan” lettered on a small storefront window partly hidden by the greenery climbing from planters along the sidewalk. A zendo? Apparently. And across the circle, I saw "Nan Phelps Photography" in gold leaf on a window. Hadn’t photographer Eric Klatt mentioned her? Was it another connection?
     So I walked in and introduced myself. Nan made me feel welcome, and I was right about the Erik Klatt connection. And better still, Nan knew a lot about the neighborhood, and through her, I soon met Catherine Heirsoux herself, and her daughter. Catherine was well up in years. She still lived there. And had tenants. Including a lute maker, a painter, a young man finishing his doctorate at UCB, and whoever was connected with the Zendo.  
     This journey of discovery had already fired my imagination to the point of wondering what other pieces of some invisible puzzle might be revealed when I got a note from a man I’d met several months earlier at a small Buddhist temple, Redwood Vihara, near Santa Cruz. I’d been invited to join a circle there for a day. When we’d all arrived and were sitting on our cushions in the Buddha hall, we went around the circle and introduced ourselves. It’s how I met Yadola. Although, we hit it off well, when we all departed that day, I had no expectation of seeing him again.
     So I was surprised when I got a text from Yadola. He reminded me we’d met earlier and wanted me to know he was teaching Qigong and Tai Chi in the East Bay. Might I be interested?
     It happened I would be.
     When the address I showed up at one Sunday morning matched the address of the little Zendo next door to the Heirsoux Gallery, the surprise of the coincidence had an added flavor. It turned out that not only did I find my classes with Yadola magical, but yet another uncanny connection came to light with one of his students. It wasn't long before I was friends with the Zendo’s Shifu, Da Shen, along with a number of Yadola’s students. The connections just kept expanding.
     All this background is pertinent to my introduction for the conversation that follows because of what happened one day seven or eight months after I’d begun these classes. Leaving the Zendo that day, I ran into the art opening mentioned at the beginning here.
     Catherine’s Gallery was not only open, but full of people in high spirits. It turned out that the opening was for an old friend, sculptor Joe Slusky, and his wife, painter Katie Hawkinson. As I had copies of
works & conversations in my car, I got them and handed a few out.
     One of them went to Tom Schultz.

     A couple of weeks later, I got a call from Schultz. He’d been painting for over fifty years, he said. He’d moved to Manhattan in 1959 when Abstract Expressionism was at its peak. He was twenty years old and arrived in Manhattan with an introduction that opened a door into the community of painters of “The New York School” where he was soon at home. Would I be interested in interviewing him?
     I was intrigued, but too busy to take it on. Could he check in with me in a month? A month later I was still buried with work. This repeated itself, and I noticed that his persistence had none of the negative atmosphere I would have expected. Finally, after more than six months, one Sunday morning I made my way over to his rent-controlled apartment in north Berkeley. I wondered how it would go.
      I had a little trouble finding his unit and sent him a text. A couple of minutes later, Tom appeared from around the side of the building in his bathrobe, limping, and led me in.
     His was an artist’s place—hung with paintings and photos. Others were propped against walls while prints, postcards and mementos were pinned and taped up in the remaining wall space. Window sills, cabinets and bookcases served as pedestals for sculptures, assemblages and tchotchkes. We chatted for a bit before Schultz said, “I think I’ll go and get dressed.” When he returned, looking more in order, I soon began recording. He is speaking about his art work.…


Tom Schultz:    It’s like a spiral. It gets bigger and bigger. There’s no end to it. I never went to art school, but I had a high school teacher in Colorado Springs. This was like a college course. He had beginning, advanced, and second-year advanced, and the bible was Robert Henri, The Art Spirit.

In Henri’s definition of art - I wish I had the page - he said, “You don’t have to be a painter or a sculptor, or whatever, to be an artist. In life, you have to see the art in the game in whatever you do.” And that was important. He opened up our frontal lobes, and he certainly made us aware of the New York School of Painting, and the Moderns. We did things like silk screening, a design-and-build-your-own-house, quarter-inch scale. We had life drawing; we had oil painting, and sometimes, we had just rhetoric from him.

Richard Whittaker:   I see that you’ve got a Franz Marc poster over there [pointing]

Schultz:   Yeah, a German Expressionist.

RW:   Right. It says, “Pioneer of Spiritual Abstraction.” What do you think of that?

Schultz:   Well, I think “spirituality” is a general term for most art—and the German Expressionists were incredible. And of course, what’s his name, the curator here?

RW:   Peter Selz?

Schultz:   Peter Selz. He saw my work and liked it. So many great people I knew are now gone. But I’ll go back to the high school teacher. He told us to see a painter by the name of Charles Bunnell, who came out of Kansas City. Bunnell would do realistic paintings, scenes of Colorado and so forth. He had a show at the Bodley Gallery in New York. I don’t know where he met her, but he knew Elaine de Kooning—and he could do the whole New York School.

When he got back to Colorado, he became completely abstract. He had a show, I think, at the Colorado Springs Art Center, and we were told to go see it. Oh, wow, it blew our minds. He was fantastic.

I had a show in Colorado Springs myself. Bunnel and his wife came over and saw my work. He said, “I want you to be a student of mine.” He had a studio in Colorado City, so I went there. He used to paint on the floor—Indian prayer rugs. He used to sit in the half-lotus position and work on a large painting. Because he poured things, he wanted it level. He was into Eastern philosophy way before it was popular here.

So I studied with him for about a year, and he says, “You’re wasting your time here kid. Go to New York.” And he gave me some names. He knew Gene Monahan, who came out of Minnesota and had been in school with Eugene Ormandy, the conductor. She was a portrait painter and had rented a whole building with a studio where she painted. And she turned it into a gallery—the Studio Gallery. I went there and Jean gave me a one-man show in November 1959. …

Now, here’s a story for you. I went to the Art Institute in Chicago, saw Matisse, saw all this beautiful work, and I got on a train from Chicago to New York. I was in a smoking car (in those days they had smoking cars) and a fellow sitting across from me, he says, “You got a light?” So, I have a matchbook, and with one hand, I clicked the match and gave him a light. “Oh,” he says, “You’re mechanically minded.” Anyhow, we get into quite a talk about life and work. Turns out, he had a piano company, and after we got to Penn Station, he hires me! He puts me up in the York Hotel up on 82nd Street. Do you know Manhattan? [a little] So I’m in this bar. It was August 13th 1959. And I brought all kinds of shit, including paintings and books. I had a trunk you could hardly lift. He hired me to do mechanical work on his pianos way up by 97th and 3rd Avenue. I didn’t know how to play pianos or anything, but I was re-pinning and adjusting the hammers, and doing all this action work. I was making a buck and a quarter an  hour.

Anyhow, I had this show at The Studio Gallery, and of course I went to see Elaine de Kooning, because Elaine knew of Charles Bunnell very well. She did a portrait of Bunnell years ago. Elaine was incredible. Well, she was married to Bill [Willem DeKooning]. She was such a great promoter of that movement. She wrote for Hess, for Artnews—three pages: “An Artist’s Studio.” That’s when Artnews was a magazine, rather than the commercial rag it is now, I’d say. So Elaine tells me, “If you want to meet some of the artists, go to the Cedar Bar.”

I go into the Cedar Bar. Herman Somberg, a painter—not a big-time guy, he had kind of a lisp—he looks up and, “Hey, it’s Tommy Schultz from Colorado!” Oh, shit, you know? We’d talk a little bit. He says, “By the way, do you want to meet Franz Kline?”

We go up to the bar and Herman says, “Here’s Tommy Schultz, an artist from Colorado.” Kline looks at me and says, “You want a beer, kid?” (Fifteen cents for a glass of beer in those days.) So I got to meet Kline.

I met all kinds of people at the Cedar Bar. The reason? It was just a beat-up bar. The window had dead geraniums in it. No jukebox. No TV. Just rhetoric. Just booze and talk. All the artists… the reason they went to the Cedar Bar? There was the club nearby. The club was a forum. Because these artists were greeted very hostile when they first started painting—the New York School. They got together to think what to do about their situation as artists. They didn’t know what to call themselves. Someone said, “If you don’t pick a name, someone else is going to throw a label on you.” That’s when they picked up “Abstract Expressionism.” It just came out of Kandinsky way back in the teens.

RW:   Okay.

Schultz:   So, other than that label, you have to look at all the artists—Kline, de Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell. They’re quite different. But at least that was the label. One of the most important shows was the 9th Street show in 1951. Kline did the announcement. All the major painters were there in that little gallery. Of course, it was limited. Now everyone’s an artist. But these were the major painters. None of them sold a piece. But it was all run by the artists—including the co-op galleries on 10th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue: the Tanager, the Phoenix, the Brata, the Area, and so forth. On Friday night, they’d all open up, and they were all run by the artists.

All this was outside the gallery situation. Uptown did not want to handle these artists. They were handling European Abstract painters. Do you see what I mean? They got Peggy Guggenheim. They had Pollock.

Charles Egan, now he was an Irishman who had almost everyone but Pollock. And he lived with the artists. I mean, he was like part of the artists, you know? Kline was very close. He was a real guy. But he wasn’t a big business guy. He went in and out of business. Then they all went to Sidney Janis. This is when the money starts coming into the picture—big money. Right?

People would come to the bar—who’s-a-hot-artist? kind of thing. This is when they were already getting fairly famous. The uptown galleries didn’t like Kline. They were scared of the black and whites. It took a long time for Kline to make it. De Kooning already was going pretty strong. I worked for Kline. I worked for Elaine. I worked for Ad Reinhardt. I knew Rothko, but didn’t work for him. He came into the piano store once, looking for a piano for his daughter.

RW:   Fascinating stuff, Tom. What was Ad Reinhardt like?           

Schultz:   He was a humorous guy. Abe Schlemowitz, who was a sculptor—his brother, Pete, had a cabinet shop and made all the stretchers for Kline, Rothko, de Kooning, and so forth—huge stretchers out of sugar pine. They were beautiful. Pete and Jerry were also carpenters, and we worked for Reinhardt. Pete made these stretchers for Reinhardt, and I stretched them up.  

You know, he did those black paintings. It had to be flat black. It couldn’t have any shine or nothing. So, he sold a painting to some woman, and the women called him up and says we bought this painting of yours, but there’s some slight damage. We’d like you to repair it. Reinhardt says, “I have another painting in my studio from the same genre. I’ll ship it to you for nothing and we’ll just exchange paintings.”

The woman says, “No. We like this particular painting.”

Reinhardt says, “Listen, this painting in my studio looks more like that painting than that painting looks like that painting.” [laughs]

Robert Goodnough, I worked for him a lot. Three bucks an hour. I did stretchers for him. Stretched the canvas, helped him hang the show. I did everything for him.

RW:  I'm thinking of Stieglitz and 291 now.

Schultz:   Stieglitz goes way back. As a matter of fact, he had Modern paintings before the Armory Show. I saw a recreation of it 50 years later on Lexington Avenue. I moved around Manhattan, but the main studio I had was on 350 Bowery, which was basically 3rd Street—below Cooper Union. I signed the lease with my friend Bobby Bowles, who I met at the 10th Street coffee shop. It was owned by Mickey Ruskin who started Max’s Kansas City. We shared the place on the Bowery—$65 dollars a month.

RW:   This all must have been one hell of a time, Tom.

Schultz:   The dynamic at that time was incredible—from painting to jazz. The Five Spot, the jazz joint was across the street. I caught Monk, Mingus and ’Trane, live there. The painters from the Cedar Bar came to the Five Spot to enjoy the improv jazz and share the improv of their own painting. Now, there’s a marriage that not everyone knows about.

RW:   Nice.

Schultz:   The jazz people loved my work. I can almost see the paintings, listening to Monk and Mingus. Now I want to tell you [picks up a vinyl album] about Ken Nordine. He did “word jazz” on an LP. One of the cuts is called The Sound Museum. He says [intones], “Let me invite you to the Sound Museum.” So, you go in and he says, “Let me turn this painting on and you’ll hear the music.” He turns the painting on, and you hear the paintings. A fantastic guy, Ken Nordine. What a voice! His sound—word jazz. Rhino Records. He lived well into his nineties. I have hundreds of jazz records in my studio. You’ve got to see my studio when I can get there. It’s still redlined. [there was a fire in his studio, a disaster in which he was badly burned.]

Anyhow, to go back to the Bowery. I did a lot of work there, a lot of paintings. And here’s all the museums—the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Brooklyn Museum—and all of the galleries. The dynamic in those days was incredible. In fact, you had to actually kind of push against it. You had to find your own way. And then, if somebody had an opening uptown (besides the 10th Street shows) it was hard to get in a gallery uptown. This was big money now—Sidney Janis and all these big galleries. If you had a show there, you could hardly see the paintings, there were so many people in the place. And then a party. Went on to four in the morning. This happened at the artist’s studio. Larry Rivers playing his saxophone, and dancing, and booze. Oh, shit. I tell you!  It was an incredible time because all of that culture was there.

I was showing at 10th Street—the Brata Gallery—and maybe the Phoenix. I forget. The Tanager was the first one there with major artists. I think Al Held was in the Brata Gallery. The Krushenick Brothers had it—John and Nick. John had a frame shop in the back. We used to call it the Brata Bar & Gallery. John used to say, “Here’s a couple of dollars. Get me some Napolean Brandy.” So, all the artists would come back to this little frame shop. It was on 3rd Avenue, just south of 10th Street. His brother, Nick, was a big-time gallery guy and he had a black hearse that he delivered art with.

And like I say, I was sharing a place with Bobby Bowles. I finally got the place downstairs—my own place—because in the beginning we were sharing the top of a three-story building. The Chunky Candy Store was down below. Across the street was the Salvation Army. A woman sang there off key for three years without hitting a note. Oh, and “Naked City” had a studio around there; it was a TV show, a cop show. I used to watch them film right on the streets.  

So, I moved around.

Later on, I was even in an apartment on 5th Street. [pauses] Oh, in the 60s, we had SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee], and CORE, the Civil Rights Movement.… We had the anti-war movement going on. We had all this happening. You know, Kennedy gets shot. Malcolm gets shot - Oh, my God.

My friend Mike Mulhern, a painter I met—we both were carpenters. We did this whole house. Oh, shit. I used to renovate brownstones. I was a good carpenter. I helped make the cabinet there.

RW:   Really? That’s nice.

Schultz:   The stack of records on the right is some of the best folk music in the country.

RW:   I was looking at a couple of them. Some great stuff there.

Schultz:   Anyhow, in ’64, I went to Mexico. I went down to Ajijic.

RW:   What led you to go to Mexico?

Schultz:   I always wanted to get to Mexico, and a friend of mine knew Arthur Monroe, a black painter who came out of Brooklyn. Helluva a good painter. A major painter. He knew Charlie Parker. He was down in Najajec. That’s near Lake Chapala. He had a house and a nice courtyard. He was painting. I stayed there for a while. Went down to Mexico City. Acapulco. The whole thing. I walked the hell out of Mexico City. Came back to Colorado Springs to see the family, and went back to New York. Then, finally, we moved out here.

One day I was at the Oakland Museum. There were a lot of people there. I was with Oris Gut, who was a Swiss photographer. After that we went out to Lake Merritt and were sitting on the grass. I didn’t recognize Arthur at first. Then I said, “Arthur Monroe, I stayed at your house in Mexico!” Well, we got to be good friends. He was head register at the Oakland Museum, and he did a lot of brilliant writing. I think Smithsonian has a lot of his papers and stuff. The man was a writer. The man was one of the smartest artists I ever met. At the Artists Group—it started 50 years ago— there was Arthur Monroe, Terry St. John, myself, Erle Loran and…

RW:   Marvin Lipofsky?

Schultz:   Yeah, Marvin. I told him to screw off once, because he was against rent control. Funny, that guy. Someone asked who was your major influence? When it came to Arthur, he says, Charlie Parker—because of the improv.

Anyway, I have this great studio at Peter Voulkos’ Macaroni building. 57th Avenue. 1400 square feet. I have a shop. I have a table saw. I got lumber. I make all my stretchers. I stretch all my canvas. I do everything. I got two or three hundred paintings there. I got my wife’s photography there. I got paintings from other people.

RW:   I keep looking at that photograph, Tom [pointing]. Who’s that?

Schultz:   That’s my stepdaughter. That’s Marianne’s daughter. Vicki Sue Robinson, a famous singer. She had a hit record in ’76, “Turn the Beat Around,” which was written by two black guys. It was Number One for 26 weeks solid. She was in “Hair” she was in “Superstar.” She had a contract with RCA. She was a terrific human being. I miss her, too.

Of course, I lost Jolly (Marianne), and I lost her daughter. Marianne was a Communist in the 50s because of Pete Seeger and the Labor Movement. I finally met Bill Robinson. Once he came to the apartment on 82nd Street, on the West Side, to give a present to his daughter, Vicki. She was out of town, but all three of us went to see an Alvin Ailey show. Then later we ended up at this bar underneath the Ed Sullivan Theater. We sat and talked, and I found out how much love the guy really had in him—Marianne’s ex.

RW:   Now tell me again. I’m getting lost.

Schultz:  Vicki is the daughter of my wife.

RW:  Marianne?

Schultz:   Marianne is who I met in ’69, by the way.

RW:   And she was your wife?

Schultz:   Not legally. But we were together 51 years. I met Pete Seeger through her. I met people like Harry Belafonte. I met John Randolph, a great actor. By the way, I knew Zero Mostel, too. He was blacklisted. John Randolph was blacklisted. It was all out of the HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] thing. Pete Seeger was going to be blacklisted, but they pull didn’t press it. Maryann was going to do a concert at Carnegie Hall to keep him out of the can, you know. She did so much about putting people together. She worked for all the nonprofits. She worked for Alan Lomax, and she worked for all the folk people, and so on.

She had a little camera, an Instamatic, and was taking doorway shots in New York. Terrific little photographs. I bought her a Nikkormat and she ran with it. She did her own printing—the whole thing. See those photos over there? [points] They’re all hers.

RW:   You’ve got some great photos here. You know, listening to your stories, I just can’t believe what your life must have been like.

Schultz:   Yeah. Well, we fell in love. I think she needed some lovin.’ And so did I.

RW:   That’s her, that beautiful photo behind you?

Schultz:   Yes. She was a beautiful woman. She was one of the greatest human beings I ever met. On Saturday afternoon, 1969, I met her at St. Adrian’s Bar, which was at the bottom of the Broadway Central Hotel. It was just a beat-up bar. Steel workers used to drink there. Nothing to it at all. Some of the bartenders from Max’s Kansas City opened up the joint and made it a fantastic artist bar. A buck a drink—a lot of it. Top shelf and bottom shelf.

It was a Saturday afternoon. I’m at the end of the bar. We were properly introduced by the bartender, Harry. She’d already met my friend Bobby Bowles, who was a photographer, painter, then sculptor.

I took her and got her a prime rib dinner, and we kind of fell in love. I took her home. She was up on 82nd Street between Columbus and Central Park West. I lived with her for a short time. Then I got my own place. I needed a studio. We lived together, and separately. Then finally, we came out here on vacation in ’79. We had friends. There was an old Leftie she knew from Philly. He started a folk workshop in Philly. Then Eleanor Walden, a high school friend. They both grew up in Arden, Delaware. Upton Sinclair was there, and Mother Bloor, who was head of the Communist Party—freethinkers, all kinds, in just one-square mile.

Her mother, Amy Potter, was part of the beginnings of Arden, Delaware. There were a few single tax colonies like that.

RW:   What does that mean, single tax?

Schultz:   Meaning that you could have your house and everything else, but you couldn’t own the property. The property was all within the structure of the community, and you paid one tax, I guess. Arden, Delaware. You’d be interested in following that up. One-square mile.

So we decided somehow to come to San Francisco, and we got this place. I signed the lease in ’80, and I got into making cabinets. Before that, I met Jonathan Maar, right up on Martin Luther King Way. He hired me as a carpenter and we built a small house in the back for Sara Ishikawa, who was a well-known architect. “Here are some plans. I got the job. Would you want to do 50%?” No contract. A handshake.

RW:   And the handshake was good?

Schultz:   Yeah. That’s back in the old days. That’s how my father—that’s how everyone—did business. You know? I have a lot of working class stories, too. I’ve done a lot of work in my day.

RW:   I get that. It sounds like you’ve been constantly working and painting and doing something.

Schultz:   Yes. And everything I did was to keep the painting going. Of course, in the 70s, when I met Marianne, I put most of my time into the relationship. I helped with her photography and the whole thing. My real work, after all that dynamic from New York—I was 40 years old when I arrived here in California—and based on my New York experience, and since I was paying very little rent, I developed to where I am now as a painter. I mean, I did paintings in Colorado, before I hit New York, but my major work has been done here.

I’m a good friend of Matt Gonzalez, who’s a public defender, and he helped me get some shows. I know Matt for 25-30 years.

RW:   Is he the one who ran for Mayor in SF a few years back?

Schultz:  Yeah, against Gavin Newsom.

RW:   And he’s at Dolby Chadwick Gallery.

Schultz:   Yeah. So, I told Matt, “I’m the artist. You’re the lawyer, and you’ve got a gallery.”

RW:   Here’s a question. You said you did all the cabinet work and all this stuff for your art..

Schultz:   To survive.

RW:   It’s a big question. What is it about your painting that makes it worth sacrificing everything else…            

Schultz:   It’s my life. After the high school thing—listen, I’ll show you a painting that I did before New York. I did it at 19 years old. Do you want to see it?

RW:   Sure.  

Schultz:   [shows me] I did that painting in Colorado. It’s about 40” by 48,” something like that. I was 19 years old when I did that. I had it in my studio in Oakland, and Bill Gilmartin, my major collector, he wanted that painting. I says, it’s not for sale, and if it was, it’d be 25 grand. Do you know what?

RW:   What?

Schultz:   He gave me 20 grand for that painting.

RW:   That’s amazing. So this is a question I like to ask artists. I like to ponder this question myself.

Schultz:   Yes?

RW:   What is it that we get from making art that is so important to us?

Schultz:   It’s like who you are. It’s that creative part of yourself. Sometimes I hate to use the word “artist” to ordinary people, because they say, “Oh, you’re an artist. I have no creative ability.” I say “What do you mean you don’t have any? What about cooking? What about architecture? What about car design? What about human relationships?” And you say you’re not an artist. You’re putting me in a special place. I’m just a human being that paints. It’s a way of expressing yourself.

Now, there’s a term I heard somewhere. It’s called “transfer of energy.” I like to use that phrase. If you really know and understand a piece of music - let’s say the energy that the musician puts into the music - you get that energy back. Same way with painting. If someone really understands the situation, the energy you put into that creative process, it transfers. I call it a transfer of energy.

RW:   That’s beautiful, isn’t it?

Schultz:   I don’t know where I heard that, but I think it’s a beautiful term.

RW:   Well that little painting you did in high school, has some of that magic in it.

Schultz:   Yeah. Now, here’s the thing - no art school. I’m not a trained artist.

I tell em, “I’m a wild artist.” Well, basically outside of Bunnell and of course, the New York School, which I learned a lot from, I’m really self-taught, you know. My strength is imagination. I’ll quote Albert Einstein. He said, “Imagination is worth more than knowledge.”

RW:   What do you think is meant by that word, imagination? For instance, people get caught up with “How I should have done this differently.” Mulling over everything after the fact and imagining what could happen in the future. It's not that, is it?

Schultz:   I see a physical object and I can turn it into something. That’s one thing my strength is. See these little sculptures? I did these here just from pieces of scrap laying around since September. Before, I was just staring at the wall, and I didn’t know what to do. But I do have a good imagination, however you want to define it.

They take art out of our schools. There’s no activity that art is not involved with, you know. Art’s involved with every activity, and we sort of cut it off. We don’t even consider craft as an art. “It’s a craft.” Which I think is BS, you know. I mean take a chair. A good chair, a handmade chair, is three, four, five thousand. It’s a piece of art; a really good piece of art.

RW:   I mean, there’s something that happens with what we would call “a great piece of art” that’s different from just the ordinary stuff around us.

Schultz:   Yeah, okay. I can see it. Do you know what defines great art for me?

RW:   What?

Schultz:   It's to have someone who has that aesthetic value, also know how to paint. A lot of painters can do a good painting. I don’t think good painting is all that important by itself. Only if it’s a good painting, plus it represents him. In other words, instead of copying someone. There’s a lot of good art out there, but is it really intrinsic to their own life? Now that’s where I have a respect for some of my work. The most important thing, whether it be good or not, it comes out of my own life.

Like my work has the structures of the urban landscape of New York, and also the horizontal from the West. Those are two basic - how would you say? - abstract motifs coming out of a subject matter. Let’s call it “subject matter.” Part of it is Abstract Expressionism, where Sid Gordon calls me “a process painter,” meaning I take paint and throw it on the canvas, and from there - that’s how some of these work. [points] I took black paint and just threw it on the canvas, and then manipulated it. That comes out of the process.

RW:   Okay.

Schultz:   These are quite different than my early work. Have you looked at this book? [photos of a collection of Schultz’s paintings]

RW:   I haven’t looked at it. [I sit and look through it page by page]

Schultz:  These were all in my studio. I like that particular one because it’s a monochrome painting. That’s 2001.

RW:   It’s beautiful.

Schultz:   Yeah. I just start painting. People look at my work from California and they say, “Oh, you must be influenced by Diebenkorn.” That’s just… Well, he’s a great painter, as good as any New York painter. I wasn’t influenced by Diebenkorn. Californians don’t understand abstraction as New Yorkers. The New York school put this country on the map. Period.

It was like a family. They treated me very well. As a young painter, they hired me to paint the loft, stretch the canvas, do all of that because Sidney Janis, for one—they wanted to paint. They wanted to show. Kline thought Sidney Janis was just a business guy. Charlie Egan was the guy they really respected, because he lived with the artists, he was really something else.

RW:   Yeah.

Schultz:   So, Egan calls up Kline once and says, “We sold a painting of yours.” So he comes over and they go to a bar, and they’re drinking all night. Finally, Kline says, “What about the money for my painting?” And Egan says, “We just drank it.” [laughs] Joe Stefanelli told me that.

My friend Caspar Henselmann, he’s a sculptor. He had a big loft on Bond Street. He did medical artwork for a living, but he did huge pieces—all kinds of welded sculpture in Europe. He introduced me to Walter Bischoff, who had a ranch down in San Jose, up in the hills, and he sold a small painting of mine. So eventually Bischoff invites me to Amerika Haus in Stuttgart, which shared both cultures—German and American culture. Bischoff also had a gallery in Chicago.

RW:   Okay.

Schultz:   So because of my friend Caspar, I get invited to Amerika Haus in ’94, I think it was. I brought 18 paintings, rolled up, and I made the stretchers in Germany, and I had a show at America House. So after the show, I found out Cologne had all these galleries, and I found out this gallery in Köln and I had a show; I sold some work.

What I really want besides money, is I need some recognition for what I’ve done. That’s what I really would like.

RW:   Yeah. And think that’s in short supply.

Schultz:   Exactly. Mort Cohn is a neighbor here. It’s the first house going east.

RW:   I know Mort. He’s a good man.

Schultz:   And I think, “Why don’t you go out and hustle or something?” He doesn’t want a website. He does not want to hustle. He doesn’t want to do anything, but work on his art - and he gives it away. I said, “I’m becoming more like you. I’m going to be doing the same thing.”

RW:   There’s something to be said for giving your stuff away.

Schultz:   It belongs somewhere, anyhow. So let’s say somebody buys your painting. There it goes. Why don’t you give it to people you like, if they do like it?

RW:   I think you’re touching on something deep right there.

Schultz:   Exactly. I’d like to. I want to make a list.

RW:   You know, I think my journey is heading in the same direction.

Schultz:   Yes.

RW:   Thanks, Tom. I think it’s a good place to stop. ∆

Postscript:
Four weeks after our interview I got a note that Tom Schultz had passed away the morning of March 2, 2024—eleven days after this interview.
     Trying to take in the shock, I looked back to that morning. I’d given him a hug when I’d left. It was heartfelt. And I’d assumed we’d be in touch later so I could get more information about specific images. I also hoped to see some of the “two or three hundred” paintings stranded in his studio due to complications from a small fire a few months earlier.    
      I’d been touched when, toward the end of the interview he’d remarked that, like his next door neighbor Mort Cohn, he was thinking about giving his paintings away—“Let’s say somebody buys your painting. There it goes,” he said. Given away or sold, either way it was gone. He spoke of making a list of friends who liked his work.
     So as I left Tom that morning, I looked forward to further contact about each painting and eventually giving him copies of the new issue in which he would be prominently featured. His story, and reproductions of some his paintings, would enter the larger world, and who could say how far recognition of his life’s work might spread?
     The lift that comes for an artist in being featured in the magazine is one of the best rewards of having founded works & conversations. But it wasn‘t until a few weeks later that I realized there was something about meeting and interviewing Tom Schultz I hadn’t been aware of. It had to do with why I’d started an art magazine over 30 years ago at the age of 47.
     In my search for a life of meaning, I’d transferred from one college or university to another five times, and switched majors as many times before getting a B.A. in philosophy in 1966. But I could not have imagined the life changing experiences that lay ahead. In 1975 I’d discovered photography and was stunned by the moments of transport I experienced in the places of strange beauty and mystery I sometimes encountered. By 1985 I'd also discovered that the currency of such images, even when they succeeded in capturing some of this, had expired in the art world. In 1938 painter Max Beckman could say, “In my opinion all important things in art have always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of Being” and his words would find resonance. This was no longer the case in Los Angeles or San Francisco in 1985.  
     In the photography of Minor White, Edward Weston et al, mystery and beauty were celebrated. And in painting, Abstract Expressionism was the last movement, at least in the U.S., in which artists embraced without apology the sentiments expressed by Robert Henri in his book The Art Spirit, which had also inspired Schultz. Henri’s deep optimism was still alive during the 1950s, and certainly among the artists of The New York School.
     My own discovery of, and disappointment with, the loss of that affirmation was behind a spontaneous decision to start an art magazine in 1990. The Secret Alameda became works & conversations in 1998. If no one else was to honor these timeless moments then maybe it was something I could attempt. The temerity of the impulse was daunting. But surely people were still moved by what Gertrude Stein had said about poets, that henceforth they would "have to work in the excitingness of pure being.” And as I began interviewing artists, I found that deep experiences of transformation in the creative process were widely recognized and held close to the core of what kept them going.
     As time went by, my choice seemed less grandiose and enough encouragement came my way to keep going. But what I hadn’t realized until a few weeks had passed after my interview with Tom Scultz was that it was the first time I'd met and interviewed a living artist who was quintessentially embedded in that era of high aspiration and exuberance, an era that had been lost in the wake of the Postmodern Critique with its rejection of all “grand narratives.”
     It was as if something had come full circle. A living exemplar of the spirit of that former time I'd set out to honor had entered my life and the pages of w&c. It was something immeasurable.

A few weeks after that interview, a small memorial was held for Tom Schultz at glass artist David Ruth’s studio in Oakland where I met several of Schultz’s longtime friends. As one story followed another around a circle of sharing, my sense of the man I’d met almost just yesterday grew. Many spoke of his generosity. Others said, “I never heard Tom speak ill of anyone.” One man added a qualification, “As long I didn’t say certain words related to the labor movement, like ‘worker’ everything was good.”
     His remark was met with knowing laughter. Schultz was a deep leftie, as made clear in the interview. His partner, Marianne, had a lot to do with that. Through her, he’d absorbed the world of Pete Seeger and the workers’ struggle with the Lords of Capitalism, and was quick to heat up when that subject came up in conversation.
     As one recollection followed another, I could feel the deep sentiment in the room. Tom Schultz had friends. Artists. Fellow travelers. They loved him, and he them. ∆
 

 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker if the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.                  

 

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