On Not Becoming Loners and Fading Away: An Overview of the Philip Pavia and Natalie Edgar Archive of Abstract Expressionist Art

Accessing the Philip Pavia archive at Emory University. Photo by Devin M. Brown.
Accessing the Philip Pavia and Natalie Edgar Archive of Abstract Expressionist Art at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). Photo by Devin M. Brown.

“If it wasn’t for our persistent gatherings, I am sure we would have all become loners and faded away.” 
-Philip Pavia, Club Without Walls

Emory University is probably not best known as a haven for the visual arts. The university recently announced plans to cut its visual art department, meaning that the activity of artmaking and art practice will no longer be integral parts of the university’s mission. In spite of this regrettable decision, the arts-related archives housed at places like MARBL, Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, may give students and working artists in Atlanta a reason to make the trek to Emory to dig through materials related to the enterprise of art production and consumption.

MARBL has garnered international attention for acquiring a handful of landmark fine arts collections, especially the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library and the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection. Scholar and fellow BURNAWAY contributor Kate Doubler has also written in recent months about MARBL’s outstanding holdings of artist books, a collection she has curated and commented upon extensively.

As a former library employee and grad student at Emory I was aware of these treasures. But I was surprised to learn while reading Kay Larson’s new biography of John Cage (Where the Heart Beats) that MARBL holds a major archive related to the Abstract Expressionists, one of the most iconic and explosive art movements of the Twentieth Century.

At the heart of this collection is a sculptor named Philip Pavia. Pavia was doggedly determined to foment an artistic revolution by keeping his friends and counterparts in constant, if oftentimes uneasy, dialogue. The way he planned to do this was by starting a private club for working artists, a refuge on the one hand from the seedy cafeterias in which they had formerly congregated, and a sanctuary on the other from the people who frequented New York’s uptown galleries and who were enthralled by the expatriate Surrealists who had fled Europe due to the Second World War. The artists who frequented what became the Eighth Street Club—an elite group of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, and intellectuals whose members included Elaine and Willem De Kooning, John Cage, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kline, and a host of others—saw themselves as outsiders in every respect. And Pavia made it his mission to provide a space for them meet to hash out their ideas.

Pavia’s widow Natalie Edgar edited and published a collection of Pavia’s papers (Club Without Walls) that, in Pavia’s own words, provides a narrative account of the inception and development of the Club. For those unable to make the trip to Emory, this text provides an excellent entryway into Pavia’s story. Yet for my money there’s simply no replacing the experience of sifting through the archive yourself, folder by folder and paper scrap by paper scrap. Archival research is immersive and involves all of the researcher’s senses. Most crucially of all, however, is that unlike interacting with a pre-edited monograph, the archive is minimally interpreted for you: Possibilities for serendipitous discovery abound.

Accessing the Philip Pavia and Natalie Edgar Archive of Abstract Expressionist Art at Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). Photo by Devin M. Brown.
Accessing the Philip Pavia and Natalie Edgar Archive of Abstract Expressionist Art at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). Photo by Devin M. Brown.

There are several factors that might draw you to this collection. First, there is the tie to the Abstract Expressionist movement itself, and this development Pavia’s archive meticulously charts in its most embryonic form. Second, the collection illustrates how a successful art movement functioned in the U.S. during the mid-20th century, long before social media made it easy to compile a guest list for an art opening. The catchword here would most certainly be organization. Folder upon folder is filled with detailed ledgers listing all active members and their addresses along with information about whether or not they had paid dues. These ledgers form a veritable who’s who of the American art avant garde, although the presence of women artists and artists of color are conspicuously lacking (a fact that Pavia himself laments in Club Without Walls).

Finally, the collection demonstrates how various media constantly overlapped and interpenetrated one another at the Club whether simply through discussion or in performance. Concerts, dances, and theatrical pieces were all hosted there. Poets, composers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and critics all rubbed elbows and argued with each other about aesthetics at the Club’s many panel discussions, invitations for which were printed on postcards and mailed to Club members. You can peruse a number of these cards while looking through the archive. The breadth of topics is staggering and includes everything from Existentialist philosophy to Zen Buddhism and the fiction of James Joyce besides all manner of art-related subjects.

The members of the Eighth Street Club were intellectual omnivores, who, after a long day of toiling with brush, chisel, or pen, gathered together to hash out the most crucial questions and problems haunting their work: What subjects, if any, should an artist depict? Is formalism dead? Should art be literary? Pavia’s collection shows us the inner workings of a struggling avant garde enclave that would not rise to prominence until Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning broke into the art establishment.

In addition to the ledgers, pamphlets, fliers, and doodle-covered notes that the archive contains, Emory has also digitized recordings of a number of the panel discussions that took place at the Club’s successor on 23rd Street. On my most recent visit, there were two panel discussions I was hoping to check out—a recording of three poets reading their work and an (intriguingly) titled talk on “Computer Art” that included the young Jackson Mac Low as a speaker—but a glitch in the computer system (irony of ironies) made it impossible to hear the “Computer Art” recording.

The fidelity of the recordings was admittedly terrible. Whatever recording machines the Club used were extremely primitive. However, getting a sense of the sonic atmosphere of the Club and its panel discussions proved invaluable. Until I sat down and listened to these (digitized) tapes I couldn’t imagine what these events might have sounded like and how exactly they would have been conducted. For example, a young Louise Gluck reads a series of poems in the form of monologues, a form she has been trying and failing to abandon for years, she candidly confesses to the assembled crowd in the Three Poets recording. It is possible to hear listeners fidget in their seats, and the bleating of car horns—coming through an open window?—is never absent for long. Because the Club was so focused on conversation and debate, on being attentive, these recordings are required listening for anybody visiting the archive.

Today it sometimes seems like technology is threatening the very notion of community in the brick-and-mortar sense of the term. But the Philip Pavia Archive reminds us there are alternative methods to approach the ways we make art and relate to one another. For the members of the Club, the art community was physical, social, and dialogic. Conflict, in the forms of argument and philosophical debate, were taken for granted. But so too were irreverence and laughter. The Club was a schoolhouse of sorts, but it was also a theater, a gallery space, and a dancehall. There is much to be gained from mimicking the structure of experiments like these, especially when it comes to developing artists’ critical and intellectual faculties.

The Philip Pavia Archive is accessible to scholars of all levels. Affiliation with a university is not required to see the collection. Visitors should be prepared to present photo ID at the Woodruff Library security desk and to state the intentions of their visit. I strongly recommend that you browse through the collection’s finding aid and settle upon what you’d like to see before making the trip. You’ll also be asked to fill out some forms and to stow your things. And you’re not permitted to bring pens into the reading room. These minor inconveniences are quickly forgotten as you dive into your first folder and extract your first document, becoming arrested for a moment by some stranger’s handwriting or the way that the paper has weathered in a half-century year old notebook.

-Devin M. Brown


 

 

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