James Gahagan quotes

About Manhattan artists living and working in downtown Manhattan business buildings

From Jan 7, 1962, New York Times Magazine article "Portrait of the Loft Generation."

One chill afternoon recently, James Gahagan, Jr., a painter, a thin, black-haired, clean-shaven and — by any standard, Philistine or Bohemian — unremarkable-looking man in his mid-thirties, observed, in the course of a conversation with a well-swaddled bourgeois caller, "You don’t get this kind of life — you earn it." The statement was made with an absence of bathos so striking that it might very well have plunged Henry Murger into gloom or caused Puccini to give up "Boheme."

Gahagan is an intensely practical man, although he usually sleeps later than 7:30 a.m. He is chairman of the Artist Tenants Association, set up when inspectors of the Fire and Buildings Departments undertook a surprisingly conscientious enforcement of the law last winter and spring, the principal victims being artists. The A.T.A.’s marvelous fancy was to withhold the work of its members from galleries and museums unless the city laid off. Mayor Wagner, yielding to no man in his keen appreciation of art, arrived at an agreement with the A.T.A. (this was prior to the election), which had to be reaffirmed later when the artists somehow got the feeling that they were only a little less enforced against than before.

"It becomes a sort of contest of values," Gahagan said. "Do we give up our personal freedom and artistic goals and a way of life for job security, a developmental higher salary, Blue Cross, insurance policies and a new car? And is it a fair trade? We’ve decided it isn’t. In the end, we feel we have more, not less."

Patiently, as though he were reciting an old catechetical answer, he added: "We’re Bohemians, but we’re not beatniks. We may be isolated from the social, economic, even the political values the rest of the country operates under, but we aren’t isolated from people. We put up with substandard housing, we do part-time labor and a lot of other things. Most of us earn less than a thousand a year from our painting and sculpture, but we wouldn’t change the situation."


Notes from a Tapeworm

Remembrance notes: recollections of childhood related to art

From handwritten notes.

  1. Earliest is bringing home a crayon-colored apple, cut-out paper. Kindergarten.
  2. My mother taking me to visit our milkman (delivered milk by horse & cart in Manhattan, we lived at 2099 Third Ave, 111 and 112 St.) He was an artist-painter, worked from picture post-cards. I, for some unaccountable reason, was shocked, embarrassed at this lack of imagination. Why?? Refused to study with him. I must have been about nine years old. Don’t remember even being interested in art, nor knowing anything about it. Yet, the incident was real and it is a vivid memory. Later always got crayons, paints, water colors for X-mas from my mother.
  3. Drew cartoons (Disney, 7 dwarfs) large scale: sold to aunts and uncles for 25 cents.

    3a. class artist. Pen and ink drawings in yearbook grammar school P.S. 117 Jamaica Queens.

  4. At about 13 years of age at Manumit, Pawling, NY, boarding school. I came across a framed copy of Rembrandt’s etching, "Christ healing before the cave" (?) Found it in a local barn-attic. I prized it highly, hung it next to my bed for the two and half years I was there. Knew nothing of art, never been to a museum, gallery, nor had I seen even an "art book of reproductions." But I was really moved, and impressed by this "drawing." Didn’t know what an etching was. I was in no way religious, rather the opposite. The dark and light dramatic composition intrigued me no end. I particularly remember a lying dog in the foreground, beautifully drawn. I later acquired a fine crow-quill pen and tried endlessly to draw like Rembrandt. Mostly I drew wildlife scenes.

  5. Had first "formal" informal art lessons that year from Jamie Previtalli and Dave Darling who taught at Manumit. For some reason I refused to go to art classes. So they most considerately gave me key to studio to use as I wished; and took me with them when they went out to paint landscapes, barn, etc. Both were technically excellent (to my eyes) watercolorists. They showed me how to create shadows with color I recall. This all took place in rural farm environment during my first two years of high school (year ‘round-winter and summer) (First visual experience of nature outside of N.Y.C.)

  6. Then did last two years of high school at Goddard College, Vt. (junior college program). Serious about painting by then and took regular studio classes in painting, sculpture, wood, linoleum block printing with two women teachers. Gene Housten (Curtis) and Ann Squire. Lessons were dry, mechanical, pedantically traditional and dull. But I liked both of them, respected their skills. I recall being constantly irritated by their "sympathetic" interest in me and not primarily in my work — or so it seemed. (I was the tough city-boy-"disadvantaged" in need of support, problems to solve-social psychology) I was unaware of these "problems" couldn’t care less, just wanted to learn!! They wanted to counsel me instead. Not sure I learned anything formally from them about art–but painted a lot anyway.

Made my first watercolor sale (landscape) to college librarian named Bliss. (Hester Bliss’s elder sister). Exhibited tempera paintings at Fleming Museum, Burlington, Vermont. Strongly expressionist color paintings of N.Y.C. as remembered.

Also recall great argument in class with teacher (Gene) over my painting "invented colors" in landscape painting — different from nature. Emotional argument over my freedom to do so. Also strongly resenting and resisting psychoanalyzing my reasons for strong colors and liberties taken. To me it just seemed the natural thing to do. I just perceived color as beautiful and used it freely even as I tried to capture the scene I was viewing or imagining. I worked representationally. Still had not seen an abstract painting. In fact can’t recall seeing any art books, reproductions of old or new masters until college years. But I saw paintings, drawings of my teachers, students, local artists. No galleries in area, never visited Fleming Museum.

  1. Work in hospital (work term) Sloan-Kettering, did posters for cancer fund drives.

  2. ’45, 46, 47 Went into U.S. Naval Reserve after graduating high school. Did some medical illustration for medical books from operations, also painted false eyes for injured sailors. Visit D.C. museums (with Geryk) saw classical art for first time…

  3. ’47 Started college: Really fully conscious of art and artists and serious about "being" an artist. Studied with R.Lippold — Albert Mullen — George Fuller. Met Tom Yamamoto — later, Seung Moy, Jim Forsberg, Hans Hofmann, in 1949. Saw immense Van Gogh exhibit at Metropolitan Museum (1948 or 1949?) absolutely moved, bowled-over, inspired by it, most especially his "orchard" paintings of fruit trees in spring bloom. I expected to see petals lying on the museum floor. Wasn’t tempted to paint "like" him, but his color stimulated me. I was more intrigued by Cubism especially possibilities of analytic and synthetic Cubism. Admired K.Knaths, Braque, J. Gris, and certain Picassos (also S. Davis).


1941-42 school year report card for Manumit School

from Bedford Shope, Group Teacher

Physical development

Jim’s eating and sleeping habits were good and he was usually neatly dressed and to suit the occasion. While not too neat in his manner of doing his dorm work, Jim’s dormitory habits were about normal for his age. He is well coordinated and an excellent baseball and basketball player and a good runner. He enjoyed physical activities during the year. Jim gained 15 _ pounds and grew two inches during the school year.

Activity in the Arts:

Dramatics: Jim is expressive and able to portray mood, character and historic meaning eloquently at times, but is still up and down in regard to dramatics, requiring cajoling and encouragement.

Painting: He is capable of turning out beautiful work, but did not have so much free time to devote to art work this year on account of the work program which was instituted after the declaration of war.

Music: He is a reliable, progressing student in music, who nevertheless requires firm discipline to insure adequate practice and cooperation. He enjoyed singing in the glee club.

General remarks

Jim has real character and leadership, but he needs to learn to control his temperament. Disappointment and frustration can throw his mood off, and when his mood is off, his usually responsible and cooperative work and play habits take a temporary slump, and the usually cooperative and fair minded Jim becomes for a period inert, sullen, discouraged. Because of Jim’s leadership this is likely to have a lamentable effect upon the whole group. Fortunately, Jim’s sense of justice is so strong that a friendly and understanding adult can reason with him and pull him out of his periods of resentment. He cannot, however, be bullied or pushed. He must think things through for himself. When he honestly sees the justice of a situation, Jim takes off his coat and goes to work with his group.

As Jim becomes older and more manly, and as the months go by he becomes happier at Manumit, his inactive periods grow fewer and his consistent and constructive periods become the usual thing, and his is most of the time the valued, good leader that he wants to be and that we all admire.


On creating large murals with Hans Hofmann in the ‘50s

From a 1991 interview with Tina Dickey.

We were working on the first mural, a big red one which was at 711 Third Ave. In the original mock-up, [the red] was just a couple of brush strokes. The problem was how to do that where it was 40 or 44 feet long and still have the same effect.

I got [Hofmann’s wife] Miz’s vacuum cleaner, and used it as a spray gun. It didn’t work efficiently, like you have now with the modern air gun–you know, pmmgh, pmmph, pmmph, splatter–but Hofmann fell in love with that immediately. It looked good at first, but then it looked very thin, very impressionistic. "It has no volume [said Hofmann], we have to find a way of having volume."

So I got there early one day and started painting up these rectangles, a stack of red, a stack of blue, a stack of yellow, and I was weighing them down when he came in. He started playing with them, moving them around. But still, it was with the idea that it was something in process that was just giving us a feeling of re-creating the kind of space–literally red space in this case, pulsating red space. Probably the simplest way of putting it is that he and I were moving them around trying to build a rhythmical structure of the red. I expected when we finally got that, he’d say, "OK, that’s the kind of rhythm that we want, now let’s see if we can paint it in."


But we fooled around with this for a couple of weeks, and finally it became something, because we were working so much with the rectangles as a legitimate and physical element, as if it were paint. Now it was collage. We didn’t decide to do a collage at any particular point, it just happened because the initial attempts to paint with the gouache seemed unsubstantial. It wasn’t working using the traditional painting techniques. Part of it was because I was doing all the painting, and had to constantly translate his small painting into this big painting, and too much was getting lost in the jump up in scale.

One day I bent down to remove these stacks of red we had, to get them out of the way now that the idea was in our head, and he said, "No, no, no, leave them there." I can see, in hindsight, that that was the point where he was making an aesthetic decision: "Hey, this is really doing something. Let’s go with that as an approach." I had them down with pushpins and I was painting around them. And I started picking them up and he said, "No, no, glue them down. If need be, we’ll paint over, but glue them down." He spoke in a kind of shorthand; what he was saying was, "Let’s call that a given now, see if we can work with it."

Even then I don’t think that he conceived in his mind that that that was what it was going to look like. Because in the end, we nearly lost the whole contract. When the fellow who commissioned it came to visit, he was terribly upset, just hated it, said, "What have you done? It doesn’t look anything like the painting I accepted."

I wasn’t there for that meeting. I came in the next day. Hofmann was obviously already there for hours, sitting and waiting for me, and he was very angry. He simply said, "They don’t like it, they don’t understand how we got here, why the painting looks the way it does now that it can’t look the way it did there." At the end of that conversation, he said, "Well, I’ll make an appointment and you talk to him. If you can’t convince him, we won’t do the mural. Just tell him to forget it." I’m sure that Hofmann felt at that point no one was going to be able to convince him. And he was fed up, because it was tremendous work, [and his] concept was not that he was reproducing a little painting.

That particular day Gene Lesser came up as photographer and stood in the doorway of the next room, while I explained what we were doing to the collector who commissioned the mural. I was in my stocking feet dancing on the mural, because it was on cloth. Gene did this whole series of black and white photographs of this guy. I can even remember it: he was against the window, sitting on the radiator, Gene was in the room over there, and I was going back and forth. So there were all these shots of this guy sitting and looking expressionless, skeptical, as I was waving my arms, following the red rhythms, the blue rhythms, and so on. And in the end he said to me, "You know, I’m not sure I understand a word of what you said. But I’m very impressed that you seem to know what you’re talking about. Tell Hofmann to go ahead and I’ll go along with whatever he wants."

Copyright 1999 Estate of James Gahagan
All Rights Reserved