Half Century of American Art

New York City

I was part of the tapestry of the art world fantasia

Peter Blume: Surrealist artist.

One year among decades felt like the surf expression I am very fond of: “Step into Liquid”. More than three hundred days of a particular year I was immersed in photographing artists. Not just any artists: The second half of an American century. My life was a master class in Art History.

My mind felt like I was floating in a grittier version of Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe”. I was not only photographing internationally famous artists and emerging artists: I was seeing performance art: naked people with erections slithering with naked chickens. If you were wired in there was just wild stuff. I felt like Play-Doh kneaded in unrelenting directions.

My body ran across avenues. I stormed into subway cars. I lunged head first into taxis. I was a modern Alfred Kazin (A Walker in the City) or E.B White (Here is New York). The main difference from the two writers, was that I had specified appointments with discovery. I was on my way to photographing hundreds of art world personalities. Everyday sometimes three times a day I would make a photograph in Soho, the Lower East Side, Upper East Side, Fulton’s Fish Market. North, South, East, West my foot long dogs (feet)were abused. Wherever art lived, I was there.

Alex Katz.

The days and nights were filled with the unexpected: I could never expect Larry Rivers to excuse himself so he could have quick sex with a heated groupie. I didn’t know what to say to James Rosenquist when he asked me not to publish my portrait of him with a whiskey bottle: Until he passed. I couldn’t imagine why Robert Rauschenberg poured me more than five shots of Jack Daniel’s at 10:00 in the morning: Have you ever hit the summertime sun straight on at Noon.

Can you imagine what it was like to be exposed to the underneath of Alice Neels’ nightgown.

Paul Cadmus.

Then there was the music:  Artists’ studios were filled with the sounds of Opera, Symphonies, Jazz and every once in awhile the Sex Pistols or Talking Heads. Everyday felt like I was inside one of those snow globes: Everything was shaking and I was sitting in the center of the world.

James Rosenquist.

Can you imagine the era when film was a photographer’s best companion. A time when a single frame wrestled with your patience. A time when a successful shoot with Isamu Noguchi, Raphael Soyer, Willem Dekooning, Roy Lichtenstein, David Salle, Peter Blume or a more famous or lesser famous artist was paused until the photo lab processed your film into transparencies or negatives?

What were you supposed to do while you waited and anxiously suffered until the lab technician said, “Schulman, your film is ready”.

 Man, I had these lists about lists. 

About these lists: Now I am writing about New York: but in that year almost one hundred dealers from London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles opened their private contact vaults for me!! Why, I will never know. Just about every important or up and coming gallery shared with me contacts of their rosters. The lists were my adrenalin elixirs: once in hand I was on the move.

Eduard Dugmore.

I might walk out of a meeting with a gallery and immediately head for the  “pay phones” on the streets. Sometimes when a voice picked up, I was sure I was in church or temple. Those moments might even feel like god fearing shaking Baptist gospel.

Robert Motherwell.

In hindsight, It may not be that the images mattered most. If an artist did not answer the phone call I would wait patiently(mostly anxiety ridden) for days or weeks for a return call. It might have been midnight or early morning that I would receive a return call. I would be awakened to mellifluous and sometimes barking acerbic responses conversations with Jacob Lawrence, Dorothea Tanning, Marisol, Saul Steinberg and many more.

David Salle.

I heard aged voices that melted my heart, stirred my imagination. The voices were old, yet I knew they were the voices I passionately wanted to meet. Everyday I was turning to a new page, I was in heaven.

New York City at the time was like a world history class for me. I felt like a New York version of David  Bowies’ “The Man who Fell to Earth” landing in character in Mel Brooks “History of the World Part 1”. Everything was new and foreign to me. Everyone was from somewhere. I was traveling through cultures and time. I was home, I just didn’t know it yet.

For years I wondered what my past had meant to me. Then one day I was shooting the portrait of the artist Alberto Burri. The room suddenly became whispering quiet. I turned around and there stood Isamu Noguchi. I did not know that Isamu and Alberto were great friends. Alberto walked quickly to grab hold of his old friend Isamu. Just before they hugged, Noguchi looked over at me and said, “you’re that photographer”.

Lisa Yuskavage.

All photographs by Richard Schulman.

This photo essay first appeared on his blog.

Richard Schulman is a photographer and writer. His books include Portraits of the New Architecture and Oxymoron & Pleonasmus. He lives in New York City.