Yes, there was actually an art show!
Would you believe I won second prize in the art show at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August, 1969? Would you believe that was the event’s official name, and that there was actually an art show? There was, and I was in it, but I have only my memories to prove it – along with an uncollected ticket I collaged into a painting I did after the event. This month, with all the hype surrounding the 40th anniversary of the festival, I’ve vowed to track down some film or photographic documentation of the art show that included my paintings. Several of them are stored in my basement garage, and I’d like to find them a home more worthy of their fabled history.
In June of 1969, I was living alone in a loft on Broome Street, in the lower Manhattan district that had only recently become known as SoHo, when I learned of the upcoming festival that would come to be called Woodstock. There was an article in the Village Voice, saying a number of terrific bands were already signed up. The organizers were planning an art show as well, and were accepting entries. I’d been painting up a storm for several years, ever since earning my MFA at Columbia University, and the event sounded like a great opportunity to exhibit my huge, vividly colored paintings with their images of rock stars and social protest. I registered immediately, then teamed up with an artist I’d exhibited with in an East Village gallery who had a van big enough to hold my work.
By the time we got to Woodstock . . .
Flash forward to Friday, August 15. With help from his wife, we jammed the van full of our paintings and got an early morning start. Within a few miles of the festival site in Bethel, traffic slowed to a crawl, but it was still moving. Despite my avant garde life style, I still had a cautious streak, and I’d had the foresight to book a nearby motel room using my parents’ American Express card. We dropped off my clothes, then continued at a snail’s pace to the site. Since we were exhibitors, they waved our van through, then assigned us our spaces atop a gently rolling hill that was an easy walk from the stage. Each artist’s area was partitioned off by white canvas that billowed in the breeze.
By late afternoon I had my paintings up and wired to the metal framework to keep them from sailing away on a sudden gust of wind. There were few prospective customers, so as Richie Havens took the stage for the first set of the festival, I wandered downhill with my blanket and staked out a spot a couple of hundred feet from the stage. The crowd was building steadily, but navigating between the tarps and blankets was still easy, so after Swami Satchidananda’s invocation, I went back to check on my paintings.
My toughest teacher flies in to pass judgment
Judging of the art show was in progress, and to my amazement, I found myself suddenly face to face with Stephen Greene, my drawing instructor from the Columbia MFA program. As a teacher, he’d been my nemesis – he didn’t like my work, and gave me only B’s. Like the rest of the faculty, he was an abstract painter, but the others were more benign. Since I was stubbornly figurative, and my graduate exhibit consisted primarily of life-size paintings of the Beatles, they didn’t know what to do with me. To this day I’m convinced they awarded me the MFA simply to get rid of me. The only artistic advice I remember from that year was Robert Motherwell’s: “It helps to have a drink before you go into the studio.”
Now here was Stephen Greene, standing atop the hill in front of my paintings. They’d flown him and the other judges in by helicopter, he said. Nattily attired in a shirt, tie, and camel’s hair blazer that was far too warm for the day, he looked as if he belonged on Madison Avenue, not this rolling farmland with its thousands of hippies. “What the fuck am I doing here?” he said with a shake of his head.
(to be continued)