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like saul jumping into paul

July 15, 2011

[Chronicle] Sandler says he knew only that whatever he ended up doing, it wouldn’t involve a 9-to-5 job. “When a person is prepared to receive something, a series of accidents takes place,” he muses.

The first of those accidents happened to Sandler in 1952, while he was still a student at Columbia. Dirt poor, he took advantage of every freebie that came his way—including a Museum of Modern Art pass left to him by his first wife when they got divorced. He used it to go sit in the museum garden, or grab a cup of coffee, looking only indifferently at the art. One day, while strolling without purpose through one of the galleries, he was “dumbstruck” (his word) by the sight of a 1950 abstraction by Kline called “Chief.” He describes the fateful encounter in his wonderful memoir, A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir (Thames & Hudson, 2003):

“It was the first work of art that I really saw, and it changed my life, something like Saul jumping into Paul, as Elaine de Kooning wrote of Kline’s own leap from figuration to abstraction. My conversion was less dramatic, of course, but my life would never be the same. Or, put another way, ‘Chief’ began my life-in-art, the life that has really counted for me.”

In spite of knowing nothing about Kline or the “New York School” (at the time, an alternative term for Abstract Expressionism), Sandler was viscerally drawn to the painting; its raw, splashy, black-and-white energy, its very incomprehensibility, moved him. More “accidents” followed. He befriended a living, breathing second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, Angelo Ippolito, during a summer in Provincetown; this was followed by rubbing shoulders with a few avant-garde poets. Finally, one night at the Abstract Expressionists’ legendary watering hole, the Cedar Tavern on University Place, he found himself seated across the table from Franz Kline himself. Sandler was too shy to say anything much, but he was hooked. (read)

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