Active in New York, N.Y.
Sound recordings: 2 sound cassettes
Transcript: 57 pages
Audio excerpt: 1 sound file (4 min. 40 sec.) : digital
Format: Sound quality is poor.
Transferred from original acetate tape reels.
Originally recorded on 1 sound tape reel. Reformatted in 2010 as 1 digital wav file. Duration is 1 hr., 6 min.
Collection Summary: An interview of Burgoyne Diller conducted 1964 October 2, by Harlan Phillips, for the Archives of American Art's New Deal and the Arts Oral History Project.
Biographical/Historical Note: Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965) wad a painter from New York, N.Y.
Conducted as part of the Archives of American Art's New Deal and the Arts project, which includes over 400 interviews of artists, administrators, historians, and others involved with the federal government's art programs and the activities of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America's Treasures Program of the National Park Service.
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Also in the Archives
- Burgoyne Diller collection of printed material, 1932-1961
- Burgoyne Diller papers, 1924-1987
- Image and Media Gallery items from other collections related to Diller, Burgoyne
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Burgoyne Diller, 1964 October 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Interview with Burgoyne Diller
Conducted by Harlan Phillips
In Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
October 2, 1964
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Burgoyne Diller on October 2, 1964. The interview took place in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, and was conducted by Harlan Phillips for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: You know, this whole period of the WPA and more particularly the New York WPA is a kind of atmosphere that has to be recreated. In a way, it's the circumstances under which what took place, took place. Now I don't know - - as a point of departure before we get to you personally - - what do you remember about the atmosphere in New York as '29 went into the '30s, so far as the artists were concerned, and more particularly the modern artists? What the heck was life like - you know, opportunity like? Chance? Galleries? Interests? Market? Any of this strike a receptive chord?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Probably too many chords at the same time.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well ....
BURGOYNE DILLER: You name it. I mean, for instance, one thing that certainly
characterized the period was lack of work, lack of money just to get the necessities
of life. I mean, you learned to eat practically nothing so you could buy a tube
of paint, and so on and so forth. You had a little part time job, or you'd pick
up all sorts of crazy things in order to exist. It seemed to be true of all
the artists. Whatever markets there had been prior to, probably 1928, '27, I
mean, seemed to be thoroughly dried up. The galleries - - there wasn't the number
of galleries we have today - - and if you happened to be concerned at all about
the contemporary movements in art at the time, which then, of course, were Cubism
and so on, why there was absolutely no place to show your work. Then, of course,
you had the opposite of what you have today, to show representational painting.
Then we had this problem again with abstract painting. Where would you show
it? You were terribly fortunate to be shown any place, which is really, you
know, the thing that brought the American Abstract Artists into being, so that
cooperatively they might be able to finance a place to have a show once a year
and that sort of thing. It was a very necessary thing.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: After all, your so-called big institutions that were supposed
to have done so much for the artists, you know, in the past, the Museum of Modern
Art, and so on - - I don't think they had a prohibition against showing American
abstract painters, but they didn't show them. They showed very, very few of
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: I know that the artists at that time, the abstract painters,
they petitioned them to let the American Abstract Artists have a show there
and so on, and they insisted that it would lower the Museum standards unless
the Museum could select the work itself and present it as they wished to present
it, which would being it back to the situation the American Abstract Artists
already had, because they certainly had no choice then of anyplace to exhibit.
I am confronted at the moment with the fact that they presented the work to
a larger audience, and that is probably a functioning institution.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Was there - from what you've said, there wasn't much in the
way of interest in things American so far as the modern movement was concerned.
BURGOYNE DILLER: You mean in things or people?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: In art in the '20s and as it approached the '30s what is it
- the collector was interested in foreign things of a modern kind. Even the
Modern Museum was interested in foreign works of a modern kind.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right. And I think the prevalent thing at the time
certainly was that if a person had money, they went to Europe to buy paintings.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: To such an extent that I know one artist in particular --
you know, he married an American girl. He was selling very well, doing very
interesting work and selling very well and most of his sales, however, were
to Americans who went to Paris. He married an American girl. He went to Virginia
to live, had a beautiful studio; said it was the most wonderful setup he ever
had in his life to work, and he worked hard, but he never sold a painting during
the time he was here. I saw him just before he was leaving to return to Europe,
and he said that he just gave up, that he'd been here almost two years, had
sold absolutely nothing. He said "Now if I go back, I know I will sell
to Americans again." He did. I received a card from him later on. He said,
"As I told you, the Americans are buying my paintings again." You
can imagine what an American artist was doing who couldn't retreat to Europe
- his situation. I mean this prevailed. There was not only no financial interest,
but there was even -- such a scant interest in the work itself, aside from supporting
it. As I said, you were very, very fortunate to show your work.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes, but I think, you know, this impulse - it goes away back,
the desire on the part of the non-traditional artist to get together with other
non-traditional artists to hold a show of their work partly because the dealers
were not interested. The Brooklyn Museum, once in a while, would have a show
of what were then called modern things, a Dana at Newark would have a show,
Max Weber, for example, but Max Weber was what? Nothing in the '20s - in terms
of a market, or interest on the part of Americans for his work. Dana saw something
in it. The fellow who was running the Brooklyn Museum catered to a developmental
approach, you know.
BURGOYNE DILLER: What was his name? Yutes?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I believe so, although I ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: I remember Yutes mainly as the person I think I knew in the
'30s there, and I think one of the things that he did as director, he protested
against the 200 steps to go up into the entrance of the Museum, and he demanded
that they remove the steps. After all, they had been placed there pretty much
as a barrier to keep the common person from coming in and spoiling the works
of art. He insisted that the stairs be taken away and an entrance made at the
ground level so people could come in. He had faith.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. But no more so than Dana, who insisted that the museum
be right in the center of town, be part of the life of the place. Or his interest
in collecting gadgets from the five-and-ten cent store, or glass that you could
purchase, the common, ordinary things, and having shows of this kind of design
which was within the knowledge, comprehension, appreciation of people. Not the
catering to those who had an alleged taste in an Old Master, but the broad sweep
of things. I suspect the modern movement was, you know, part of this broad sweep
to encompass something American. I don't know whether you got any pleasure out
of the fact that the nation as a whole in '29, and thereafter, '30 and '31,
finally caught up with the position that the modern artist had been in all through
the '20s, when our economic system fell on its back. There was some problem
about what to do in the way of projects. You can't compete with industry. You
have to find an area that is somehow, some way safe, you know, from competing
with industry, so public buildings, like post offices, schools, courthouses
and the like began to be talked about, because this is one way in which the
government could convey both interest and create work. Somewhere along the line
-- and I don't know how or why -- well, there had been a series of things, the
FERA, for example, but this wasn't art for itself, and an artist in those days
in the FERA could be employed in almost any way, whether it was road building,
you know, they didn't make a distinction. Then I suspect people like Baker and
others saw a way to alter FERA to include CWA, the Civil Works Administration,
which included within it some opportunity for artists under Edward Bruce, I
believe, the Public Works of Art Project. All by way of background as to, you
know, where does that artist fit in society when he's hungry, and since society
is on its back, what can we do. Well, in a way this is a funding problem. In
New York itself there was a thing called, I think, the Gibson Committee, do
you remember it?
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right. They set up a committee exactly for the New
York City area, and it was aimed toward the employment of artists.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And it didn't go on too long, but I mean at least it was starting
HARLAN PHILLIPS: It was a seed.
BURGOYNE DILLER: But the remnants of that were picked up by, I think it was,
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: The Whitney Museum was the center from which -- the Whitney
and their associated directors and the other people they selected acted as the
committee to pass on work. That was an extraordinary thing in the sense that
the artists selected by them were given a schedule for working in their own
studios based on the artist's own production. In other words, if the artist
said, "Well I spend three months painting a painting," or six months
or whatever, and it was a reasonable statement, they'd accept this as the time
schedule for him to bring in a work. Now at that time there were very few abstract
painters. I happened to be one of the abstract painters that were in that group,
the original group. I think Gorky and Stuart Davis and I'm not sure who else,
but there were not very many at the time. Then that of course went out of existence.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: The only thing carried on from that was a series of mural
competitions that they started for buildings in the City of New York. It was
- the painter's name was Eric Most. He had won one of the awards for the Roberts
High School. I'd been dropped from the project as others, the other easel painters
had, for some period of time. Then I was invited to work with him to act as
an assistant or whatever, to help him with the mural. But because they had received
funds, I believe they were funds, that were either carried for them to complete
these mural jobs, or nearly complete these mural jobs, which was later taken
up by the beginning of the Art Project as such and finished, terminated. So
that I was working with him when the larger program started under WPA or rather,
pardon me, the Federal Art Program.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Then I was moved from there to the Federal Art Program at
the initiation of that when they first started building it up, you know, when
it first really got going. I went there as a mural supervisor.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. I wondered, you know, and again by way of seeds and background
and aid, what function and role did the College Art Association play with reference
to local artists? Any at all?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, the College Art Association had been, through Mrs. Audrey
McMahon, I think, mainly, had been tremendously interested in the potentiality
of these either city, state, or federally-operated programs assisting the artists.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Because the problem of unemployment, you see of artists as
such would be brought very sharply to their attention because so many of the
colleges throughout the country employed the few artists that were employed,
you see, as art historians, or whatever. The College Art Association had always
maintained an employment bureau for art historians and art teachers and so on.
They had a magazine which heralded the possibility. I think they did a great
deal. The Association really was an important factor particularly when unemployed
artists came to Federal attention and because, as I said, the Federal Art Program.
The first offices were at the College Art Association.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: And it did, I think, several things - Mrs. McMahon, whose
interest is long and deep in the field, plus the fact that the lack of a place
to show one's work encouraged the College Art Association also to have shows
where people could show their work, or to support shows.
BURGOYNE DILLER: They organized circulating exhibitions that went around the
country. I know that in that early period I had been invited one time to select
the work for a very modern sort of show of the Constructivist painters and the
style and so on, which was organized later and sent around as a circulating
exhibition. They really did try to bring to the general attention the work of
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. What about the Whitney Museum and more particularly Mrs.
Force, who was, I guess as the name implies, its driving force?
BURGOYNE DILLER: She was. I was never really acquainted with her. Naturally
I met her, but my contact with her was very slight, although I did know, as
any other artist who had been around New York knew, that she was the one that
really was the motivating force toward a great deal of our activities, probably
activities that are culminating now in the growth they have experienced.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: But isn't this another source of interest in what was called
in the 20s the modern art movement?
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think the Whitney Museum at that time was not as concerned
about the -- there again, you have to draw a line about what you mean, "contemporary
art," and "modern art," "abstract painting" and so
on. The Whitney was, I think, more concerned with what they would call the American
artists. Now that might be in the more familiar terms of the American scene
painter, or probably partially socially-aware artist of the time who was talking,
you know, making statements and so on. But mostly, I believe, the American Scene
painter. I think if you were to look back in the catalogues of that period,
you would recognize some fine painters. I mean Hopper and heaven knows who else,
that have done rather outstanding things. But there was a very slight encouragement
there of abstract painting, or anything of the sort. Stuart Davis was there,
you know, included always because I think probably it was his good fortune to
be with Mrs. Halpert and the fact that the group that she had was the group
that was very much appreciated by the people at the Whitney.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And therefore Stuart was more or less included with them.
Then too, Stuart Davis always did have a little signature of the American Scene,
you know, a work or a gas tank or something of that sort, so it made him more
acceptable in a sense.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: What you're saying then is that the Whitney was more selective
in its support, or its encouragement than the College Art Association would
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think the College Art Association had a more general educational
viewpoint of work and probably a more objective viewpoint, while the Whitney
Museum, as you said, had a more selective viewpoint because it was considered
the American museum, and they were trying to more or less build that up as strongly
as they could. But the attitude toward what was American was a pretty sharply
defined line. As I said, I think you could express it best by saying the American
Scene sort of painting.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. When the Federal -- the WPA I think was announced in
June, the latter part of June in the summer of '35. Hopkins ....
BURGOYNE DILLER: The WPA, now are you referring to all the Federal Art Program?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I'm thinking of the WPA and within it the Federal Art Program
Number 1, which is the subject really of our interest, but Hopkins was present
in New York and the names of the people who were going to head up the four projects
were announced in the press with certain regional directors allegedly chosen
throughout the country. For example, the announcement of Eddie Cahill for the
arts, for the subsection Federal Art Project Number One, and then there was
Henry Alsberg and ....
BURGOYNE DILLER: Hallie Flanagan.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Hallie Flanagan and Sokolov in music, so that suddenly --
I say "suddenly," but the Gibson Committee, to some extent the Whitney,
the College Art Association and various state and city projects had already
indicated some need in the arts, in the creative arts. Nonetheless, this is
like a front page indication that the Federal government had discovered that
"artists" including musicians, writers, actors, actresses, artists
were also to be aided in the sense of a project. It wasn't entirely clear the
nature of the project. How did you first become aware of the existence of this?
You have indicated, I think, that you were on something which seemed to have
continuity in itself, and they just changed sort of headings.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right, as I said, I was on the TRAP. After a lapse
of a few months, I was asked to be an assistant to Eric Most on the mural, which
was a carryover, and then that was picked up for completion by the beginning
of the Federal Art Program. But in the meantime, I was asked to work in the
office as a supervisor, so it was a rather continuous thing.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. How did -- well, you know, had you given thought, or
was there discussion among artist friends of yours as to the nature of this
new WPA, or no?
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think that in a way there had been a lot of discussion.
Particularly the artists had started organizing in order to demand assistance.
Mainly at the time for the city and so on, and there was also the feeling that
the State should enter into it and then finally suddenly that the Federal Government
should enter into it, so it was something just building up, something that hadn't
reached any kind of maturity in its demand, but still the demand was there,
and it was vocal.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. I think this is a feature that's often overlooked, namely:
that artists, for example, who can be as ruggedly individualistic as any creatures
in the United States were finding somehow through union organization a collective
power which each individual artist could not exercise. Starting with the City,
the Artists union marches on City Hall, the effort to get a local art gallery
operating and you know, functioning under artists themselves, this kind of thing
-- like having a vested interest in breathing and making it substantial through
organization of other like-minded people, as a collective force, but heck, collectivity
was in the nation as a whole as something new, unionization of the automobile
industry and the steel industry was going on at the same time, so collective
organization must have been in the air.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Collective seems to be a term of accomplishment in a sense.
Actually, I think that what happened was for the first time there was an association
of artists, and by that I mean mutual association because of mutual needs. For
the first time artists were talking together in large groups so that there was
a possibility for arriving at opinions that were mutually heard. And God knows
there are differences of opinion, but on the whole they were united by one very
simple, basic thing. They needed to eat. Don't forget those times were not --
you're not thinking of art as much. Of course, the artist always did. He'd probably
starve to death still wanting to paint a picture, but on the other hand, your
primary concern was how do you feed yourself, how do you feed your family, and
the artist was possibly in some senses considered the least employable, perhaps
because of their eccentricities, or whatever you want to call the name for it.
As a matter of fact, I found during that period that the artist was probably
the most self-reliant, self-sufficient individual in the City of New York. You
had some of your top-management people standing on a corner selling apples,
but somehow or other artist had so many accomplishments, craft accomplishments
and related things that he could do, that he somehow or other survived. However,
this did not keep the total specter of the wolf from the door, you know.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: The next day what are you going to eat and how do you buy
a tube of paint? All right. They all have this need. They get together and they
talk about it, and if they talk about that, they can't help themselves because
they're made that way, they also talk about art. Then they start having battles
about art, and at that time, you know, the terrific thing was that on one hand
you had a strong development of the social scene painter, you know, "If
you're painting abstractions, you're painting in an ivory tower" and, you
know, "You're not relating yourself to society." Your abstract painter
was saying "Well, of course, if you're just a social-scene painter, you're
just another medium of communication but a bad painting probably," and
so on. Do you know that's the first time in history that artists in these numbers
ever came together?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: If before in any period artists came together, they came together
out of one culture, one tradition, in Greece, or wherever it might have been,
but there you had people from all over the world representing every culture,
representing every viewpoint and united on the basis of art.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. I think that's a feature of the period, you know, which
is often overlooked. For example, there have been -- oh, in the past, 1910,
1895 -- a group of artists who disagreed, you know, with the dominant group
of artists who were picking shows, or put on juries and so on, and they delivered
a kind of manifesto of deviation from them and, you know, these are important
names in American art. There was a question of aesthetics. "I'm not getting
a good hearing on my work," this kind of thing. But here in the 30s, it's
a wholly different kind of proposition. It's the identification of an artist
as also a human being in an industrial society and seemingly no place, no niche
in it for him....
BURGOYNE DILLER: And he was firmly convinced that the work he did had a place
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Was important to society, was important to the cultural development
of America, but he's the last one that society would think of supporting unless
he happened to be a mechanic who would do what they wanted him to do....
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: If he's a good decorator, or if he's a good illustrator, or
painted what they thought to dictate was good art then they could use -- and
I mean probably literally use him, but the painter felt he had a more important,
more basic social and cultural relationship than this, and he felt he had as
much right certainly to work, to produce his work as a ditch digger did that
had to dig a ditch....
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Even if he couldn't get as much pay for doing it.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: But how are we -- you know, this gathering of these individualistic,
creative, aesthetic people - artists, this is a gradual thing, an assertion,
this common voice, or talking about a common problem impelled by a need, or
the discovery that one had an empty stomach, that it had been empty all through
the 20s, in effect. Although, you know, something else you said strikes a chord
because in talking with Davis, as an example, all during the 20s while his art
didn't sell in the sense that selling is, somehow, somewhere some persons, some
group of people, somehow he was able to keep going, namely on whatever it was
that attracted his insight that he wanted to do, the main line of his own thinking
and expression and development.
BURGOYNE DILLER: In other words, somebody would buy a painting, or he'd have
a teaching job, or something would come along that would keep him and sustain
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: This was true of most of the painters of, let's say, his caliber.
I mean like Gorky. I never knew of Gorky working at a laboring job. Gorky always
said there was someone who wanted to study with him who could pay him a little
bit, and he taught at the Grand Central School of Art. He had a class there
and, as I said, just had a person here and there that really thought his work
was outstanding and worth investing in, of course, investment was so little
at the time, but it was enough to pay the rent once in a while and keep far
enough ahead and eat and maybe even have a drink once in a while...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. But then when the nation as a whole collapsed the possibilities
of sustaining oneself grew less and less, I gather...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Oh, certainly ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: So that hunger propelled a group to develop as distinct from
an individual like Gorky or Davis. You know, instead of themselves being able
to keep themselves sustained, they confronted a kind of emptiness as everybody
was shot, everybody finally joined the artists in wondering as to what tomorrow
was going to bring...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Not only wondering about what tomorrow was going to bring,
but realizing full well when you got up in the morning, "How am I going
to feed my family during the day?" It was a very stark and very real problem
and I think that other artists probably had the experience that I did -- you
know, getting out of college back in '27, the end of '27, this period of decline
really started. I was in the Midwest, but it was this sort of thing, I went
to Buffalo and I got a job. I was there for probably two weeks, and they laid
off a hundred people, and I naturally. I was the last taken on. I got a job
trimming windows, and they dropped half the crew after I was there three weeks.
I got a job in a silk screen place, and again I lasted a few weeks, and then
they cut back the force. It was like snowballing down the hill. Finally, just
by sheer pull, political pull -- you can believe this or not -- I got a job
as a porter in the Buffalo post office. You know what that meant; that meant
swabbing the decks and shoveling coal, washing windows, and the only reason
I didn't clean the latrines was because - well, you have partners, and my partner
was afraid to do windows on the outside and so he cleaned the latrines while
I did the windows on the outside. But this is typical of the artist. I landed
in New York City. I wanted to go to the Leagues. I had no money, but I did get
a scholarship to the League. What did I do? I went to the little restaurants
and painted signs for them in exchange for meals. You went through such a variety
of funny, ingenuous ways of trying to live.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: In short, you, like many of the others, had a preparation
for survival through the multiplicity of things that you turned your hand to
BURGOYNE DILLER: And frankly any other artists I knew had to do the same thing
so the result is we became multi-talented. The dangerous thing of course --
jack of all trades and master of none. In other words, our mastery of one, the
one we wanted, was rather elusive, because how could you spend time doing it
when you had to spend time getting enough to survive ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Just to survive ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: I thought I was terribly fortunate because I had a scholarship.
Then I got a scholarship job at the League, and I sold paints in the little
store for a few years there. It was only an afternoon job but, you know, that
was money. It wasn't much, but believe me, it was a lot compared to most of
the artists that I was friendly with at the time. So it was a question of most
of us just pitching in together, and sometimes we'd have one pot of soup for
ten. Sometimes hardly enough for one. It's crazy, but it was wonderful.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. But the ....
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think, as a matter of fact, there's something that's unforgettable
about that period. There was a wonderful sense of belonging to something, even
if it was an underprivileged and downhearted time. You just weren't a stranger.
Now we've reverted back again to the days when the artists rarely meet. If they
do, it's under such artificial circumstances, and they're so infested with hangers-on,
and it becomes, you know, a battle of cliches. Everything else in the world
except the very vital, fundamental issues that you were confronted with then
that made you sleep together...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: A complete change.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Because then it was a matter of survival, but, as I say, it
was exciting. I cannot look back on it and say, "here, this was a time
of pain." God knows, there were problems, there was unhappiness, there
were many things, but underlying it was something that maybe in a sense you
lose contact with in such a false environment as the city, or a farmer might
have in the farm, his attachment to the soil and things that grow, that sort
of thing -- I think something kind of rather fundamental, and somehow or other
you were aware of it. We were all aware of it. Our differences between ourselves
aesthetically -- well, they degenerated into a kind of quibble unless they were
being utilized for political reasons. In other words, you could be a very academic
painter. I could be a very abstract painter. We could get along fine. The only
time we had a pitched battle was if you decided that painting had to be directed
only towards the Marxian function of propaganda, or something of the sort, and
I had the unholy attitude of art for art's sake, you know. Then of course we'd
become terribly involved. This is what happened in the Artist's Union, the Artist's
Congress, those organizations, but as I said, there was such a basic thing to
hold them that no matter how much they would quarrel with each other, they still
had to hold together, or else they'd be lost...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Well is there an ingredient in this coming together,
the fact that they had a common employer, the Government. How did they look
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think that the coming together started before the government
stepped in because I still remember hanging paintings on the fence in Washington
Square when men like Vernon Porter and some others organized -- they got the
City's permission for the artists to sell works on Washington Square. Now that
was the beginning of these Washington Square shows, but believe me, at that
time you had all the name artists hanging their wares on Washington Square and
hoping against hope, you know, that they'd sell anything for anything, any price...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And as I said, there you had the beginning of a kind of cooperative
spirit and the necessity for cooperation before your projects came into existence.
I think your first sign of it was actually in the Washington Square shows. Then
afterwards the committee from the Washington Square shows -- well, I remember
one name more distinctly, Vernon Porter, but there were others. Then rather
than just drop it at that point, you see, they'd go to restaurants and to hotels
and theaters and try to organize shows for artists because they had a long list
of them, you know, that had hung at the Washington Square show. Every once in
a while, you know, you'd get a little note asking if you wanted to show in the
Roxy, because they were able to show fifty canvasses up there for a week, or
two weeks, or in a little restaurant down in the Village, you know, or in a
restaurant up town, and so on. This was something that really worked, and I
think it was one of the things that again was a strong motivating force in bringing
into existence the concept of a government, city, state or federal that recognized
not only need, but the necessity to provide some form of work, or at least space
to show, or some way for the artist to survive.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. So that these more formal organizations, like the Artists
Union, and the Artists Congress were extensions of this. The scene changed too,
but extensions of this early coming together, identification of interest and
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yes, as they became more formalized in their demands and also
in the possibilities of that sort of assistance.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. That is, as the direction pointed toward government as
the source of funds, you know, to sustain artists, it meant a more formal organization
to -- well, you know, rates of pay, sick leaves, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. where
unionization was a kind of feeling that was abroad in the land anyway -- well,
from '32 on. Up until that time you know, unionization was looked upon as something
to war against. Actually it wasn't decided that you could really join something
fruitfully until about 1936, when the Supreme Court said you could do it, you
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yes. Before that you were either a Communist, or IWW, or something
of the sort.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, whatever the organization was, you were a whole host
of other things except what ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Improper.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Of course, because it was a thorn that had to be dealt with.
But what were the circumstances where you were asked to become part of the office
force of the organization? What was the felt need? How was the federal art program
organized so that they could see the necessity for supervisory assistance?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Apparently, New York City had been voted a certain amount,
or rather, granted a certain amount of money. A certain budgetary limitation
was set up, but the funds would become available. Now understand, this means
money to be spent. Therefore, you had to have people working to earn that money,
and this comes to putting people to work. When I was called in there, it was
an extraordinary situation because the thing had been just started in that past
month or so, and what we were doing -- our job was to put people to work. But
we had a doublefold responsibility. You can't put people to work at nothing.
The only thing you could do immediately was to say, "Well here, try experimenting
with some mural ideas," if you felt the man was capable of this work. You
see, the work was submitted to a committee, and it was decided whether he could
be an easel painter. Now that's easy. We all can paint, you see. Or a sculptor,
you know -- "go off and prepare some sketches for a sculpture." You
could put them to work immediately, but in a division like the mural division
or architectural sculpture, it was a different thing, because we had to get
the sponsorship of public institutions in order to assign anything. Those people
we felt were more immediately able to start developing projects we assigned
to just general thinking about the things, about the mural, because don't forget,
very few men had had the opportunity of working on walls. We felt that if they
just exercised a little bit until we could find them a sponsor, you see, why
we'd be that much up on the game. I know that in my case it was a question of
spending half the day, you know, on the committee, accepting the artists, enrolling
them and assigning them to what I thought was reasonable that would help in
the total picture that was developing. Then the other half or more of your time
was spent in going out to city agencies and talking with people in public libraries
and so on and having them request a mural. Now the commitment at the time on
their part was really that they would have the mural. They could order a mural
through the head of the department, through their agency and, as in the high
school, for instance, if they were a grade school or a high school, or whatever,
you'd have to go through the Board of Education and have the Board of Education
make the request. But the original request came from the school itself. So we'd
have to talk to the school principals and so on and say, "Well here, we've
looked at your building, and we think there's an opportunity of having a mural
in the auditorium, or in the hallways or something. It might be appropriate,
and if you'd be interested and if they were, why we'd develop it from there.
As fast as we could get these institutions committed to the sponsorship, then
we could assign artists to make tentative sketches for the job. It was a problem
really of, as I said -- we had to have men at work in order to use the money
that had been designated for the area and for the activity. If you didn't have
it, of course, the funds would probably be withdrawn. It was an impossible sort
of task, but one that you thought you had to do something about. I think that
in most cases it wasn't too difficult to secure sponsorship of high schools
and libraries. I mean it took some considerable amount of talking perhaps and
so on, but once they realized that this was something that was within their
own discretionary powers, and that the work would be subject to their complete
approval, they didn't feel too great a hesitancy about ordering, or becoming
sponsors. I think the greatest threat to their acceptance would have been that
work could have been put in there over their own decision of what they wanted.
This couldn't be. By the way, this was a tremendous source of newspaper comment.
You know the headlines in papers like the Journal-American and other papers,
particularly the Journal-American, was anti-New Deal and so on, but you know
these murals were being rammed down the public's throat and a communist mural
had been torn down off the wall because it had these Red symbols in it and so
on and so on. This was foisted down the taxpayer's throat and so on and so on.
As a matter of fact, it didn't happen. It was silly because the thing that they
charged was the Red Star of the Soviet Republic was the rear end of a Shell
Gas truck that had a red star on it, you know the gas station has ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: I mean it turned out more or less like that. But you see,
we could never get equal publicity for facts such as the method for getting
a mural into a high school in terms of who approved it, and how little chance
you'd have of ramming anything down their throat. The only thing that you could
possibly do was probably get a better artist to do the job than they might have
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: A man who had some formal concern with the work and really
had something to give other than just the picture, the scene, or whatever. I'm
expressing it in very silly terms, perhaps but, let me give you an instance
of one of the high schools that the statement had been made that this was a
mural rammed down their throats, you know, and so on. The principal requested
a mural. They requested a mural. There was a regular form made up. He passed
that on to the Board of Architects. They would only approve -- this is of the
school system -- they would approve it only in architectural terms within these
architectural limitations. It was then passed to the Board of Superintendents
of the New York City school system. If they approved -- this was only preliminary
sketches -- they were passed on to the Board of Education. Now if the Board
of Education approved, it was then submitted to the New York City Art Commission.
If the New York City Art Commission approved, it was given preliminary approval,
which meant you had permission to start work. The work would have to be viewed
by the New York City Art Commissioner periodically to make certain that it was
the same thing as presented in the original sketch form. Now when the mural
was completed, you still had no right to the mural because when the mural was
completed, the principal had to make out another form requesting final approval
of the mural. It then went to the Board of Architects for their final approval.
It then went to the Board of Superintendents for their approval. It then went
to the Board of Education for their approval. It then went back to the New York
City Art Commission for their final approval and the mural was in. Now if through
that barricade you could ram an idea, or anything else in there, down the throats
of the innocent taxpaying public, I'd like to know how the hell it could be
HARLAN PHILLIPS: There are more checks and balances in that process than there
are in our Federal system. I gather that, you know, in finding wall space as
in a school, I would assume that one of your tasks would be to actually find
wall space, to survey it ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: ... as to whether it would or would not be adaptable to a
task at which you might employ an artist.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right. You had the first task of actually seeing whether
the wall space really made sense, whether there was any rhyme or reason for
decoration being there. Then of course you had to select the artist that you
thought would be most competent to execute the work. And it couldn't be made
into a competitive thing, as TRAP, for instance, as our post office murals were,
you know on a competition basis because this thing had to move along once you
got started, and there were so many possible jobs that it wasn't like the post
offices were, where there'd be one in a whole region and maybe a hundred artists
competing for it, you see what I mean?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: There were plenty of available spaces. Now I don't mean it
was easy to convince these people that they should have a mural, or whatever,
I mean, some of them of course wanted to have hearing after hearing to discuss
it, and then they'd have to cover themselves. They had within their own family,
you know, they'd have their Art Chairman and some of the other people in the
school, you know, go into lengthy debates about the subject matter and so on
and so on. By the time we got the sponsorship sometimes there could be quite
a delay. This meant that you had to hit five places to make sure you'd have
one next week to assign to an artist. Then as fast as you could assign the artists,
then you could assign the assistant, start assigning assistants, probably one
first just to help the artist gather data. Most of the murals involved subject
matter that needed research and so on. They could start doing research, and
whatever, and then a little later, why you might assign more if it were a large
job, you know, because then you have the actual job of setting up big wall space.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. But, you know, the draft, the original drawing...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yes....
HARLAN PHILLIPS: This was on the basis of research?
BURGOYNE DILLER: It was on the basis of an artist being given the subject matter
by the school and doing as much research as possible -- I mean by that doing
a thorough job of research and then we presenting that to the principal of the
school again to make sure this was a thoughtful statement of the thing the principal
wanted done. In other words, the scene below, whatever it was. So the result
is it called for quite a bit of consultation between the artist and the principal
before it started out on that long siege of approvals.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And most of the principals were cooperative; not only cooperative,
but some went to great lengths to aid in the research because in some subjects
it was rather difficult. They asked some of their teachers, you know, specialists
who'd be more specialized in fields, to assist and so on. On the whole, the
sponsors were really quite cooperative, but you see these -- the majority, as
I said -- but this isn't the kind of thing that makes news.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: It's always the ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: The thing that makes news is the one who uncovered the fact
that a mural being done in the music room of this high school was done by a
young woman who had worked on a mural with Diego Rivera, and when they found
that out, that, as far as they were concerned, made her a Communist. It was
a fresco. It was half-finished, and it was torn down by orders of the principal.
Now he had no authority to do this because he should have gone to the New York
City Art Commission, and it should have gone back through the process, because
in the mural itself, the girl had taken ancient musical instruments and painted
a frieze around the music room. Even then no one claimed that there was one
iota of leftist or any other kind of commentary, or any kind of commentary,
except it might have been an improvisation built up on musical instruments.
No charge was made like that at all, but he had found out through "a good
soul" that this girl had worked on a mural with Diego Rivera. Now she had
worked with him, I know, because she was concerned with the fresco process and
most of the frescos, all frescos being done, most of them anyway, were being
done in Mexico where there was a sort of renaissance of fresco painting. She
had deliberately gone down to try to work with Diego Rivera because he was doing
frescos, and she could actually work on the job. What her political viewpoints
were, I have no idea. All I know is she was doing a job for us, and there wasn't
one iota of anything there that the most reactionary person could possibly protest
as far as the motif of the thing, or the coloring, or anything at all. These
are the things that you read about. You didn't read about the other hundred
jobs. We had 125 going on at one time, but you read about this on the front
page, but not of the other 124. You know it was very unfair. You know you said
-- when I started talking about approvals and so on -- originally you made a
statement, you know, about what happened at that period, you know, where this
thing was growing. Well, it was like a mushroom. We worked day and night and
weekends and, believe me, we were not well-paid for it, but we thought it was
the most wonderful thing that could be happening. We were enthusiastic and were
ready and willing to do anything. It was a madhouse. I had somebody sent to
me to act as a supervisor and, as it happened, he was rather elderly. He came
and he said, "Mr. Diller, I was sent to you to possibly act as a supervisor.
I'm So-and-so and I've had, you know, certain background." He started to
talk about that, and I said, "Oh, you did! That's fine. The only thing
I'm concerned with: See that desk. We have no secretaries. We have no typists.
We just have bare desks with stacks of paper on them three feet high."
You know, everything was out - that was our file for the time being. And so
I said to him, "Look at that desk. If you can't find something to do, I
don't need you; but if you can, I love you." He went over and got to work.
Afterwards he told someone else that he thought it was so wonderful, that I
was a young man and he was an elderly man, and he had gone there terribly frightened
just because of his age that he'd probably be relegated to the wastebasket,
you know, and he wound up useful, and he said it was so wonderful you know that
I made that statement. All I could think of was "Wonderful, hell! I needed
help desperately. I was drowning in papers and people." I told you it was
wonderfully exciting time.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Tell me this. How much direction, if I can use the word, did
you receive from Washington?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, we had fairly regular visits from Eddie Cahill. They
were more or less non-directive directives. I think they were things that had
to do with the budget, number employed, and that sort of thing, and he bore
the brunt every time he came to town. The Artists Union and the Artists Congress
were laying in wait for him to clobber him, you know, about more jobs and more
money and so on and so on. But as far as the work was concerned, I think that
the only thing I felt constrained by -- I was personally very much interested
in abstract painting and so on. They felt that there was no place for it at
the time because they felt that the project should be a popular problem and,
while they didn't attempt to invalidate, or question the validity of the work
at the time abstract art had no place, because in a way you did have a great
problem of building up public sympathy and understanding and a demand on the
part of the public for the work. But outside of that -- and conversations that
you'd have, you know, when you'd get together, probably after your meetings,
which were, as I said, more budgetary than anything else, probably you'd get
together and you'd have a drink or two and talk. At that time it was probably,
on his part, a recital of some of the things that were being done in the rest
of the country. Some things he was more enthusiastic about than other things.
But then we had our opinion. We might probably differ with him very much and
we told him so, and there was no problem.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, the process you ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: When I started assigning abstract things, and we had a number
of very representational works, I felt certainly these people should have a
voice, too. It was more difficult getting it, but I mean if I had ten jobs going,
I could afford to start one that might be aesthetically a little questionable
to some people. And on the other hand, you could say that while Cahill didn't
greet them with any degree of enthusiasm because he was still primarily concerned
with creating a demand for the project on a more general basis, on the other
hand, I say I survived. He never hit me. He didn't fire me.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: No. But the process you describe whereby one got acceptance
of a mural would tend to preclude interference or direction from Washington.
You had to negotiate with the principal to begin with...
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: And so other than saying that you might have told him this
story, or taken this point of view, it's inconceivable that Cahill, you know,
would have an opinion except an over-all effort to get it accepted with public
support, but the detail of whatever was worked out had to be worked out by you,
it would seem to me.
BURGOYNE DILLER: If he had preferred to steer the thing completely, I think
he would have been in an impossible situation, as you say, because it was beyond
him, as it was beyond us to do something we might have preferred. In the case
of Cahill, he was much too intelligent, however, to not recognize this fact,
and I'm sure that when he talked very enthusiastically about some of the painters
-- well, I remember some of the ones he was very, very enthusiastic about were
some of the Chicago painters. He had a feeling, you know, that Chicago was sort
of the middle of this country, and they had a sort of a -- oh, a sort of a Mexican-inspired
renaissance of mural painting in Chicago doing frescos and so on and so on,
and I think that he felt that it was a healthy and growing sort of thing. Since
the work was, as I said, representational and more popular this would probably
have a great impact, but he didn't say that we had to be aware of this, or that
we had to concern ourselves with this. He was expressing a personal enthusiasm,
a personal belief and, as I said, we argued it, or denied it, or whatever, but
there was no pressure exerted on us under him. As I said, I believe the man
is essentially intelligent enough not to. First, he was aesthetically aware
enough not to want to impose his will, which is the most important thing perhaps.
As a politician, he was aware of the fact that he couldn't direct these things
completely and that some way or other a happy medium had to be found between
the desire of an artist to do a good thing, a fine thing, and the thing that
people would ask for. Believe me, it's a very precarious sort of thing. Under
the circumstances, why, as I said, the wolves are all around howling. If it
wasn't somebody from the extreme left, it was somebody from the extreme right,
or if it wasn't them, it was a neurotic old maid, or something else, you know,
setting up a storm about something -- well, just, say, obscenity of artists
in general. You'd be surprised at the idea, you know, artists being let loose
in a school where children were attending school. This had unsalutary features.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, you know, there was no precedent for this really. There
wasn't any precedent for setting up and floating this idea and making it walk.
How you really go about doing it, you know. You're bound to step on toes you
didn't even know were there ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's true.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure. Quite apart from the political interest of certain newspapers,
the Mirror, the Journal-American, others who were anti-Administration and were
using the Art Project as an indication of wastage and so on, you know. They
were selling a wholly different idea. The only difficulty is they put theirs
out in a huge paper, and you couldn't compete on those terms. You still had
to deal with the principal, the Board of Education, etc. etc., who themselves,
I think, showed a rather large antipathy with that kind of pressure, don't you?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yes.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: That there would be a public spirit or whatever it is, this
feeling of necessity even operated on Boards of Education where they could see
the needs of this in human terms and at the same time aesthetic terms for the
school and within those limits allow employment which but for this process would
not exist at all. So I think, you know, in a way they deserve a kind of nod
for not being sensitive to the ....
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think they deserve that because they were in a delicate
position in relation to the running of the schools where even a penny spent
on something that wasn't an absolute necessity could be challenged.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And also if an idea were to be put on a wall, I think we were
in a period then of the beginning of probably one of the most difficult periods
in America as far as thinking was concerned. Thinking was becoming dangerous
as such. They themselves were timid about jeopardizing their own careers because
after all, maybe these people, these artists, do these things, do you see what
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Don't forget this was a period of great fear from the Dies
Committee and McCarthy and so on. That's why these organizations gained such
power in repudiating the work of a man, or something of the sort, because of
suspected association, or whatever else it may be. It's like the murals that
were condemned -- like one mural torn down off the wall, as I said, absolutely
unjustified as far as a careful analysis of the work was concerned -- simply
because somebody saw a Red Star and so on and carried it back to his American
Legion Post, got the Post up in arms about it, and made such a furor that they
ordered the thing torn down. Now, it was groundless, but the action took place
so fast. I think that what happened there probably could be, I think, typified
in a situation where you had the Post demand that a certain mural be stopped
and taken down in another high school. I just couldn't see any reason, but this
man came to the project with a committee from the Post. He was extremely vocal.
The other two men just sort of sat there. I have the feeling that he came bearing
the Post's authority, of the veterans, you see, so you had to listen, and I
listened very carefully. I brought out some photographs to speak to him about
it, you know, to indicate "What? Will you please tell?" The charges
he made were so ludicrous it was funny! I said then that the only thing I could
do would be to take it into consideration, to take it up with some other people,
and I said, "If possible, your Post. Nothing would be done very quickly."
By that I meant nothing was going to be done that would matter, if we didn't
come to a decision within two or three days, or a week or whatever. So a couple
of days later I went to the Post. I went in, and I met the commander of the
post who happened to be a very innocent sort of person. I told him who I was,
and I told him what had happened. I had photographs and things there, and I
asked him, I said, "Do you know this man carries the authority of your
post? Do you know what he said?" He said, "Oh, yes. He said so and
so and so and so." I said, "Fine. You do know that. Do you know what
he means when he says that? Have you looked, have you checked?" "Well,
no. After all, that man is perfectly competent." I said, "Is he? Let's
just get together here. Here's some material." Finally he called a couple
of other officers over. They went over the material. When they got through,
they were so disgusted and embarrassed, and finally he said to me, "Look,
I'm terribly sorry. That guy's a pain in the neck anyway. He's always off screaming
about something." I said, "Well, it's a fine place to put him on the
Americanization Committee in times like this, in difficulties like this, and
then have him carry the authority of your Post." The result was I never
saw or heard from the little man again.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: That's interesting. In the mural field what kind of pressure
did you get from the Society of American Mural Painters, which, I think, is
a New York City organization.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Oh, I think the Society of Mural Painters -- after all, they
had pretty much control of all the big murals that were being given out in the
State buildings and for City buildings and so on and so on, and they had things
so thoroughly tied up. I think they were so infinitely superior to us they didn't
give a damn.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: They didn't care.
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think that they really cared, but they wouldn't lower themselves.
I think there were a few contacts here and there, because, after all, a lot
of their people were becoming unemployed. But I'm sure that in a sense though,
as a group, probably the controlling group of it were as anti-WPA as anybody
else was that were successful business people.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Yes. You mentioned the name of an architect before who
ought to go in here somewhere as one of those who aided and abetted the development
of the abstract, and that's Lescaze.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yes. That was in the early days, the very early days of the
project, and when I had assigned certain artists as assistants to other artists
with whom they would be most compatible, we still had the problem of finding
places for more abstract paintings, and Lescaze, Rene Lescaze, was the architect
for the Williamsburg housing project. We got together at one point, and I told
him that I thought that we had some fine abstract painters and they should have
walls to work on. It stuck at the time in pictures and scenes in history that
the rooms they would be working in would be playrooms and general public areas
that would be so informal rather, and limited really in space and without the
housing project having a personal theme that they wanted to foster, we could
probably have these abstract painters do things that would be very decorative,
very colorful and probably people moving into this housing project might need
that touch of color and decoration around, something to give a little life and
gaiety to these rather bleak buildings. There was not much that Lescaze could
do in terms of decoration because all the money went into building space, you
see. He was very enthusiastic about it, and he really - you could imagine from
his viewpoint, he had a problem in convincing the authorities that be that this
was a worthwhile project. It culminated in our having most of the men I had
available at the time being assigned to jobs. It worked out quite well, except
I think that -- well, the exception has nothing to do with the doing, or anything
of the sort, but like in those early housing projects I doubt if there is very
much left of the murals that were painted. As I said, it's pretty close quarters
and a lot of people are -- I think that was one of the earliest and biggest
housing developments, experiments sort of, in town. The next fairly large project
that came about was the -- well, I had a supervisor named Yuchenko who had a
very good contact with the people at WNYC, because he had been very much interested
in some of the work they had been doing in the broadcasting station field. We
got together a good many times. Finally I managed, without too much difficulty,
to convince Novak and others there, who were quite excited about the idea, of
having more contemporary works in the broadcasting studios, that it would be
more fitting, and so on. Of course, don't forget, it's a city institution and
even in WNYC, you did not go down and paint murals. The station had to request
the murals, that went to the architects for the City and then that went to the
-- well, I think it came under the Commissioner of Docks at the time. I believe
it's the Commissioner of Docks, so it had to go to him for approval. Then he
had to submit it to the New York City Art Commission and they gave you permission
to begin, as I told you before in the case of schools, and then back down again.
So, again, it wasn't foisting abstract work down the public's throat either
HARLAN PHILLIPS: No.
BURGOYNE DILLER: It still had to go through the City itself and the City departments
and the New York City Art Commission. But you know there was an extraordinary
man on that New York City Art Commission that did an awful lot in many ways
for the art programs. His name was Ernest Pachano. He was a remarkable man.
He was a very, very academic painter, who did murals in several banks in New
York City and so on, and he was then way in his 70s. He was in his 70s then,
but I had to pick him up and take him around to these mural projects periodically,
every couple of weeks or so, or every week, or whatever time he could possibly
take off, and he'd view them for the Art Commission. To show you in a way what
type of person he was. One day there were five murals I wanted him to view because
they were getting along, and he was supposed to see the different stages of
work. One of them was Phil Guston; another was Brooks, James Brooks; another
was Seymour Fogel; and there were a couple of others. Well, you know, we went
up where the artists lived, of course in a very shabby loft you know, in a shabby
building on a shabby street. This is what they could afford, or they couldn't
afford it, but somehow or other they managed it, so we'd trudge up these winding
staircases to get up to the loft and view the work and talk with the artist.
Then back down, and we'd get in the car and go on to the next one. We went to
three of them. Finally Pachano said, "Mr. Diller, do you mind? I don't
feel well. Would you mind if we went back to my house instead of seeing the
other two things today?" I said, "No, not at all." Well at his
age, and he did, he looked ill, you know, I was very concerned about his health.
"For heaven's sake, why didn't you tell me before!" "No, no,
no," he said, "let's get in and go back to my house." We drove
up to his house which was in the 70s, and he invited me up and he asked the
maid he had to bring in a rare bottle of brandy. It was very ceremoniously poured,
and he sat there sniffing it. After a little bit he said, "You know I feel
much better now." "Do you know why I felt sick? You know when I was
a young man I had a mediocre talent. I learned technically how to do this kind
of illustration. For a very mediocre talent I lived a beautiful life. I got
well paid, more than well paid for anything and everything I ever did. I have
met wonderful people. I have had enough money to associate with them, to do
things nicely, but today, just as many days as I've gone out with you, I've
gone up into the dirtiest holes in the wall to see the work of young artists.
I'd see one. Then I saw two. Then I saw three and I never had the talent that
they've got in their fingertips, and here they are living on absolute marginal
living. They don't know where the next meal is coming from, practically no possibility
in the world of having a job, you know, of using their work. It's enough to
make me feel absolutely sick at my stomach. Now this is a tremendous person
who could say something like that and mean it. He was extremely helpful in the
Art Commission because at the time the Mayor was designating the Art Commissioner
and the other appointees -- you know, there was a sculptor member, a painter
member, an architect, and so on and so on. The result was that they were rather
academic people and some of them represented the good societies - art, mural,
sculpture societies in New York. They were just not too concerned about the
kind of work that these young people were doing, but he was a very strong force
in his quiet little way.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I know that in WNYC, for example, Davis has a mural...
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: You know, and it's in his tradition. Getting that accepted,
you know, the request that comes from the Station and spins up that stream of
possible veto power. It took persuasion and at least, you know, another eye
or a different sense than the traditional one even to entertain the possibility
of a Davis mural in the Radio Station. I don't know whether it created any fuss,
or not. Davis himself didn't say, except that it is one of his murals, but I
can see the difficulty which you as a person who had to go out and get sponsorship,
or enlist sponsorship, would confront. With your own interest in the more modern,
abstract paintings, having a fellow like Pachano was ....
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, I think there were -- you see, again, there were just
enough people around like Commissioner McKenzie who was Commissioner of Docks.
Dealing with a man like that -- it was a pleasure. Here's a man whose whole
background as far as art activities, or interest were concerned was rather pedestrian,
but I mean a man, an extremely intelligent person, who was well aware that there
were many worlds that he wasn't an authority on because he happened to be Commissioner
of Docks, or something of the sort. The result was, I feel, that if he believed
you were a sound person, were honest, and if he considered you were expert in
your field, he would grant you the benefit of the doubt and be willing to support
it. I give you a very, very good case of this. Ferdinand Leger wanted to paint
-- above all wanted to have a mural in America. He'd never had one in Europe,
and they thought there was a wonderful possibility of his doing something in
America. No one at the time seemed to take it upon themselves -- private industry
or anything of the sort, you know, or whatever. The corporations didn't have
the interest they have now in these things, because, you know, they're assets
now because they're pretty good advertising, pretty cheap advertising ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: So that Leger apparently was unable to obtain that thing,
but through discussions with James Johnson Sweeney, who was then at the Modern
Museum, and Bonnet. There was a Miss Bonnet who had some liaison with the French
Government - had contact - Therese Bonnet, I think, and one or two others. They
got in contact with the Project as a possibility, so that after their discussions
with Audrey McMahon, who thoroughly approved of the idea that something might
be done on the Project, it was turned over to me to see if it would be possible.
You see, we couldn't employ him as an artist on the Project either as relief,
or non-relief because he was not a citizen. But on the other hand we'd have
an excuse for using him because of his name and so on, and the fact that a good
many American artists might like to work with him on a mural, you see, so it
would give them employment. We decided that it would work if we could find a
place where we could do a job that would employ a group of American artists
that might take the same theme that he would take. In other words, if there
were enough panels or positions for murals, that he could collaborate with them,
and he could more or less establish a theme and then they could do whatever
variations on that theme that they pleased, you see. It might make an extremely
interesting project. Well, it was so exciting to all of us, you know, to do
it, and dealing with Leger was a very great pleasure, and we got a group of
artists to work with him. He came down to the studio area we had at the time,
office and studio area. He worked with these artists. Then he drew lots at his
own studio, the place where he was staying, until finally we developed this
series of sketches for this mural for a position, a place that had been suggested
somewhere along the line, that maybe the French Line pier would be good. Well,
it was a natural, you know, for Leger to do in collaboration with American artists,
to do decorations for the French Line pier. Then a Monsieur de l'Enclet was
contacted, who was head of the French Steamship Lines. The reason he had to
be contacted was because they would have to be sponsors, because they were leasing
the pier from the City of New York, but we could do the work in the pier if
it became a permanent part of the pier, do you see? Because it was a city-owned
structure. Again it looked -- a Frenchman you know and so on, that a man like
that would certainly be very excited. Mr. de l'Enclet was as cold and non-committal
as a man could be in all the preliminary work. When we had all of the work finished
finally, we got to the presentation sketches. I made an appointment at de l'Enclet's
office for Leger and myself to come up and show them the preliminary sketches,
which could be submitted by him then to the Art Commission, or the Commissioner
of Docks rather and then to the Art Commission. I had already shown them to
the Commissioner of Docks, and he had gone along with it. He said, "Well
they certainly are going to be bright and cheerful. I think it would be a wonderful
thing to have in the pier." As I said, he wasn't concerned about their
being abstract paintings or any other sort, because they were sea forms that
were rather developed, you know, of all the motifs that Leger had established.
Well, I brought the sketches with Leger. I went with Leger to de l'Enclet's
office. After cooling our heels for at least three quarters of an hour, we were
finally admitted to the royal presence. I introduced Mr. de l'Enclet to Leger,
and he said, "I know that man," and he started off a tirade in French.
I was able to read a bit of French. I could understand it, you know, to a certain
extent if you spoke carefully, but this was a torrent. I could get enough of
the conversation to know what was going on. Then Leger pops up, and he starts.
De l'Enclet had practically told him, "Well, you damn worker, you! You
communist!" And so on and so on, and he really insulted Leger to no end.
Leger naturally was terrifically indignant about the thing, and so I finally
walked over and picked up the sketches, and I said, "Well, Mr. de l'Enclet,
thanks for your French courtesy!" I said, "Leger, I don't think there
is any reason to stay here any longer." We picked up and walked out. That
was the end of that project. Yes, you got involved in some funny things in the
project days, some extraordinary people.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure. What a strange kind of a mess that was. Tell me, so
far as the New York office itself was concerned, I mean apart from you as a
supervisor, a field man, an inspector, in a way, how much rationale did the
Project obtain locally in New York from its own leader, Mrs. McMahon?
BURGOYNE DILLER: You mean in terms of aesthetic direction?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Direction, yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Mrs. McMahon was extremely broad in her viewpoint. I think
that she only concurred with Cahill in the attitude in the beginning that they
had to be wary of trying to introduce certain abstract forms and so on because
it might militate against the employment. But on the other hand, when I did
start to place people she certainly went along with it and would have supported
me in doing it because she didn't object certainly not to the idea of the work.
She was rather glad it could be done. You see, as the thing developed and there
were so many murals going on, as I said, if you take a ratio of one out of ten,
or one out of twenty, who is going to criticize it, because they're still valid
works. They could be called decoration, if nothing else. They didn't have to
be called art or anything -- you know, abstract or anything. So you know the
name was a dangerous thing. I found in other places that we introduced abstract
work just simply by calling it, talking to their committees about the decoration,
if you avoided the word "art", they were very happy.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I'll be darned.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Of course, if you introduced the word art then you were in
for it, you see!
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Then I suspect that her problem....
BURGOYNE DILLER: In other words they were people that didn't know anything
about art, but they knew what they liked. But on the other hand they were much
freer in their choice of decoration.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Well, that's a subjective thing anyway. Well, I suspect
in terms of what you initially said that you had so much funds allotted and
those funds had to be spent for salaries for unemployed artists that could be
employed on a public project.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: The more projects you had, the happier she would be in the
sense of maintaining the flow of funds which had been made available, an administrative
problem as distinct from a selective one as to whether they should be square,
or round, or circular, or otherwise. She let that go.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right. She didn't let it go. She was interested. She
was concerned with it, but she didn't use authority to try to dictate it in
any fashion. I mean there were things that were done. On the other hand, which
she considered were rottenly academic. As works of art she considered them nothing,
but on the other hand, they were in places where those people wanted those things
and they performed a certain kind of function.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And so as a matter of fact, if you just thought well they're
illustrations for these people and for this particular group, and so on -- again,
it's like calling abstract art just decoration. Call the other -- well, it's
just illustration, and let it go at that. Why argue about it's being art? Although,
as I said, she was thoroughly upset a few times. She thought the thing was getting
too trite and so on. She had a real concern about it.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Which is good.
BURGOYNE DILLER: What's that?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Which is good; namely, you have a sympathetic response for
a program and its consequence, which is what she had.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, I think you had a person there that was more concerned
about art, and about the artist and while she herself could function in the
political sense, or administrative sense and political sense and she did, her
main concern I think, after all, was being editor of Parnassus you know, the
College Art Magazine, being associated with that, and in the past had been connected
with other social and art activities. But she was very well-equipped for that
sort of thing and had so much more than a straight administrative person without
technical knowledge, or insight into what the problem of the artist might be.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: You see, it took understanding. We had this demand from outside
to have time clocks and also at one point a demand to have the artists work
in studios on the premises. Well, this is ridiculous. An artist might have a
shabby little room, a dirty little room, but he's pinned some things on the
wall, and he lives there, and it's his environment, and this is what he works
from. But to bring him in to a commercial building and give him a little section
in the corner and say, "Now paint from nine to four," or something
of the sort! Yet this is the thing that they were constantly trying to impose
upon us. Now the time-keeping things. She had under her administration, of course,
your purely administrative personnel, I mean the man who took care of the business.
You had the man who took care of the time-keeping, your time-keeping division,
and so on; and you had your other technical divisions. Under these were the
actual division related to the art. She had to be the intermediary within her
own department and above, you see, correlate these things, because if a timekeeper
came in and said, "I found so and so asleep," -- when they insisted
on having the timekeepers check easel painters -- "I went there five days
and he was sound asleep at three o'clock in the afternoon." The timekeeper's
recommendation was that he be dismissed, you see. Then possibly they'd get thoroughly
upset and go up to administrative headquarters and try to get their authority
to wield a bigger stick about these artists that were sloughing off. Well, of
course, somehow or other it invariably happened that the artist who was asleep
at three o'clock on the five days he called there was a guy who works all night,
and who probably was one of the best painters we had on the project. Now I could
understand it. In my own case I know damn well I might be asleep at three o'clock.
Maybe I worked till six in the morning if I was painting at that particular
time. I did. I painted half the night -- you know, when you get through with
this other sort of business. But she had to understand this, too. The only way
you could understand it was to know the artists personally, and to know his
aims, what his limitations were, understand him as a human being, which purely
administratively isn't being done in any organization; however, it's necessary.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I wondered what her relationship was to the over-all ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Am I getting shrill. With this damn tape here you find yourself
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I don't know.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Or is it just.....?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: It's fun. You've got some good insight into it, too, as you
would necessarily have, having gone through the experience. It's rubbed off.
It's in you. And, as I think you pointed out, this is a period which you haven't
seen since, nor did it exist before. Just this kind of flavor. Understanding,
for one thing. But there was introduced, I think, in New York -- well the first
man was Iron Pants Johnson, wasn't he?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Oh! Yes. Hugh Johnson.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Who at that particular time had been having not a few
personal difficulties on the national scene. But he was followed by a military
figure, an engineer.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Brean Somerville.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Who in his own field is, you know, second to none, but here
in this particular instance he had a pretty bad press, a pretty bad press in
the sense that his announcements seemed to be highly arbitrary, namely, you
were going to pare down the lists of artists by some thirty percent cut...
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Now he may have been under instructions from Washington ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Somerville -- I think I had some understanding of the man
in a way, the man, because of the past. The attitude that the general WPA administration
had, that side of it, with Hugh Johnson and then followed by Somerville, but
mainly generated through Johnson's offices was that the Art Programs on the
whole were hotbeds of Communist activity, that they really were impediments
to the WPA administration in their bigger programs, because all of the scare
heads came from the art programs.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I see.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And don't forget that your art programs -- the theater, and
writing, and music, and art -- these are the things people write about. No matter
what is going on in the other programs, who heard of it?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: These became scare heads and, as a matter of fact, there was
a good deal of very leftist activity, you know, tremendous upheaval in thinking
and feeling. It was country-wide, but these were vocal people. Instead of their
understanding that this represented most of the scareheads, most of the statements
that they protested against were what? The statement of a small group of people,
a very small group of people. They weren't the body of people that were the
art projects. You found, however, this tremendous prejudice that they had. Now
as far as they were concerned, when the Federal Art Program ceased and the WPA
took it over directly, in other words, when the Art Program was no longer sort
of a separate unit, but came under the aegis of the local administration, no
longer under Washington. We were under really the WPA administration, and their
first thought, of course, was to clean out these projects, you see. Well, now
their idea of cleaning out a project could be arbitrary dismissals, or refusals
to grant certain things that might be needed. Do you see what I mean? They certainly
couldn't execute any discretion in terms of who to hire or who to fire. We still
had to do that, but there was enormous prejudice. It was an uphill fight constantly.
At that time -- do you remember the artists were having sitdown strikes and
all that sort of thing. This was, of course, to the WPA administration something
that was an impossible thorn in their side. Look, it was a problem for them,
but on the other hand, this is the way things were going in that day and age.
Today they wouldn't think so much of it, you know. We've been conditioned to
these things. They do happen even in polite groups...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure they do.
BURGOYNE DILLER: The point is though -- well, in that time you had such a stirring
up of feeling and that's the time, too, when your Dies Committee had started,
and so on -- the things they call "witchhunts" and all the terms that
were used. You know these terms that you got so tired of -- I mean on both sides
of the fence you get tired of the terms that were used. The thing was, though,
that when Somerville took over, he wanted to run a clean project, of course,
but he did it my making demands on Mrs. McMahon. She had to bear the brunt pretty
much of explaining what the project was doing and so on and so on and so on.
But to her, I know it presented a rather cold, forbidding wall. She couldn't
break through him, but she could keep a kind of face with him. She had to if
she was going to keep getting the funds for the project and to maintain it and
its facilities. This condition went on for some time. One of the first -- I
think one of the first breakthroughs was the opening of La Guardia Airport,
which is now North Beach Airport. I had something to do with that because Mrs.
McMahon called me one day and said that Colonel Somerville had rather a problem.
The airport was supposed to open up in about five weeks, I think it was, five
or six weeks, and apparently some of the Army men he had designated, because
he believed in Army men and Army discipline, to plan and get the decorations
ready to open this up with a very festive air, had fallen down so completely
there was not only nothing ready, but there wasn't even a good plan. As a last,
rather desperate thing he called on "Miss Dirty Little Project" to
see if they could do it. Mrs. McMahon said that she had arranged a meeting for
me to meet with him. I, at the time -- let's see, at that time I was still --
yes, head of the Mural Division. Was I? Yes. After that, I became the assistant
technical director, but anyway I was to meet with him and to talk over the situation.
Well I met with the man and, believe me, he was polite, but it was a very grim
sort of demonstration of the problem he had, and with a sort of feeling that,
you know, "this is something if we can do it, it will be wonderful; if
we can't, we're going to be so dead it isn't going to be funny." I knew
better than to make any silly promises, or anything of the sort. I also had
an idea what we needed so I laid down a lot of conditions, things I needed from
his departments. "If I call up and I want lumber for this, if I want something
for that, and so on, I want to know which department I can get them from, who
I'd contact in your administration to get them from, and I'd want them quick,
because you know how little time there is left." "Oh, yes, any one
of these things." When we got through talking he said, "Well, you
seem to have grasped the situation." I said, "Well, I hope you grasped
the demands that I have made." We can do it, but, by God, it's going to
take a lot of cooperation from your people, and personally I don't think they're
up to it." That wasn't good. But he looked, and he said, "I promise
you that if one of my men does not come through, deliver, don't wait -- because
you can't afford the time -- call me." I said, "Fine!" Well,
we got together and really we scampered around. Imagine, you know you have miles
of things for pennants and banners. I had the sculpture shops upside down. The
only thing we could figure out to do quick was maybe make twenty-foot high propellers
or something and stick them up in front of the main platform to stand on, and
so on. But where do you get bunting and banners and so on? So Yuchenko had been
in a lot of City departments so he just went from City Department to City Department.
We enlisted a few assistants for him, and they were going into every warehouse
in the City just to find out any place that had bunting and stuff, because we
didn't design first and then decide what we needed. We had them bring in the
stuff, and we'd design it after we got it, do you see? And so you'd start something
very loosely and keep filling in. Well, it ended up I was out there. I was out
there all night, as a matter of fact, but about six o'clock in the morning --
and by the way, I called Somerville about ten times about his very efficient
and disciplined officers. I had to, you know, material that was supposed to
come in, they'd say, "Well it will be there tomorrow, or the day after
tomorrow," and at the end of the week it still wasn't there, and no call
from them, nothing. He kept his promise, boy, he just bing! Like that, and,
by God, the next day I'd get the material, or that day, if possible. But he
drove in with his retinue. I was sitting in front of the main platform looking
at the final wires being hooked up, and all that sort of thing. We had crews
of his men and others naturally to do all this sort of thing, you know, you
had to get riggers, or whatever. He drove up with his staff, got out, did a
real military inspection, you know, saw me sitting out there so he walked out
there. He said, "Well?" I said, "It's finished." "Swell."
He walked away. Well, you know that man was the most cooperative person in the
world after that. I don't mean that I altered his attitude toward the project
as a whole. It was a part of the alteration process, because I know McMahon
in her dealing with him had done several very difficult jobs for him and others,
you know what I mean, had worked, but this was sort of something his -- you
know, this was one of the big things, and I was just lucky enough to be able
to do it, because it helped us. It helped us enormously. To try to sit in judgement
on that man -- you take a thoroughly military, disciplined man, and you can
see that there is a black and there's a white and there's a very little gray
area up in the middle, very little. It's hard for that man to give. I saw him
give, because he realized at least that the argument was reasonable. It made
sense and he accepted it, and he backed me up on it. I really had quite an admiration
of the man. I think first he was a brilliant man, and I think he was very badly
miscast by being put in a job like that. I think "Iron Pants," he
deserved it, but I don't think Somerville did. He was a man I liked. He had
his disciplines and his way of life. Probably we differed. But, as I said, sometimes
I'd rather have to deal with a person when you know exactly what you're dealing
with, and you know darn well that if he said he would back you on this you're
going to be backed. There's going to be no backtracking. You could get a job
done. This is very important. As I said, I think he gradually gained a little
more understanding of the project, probably the nature of the thing, the nature
of the artists that he was dealing with there, because in time problems, timekeeping
problems and things like that, why he'd carry out the order because he was supposed
to carry the order, but, as I said, he was intelligent enough to realize that
if we told him, "Now, look, we have a situation here. An artist might have
painted twelve hours, and he's sleeping when the timekeeper gets there. This
is silly, isn't it? He's only being paid to work four hours." He'd accept
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's not easy for a man to accept.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: No. I suspect a good bit of the sit-in demonstrations that
took place in his office were a consequence of real failure of communication
and understanding on both sides...
BURGOYNE DILLER: On both sides, and also on the fact, don't forget, that if
Somerville, or any other administrator there had an order, "Your budget
is going to be so much." That was the amount of money he had to deal with,
if he passed it down the line, he said, "You have to drop a hundred people,"
you'd drop a hundred people. We'd get sit-ins. He'd get sit-ins, and in Washington
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Don't forget these things were regulated ultimately by the
very arbitrary thing of Congress and its appropriation of funds and just how
far you could go with those funds.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure. And Congress had been enraged by the "One-third
of the Nation," that play put on by the theater project which quoted some
of the Senators accurately, it turns out, not to their advantage -- you know,
the living theater, and it made it touch and go with Congress. But Hopkins had
always seemed to have been able to keep most of this catcalling from Congress,
and so on.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Who?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Hopkins, Harry Hopkins ... at arm's length.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Harry Hopkins was really -- I met him once and very briefly,
but I did come in very close contact with a lot of people who, in turn, were
very closely associated with him, and the man was practically a myth, a legend
in his own time, because I don't know anyone that knew him personally who could
credit him with wrong motivation about anything he did. I think the man had
a temper and a sense of things that was extraordinary, and I think that he had
a very happy ability of communicating this, because I have never seen such enthusiastic
people as worked for him. As I said, when we were talking before, people were
not paid in any monetary terms, or even in recognition perhaps, but damnit all,
they had to get it done because he seemed to epitomize what they all really
wanted -- to do something. I don't mean just do good, or you'll have an unholy
feeling that you must be good to your fellow man or anything. It's just that
this is a human activity we're in and we're building something. It's a creative
thing and it's still wonderful. I always distrust the man who says he's doing
it for his fellow man. I'm just talking about people that were expressing no
self-concern for their time or for their efforts, or thoughts. They were just
all out to bring about the thing, to make it work. As I said, he seemed to inspire
that. I don't know. Have you talked to any of the people that have been close
to him at all?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: They generally have the simple way of conveying what the philosophy
of it was -- to employ people.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yes, but I mean their own reaction to him.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: It may be because Hopkins was replaced by Colonel Harrington,
a military man in the Engineers Corps, and juxtaposing the two impulses to the
advantage of Hopkins and the disadvantage of Harrington, and I have no brief
one way or another for Harrington. He was again in a different tradition. He's
unique, too, and he's entitled even to his limitations.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: But happily to float this program, it had the kind of man
at its head who was anxious, as I think Roosevelt was anxious, to get out on
the tracks and get it moving and leave to time to worry about what kind of work
was being done, you know. Initially it was, what, "Get a check in their
hands by Thanksgiving," you know, that's a different impulse than to say,
"Well, you have to work from nine to five and punch a clock."
BURGOYNE DILLER: In a sense, you know, it's the most discredited term in the
world, but there was a kind of idealism ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes indeed.
BURGOYNE DILLER: The kind of idealism that you're actually practicing and not
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right. Nobody gave it a tag. It just grew.
BURGOYNE DILLER: There was no price on it. It was just something there.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: There's no question of the fact that it emanated from the
malleability of Roosevelt to the human situations around about him. I mean,
I felt that rather than that it was his specific idea, he could become aware
of it ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And relate it somehow or other to a total kind of thinking.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: And I think also Hopkins had an attitude toward Congress which
enabled him to deal with Congress and protect, you know, the WPA as a whole;
whereas Harrington's tradition when he took over was one of a deferential attitude
toward Congress and therefore a kind of timidity.
BURGOYNE DILLER: You know, I think you've got something there. In that field,
however, I think that a person who was much more in Washington, do you see,
would be more aware of the actual working relationships that came about -- Cahill
particularly of course -- in a sense of what was happening in Washington. On
our level it was just, as I said, that we were rather constantly in contact
with people from Washington and therefore we felt we were aware of what was
going on. At least you felt the temper of the activity that was going along
and you felt a certain kind of hope as long as there was a spokesman like Cahill
there, or the ones more immediately concerned to us than Hopkins. However we
were hard-pressed enough without worrying about the operation in Congress too.
We were working at -- what's that awful term? Grass roots level, or something
of the sort. There were things concerning the Project though about which I think
somebody should certainly have some point to make. You know, it raises its ugly
head again in terms of this last World's Fair. Commissioner Moses who sometimes,
I feel sure, confuses himself with Moses in his, you know, negation of the art,
art shows, exhibitions and so on and so on. Whatever his reason may have been
in this last instance, to me it's no different than his cooperation with the
Projects. Do you know sculptors were working in the parks? We had some darned
good sculptors. We didn't use sculptors at the parks. He permitted them to wash
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: He would not have any of that awful WPA stuff. There are a
few little playground figures and one or two other things. He was so thoroughly
convinced that art lived and died with the Beaux Arts Academy in the days when
he was at Yale that he just didn't believe that anything else was anything except
anti-art, or anti-God, I'm not sure which. So that there was no work, and what
a tremendous field there was for ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sculpture.
BURGOYNE DILLER: For sculpture.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And you see, I think the problem of the sculptor then, as
today, is in relation to a media. Take an artists -- well, if he has a stick,
or something he can draw with, somehow or other he can make a go of it. He can
use house paints if he can't get regular paints and so on. What does a sculptor
do? He was a material that is probably large and expensive, and he has to have
a place to work in. He has to have tools to work with, and he has to have a
place probably for it to be placed. You can stack up a hundred paintings, but
it's not so easy to stack up a hundred pieces of sculpture, if he can get the
materials to do it and the place to do it in and so on. But here with this tremendous
acreage we've got in New York City and other areas around here. No. Why? Commissioner
Moses, I try to appreciate what the other guy does. I think the man probably
has done a formidable job of accomplishing -- well a kind of miracle in terms
of public highways -- in recreation areas and so on, but he took the authority
that he did in determining that these people couldn't work, because that's what
it amounted to. I think he really should not have had that privilege. And there
was no way - he was much too far from the men to circumvent his authority. I
think it was criminal.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: He's a very disagreeable public servant, but a very good public
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think he's a very good public servant, but I think that
he's one of these people that should have been put in a position of -- do you
remember I spoke to you about Beatrice Windsor?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Who was at the Newark Museum?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: She had been a disciple of Dana and so on. I told you also
that we were presenting this Gorky ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I think we ought to go into that. This is ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: I'm making this point in relation to Commissioner Moses. We
made rather an elaborate model of the work to be done for the Gorky mural in
Newark Airport. I wanted the presentation, I had a staff of architects, do you
see, that as soon as we'd get a mural location we'd send them out and have them
make drawings of the walls, scale, and so on and so on. In those locations where
we felt it would probably be an advantage to the artist we'd have scale models
built either slight ones, or sometimes more impressive ones depending on the
kind of committee we had to present them to and the problem involved. We did
a rather good one for Gorky's presentation of the Newark Airport mural to the
Art Commission of the City of Newark, particularly after the fiasco with the
Floyd Bennett job. Beatrice Windsor was the one that really sponsored it there.
We had on the day of presentation the meeting of the Art Commission. They seemed
to be rather elderly gentlemen. I'm sure they were of some prestige socially
and economically. I'm sure that they fit into the upper echelons of Newark society
and so on, rather cool, forbidding characters. I mean they were the kind of
people you would see sitting in the windows at the Princeton Club, or the Yale
Club, some of the old members spend their declining years that way. Well, of
course, when we presented the mural, I deliberately presented it as a decoration
so they wouldn't quibble about art. But one of them, probably brighter than
the rest, said, "Well, that's abstract art, isn't it?" That unleashed
the devil. They started, of course, a triage of questions and cross-questions,
and accusations and statement about modern art. This went on probably for half
an hour among themselves. They didn't wait for answers. Finally Beatrice Windsor
who is socially, I believe, their level and probably economically, too, and
of their vintage, and understood them very well, intervened. That was a grande
dame, you know. She could be very demanding herself, so finally she banged on
the table, she said, "Gentlemen, I'm amazed at you!! Sitting here talking
about something you know nothing whatsoever about. You're talking about art
and giving your opinions. Who cares for your opinions! Now you have a gentleman
here that's presenting this and you won't even let him express an opinion and
he is an expert!" She said, "You know one thing I've learned from
Charles Dana? One thing. Be intelligent enough to find out who is an expert
and then rely on his judgement, particularly if you know nothing about it yourself.
No I'd like to have you vote on this." She then said, "Mr. Diller,
do you like it?" I said, "I think it's handsome." "Gentlemen,
will you vote on this?" Believe me, they were so deflated they just sat
and said, "Well, it's all right." Isn't it wonderful -- the people
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Beatrice Windsor. She was really something.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, did you have direct dealings with Moses?
BURGOYNE DILLER: No. No, mainly by some of his delegates. His young Yale men
that he had. Pardon me for the antipathy toward Yale.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Be my guest.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Don't forget he was a hangover from the good old Beaux Arts
-- the Academy up there. I think that they won the Prix de Rome and everything
else. They had it in the bag and it was represented to me at the time and in
retrospect as a vicious barrier to any kind of art development whatsoever.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yale today, I must say, is quite a different place as far
as art in concerned. They've had Albers up there and others. I was even the
visiting art critic there one year myself. I can't very well condemn it now.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: For the sculptors he didn't give opportunity where he might
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, I would say he gave no opportunity except to monument
carvers, or if there was something else done I wish somebody would tell me.
I've seen what little was done.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I think you're right initially in terms of the impulse which Harry Hopkins as leader gave as bulwark against rumblings in Congress that were even apparent in the very early days when it came to appropriations. This is coupled, I think, in Washington with the fact that Harold Ickes was supposed to come up with the PWA and build public buildings only he was spending his time trying to draft a contract which would prevent politicians from getting their hands on public funds, so that Hopkins was sort of thrown into the breach to get people employed under this WPA, and as such he had -- well such skill with Congress, you know, in a sense of not running with his hat in his hand. It may be just that, whereas Harrington's whole background was related to Congress as the source of everything, and therefore you had to court Congress.
BURGOYNE DILLER Harrington was connected with the Army Engineering ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Which meant that he was in constant awareness of the necessity
of a certain kind of relationship with Congress ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And Congress would necessarily be on the defensive knowing
full well what he was out for ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure. This might also help explain some of Somerville's early
action, which appeared certainly in the press, certainly to those who were on
the receiving end as some inhuman kind of thing, like the arbitrary numbers
game he played, a hundred going to be dropped off the Project next week, 39
percent cut the following month, you know, this kind of thing, which was enough
to enrage artists and, you know, with their organization this became a pressure,
a sit-in. He had to be -- what? He had to be taught, in effect ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, in effect he did because, despite what I said about
not thoroughly disapproving of Somerville, as a human being, being able to admire
certain qualities the man had, really fine qualities, at the same time in a
situation like that you cannot be a military commander issuing orders and expect
these orders are going to be carried out, you know without question, because
we were not in the Army.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And the artists, or the laborer was not in the Army....
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: He anticipated certainly that any kind of reaction to his
order should be in relation to Army discipline. It's very difficult for a man
who was born, bred, you know, was bred into this thing, educated into this thing,
to understand that there's another way of life, and that you can't talk to the
lowest character in quite the terms that you can even talk to your colonels,
if you're a general in the Army.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: They wouldn't take it.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: They just won't take it.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And there's no reason why they should.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: No. And this I think is an aspect of WPA that appears in the
press somewhat to the discredit of the WPA because this again is news, because
it makes for conflict, but the reason for the conflict is this last thing, "I'm
a human being after all and you're not going to treat me this way!" For
example, I've had any number of statements about the manner in which Somerville
held a hearing even when he met with a delegation. It would be one at a time,
and that one would be dismissed. Well, you know, you sit around a table ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: He was really arbitrary.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. And you break open a bottle of wine and come to some
kind of agreement carefully in a friendly way instead of making it an arbitrary
thing. But, you know, New York presented perhaps the most difficult problem
of all, wouldn't you say?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, I don't know of any place in this country that could
compare with it because we had more -- well, first there were more people involved,
furthermore more kinds of people involved, further more viewpoints involved,
and I mean each one of them strong enough to be heard, to be vocal. But in the
smaller areas you might have a little clash with the artists group or something
of the sort, but not in these formidable terms, where you're talking all of
a sudden with, you know, fifteen hundred, two thousand people. It isn't a question
of the twenty people as it is out here who are artists, you know, and they can
split into two or three little groups in the smaller areas, but here it was
-- well, it was really vicious in a way. I mean not by intent, except I do think
that there was a kind of viciousness employed unfortunately by those people
who get into authority. They get into administrative authority, and they can
be rather ruthless because they have little or no understanding, and that's
why, you see, in the case of Somerville relying on some of his military men,
Captain So-and-so and Captain So-and-so and Lieutenant So-and-so, or Colonel
So-and-so, you see there again you had some nasty little sadistic bastards that
simply would give you, could give anybody a rough time for doing right, much
less what they didn't consider was right.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: They were such limited little people who were completely unaware
of the arts, or literature, or anything else. But how do you deal with men like
that? You don't.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: You don't.
BURGOYNE DILLER: To them, the timekeeper's word should carry authority, and
you should be docked at the time he said you weren't working when you were supposed
to be working. If you didn't concur in that, you were a damned Communist. Believe
me, we had it thrown in our face rather continuously on things that made the
accusations so irrelevant that it could be funny if it weren't so tragic.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Well, you know, he employed a Major to go around and,
oh, get reports on the quality of the work done on the easel painters...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Where did you hear this?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, there was an item in the New York Times that a Major
So-and-so was going to be employed expressly to visit the easel painters where
they were painting in their homes and assess the quality of work done. Well
now, I ask you!
BURGOYNE DILLER: Do you know that's something that probably was so unimportant
to me at the time because it's so impossible that I don't even remember it ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Just reading it in the press ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: I remember the sieges of their trying to exert timekeeping
pressure, regular hours and so on, and also desiring the artists to come and
work in a building and so on, which was at the end of the Projects, all of that,
but -- I have no question of the fact that they liked to do that...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I think this was the projection of an idea.
BURGOYNE DILLER: You see, along the way -- I don't know whether Audrey McMahon,
or Audrey McMahon working with Cahill had worked out some sort of scheme to
ease the pressure on us, of the aggravation that we acting as the arbitrator
of the aesthetic quality totally, and that particularly for the people in the
easel division, the sculpture division, print division, and so on, where of
course you didn't have the immediate sponsor relationship. The murals were sponsored,
accepted and in a sense sponsored, after they came into being. Then we relied
on committees within the Project to pass on the work, whether a person would
continue to be employed at that work, print-making, easel painting, or whatever,
and accept his work and so on. Then, as I said, it had to be brought outside
the project. Therefore McMahon, as I said -- I know there was a lot of discussion.
There were so many discussions about so many things that it's hard really to
reconstruct them, but I do know that I had little to do with it. I think that
it probably was McMahon and either Cahill or whoever who worked up, developed
an idea of having an appointed committee of well-known artists, or something
of the sort who would hold a regular meeting and pass upon the works, on the
quality of works. Now this was probably at that same time in order to counter
the other thing that was done, to prevent the protest that an Army rank of private
could qualify a man to be a judge of painting. It would be easy enough to argue
against that, but on the other hand you had to have something to substitute
for it, and you couldn't go back to the state where we had adequate personnel,
so therefore they had to go outside of the Project to a more objective opinion
then, having people that could be designated by the mayor, could be designated
by artists organization, or by art organizations or whatever that were willing
to serve in that rather horrible capacity of passing on the work. I say "horrible"
because I think it's an awful thing for an artist to sit in judgment which might
affect another artist's job if you liked his work or not.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: That's right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: We were willing to do it because it meant -- well, without
that we could have worse.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Do you know, or did the origin of the school for design pass
through the office.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Which school for design?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: In New York City.
BURGOYNE DILLER: What one are you talking about?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: It was one that was established under the WPA.
BURGOYNE DILLER: The laboratory school?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: The Laboratory of Design.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Of Industrial Design.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes, of Industrial Design.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Yes. That started out in the Project and at the time, I had
very little or no contact with it except to know it was there and in the beginning
initially approving of its functioning as an important part potentially of the
Project of getting into fields of industrial design and the field of design
generally. It started as a group, but it became in not too great a time a unit
that was becoming less productive and more in a sense a unit of a great deal
of political dissension. You know there was a terrific strain there. Actually
the problem there was to produce, and apparently the political factor became
much more important to them than anything else, so the result was that the thing
was dropped. Shortly afterwards the ones that had been mainly responsible for
starting he project, a small group who really were concerned with industrial
design, set up a laboratory school of industrial design outside the project
as a continuation, and some of the people became associated with it for a while.
I did. They asked me if I would teach a course in design synthesis. There was
no pay because they had no money to pay, but they really felt that they should
start a design center. Apparently there in the circumstances it couldn't be
a political thing for the simple reason that the people who were more involved
in the political aspect of it no longer had anything to fight about. They were
not going to fight with three other people about, you know, their relationship
to the government or anything of the sort because there was none. These people
seemed rather extremely honest and intent on doing something, so I volunteered
there. I taught one term or two terms, I forget, you know, an evening a week.
Paul Riley was there and several others, really very reputable people. Then
they wanted me to continue. I was glad to do my bit because I believed in the
thing, but at the same time I just couldn't continue beyond that point because
the pressure of the Project itself was enormous and besides that I wanted a
little time, I was still trying to do my own work. It was impossible but I was
HARLAN PHILLIPS: What is interesting about the industrial design in the light
of what you said earlier about the '20s and the place, the role, the function
of the modern artists was an effort to raise the question: is there a place
in industry in terms of industrial design for the modern artist?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, it depends on what you mean by the modern artist. Well,
you know, you have your -- going back to the attitude, for instance, at the
Bauhaus in Germany where you had your first really crystallization of an idea
that an artist isn't necessarily the person who makes easel paintings, or the
sculptor, or whatever, but rather the person who is creating objects that are
entering more directly into everyday life, and that these can be extremely effective
in their changing, affecting the tastes and so on of people of the average person
and this was not, you see, drawing a line of distinction about who is more the
artist, or who is the more creative. That is an artificial barrier....
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well of course that brings up the Bauhaus and that's the reason,
as I said, for its entrance into the project. It seemed to me at the time that
it had a fit place and so on, and had its proper place, but it was mainly because
of my knowledge of what they had done at the Bauhaus. Other people who were
interested in industrial design, and it seemed quite logical.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Of course, that does not mean that I'm thoroughly in agreement
with it at all, because I think there's a great line of distinction between
art -- now, this word "art" becomes a vague sort of thing, you know,
how are we going to define it really? The commercial artist, or the industrial
artist, or the industrial designer. Without saying that the industrial designer
is not creative, and how much an artist is, I don't know, but to me they are
two different processes.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: I think an experience I had with Barr, of the Modern Museum
-- you see, during the Navy I was developing training, visual training aids.
I was in the Navy, and developing these three-dimensional training devices.
I developed several of them. At one time when Barr came to the place to see
them, to see the things that were being done, and apparently he saw several
things that I had done, and he had thought of them as just very handsome objects.
Then when he found out that I had done them, because he had known my painting
prior to my being in the Navy, why he was very awed. He thought it was wonderful.
I was in the building at the time, so they let him come down into the shop.
He came up and congratulated me on these objects and so on and proceeded to
tell me that he was quite sure that being involved in this thing in this way,
and producing these objects, they were so handsome, they certainly would have
an effect upon my painting. Well it's one time I think it was rather nasty because
I said, "Well I'll be damned. I know the difference between the two things
I'm doing. If you don't, it surprises me." I think that with all due deference
to Barr I think that it was a rather silly statement on his part. Or maybe on
the other hand, I'm so unmitigatedly single-track-minded that I created a separation
there in my own mind, and I just refused to be stimulated by these other kind
things he said. Oh, they were good. I didn't brag about my paintings, but, boy,
my devices they were extraordinary.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: There's one person you mentioned earlier as being the sort
of soul and heart of the Project, Harry Knight, I think he's worth a word perhaps,
partly because of what happened to him. He was one of those who was separated
from the service on sort of arbitrary terms ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: He was separated from the service and he was separated also
while Somerville was in office, and it was charged by the Dies Committee that
he was a risk, or whatever they phrased it at the time. At the time it meant
that if there was any sort of an indication or anything that they considered
an indication that you were a Communists then you had to be. Apparently, as
far as I was able to learn, the one charge against him that they could sustain
was the fact that he had signed a petition in a neighborhood for a neighborhood
playground and the petition was being circulated by the Young Communists League,
I believe, in fine type at the bottom. When it came up and became really an
issue, I found out what it was. I knew Harry Knight well enough to know that
even then, much younger, Harry was absolutely helpless without his glasses.
Harry was also the kind of person that was social enough that if he wasn't working,
he would talk all night with somebody, and to have your doorbell ring early
in the morning and two cute little neighborhood gals coming in saying, "Look,
we want a playground and will you please sign our petition?" Harry, all
heart, "What do you mean! You should have a playground, you should have
two playgrounds." So he went along with this. Next thing you know it comes
up in the Dies Committee thing. As I said, I didn't see this sort of thing happen.
I had to assume certain things, but know the man, knowing that he was a socially-minded
person and very greatly respected. Also, because of the fact that we were thrown
together very closely over a long period of time, I am so sure of the fact that
that man was not a Communist that -- he was much too social to commit himself,
if you want to put it that way. You see, if he went there, he'd have to take
sides, and Harry couldn't bear that, I'm sure. But knowing the man and everything
else, when the thing came up I was to replace him, but I never felt more like
a funeral in my life. As a matter of fact, I asked for a hearing with Somerville.
Now I'd had a couple of experiences with him by that time. He seemed to be willing
to work with me, you see, or listen to me, whatever. So I called and asked if
I could see him. He said I could. I made an appointment for that afternoon.
I went up there, and I told him in substance what I'm telling you. This is where
the unseeing side of the man is so manifest. He listened. He said, "Well,
I always liked the man, he always struck me as a very nice person." And
so on and so on -- I don't know what "nice' has to do with it, but this
is the way he characterized him, that he seemed like a very decent sort of person,
"but," I said, "But, here, he did not do anything with any thought."
I'm positive he didn't do it because of its relationship to Communism as such."
He said, "Well, Mr. Diller, you know what a petition is? You put your name
on it, do you not?" I said, "Yes, you do." He said, "Are
you in habit of signing something that you have not read? Would you, as an intelligent
person, sign something, a contract in effect, without knowing what you're signing,
without reading it?" I said, "Well, to appear intelligent I would
have to say that I would read it carefully, but I'm sorry to say that in that
instance I probably wouldn't have read the little line at the bottom either.
I haven't seen it, but from what I understand it's a sneaky thing down at the
bottom. It's very possible I wouldn't have read it either, and I have better
eyes than Harry has." He said, "But are you in the habit of signing
documents?" I said, "Well, if you're going to hold me to that, the
only thing I can say is I try to understand what I'm signing." I tried
further argument, you know, in the sense of what he was signing for was a playground
for the neighborhood, which I didn't think you would dispute, or call communist.
"You're only arguing because it was circulated by a communist group."
He said, "Would you sign?" You know, it was just "would you sign
a paper or contract without knowing what was in it, or reading it thoroughly?"
Just like a wall drooping down. You couldn't reach him on any human grounds
whatsoever. I said, "Here is one of the -- well, sweetest men -- if you
want to call a man that -- that I've ever known in my life. This isn't just
a kind of an economic tragedy to a man losing a job. It's a very human tragedy
because you're out of luck. You know it's funny, but an awful lot of people
are going to cry when they hear this. I don't know how you can even take it
on a purely objective basis that "would you sign this piece of paper?"
Well I left the office. We didn't even fight. He still maintained a kind of
"Well, I think you're a good man, but I think you have the wrong idea here."
And what can you do at that point?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: But Knight's value to the artists project was ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: He was the kind of person that you couldn't replace, you just
couldn't, in any kind of way at all. McMahon was difficult more than once, and
we were all difficult in our own ways in our own time. Maybe we did something
we shouldn't do, or didn't do something that should have been done, or whatever
it may be. We were all difficult there, and somehow or other Harry Knight was
always the catalyst that somehow or other quieted the waters again, got things
going. You know, you can be very intent on getting a job done. You could be
ruthless, or inconsiderate, or thoughtless, or whatever it may be, but, as I
said, he had an amazing facility of being able to reconcile these viewpoints
and honestly consider your problem. I don't care how difficult it seemed, and
to me there were so few of them that it just seemed like the -- well, it's one
thing as I remember it as far as I can say it was one of the most awful memories
of the project. It was a kind of crucifixion in a way, you know, by a man who
is essentially a militaristic-minded person who has to be the way he is to fill
the role that he plays, who should never have been put in such a role. That's
the tragedy. It's a tragedy, I think it's in the American myth or something
that because a man is a general, therefore he can be an expert in all fields,
including the humanities. Now I know that General Grant could go up to West
Point painted pretty little watercolors, which is rather amazing, you know,
and Sheridan, you can see their little watercolors up in their museum. I think
it's awfully sweet, but don't tell me that it tempered them very much. Maybe
Somerville had one too that I missed, because they all had to have their little
touch of art and humanity.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: That's a nice thought, that is, the Grant, Sheridan, Somerville
contributions to gentleness. But the art of ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: There's just part of the doses that are received to stimulate them. They don't bother to understand them. I don't know if Somerville did do a watercolor, or not. I'd love to see it. But it was odd though that I could understand and respect him, as I said. I think he was a much-abused man in the military sense. I think it's Taylor, and there was another military figure at the time. I can't remember now, rather brilliant men that were not too well used, you know, in their time...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes, yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: In their own role. But you certainly can't find yourself on
the same side of the fence with him. When it comes to what an artist is, what
an artist is going to do, or what he'd going to do if he does, it's a far cry.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. Well, in terms of the work collected that was done at
the WPA that was not either allocated or ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: You're talking about the final disposition of work?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, you know, after they became the art project as such,
as an art project was terminated and became the War Services Project, in which
all the artists stopped their easel paintings and mural paintings and all related
activities, we set up shops to do posters for the Army and Navy or, in other
words, any military agency, or other governmental agency that was doing necessary
war work to employ the artists again, to keep, maintain employment of the artists.
So the ones that were easel painters and so on and so on went into the poster
shop and made posters, or the silk screen shop, and another area in development
of training devices. Also we did things for recruiting purposes, exhibitions,
and that sort of thing. Of course we got into that area, then it was just strictly
a dying out thing. Numerically it had been dropping and dropping, but we were
able to undertake quite a bit of work for the governmental agencies, as I said,
on the poster campaigns and so on and so on. But as I said, it was a dying out
activity. Now in that period of time, however, when it became that -- McMahon
went uptown in the administrative office, a sort of person in charge of all
the art projects, you know, through this changing over period. I had charge
of the project which had now become the War Services Project under her central
direction, and it was pretty much of a cut and dried thing what we had to do,
but in the meantime we did have the work that had been rejected over periods
of time, work that had been allocated because -- well, people didn't like it,
or whatever, and some that was just unmitigatedly bad. Actually the proportion
of the total amount of work was very, very small. People can't realize that
because we don't have figures on actually the total amount that was projected.
For instance, figure these stacks of things, for instance, there were mural
sketches that were rejected, but they had to be turned in to the project and
we kept them because it was considered government property.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: There were easel paintings that in a lot of cases the only
way to determine a person's ability really, you might have a person who brought
in things that looked very competent and then assigned him to a painting or
two and then find out that he hadn't even painted the ones he had presented.
These were things that were impossible to determine.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: But then once he started doing his own work so that meant
he'd end up with probably a painting or two that were worthless things. Well
anyway, whatever the rhymes and reasons, the amount wasn't terrific, although
it sounded like a lot because this is the residue of eight or nine years of
an accumulative process of whatever was left. Well, during that last year or
so we tried. My assistant at that time was Max Spivak and I had Max doing an
awful lot of legwork, and other supervisors that still remained on the project
going to different public agencies trying to find sponsors. Now sponsorship
at this point did not mean that they would have to contribute anything except
probably just give space. We disposed of a great many things by getting people
in there, or bringing things out to them, things we thought were of a quality
that could be easily allocated. But you know then we tried to get a city agency
that would say, "Here we can store the stuff here." I had hoped that
if we could get a place were we could store, even to have been able to keep
things there for ten years, then open it up and see what you have. In retrospect
we might find a lot of -- well, they would have found a lot of very, very interesting
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I've got to put another ....
END OF TAPE
HARLAN PHILLIPS: You were indicating that you had this thought about having
a place where you could collect this material.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's right. In other words storage for any period of time
and particularly if it could be done under a fairly active basis. However we
didn't insist on this in any period. But can you take part of your warehouse,
put the work there and let us leave it there for the time being? We found most
of the agencies were space-hungry, and there was no one who would take the responsibility.
The result is, as I said, we spent a tremendous amount of time trying to get
as much of the work as possible allocated. Now this is drawing really to the
close as far as I am concerned. I enlisted in the Navy. Then the project was
really being terminated. I was asked to do whatever I could to further this
allocation program, but in the meantime I had already given rather specific
orders to get the stuff assembled in areas and so forth and so on. What they
did is take -- well I went then, I left one night -- you know, was in the Navy
the next day. Max carried on, but he said they simply came in. They just loaded
the stuff in trucks, threw it in trucks, took it out to an old warehouse and
dumped the stuff there. Then later I think they had some men come in and bid
on it as old canvases, or something of the sort. It was ruthless! It was a horrible
thing! Again it's a thing that you have a sense of guilt about and yet we tried
desperately to do something about it. Yet there wasn't one city agency that
was willing to help and we, after all were an agency going out of existence
so there was nothing we could do. We had no power, no authority, no structure.
Nothing remained, nothing at all. Records were taken down, as I understand,
in a ????? and dumped and so on. There was a quantity of records, though, and
it may be of interest to you, a great many of the photographic things were given
to the New York City Public Library. I don't know whether they sorted them out,
or catalogued them, or what they've done with them.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I don't either.
BURGOYNE DILLER: But they have almost all of the photographic files. They were
turned over to the library. Now that's one place they found for a ....
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Repository.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Repository, yes. That, of course, would be more easily obtained.
Getting to it might be a little awkward ...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well the scene had shifted noticeably from one of concern
about American things to preparedness to meet the challenge abroad and, you
know, there was a retraining program. Other jobs were opening up. The WPA was
coming to a close.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, of course, what you're saying is that the conclusion
of the Project was that we were getting into the war...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And people, artists had been going off rather regularly to
war jobs -- you know, whether it would be as a draftsman, or whatever it may
be. There were lots of related activities. There was employment.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Some of them went into the armed forces. A great many of them,
as I said, went into war work of one kind or another. Employment was opening
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That's about the size of it. I think that once you started
having the kind of money circulated through a period like that, then somehow
at least some people started to buy a painting here and there. In that time,
the artist really wasn't better off, he thought he was probably.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: But there was noticeable change. I think the handwriting was
on the wall so far ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: Change in what respect?
HARLAN PHILLIPS: In the atmosphere. That is, our own concern for ourselves,
given the breakdown of our economy, had led us into the position of making public
works of some kind and putting people to work, employing them. You know, with
the advent on the scene of Hitler and Company, the invasion of Poland, the struggle
over Britain, it put our own discussions away from self-concern to a definition
of what we as Americans would, or would not take. We had two committees. For
example, the America First Committee started, and you had, what is it -- the
Committee to Aid America by Aiding the Allies. Public discussion changed from
whether Roosevelt was leading us into bankruptcy by wasting Federal funds to
a discussion of where our interests lay. This is what I mean by the scene shifting.
And the WPA, as it had been known in '35, '36, '37, '38 was less attractive,
more of an eddy, given this new problem. And as you say, airplanes were being
constructed, there was room for draftsmen. There were jobs opening up elsewhere.
To be sure, it was again sponsored largely by public funds, which incidentally
were not looked upon as wasted, and we spent far more than we spent on the WPA,
but the whole atmosphere in America had changed, had shifted. There was some
effort, I think, in the Washington headquarters of the WPA to sponsor through
the institution of WPA a retraining program. Well, a careful reading of the
Act, the piece of legislation that sponsored the program did not include a retraining
program. Much of this was picked up by other agencies, you know, and suddenly
the need for it was gone. It had to be terminated somehow, some way, and you
were in the least few moments in New York City. Mrs. Holzhaur was employed to
collect material in Chicago as the last warehouse and allocate it from there,
so that it was like a committee in bankruptcy, in effect.
BURGOYNE DILLER: It was.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: ... and that whole spirit to which you referred earlier, you
know, as coming up out of the 20s into the 30s, where needs were articulated
and discovered, the kind of camaraderie that grew up between artists was rather
BURGOYNE DILLER: Camaraderie, or more important still, a kind of interaction
between artists and artists groups.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: That had not been witnessed before. A kind in interaction,
you found you were meeting with people of very greatly different ideas and it
was a challenge, a contest. It was arresting.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: But all of them came out with some possible difference in
attitude than they had before and probably a little more concern for what the
other was doing. [Interhouse communication] But after the dissolution of the
Projects and so on there was still more of a meeting of artists than there had
been previous to the WPA times. And I think that because of this and because
of this association -- well I'm sure the group that later became the Abstract
Expressionists and so on were obviously directed from this group because every
one of them was a person who had been employed there and had been in contact
with each other. Your Artists Union as such didn't continue too much. The Congress
certainly didn't, but on the other hand the artists club, the Art Club and so
on, groups, particularly the Art Club where a good number of artists and so
forth gathered and debated, you know, their position in relation to the world
of art and so on. It resulted in the kind of impetus that shaped American painting
for the last ten for fifteen years. No matter how you might question its validity,
you know, and lasting value -- these trite expressions for evaluating art --
it still had an impact on the rest of the world. People came to America to see
paintings. They even came to America to buy paintings...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Right.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Which is in contrast to the incident that I mentioned before.
The four Frenchmen who had to go back to France to sell American paintings,
today might have to come over here and sell a painting to a Frenchman...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Which is wonderful for American art.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Sure it is.
BURGOYNE DILLER: And the one thing that they had not had before, a really general
interest in buying, a buying interest. Believe me, I know the reasons for buying
investments and so on and so on, but if it enables an artist to work, this is
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, tell me, the plight of the artists.... [Interruption
BURGOYNE DILLER: You know, I think that it would be a mighty difficult job
to attempt to assess the values of so many things that came out of the projects.
You have -- I think we were speaking of it earlier - you had art centers where
they didn't have centers of artists, employable artists. You had art centers
started in southern localities, in midwestern localities, in western localities
where they never had that facility. I, as one of the people born in, you know,
in an area that you would think -- well, Battle Creek, Michigan is not far from
Detroit and Chicago and so on, but still they had no art gallery or anything
of the sort. If you went to a library, the only books you could get would be
probably on the English portrait painters, or the English landscape painters.
This was art. But in the time of WPA, they were establishing art centers, and
these art centers that were initiated by the WPA under sponsorship of the town
later became the art centers of the towns, and are now you know rather good
sized institutions. they had their genesis there. On the other hand, you had
your Index of American Design across the country which probably has salvaged
for us some of our past in terms of the handicrafts and things that were brought
to this country or initiated in this country, and which would have been lost
by now. It was a project that certainly should have been continued. Well, you
have so many things. Take the impact of the Theater Project, the stage, of the
Writing Project in its way. I mean they all had their impacts and as I said,
today if you made a cross-section of artists in this country today who are known,
every one of them you could say was salvaged by the Federal Art Programs and
the WPA Art Programs, because they were people that probably would not have
continued painting, couldn't have continued painting...
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Of necessity would not have allowed themselves to continue
painting because there was no ...
BURGOYNE DILLER: There was no future in it. Artists were worrying about their
futures. I mean they were in circumstances where they were having families,
and they had to become employed in some fashion. I think too, you know, you
had your artists working in settlement houses -- you know, in the social programs
in different cities. They worked in settlement houses and they worked in other
places, you know, with children and so on which had some impact on the method
of leading children into art activities. Subsequently I mean a lot of these
people that worked there became know factors in the development of our school
systems, of the type, of the method of teaching. This was, I think, a very fruitful
period, and it cost so little, say, in terms of the Project, you know. We got
into a war, and it would only take a few days' war to spend the amount of money
it took for the whole eight years or so of the Program. It was a farce, ridiculous.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, I don't know whether it sparked interest in American
art, but I suspect that it did, you know...
BURGOYNE DILLER: It certainly did an awful lot to create a more general activity,
and I've always had the feeling that art really develops through a kind of general
activity. You can have your isolated geniuses, but it's always been somehow
or other a product of a kind of ferment.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: When you view this against the 20s, there certainly was a
development in the recognition of an American idiom too, in art, something that's
recognized, something that spread, broadened in terms of people in community
art centers like four community art centers in Utah where they were on the tour
for WPA art shows. I don't know what instinctively enters your being, but you
get a sense of what's going on, or you know what's in the air that the artist
sort of anticipates and puts on a canvas, or represents in some form, or another,
but you get a broader sharing of this kind of creativity than we had ever had
before. You know, you said about the 20s that the more advanced, or the more
modern of the artists didn't have a place to show. Now I don't know -- you know,
the two schools that developed, the Socialrealist School and the Regional School
that may have developed, also there was some Abstract art that was developed
under the WPA. And if nothing else, allowing these skills and techniques to
be kept alive and developed through this period is like a seed bed for future
development all along. But for this WPA -- you know, well the art world would
have been wholly different.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Well, don't forget in relation to the WPA and the artist in
terms of his development, that the artist received certainly a minimal wage,
but on the other hand, on that minimal wage in that time he could survive, he
could rent a little place and buy his food, take care of his little family and,
as I said, on a minimum basis, but he could do it. Most of the artists were
people who before had been working part time at art. Now for the first time
in their lives, here were thousands of them who could work full time at it and,
believe me, they did. That's what made this attitude toward time-checking of
the artists -- the main trouble was not how to get them started, but how to
stop them, if he's an artist, as far as I'm concerned. That really has meaning.
Because they'd work seven days a week, and they loved it. It's the only time
in history that you could have this number of people full time, fully occupied,
as I said, in painting, in sculpture and so on. This is something we did not
have before, because then, as after the war, you had again the return to the
artist as a part time practitioner. Now today if you were to make a census of
employment -- well, put it another way -- if you were to isolate the number
of artists who are living on their painting, it would be a tremendously small
number, almost like it used to be. The only thing is that, I think, the artist
that has been admitted into the fields of education as a teacher, or on somewhat
different basis than they had before, you see -- I don't say that WPA affected
this directly. It might have had some influence somewhere along the line but
this is something I couldn't speak to -- but before that time, you know, a college
or university if they employed an artist it was because he had has Normal School
degree. If he had his degree, he was qualified as an art teacher. He might have
been the biggest pip squeak in the world, you know, a lady china painter in
pants, or something, but I mean certainly not an artist. But he had his degree.
Do you realize what a short time it has been till now when you have an artist
who is considered educationally equal to a normal school graduate? You see,
if he spent twenty or thirty years and gained a reputation in his field, he
is considered almost as well qualified as a normal school teacher and therefore
is employable. There has been a tremendous amount of employment in education
because of the acceptance as an artist as a qualified person as an expert in
his field. This has provided a great deal of employment. But outside of that,
what is there, really? Most artists are still scraping the bottom of the barrel
trying to find little occupational things that won't take too much away from
their painting, or give them the most time for painting. You know, they try
commercial art. Then they find themselves in an unholy rat race where if they're
good, they're going to be in demand. If they don't satisfy the demand, the people
are not going to wait for six months for them to come back from painting and
start doing commercial art again. They just won't employ them again. You know
what I mean. People that try to get into seasonal activities, people who are
successful designing covers, or whatever, are relatively few that can really
sustain a program of working so many months and painting so many months. Then,
in the WPA days, you could work because they weren't so greedy that they had
to have tremendous amounts of money. They had to have enough to subsist on.
They were willing to accept it and very happy to get it. I know I was crazy.
Aside from the fact that I got caught. You feel responsibility. I still think
I was a sucker. I should have spent those years painting and let somebody else
sweat out the bureaucracy.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: I wondered what this whole period meant to you in personal
terms because you did get pulled in on a -- well, partly public relations, partly
negotiating, representing what it meant to you in personal terms when you were
spending all this time in -- well maybe it's the atmosphere.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Let's put it this way: for a short time with a few abstract
painters I was employed on TRAP. In the WPA program when it was set up with
the attitude toward abstract painting, I would not have been acceptable, I couldn't
have found my place there unless I was an assistant to somebody on a mural,
or something, you see. And I knew, I made it a proved fact. If I did get in
there I could get jobs for other abstract painters. You see what I mean! It
made it possible and to me -- after all, you can't disassociate, you know, art
as something separate from life and living, and responsibility, after all, what
is art? Something that exists in you, a sense of awareness, or something. It
was a wonderful opportunity to make it possible to do so and as I said, I tried
desperately and no matter how many hours I worked I managed to sweat out a few
hours of my own. I didn't stop producing, although God knows I was limited.
As I said, this other was not a full time job, it was two full time jobs. You
know you'd be at a committee meeting and things that could last till the middle
of the night and you'd be expected to be some place at eight o'clock the next
morning for another round.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Yes. A constant, steady turmoil. In this period did many of
those who were experimenting in the abstract way change their style to become
social realists, or more representational, or what?
BURGOYNE DILLER: Very few. Getting the sort of murals that we did for them
it wasn't necessary for them because in one sense the more abstract they became
the farther removed they became from criticism because then we could just say
"It is decoration." So in that sense I didn't find occasion to have
anybody temper what they did except, as I said, in the case of Gorky when we
first wanted to do one of the first places, one of first jobs we got were I
could not go out and ask for, you know, a wall at the time. This was prior to
the housing development, prior to WNYC, but it seemed like an airport was a
very contemporary activity and a place that could stand a good contemporary
painter's work you know. But even then I did temper in that case by having Wyatt
David, Stuart Davis's brother, photograph planes and parts and so on, and then
having them blown up and then Gorky coordinating them into a design. It certainly
had a good deal of formal value, but at the same time it had enough of the objects
and particularly, you know, recognizable, discussable by people concerned with
aviation and so on. There wasn't too much of a debate on it before we presented
it to the Mayor for his approval. Floyd Bennet Airport was his baby. Now I'm
repeating myself. Something I shouldn't do.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Not on the tape. That was before.
BURGOYNE DILLER: We felt we really -- the Commissioner of Docks had approved
it, everybody had approved it all along the line but then we went to see LaGuardia
coming in at the opening of the First Federal Art Gallery in New York City.
It was on 39th Street. He came in with a group of his commissioners. It was
all very impressive. He stood in front of Gorky's mural sketches and said, "Well,
this is Tammany Hall politician." So the Commissioner of Docks called me
the next day and he said, "You heard him?" I said, "I did."
He said, "Well, you know what that means." I said, "Yes, the
project is dead, because of LaGuardia's baby." Then we picked up the pieces
and taking the same theme but then discarding the idea of using the photographs
at all, but having Gorky utilize the motif, because at the time this was not
alien to what he would be interested in doing. He never was completely a non-objective
painter though he got really interested in this stuff. Then we made preparation
hoping to get a mural at Newark Airport, and it was accepted there. In spite
of LaGuardia and we put it up in a more forward-looking environment, in Newark
next to that old reactionary situation in New York City.
HARLAN PHILLIPS: Well, you must be exhausted.
BURGOYNE DILLER: Oh, not too -- sometimes I talk too much.
END OF INTERVIEW
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Burgoyne Diller, 1964 October 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.