Of the first generation of American Abstract Expressionist painters, some became more famous than Giorgio Cavallon, but none excelled him in the integrity of his art or was more honored and beloved by his peers. An entry in Frank O’Hara’s Art Chronicles 1954-1966 contains a reference to “the peculiar fascination [Cavallon] exerts for painters.” He was such a genuine presence, though unlettered, blunt, and unassuming, that poets and dancers and composers, young and old, joined the circle of those who felt drawn by nature to him and to his lyric art. “One of the great careers of our time” were the concluding works of John Ashbery’s introduction to the catalogue for Cavallon’s retrospective exhibition at the Neuberger Museum in 1977.
Giorgio’s earliest recollections were the rigors of life on a farm near Vicenza, in the province of Venice, where he was born in 1904. His mother died when he was in his sixth year. He told of rising at 4 a.m. to bring the cattle to the field and of being so tired that he grabbed the oxen by the horns and fell asleep, swinging between the horns. In 1920 he came to the United States with his father, a hard-fisted cabinetmaker, ahd his two sisters, settling in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he found employment at the Westinghouse factory, winding armatures. He gave up this job and the notion of becoming a master mechanic because, in his own words, “I didn’t like the smell of oil.” After taking private instruction in painting, he came to New York in 1926, doing odd jobs of carpentry by day and attending the National Academy of Design in the evening.
He began as a figurative painter, working at portraits and still lifes, but gradually turned to abstraction in the thirties, with a shove in that direction from Hans Hoffmann, who had opened a school at the corner of 57th Street and Lexington Avenue. Hoffmann took Giorgio under his wing; it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. During this formative period, Giorgio was influenced, too, by his association with George McNeil, Harry Holtzman, Ilya Bolotowsky, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and dozens of others who were brought together, if for no other reason, by their common dependence on the benevolence of the WPA Federal Arts project. Later friends, to name just a few, included Pollock, Kline, Brooks, Bultman, and Tworkov. In the galleries and museums he saw paintings by Cézanne, Jean Hélion, and Mondrian, particularly Mondrian, that both puzzled and inspired him. “I really didn’t understand abstract painting,” he recalled toward the end. “It took a long time to penetrate—so I have a sympathy for people who don’t like it.” He was a founding member of Abstract American Artists and, some years later, of The Club, the stormy social and debating society of The New York School.
In the evolution of his aesthetic, the objects that he had rendered with such loving detail were progressively stripped of their identity and revisualized in terms of their significant planes and forms. At a later stage, when he was determined to remove from the visual field any conceivable allusion to an object, he turned to geometric abstraction, from which he was never again to deviate, though the grid itself became, under his ministrations, a less and less palpable ground. His was not the classic geometry of Mondrian, but something warm, intimate, irregular, even romantic. He was not favorably impressed when someone described him as “the peasant Mondrian.” His squares and rectangles seem to aspire to the condition of the non-linear, which is to say, the sublime.
All his colors are eloquent, but the one that incomparably sings for him is the color white—more accurately, a distillation or liquefaction of whites—in O’Hara’s phrase, “whites with a past, whites with purity, whites with their differentiations”—spilling over the surfaces, settling in pools, dissolving and saturating the underlying shapes and stains, till the entire field is transformed and unified.
Cavallon was the only painter of my acquaintance who ground his own paints. “I began making the paint,” he once explained, “mainly because it was cheaper, everything was so expensive. First I started grinding it by hand—that took a long time. Then I made a small machine that went on a flexible shaft from the ceiling with three pistons … and that was quite a help. The paint is alive … it is not like a tube of shoe polish from the store, always the same. Sometimes it’s buttery, sometimes it gets a little stringy. But the quality is richer.”
I met Giorgio in the mid-fifties at the Macdowell Colony, where he had come with his new wife, the painter Linda Lindeberg, shortly after their marriage. Linda, incidentally, was the daughter of the architect Harrie T. Lindeberg, a member of this Institute. As a couple, they presented a study in contrasts. Giorgio was of-the-earth earthy, built close to the ground, laconic, stubborn, pragmatical, with a sweet and noble Mediterranean head, innocent hazel eyes, and a great mop of soft brown hair that was already turning silver. Linda was a creature of air and fire, whose fluent and lilting speech evoked her Swedish ancestry. She was delicate and fierce, fine like her small bones—but what an explosive little package! My encounter with them was more fateful than I could ever have anticipated, for it was through the Cavallons and their circle that I was to meet and marry their dear friend, the poet and painter Elise Asher.
Giorgio was gifted with extraordinary mechanical aptitude and loved to make things with his hands. The brownstone on West 95th Street was a veritable museum of his artifacts, nearly all of them put to daily domestic use. I can see him in the kitchen, over which he presided as master chef, standing before his open-hearth motored spit, on which a suckling pig is rotating. He will serve spaghetti made on his motorized pasta machine and prepared on top of the stove designed and built by him. Even the refrigerator in the corner is his own production. If Peking duck were on the menu, his home-made duck press would be all ready for the occasion.
In the main all-purpose living room, the upholstered sofa, the long oval dinner table, and the hi-fi machine, loaded with sandbags were all his creations. When his heart began to fail, he put it to the test by making, unassisted, a moving staircase to transport him upstairs to his studio. One of his most ingenious labor-saving contrivances was the system of motorized pulleys he devised, with marvelously sensitive controls, to raise and lower his paintings. Small things he crafted turned into works of art. Once he made for my balcony garden a copper watering-can that is as graceful and elegant an object as any in our household.
After Linda died in 1973, Giorgio drove up to Provincetown, bringing with him a small cardboard box. I accompanied him down the path to the bay. The tide was out. I watched from the shore as he strode across the flats, barefooted, with his trousers rolled up almost to his knees. The gesture that he made, scattering Linda’s ashes, was the gesture of a farmer sowing seed. Later, over drinks, as we sat in the house with a few friends, Giorgio kept rubbing his eyes, which looked red and puffy. If we thought this was an invitation to comfort him, we were mistaken, for he brushed us off, being reluctant, as always, to admit to any show of emotion. “The wind,” he explained dryly, “kept blowing Linda back into my face.”
With whom did we ever laugh or grieve so much as with Linda and Giorgio?
A final image. Giorgio’s favorite pastime was hunting mushrooms. He had scoured the woods for them with John Cage and had even gone abroad to search for rare and exotic varieties. Once I was driving down Route Six on Cape Cod, with Giorgio by my side, when I heard him shout “Stop the car!” When we piled out, I discovered that what he had spotted was an incredible wayside clump of black chanterelles, delectable midnight trumpets, dozens and dozens of them. In the years since then I have been back to that area, between Wellfleet and Orleans, countless times, but to no avail. I shall keep returning, as long as I am able, but now that Giorgio is gone I do not think that I shall find again what I am looking for.