Art, Life, Commercialism and Sexism in the New York School: Regina Bogat’s Story

Installation view of "Stars" at Art 101
Installation view of Regina Bogat, "Stars," on view at Art 101 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Painter Regina Bogat has been involved the New York art world since the 1950s. (I promised not to reveal her age.) She had her first solo exhibition in the city in 1956, at Terrain Gallery, and her most recent one, Stars, which features colorful, vigorously messy paintings of different variations on the shape, is currently on view at Williamsburg’s Art 101. In between she hung out with and befriended some of the Abstract Expressionists, fought for recognition in an art world completely uninterested in women, married painter Alfred Jensen (the couple stayed together until Jensen’s death, in 1981), had two children and moved to New Jersey. Through it all she continued to make art. As she said to me, “I just wanted to work. So you work.”

“There was no recognition for women artists. Until the women’s movement, women had very, very little chance.”

I had never heard of Bogat before the current exhibition, nor seen her art, as I suspect many people haven’t. Who knows how many under-recognized women artists have been lost to the male-centric narrative of art history? But I was fortunate enough to sit down with Bogat last week in the homey kitchen of Art 101 and talk with her for a long time about her life and work. Bogat seemed to defy her years, with a girlish, chin-length cut of wheat-colored hair, red lipstick and a fantastic memory. Her frequent laughter and easy demeanor made her a pleasure to talk to. Our conversation reminded me of how little we know and how much of history — which is just life, really — slips away in the passage of time. I had the distinct feeling that I was speaking with, and learning from, a wiser, older kindred spirit.

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Regina Bogat
Regina Bogat with one of her paintings (click to enlarge)

Jillian Steinhauer: Tell me a little about these works on view.

Regina Bogat: The show is called Stars, and this is a long series of paintings I’ve done since about 2006. It originated with octagons, which was an architectural motif I found in a friend’s house. It reminded me of Christian fonts — baptismal fonts — and that led to a fascination with shapes that have that kind of significance and deep meaning. I avoided the six-pointed star, because that has so many references to Zionism, and it isn’t just Solomon’s seal anymore, it’s an icon. So I went to the ubiquitous five-pointed star, the pentagram, and developed a ten-pointed star, which is two five-pointed stars meshed.

JS: That’s the decagon, right?

RB: Yes. And it developed, one led to another. The seven-pointed star was the hardest one to draw.

JS: Why?

RB: There’s a prescribed way of drawing it in the mystical literature, and you have to be very careful about how you do it, otherwise it loses its seven significances — the planets, the days of the week, you know, that kind of thing. Then I went to the ogdoadic, which is the eight-pointed star — that has even more significance. I don’t think you want to go into all of the mystical and religious significances of what the stars were, but a lot of it had to do with witchcraft, the very early female rites, and feminism comes into the idea, too. I don’t stress that — I’ve never even mentioned it in relation to the paintings — but that is a woman’s significance, the stars.

JS: Do the stars have a personal significance for you?

RB: What they did was they helped me form a painting surface; they were the forms I based the painting on. I needed that — I needed the structure. I construct the painting, I build it, and the stars help me. And then I found they led to this freedom of expression, which is the way I use paint. Anything that releases that impulse in you is very valuable.

JS: What were you doing before the stars? What kind of work were you making?

“They could go and hang out, which I did, but I was always being rebuffed by the males, who were the second-generation Abstract Expressionists. The first generation was much nicer, because they had arrived. The second generation was very competitive and hostile to women.”

RB: Well, I have a long history of making things — maybe 60 years of painting and construction. But when we moved to Glen Ridge from Chinatown, when they tore my building down, we had to find a place to live. I had two children, and Al had a studio on 10th Street, and he was giving that up, living with me on Division Street. We had to find a place quickly, because the city gave us a certain number of months to get out, and 700 bucks if we left it “broom clean.” That was the phrase, that I’m sure they’re still using when they throw people out of their houses.

So a photographer by the name of Peter Moore was doing a lot of work for Fluxus and other groups, and he was photographing some things of Al’s. And he said that a friend of his had a house in Glen Ridge that she wanted to sell, an artist’s house. It was built by a painter at the turn of the century. It was unique, because it had a studio. So we went out to look at it, and it was a wreck.

JS: That’s not what I thought you were going to say.

RB: It was in need of great renovation — I’ll put it politely. So in 1972 we moved to Glen Ridge, and there wasn’t an art supply store. In fact I don’t know if they ever heard of the word “art” in Glen Ridge.

JS: What did you guys do? Did you have them delivered from Manhattan or take trips into the city to buy supplies?

RB: No, Al had Central Supply. Lou Rosenberg, I think his name was, would always send things out for Al — I mean, huge quantities of oil paints. He had people making his stretchers and stretching canvas; he wasn’t doing that himself anymore. But there was nothing for me. So I started to look at trimmings, because of the color. I had canvases that I stretched out, and then, working on the grid, that old standby of structure, I said, there’s no other way you can get these ribbons and trimmings onto the canvas, unless you put a hole through. But you can’t do that, that’s against the rules — you don’t destroy the surface. I said, why not? So I took my drill and started drilling holes along the grid, putting the threads and ribbons and whatever things they were selling at the fabric store and knotting them in the back, having them hang. That was a whole development. I did that for a long time.

JS: That’s smart.

RB: Well, you have to invent something. As my friend Frances Barth said, “That’s about 20 years ahead of your time, that you were doing this in the ’70s.” I said maybe so, I never thought of it that way. I just wanted to work. So you work.

"Stars" installation view
"Stars" installation view

JS: Did you feel you were recognized for that?

RB: There was no recognition for women artists. Until the women’s movement, women had very, very little chance. They could go and hang out, which I did, but I was always being rebuffed by the males, who were the second-generation Abstract Expressionists. The first generation was much nicer, because they had arrived. The second generation was very competitive and hostile to women. A lot of the dealers were women. I remember I was introduced by Mark Rothko to Catherine Viviano, who had a gallery, and she turned around and looked at me and then continued talking to Mark (laughs). She didn’t give me a tumble, you know?

“They’re dense ideas that I think are better in French than in English, but the university teachers are spreading this kind of no-holds-barred, anything goes … But when you come right down to it, you paint.”

JS: How did that relate to your relationship with Al? Was it frustrating at times, being in that kind of uneven partnership?

RB: I’ll tell you an interesting thing. Al and I traveled a great deal, we went all around the world. When he entertained people from America, they didn’t pay any attention to me. A lot of people used to come out to Glen Ridge — in fact, even in Chinatown, when we had visitors, I would make the dinner, and they would be interested in Al. Only one or two ever were interested in me. And some of them were quite cruel. But when we moved to Glen Ridge, the people from Europe were much more tolerant of my work. They would look at it very carefully, they were interested. The Americans were not. They would just pass me by, as if I wasn’t there.

JS: That sounds really frustrating.

RB: Well, you put up with that because somebody had to pay the bills! He was doing very well. I was very free to do anything I pleased.

JS: I guess that’s the one upshot of it.

RB: You know a freedom that comes very rarely in your life, when you’re secure, somebody is taking care of everything and you can do anything you want. I could go and do all these string paintings, and I never cared whether anybody liked them or not.

JS: Did you regret leaving the city behind?

RB: Yes, I did, I left all my friends. That was hard. But again, I was free. Nobody told me that this was not acceptable artwork. After Al died, I didn’t know what to do with all the stuff he left around, couldn’t throw it out. So I started making boxes, and I put these cherished objects of his in boxes. I had a show of those at Soho 20. When the women’s movement got started, they started making co-ops and showing their work. A.I.R. was one, Soho 20 was another. There was Women Choose Women, which was an interesting show, and other women’s art movement exhibitions. I was always included in those. I was never invited for a show in a commercial gallery, but these were notable exceptions, showing that the feminist movement had really made a dent.

JS: What kind of working relationship did you and Al have? Did you guys give each other feedback on your art?

RB: Yes and no. Al had a certain way of working with color that nobody ever had before. He would talk about it endlessly, and he used to have arguments with people like Albers — Albers said color is psychological, and Al said, “no, it’s physical, it’s prismatic.” He was a very smart person, very philosophical and could expound, was verbal, whereas I wasn’t. I listened a lot. But I did talk to him about his use of color. I said to him, “There are more reds in the world than Cadmium Red Medium. (laughs) Why don’t you try some other red?” Which is really meddling and something you shouldn’t do, but he was happy to accept my suggestions. In fact, anybody who came to talk to him about his paintings and made a comment, he would adopt the comment right away. He was very receptive to change and criticism. I think it was from all the teachers he had in Paris and the Hans Hofmann School in Munich and all that he went through in the ’20s.

No, he didn’t particularly talk about my work. He gave me free reign, which is nice. Just, do your thing.

"Stars" installation view
"Stars" installation view

JS: Do you have a commercial dealer now?

RB: No, I’ve never asked to join a gallery. It was through Loren Munk that I met Ellen Rand [the owner of Art 101], who is an amazing person, very idealistic. She doesn’t run this place as a commercial enterprise — it’s more like a salon. I think that’s unusual today. She’s had the gallery here for eight years and certainly deserves much more attention than she’s been getting.

JS: Maybe that goes for both of you. It’s just so interesting to think of your perspective: you’ve watched the art world evolve and change so much.

RB: Oh yes, it’s really something else today. There are so many digressions, and a lot of it has been dedicated to various avant-garde French philosophers, like Derrida and Debord. They’re dense ideas that I think are better in French than in English, but the university teachers are spreading this kind of no-holds-barred, anything goes … But when you come right down to it, you paint. And it will evolve so that people are painting, not just throwing things on tables and saying, “This is my construction.” It’s sculpture? No, it’s not sculpture. It’s a performance? No, it’s not a performance. You know, it has to have an -ism, and the critics will find an -ism for it.

JS: That’s what we do.

RB: A lot of it will disappear in time. I’m not saying it’s a fad … A friend of mine, Alexander van Grevenstein, who directed a museum in Maastricht called Bonnefanten, just sent me a notice that he was resigning as director of the museum. And the reason is because the government of Holland has become hostile to art. One of them had the nerve to say that art and culture is a left-wing hobby.

JS: That’s horrible. I’m surprised that happened there.

RB: He never expected anything like that. That was a shock to me. I thought, is that going to come here? Are we going to go through that, because art is seen as being a liberal enterprise and an elite. Maybe certain elements on the American scene, as they come into power, will start pushing at it. I think one of the best things that happened to American art was the WPA. That’s a funny thing to say because it was so long ago, but it was really great. It set America up as an independent art country. We’ll never have that again, will we?

“As Rothko has mentioned from time to time, you have to steal a place on a rich man’s wall.”

JS: Probably not. I don’t see Republicans ever supporting anything like that ever again. Do you think the art world in New York today is overly commercialized at all?

RB: Are you asking me or telling me?

JS: I’m asking. I’m curious what you think.

RB: It has always been commercial. It can’t exist without money. So I’m not saying it’s overly or underly. But the proliferation of certain museum darlings — the names that are constantly repeated and the big money makers and the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions … Of course everybody’s interested in that. And they’re all very rich. As Rothko has mentioned from time to time, you have to steal a place on a rich man’s wall.

JS: That’s a great line.

RB: But Al had people coming when he didn’t have a gallery. He’d have people coming to Glen Ridge in limousines, buy paintings right out of the studio. He didn’t need a gallery after a while. He had a reputation.

JS: How did you two meet?

RB: Hanging out. We used to bump into each other at openings, and I always followed his career. His paintings were very unusual in the Abstract Expressionist era. I never saw paintings that looked like just numbers, lines of color, prismatic color — it was very fresh. And he was very sweet.

A show of mine was canceled, and instead of taking a defeatist point of view, I said, “I’m going to have this show in my studio in Chinatown. I’m going to invite everybody I was going to invite anyway.” It was a very big evening for me, and Al came. I asked him, “I’d like to go to see the Hofmann exhibition opening at the Modern.” You know, artists used to get those invitations automatically — I don’t think they do anymore. I said, “Can I go in on your ticket?” “Oh sure, I’ll meet you at the door.” So I went and met him at the door, and saw the show, and I was talking to other people, he was talking to other people. We were just about ready to leave, and he said, “Do you want to have a cup of coffee?” We went and had a cup of coffee, and we were together ever since.

JS: That sounds lovely. Do you have any aspirations left for your own career? What do you want to do next?

RB: Paint. You never know what’s going to come down the pike.

Regina Bogat: Stars is on view at Art 101 (101 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through July 1.

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