Cornelia Foss: An Interview 

Cornelia Foss in her Bridgehampton studio. Photo: Hans Namuth

Ira Goldberg: It’s my understanding that you arrived in St. Louis from Germany in September, 1939.

Cornelia Foss: Yes, we did. And of course, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd of that year, and World War II was on in earnest. When we arrived, my father met us at the pier. He was very tall and always wore a porkpie hat, a Borsalino. I immediately recognized him, with hat down, even though I hadn’t seen him in two years. We left the pier and my father said, “I think we should go and see the World’s Fair.” And so we went directly from the boat to the New York World’s Fair. The first thing we went to see was the Kodak Pavilion. The second thing we saw was Gypsy Rose Lee.

IG: That must have created an interesting first impression of the United States. What did Gypsy Rose Lee do?

CF: She did her act. I was sitting there with my parents. I said, “Has she forgotten that there are all these people here?” Finally, I got it, and then asked: “Why isn’t she taking off the last rose?”

IG: How did art come into your life in America?

CF: In St. Louis I had a lovely teacher, Miss Kitchen. And I very quickly learned a little bit of English. The main thing that made it possible for me to make friends was the fact that I could draw. For some reason all the girls in that class—it was a public school, so it was boys and girls—wanted to draw. They wanted to draw “pretty girls”—you know, like Vargas girls.

IG: Pinups, they called them.

CF: Yes. That’s what all these girls wanted to draw. Suddenly, I became a very popular child because I could teach them how to draw “girls.”

IG: How did you know how to draw?

Cornelia Foss, Hollyhocks, 1990. OIl on canvas, 70 x 67 in.
Cornelia Foss, Hollyhocks, 1990. Oil on canvas, 70 x 67 in. © Christopher Foss, Foss Photo Arts LLC

CF: I’d been practicing since I was five. I started out by drawing rain. I remember sitting at the window of my room in Rome, Italy, where we lived at the time, and endlessly drawing rain. I know it sounds boring—but I loved the feel of the pencil, drawing those lines of rain. Also, my parents, being archeologists and art historians, loved to go to museums, churches, palazzi—wherever there were beautiful paintings and sculptures. Fortunately, I was very often taken along.

IG: So you had an early exposure to art.

CF: Yes. Some children would’ve been bored to tears, but I always thought of it as something terrific.

IG: So now you’re drawing pinup girls.

CF: Yes—and my English is beginning to get a little bit better.

IG: Did you receive a formal art education at some point?

CF: Yes, I went to a public school in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri—and two years after that to the University school in Bloomington, Indiana. We had moved there because my father had a professorship there. The school in St. Louis had advanced me by two grades, as I was quite ahead of the other children there (I had already had a lot of advanced schooling in Germany; we had been taught to read phonetically there at an early age). When I was twelve, it was decided I should take a course at the university, with Stephen Greene—who later taught at the ASL.

IG: And by then at the age of 12, you knew you were going to pursue a career in art.

CF: I spent my weekends endlessly copying. I copied most of the birds in the Audubon books. I copied Picassos. I’ll never forget when my father came home with the first Picasso book, and that really opened up a whole new door to me. I was so astounded by those fantastic lithographs, etchings and drawings.

IG: A lot of people need some time before they start to understand Picasso.

CF: Oh, no. I took one look and was blown away!

IG: At the age of twelve?

CF: Yes, even earlier. That was when I was eleven. I have to say how wonderful my father was to bring those books home for me.

IG: Did you have favorite artists then?

Cornelia Foss, Sugar Bowl, Flowers, and Raspberries, 2006. Oil on canvas, 14 x 14 in.
Cornelia Foss, Sugar Bowl, Flowers, and Raspberries, 2006. Oil on canvas, 14 x 14 in. © Christopher Foss, Foss Photo Arts LLC

CF: I did, yes. St. Louis has a famous museum. In Bloomington there wasn’t much at the time—although there was a beautiful Stuart Davis mural in the art studio there. And the books were fantastic. Of course, my parents had so many friends who were either artists or art historians. Max Beckmann and his wife stayed at our house in Bloomington for a while.

IG: Did Beckmann teach at Washington University?

CF: He was a visiting professor. My father had invited him after they had met in St. Louis. His wife was so sweet about my drawings and said, “You know, Cornelia, you really are going to be a painter, you know that.” That kind of encouragement means so much to a child. It’s huge.

IG: So you had a lot of motivation.

CF: As kind as he was in bringing me books about art, my father did not like the idea of my becoming an artist. I was supposed to become a scholar. One day I showed him a drawing that I had done; I must have been 18 or 19. He looked at it and said, “Well, this is really good!” From that time on…

IG: He was all for it?

CF: Yes. But when these nice teachers suggested that I take a course in drawing at the university, my father lost his temper. “Out of the question,” he said. “You’re going to continue your schooling.”

IG: He didn’t consider that part of your schooling?

CF: No, he wanted me to go on with Latin and literature, etc. So I had a tantrum—and my tantrum won out. Stephen Greene turned out to be the teacher I was assigned to, and he was great; however, he said, “Cornelia, I’m taking you in the class, but there are a couple of provisions here: you are never to turn your head and look left. You just go straight over to your bench over there and sit down over in that corner of the room.” I said, “Why? Am I going to be turned into a pillar of salt?” He said, “No, that’s where the nude model is.” I thought that was the funniest thing I ever heard. But he thought for a twelve-year-old child it wasn’t right.

IG: Well, you know, Stephen always had an air of being very serious. His manner was very formal.

Cornelia Foss, Winter Pines in Central Park, 2007, oil on canvas, 14 x 14 inches. © Christopher Foss, Foss Photo Arts LLC

CF: I admire that; teaching art is a serious matter. Also it’s good for the students to realize that you don’t have to look like an artist to be one. At any rate, I adored him, even though he made my life hell in the beginning. He gave me Holbein books and said, “Copy these.” Every day he would walk by and look at my work and say, “Oh my God, how am I going to show this to your father?”

IG: That must have put a lot of pressure on you.

CF: I was doing copies with red conté crayon. The first day I arrived I had come with newsprint. Steve said, “Cornelia, this won’t do. You have to have enough self-respect to use good materials. I don’t want to see any cheap junk.” He was absolutely right.

IG: Where did you go to college?

CF: I began at the University of Indiana at sixteen. Then my father received a Prix de Rome at the American Academy in Rome, and so we went to Italy. What was supposed to be a year turned out to be five years. I attended the University of Rome, where I had to relearn my Italian. I studied with Lionello Venturi, the well-known art historian. This was immediately after the war, so everyone in Europe was poor. Professors, for instance, had multiple jobs in order make ends meet. They would have a job in Rome, another in Turin, and another in Milan. You never knew if a professor was going to be there or not. I would go on the circolare, the streetcar that went around Rome. It took an hour and a half, and I would arrive at our classroom only to find out that Professor Venturi wasn’t there that week.

IG: There was nobody else to substitute?

CF: Nobody ever told anybody, and there was no substitute. It was total chaos.

IG: Were you able to learn at this time?

Cornelia Foss, Untitled.
Cornelia Foss, Eugénie, 2009. Oil on canvas, 14 x 14 in.© Christopher Foss, Foss Photo Arts LLC

CF: My parents thought this situation was ridiculous. They asked a wonderful sculptor by the name of John Rodin at the American Academy to give me lessons. At that time I was still thinking I wanted to be a sculptor, not a painter. So I took lessons with him and with an Italian sculptor by the name Mirco who was the brother of Afro. Their last name was Basaldella, but they were known only by their first names. Afro was a very well-known Italian painter, and Mirco, a sculptor. At one point I took lessons with another sculptor, who was also very good but who was incredibly demanding. He made me draw those European matchboxes, the little ones for a solid year. Every time I drew it, he would say, No, you’ve forgotten one plane. And the planes, of course, were infinitesimal. It was horrendous. I have to admit it stood me in very good stead. Then I won the first international sculpture award, when I was around eighteen. In those days they still had news reels, and I was featured in these to my great delight. A year later, I met my husband to-be. We were married secretly and married formally again later.

IG: Why secretly?

CF: I was very young and my parents would have disapproved. We married secretly, with special permission from the American ambassador. Our ceremony was on the Campidoglio. When I returned, my mother said, “I’ve been looking for you. Where have you been all afternoon?”

IG: What did you tell her?

CF: The truth—which upset her very much!

IG: I can understand why

CF: Because I was too young (I certainly can’t blame my parents for minding that), and because I was marrying a musician and not a scholar.

IG: What happened after that?

Cornelia Foss, Spring, 2009. Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in.
Cornelia Foss, Spring, 2009. Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in. © Christopher Foss, Foss Photo Arts LLC

CF: Soon after, my husband was asked to perform his new piano concerto with the Boston Symphony, so we went to Boston. A few weeks later he also played it at the Biennale—at the Fenice Theater in Venice. Finally, we ended up at the University of California, Los Angeles, which had offered him a professorship. At the time, my husband was twenty-seven. He was the youngest person ever to get a full professorship at a university in America. So there I was in Los Angeles. I went to the Kann Institute of Art, where I studied with Howard Warsaw and Rico LeBrun.

IG: Wonderful artists.

CF: They were extraordinary teachers. After three years, I rented a studio on Wilshire Boulevard with some other painters. We had to put sheets across the windows because the light in Los Angeles is so strong; it’s blinding. I started by doing huge figure paintings. Rico asked what on earth I was doing. He told me to go look at myself in the mirror, and said, “Here you are, a very slight young girl, and you are painting these crazy, huge things. It has nothing to do with you. I want you to do fifty self-portraits.” “I mean fifty,” he said. So that’s exactly what I did.

IG: Do you still have any of these?

CF: I have two of them left. Rico was so right because he understood that doing a painting has a great deal to do with who you are. What you’re expressing—your work—will show that if you’re painting well.

IG: How did being married to a well-known musician impact your work? Music opens up whole new avenues of expression and understanding. Rhythm is a very important part of any art form. I don’t care if it is painting, music, storytelling. Beats, paces, spaces in between forms—they are all related. How did that start to influence your art?

Cornelia Foss, Lukas, 2006. Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 in.
Cornelia Foss, Lukas, 2006. Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 in. © Christopher Foss, Foss Photo Arts LLC

CF: I’d been exposed to music early; both my parents played instruments. My father played the piano, my mother, the violin. They took me to concerts a great deal.

Lukas and I really didn’t discuss our work with each other. We never even discussed the fact that we weren’t going to discuss it. It was just understood. He would never have said to me, “How is your painting coming along?” And I would never have asked him about his progress with a composition. We both understood that you don’t trespass there. One of my children once said it was so funny watching us because—and this is many years later—I would be working in my Bridgehampton studio and Lukas would be working in his studio at the other end of the garden, and the phone would ring, and the two of us would collide, running for the phone.

IG: You each respected each other’s territory.

CF: Absolutely.

IG: Did he ever have anything to say about your painting?

CF: Well, yes sometimes I would ask for his opinion about a painting I was working on. He would look at and say, “Darling, I don’t know anything about painting. I can’t tell you. “So that was that. But Lukas’ performances were another matter. When he was conducting, he was very grateful to have me say, “Oh, that was spectacular. You got that so beautifully.” Or, “Well, you know, in the second movement, it seemed a bit slow.” And he’d say, “Yes, I know, I was too slow there. You are so right.” Or, he would say, “What? You are completely wrong. No, I was fine.”

IG: Lukas was now obviously established. How about you during this period?

CF: I was extremely shy and having a modicum of success myself. But I did not like pushing for shows and exhibitions.

IG: Lukas was the breadwinner of the family?

CF: Definitely. It was fun for me to be there when people were clapping like mad after a performance. I never felt any kind of rivalry; nor did he.

IG: How about your own pursuits? Were you having shows?

Cornelia Foss
Cornelia Foss, Bridgehampton Studio. Photo: Hans Namuth

CF: In fact, I was—and began having regular exhibitions. One of my earliest opportunities came when the head of the art department at UCLA called to offer me a solo exhibit in the new university art gallery. I was to have the first exhibit there, and of course I was very honored. What happened next was bizarre. I had twenty-seven large paintings. One day about two weeks before the opening, he called to tell me that the people running the gallery were drug dealers. Apologizing profusely, and explaining that the university would have nothing more to do with the gallery, he advised that I hire a truck immediately to pick up my paintings.

It was 1962, and I was pregnant with my daughter, Eliza. I hired a truck. It was a Sunday so the building where my studio was housed was closed. The paintings had to be brought to my house and stored in Lukas’s studio. The next morning, I got up thinking that I wasn’t just going to sit and moan about it. I drove over to my studio. I was working all morning long, when one of my friends who was also renting a studio in the building came rushing in to tell me that half of L.A. was on fire. Los Angeles—the Bel Air area where we were—is prone to these huge brush fires. They happen quite frequently there. When I walked outside, the sky was a brilliant bright red. It was horrifying. My first thought was my son because he was in kindergarten. I rushed over in my car. Mothers were running around in the kindergarten, frantically searching for their children. I picked up my son, Christopher, and then left to get my mother, who was in Beverly Hills that day. My husband was in New York, where a new composition of his was being performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

I drove up to the house. I ran down to Lukas’s studio because he had been working on a piece for almost a year—and I wanted to try to save it. As I drove up to the house, the heat was something like 110-degrees.

IG: Did you rescue it?

CF: Unfortunately, I found only part of it. Then I grabbed one of my small paintings, but I was beginning have labor pains—and I was alarmed to see a wall of fire in the distance, but rapidly approaching. We made it down to Sunset Boulevard just in time. Sad to say, the house burned down to the ground. There was just a chimney. My paintings were destroyed. We then rented a house in Westwood, and four months later I gave birth to Eliza. Soon after, the composer Elliot Carter and his wife offered us their apartment in New York as they were going to the American Academy in Rome for one year. Ned Rorem, another composer friend of ours, let me use his studio in New York. It turned out to be a very good year. We were in New York, we could work, and be with our many friends here.

IG: Who were the painters you were interested in then?

CF: Fairfield Porter, Bill deKooning, Philip Guston and many others. Certainly Fairfield Porter was an influence; so was Alex Katz, Neil Welliver, and so many others. I began to paint the fields out on Long Island. In those days, it was still so empty, so pristine and so untouched. Vast potato fields would go right up to the dunes by the sea. There was no traffic, but a kind of silence in that landscape. The beaches were for the most part empty.

Cornelia Foss, Ocean Beach.
Cornelia Foss, Ocean Beach. © Christopher Foss, Foss Photo Arts LLC

IG: When did you start to live there?

CF: 1959.

IG: You’ve had the house in Bridgehampton since then?

CF: No—we’ve had it for about twenty-five years.

IG: When did feel you’d finally established yourself?

CF: Not until later.

IG: But still you were very much involved with making art? You were still very much a painter.

CF: Absolutely, yes. I was painting away. It really was a wonderful time—so interesting! All the artists were taken so seriously, unlike now. The problem is that so many people really aren’t very interested in music, poetry, literature or painting to the same extent anymore.

IG: Do you think this is due to today’s economic climate?

CF: I’m afraid it’s not. I think it has to do with something more prosaic and boring: education. The schools are not teaching history of art. Nobody can tell a good painting from a bad painting anymore. Everyone has become very insecure about it.

IG: The richness of art in all its forms is missing or what is there, is not really paid attention to.

CF: Well, the tradition is being broken, and it’s really dangerous. We’re opening ourselves up to such lack of understanding. If we never read Shakespeare or any of the other important books, how will anyone understand anything? I try in my class to get students to be interested in other disciplines. Painting is not something that exists in a vacuum. I tell them that they are getting to be really good, when the are – but that’s not enough. You have to understand where you are in relation to all the paintings that have gone before and in relation to all those being done simultaneously with yours. Go around and look at what people are doing out there. Go around to the galleries and take a look. Go to the museums. Discover the past.

IG: How do you look at your art in relationship to this amazing life that you’ve had. Your paintings in many respects are intimate. Do you feel there is more that you would like to be able to say?

CF: I’m always about five paintings behind. By that I mean that I have five paintings in my head right now that are driving me crazy because I haven’t painted them yet.

IG: Are you primarily focused on landscapes? It seems to be most of what you’re painting

Cornelia Foss in the studio
Cornelia Foss. New York Studio, 2015. © Christopher Foss. Foss Photo Arts, LLC.

CF: No. I can’t say that that’s true. Sometimes I paint portraits, sometimes self-portraits. Right now, I’m painting the horses in Central Park. True, in the autumn, when the leaves start to fall, and all those different colors are blindingly intertwined, it does become landscape. What interests me at the moment is the object within the landscape or seascape—making it appear, then disappear. Then any object, like a horse, which is a pretty big, stable object, will suddenly melt into all those leaves and all those colors and hardly be visible. Trying to capture that in a painting—the transitory nature of nature—is one of the most fascinating things to try to paint.

IG: I’ve always looked at water as one of the most fascinating subjects for a painting because it is constantly in motion. You want to be able to capture that motion on a sedentary, quiet surface. It is a compelling thing.

CF: I’m lucky in the sense that I am able to portray my feelings with a brush rather easily. I don’t know whether I can attribute this to slow accumulation over a lifetime—looking at so many paintings, the careful observation of everything. I have come to realize that, say in the case of a painting a seascape, the water cannot be separated from the sky, or the sky from the sand. The older I get, the more I see the connection between things.

IG: It’s called the power of art. The more one paints, the less hesitation there is. There is an immediate response to the stimuli, a certain connectivity, and that connectivity tells you what to do. When you’re creating without pretext, or pretense, or a need to prove something, there’s expressive freedom.

CF: Quite right.

IG: If there is anything that makes you get up in the morning and want to go back to doing this, it’s wanting to see what happens as a result of having the brush in your hand.

CF: Also, the thought that I can always do better.

IG: There is nothing better than that. There’s always a searching: can I make it even better? Can I make it even stronger? Every artist, especially the great ones, are able to carry that on throughout their lives.

CF: I like to remember that Goya wrote on one of his late drawings, “Aún aprendo”—”I am still learning.”

Cornelia Foss is an instructor at the Art Students League. A comprehensive survey of her paintings will be published by Rizzoli New York in October 2015.

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