Spending a Night at Cedar Tavern with the Abstract Expressionists

Art History

August 23, 2020

Anyone researching the artists of The New York School has likely encountered references to a place called The Cedar Bar, or its later manifestation, The Cedar Tavern.

An ordinary dive bar, The Cedar has been transformed over the years into an enchanted place: the quintessential, smokey, New York, neighborhood joint of yesteryear, where a group of scrappy, brilliant, starving artists once gathered to smoke cigarettes, drink bottomless cups of cheap coffee, and change the world by transmogrifying themselves into the mythological beings known as the Abstract Expressionists.

What a beautiful dream! And some parts of it are even factual. Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and numerous other artists associated with Abstract Expressionism used to gather at The Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s and early 1950s. However, its least enchanted qualities were why it came to serve as their theoretical, metaphysical, interpersonal and professional epicenter. It was the closest, cheapest place in their neighborhood to get coffee, booze if they could afford it, or if things were going really well, food. Every town has places where starving artists, writers and musicians hang out, hook up, and swap ideas. Paris has countless such places. New York in the 1950s did, too.

So how did The Cedar become lionized as the supposed birthplace of the now-allegedly-lost, epic American Bohemia? How does any enchanted place become imbued with its purported magical powers? I am not an enchanter, and The Cedar Bar of lore died before I was born. But when I look back to what The Cedar Bar actually was, and imagine how a typical night in its shelter may have transpired, I can sort of understand its spell.

The only remnant of the original glory of The Cedar is located in a restaurant called The Eberly, in Austin, Texas, which advertises that its “crown jewel” is the “historic Cedar Tavern bar.” The ornate, wooden bar of which they speak has the look and weight of history, and it was, indeed, likely leaned upon by the elbows of famous folks like Jack Kerouac.

However, the suggestion on The Eberly website that Jackson Pollock might have also once knocked back drinks at this bar is far fetched. The Cedar Bar where Pollock hung out was so named for its original location on Cedar Street in Lower Manhattan, blocks from the present-day One World Trade Center, where it first opened in 1866. In 1933, it moved uptown to 55 West Eighth Street, in Greenwich Village. In 1945, it moved a block away, to 24 University Place. That address turned prophetic when a group of then-ignored artists refurbished a loft 75 meters away on 8th Street, turning that space into the now legendary 8th Street Club.

Most artists who frequented The Club lived and worked in the surrounding neighborhood, which, at the time, was practically skid row. Some lived illegally in the lofts they rented as painting studios, which often were not heated. They met, lectured and debated at The Club, and kept the conversation going at The Cedar Bar, where there was, at the very least, heat. As these artists became famous, tourists and wannabes started hanging out at The Cedar Bar hoping to rub elbows with them, so by 1955, most first-generation Abstract Expressionists had found somewhere else to hang out.

Pollock died in 1956. The Cedar Bar was demolished in 1963, after which the owners bought a new place at 82 University Place, where they opened a fancier establishment called The Cedar Tavern. That is the place from which The Eberly in Austin got its ornate wooden bar.

Meet Me at the Cedar

As for recapturing the magic of a night at The Cedar Bar, photographs offer a pretty vivid sense of what the place was like in its glory days: paint peeling from the walls; overflowing ashtrays; tattered booths; flimsy tables. Walking there on a typical night in the early 1950s, you would likely first encounter the musty aroma of cigarette smoke and dirty kitchen oil, then hear the clinking of beer bottles and mutterings of male-dominated conversation.

Out front, you might see a smattering of male painters seeking semi-fresh air and a private place to gossip. Inside, you notice who they are gossiping about: a hammered Jackson Pollock, in town from the burbs for a therapy appointment, performing to the expectation that he put on a drunken show. In nearby booths sit various lesser artists hovering around a handful of stars, fervently debating the minutia of their methods and ideas. Everywhere, young and older artists try to seduce each other—you cannot tell who is the predator and who the prey.

If you are lucky, tonight you witness the good, the bad, and the ugly: the good represented by Elaine de Kooning burying a male colleague in a debate, demonstrating the superior wit she honed in order to compete in the misogynist art field; the bad demonstrated by an unknown, emaciated, desperate painter barely staving off starvation by eating makeshift tomato soup concocted by mixing ketchup packets with tap water; the ugly perhaps performed by Pollock yelling homophobic insults at a gay artist, or by a Surrealist making a scene because someone refused to swap wives for the night. Maybe something epic happens—maybe this is the night Pollock rips a door from its hinges and throws it at someone. Or, more likely, this is one of the thousands of completely ordinary, quiet, somber nights at The Cedar Bar, when almost nothing noticeable to an outsider happens except measured conversation between humans aspiring to become better than they are.

I admit that I can see the magic in that. But it is not something you have to go back in time to witness. The Cedar was nothing by a spot in the road. Some good artists hung out there, but so did some racist, sexist, homophobic, egotistical artists. The enchanters who specialize in recasting yesteryear think nothing we do will ever be as epic as what the old timers did back in the day. Let them mourn their own lost potential. Bohemia is not dead. The Cedar Bar is dead. Bohemia has not yet lived.

Written by Phillip Barcio.

Featured image: Cedar Tavern, New York City, image via art-nerd.