Another Frank O’Hara sighting in the news. In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Bye-Bye Bohemia,” Lee Siegel pondered the fate of the Cedar Tavern, the legendary hangout of the Abstract Expressionist painters and New York School poets in Greenwich Village, which closed its doors in 2006.
The poets saw the Cedar as the painter’s bar, but that was part of the appeal (as John Ashbery once said, “the artists liked us and bought us drinks”). In a piece about the painter Larry Rivers, O’Hara recalled that “We were all in our early twenties. John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and I, being poets, divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists’ bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped: in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip.”
Even though the original Cedar closed in 1963 and moved up the block on University Place, the bar maintained its romantic and nostalgic aura for decades, even in its new, and decidedly less romantic, incarnation. In the New York Times piece, Siegel describes the experience of recently walking by the spot where the (second) Cedar had been and noticing a new European Waxing Centre being constructed there:
A bar where artists, writers and filmmakers labored to find words for aesthetic perfection now has photos of bikini-clad women exhibiting perfected bodies plastered on its windows.
A few lines from a Frank O’Hara poem involuntarily came back to me: “to get to the Cedar to meet Grace / I must tighten my moccasins / and forget the minute bibliographies of disappointment / anguish and power / for unrelaxed honesty.”
Goodbye, unrelaxation, hello waxing. Yet rather than yield to the easy irony, I have a different response from the usual semi-rueful shrug at the urban spectacle of, for the millionth time, a landmark being transformed into an incongruous commercial space. My feeling is one of liberation. Bring on the new salon!
Siegel acknowledges that “the Cedar stood for something grand, to a degree. It flourished at a time when people met without elaborately texted plans, when a young person could arrive without money or connections and slip into a subculture of like-minded souls.” But he refuses to lament that the Cedar scene’s Mad Men-esque cultural attitudes — especially its rampant sexism and homophobia — have come to seem like relics from a benighted era.
And he has a point: to take one example, as Brad Gooch notes in his biography of O’Hara, Jackson Pollock “called O’Hara a ‘fag’ to his face and was enough of a menace that O’Hara fled the Cedar one night when he heard that Pollock was on a drunken rampage.” However, for various reasons, this fact did almost nothing to dent O’Hara’s deep love of Pollock’s work. “If Jackson Pollock tore the door off the men’s room in the Cedar,” O’Hara wrote, “it was something he just did and was interesting, not an annoyance. You couldn’t see into it anyway, and besides there was this sense of genius.”
“It is hard to long for the social context that enabled Pollock’s masterpieces,” Siegel concludes. That may be true, but for O’Hara and his circle, and for many other artists, writers, and musicians, the Cedar was still a haven, a creative catalyst, and even a kind of good luck charm. In “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s,” O’Hara asks his friends “did you spit on your index fingers and rub the CEDAR’s neon circle for luck?”