Recollections by a Paintmaker’s Son – New Show at SAGG
The Golden family has assembled about 75 paintings and sculptures from a period of collecting by Sam Golden during his career and partnership at Bocour Artist Colors, from about 1936 – 1968. It will remain up at the gallery at the Golden Artist Colors facility (The SAGG) until the end of July. I had asked my brother, Tom if he could share some of his memories of our father and his uncle as well his memories of his time working at the Bocour Factory in Manhattan. For those that know Tom, you’ll certainly recognize his distinctive voice. For those of you who don’t, I think you’ll at least get a glimpse as to why we all think he’s pretty remarkable.
My Father and Uncle Label
Thomas H. Golden
March 17, 2012
On June 28, 1938, the national minimum wage was enacted and on October 30, 1938, Orson Wells terrified the nation with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Between those two memorable dates, I was born in Brooklyn on July 6, 1938. Little did I know that my father, Sammy Golden would become known as the ‘alchemist’ of the paint world. I do remember that our apartment on Essex Street was full of paintings, and that my father worked in New York City with his uncle Leonard (aka Uncle Label). What he did in that far off land called New York City was a mystery. As to Uncle Leonard, those memories were glorious. My first personal memory was not of the Bocour shop or store, but of my Uncle Label and his visits to our home in Brooklyn. Eventually known to the rest of the world as Leonard Bocour my great Uncle Leonard was the family star. My mother, Adele would announce to me that Uncle Label was coming for dinner. What a joyous event. Uncle Label was from Manhattan, and that alone suggested a special life space. Uncle Leonard was tall, with a thick mane of white hair, strong nose, and full of stories of painter friends, theatre and a life quite different than ours in East New York. Even his name, Bocour had a fantasy quality, although during my adolescence I learned that the name Bocour was invented.
During the early days of Bocour, Leonard was at our home often for dinner and the relationship amongst my parents and Leonard was full of affection. We had many relatives in the New York area, but Uncle Labels visits were cherished. My mom always prepared a special dinner, and we were a rapt audience for Label’s anecdotes. It was clear to me that Uncle Label, and my parents, but particularly my father shared a profound bond with one another – a bond that was more than that of an uncle and nephew.
My first experience at Bocour was when I was 14. I believe the shop was on 42 st., but it could have been still on 15th street. Regardless of the location, the smell of linseed oil, and the mountains of brilliant color rolling off of the mills was and still fills my senses. I can remember my first mistake at the shop as I was labeling the lead tubes. Uncle Leonard came to my work table with concern on his face, “This isn’t a push cart, Tommy,” he reprimanded. He removed the label, and proceeded to show me how to place the label so that it lay absolutely parallel with the neck of the tube. He was right, and I was painfully embarrassed. That demand for perfection was true to form at Bocour. I am certain that the goal of perfection was assimilated over the years by Sam, my dad, under the tutoring of Uncle Leonard.
Uncle Leonard would spend most of his day sitting in his office, speaking on the telephone, writing letters, answering his correspondence, and entertaining visitors. During my time at the shop, it was rare that Leonard came into the factory areas. When he did come, all the staff became intensely involved in their work assignments. Leonard was clearly Mr. Bocour, whereas my Dad was Sam. When Leonard left the working floor, the gossip resumed, the laughter and taunts renewed. I always felt that a kind of ease, and good spirit prevailed at Bocour.
I remember all the sights at the Bocour Shops, especially on 52nd Street and 10th Ave. Birdeye, painted the outside garage door in multiple colors signaling about the only notice that this was Bocour Artist Colors. I don’t even remember a sign for the shop other than a small note for the postman on the 51st street entrance. Inside the shop was full of buckets of beautifully colored with oil and acrylic paint. The mixing and milling area separated from the rest of the shop as this was strictly a boys club. The mixing room walls were covered from ceiling to floor in Playboy centerfolds, as was the Men’s toilet. As important as those women were to my virgin eyes, more memorable were the colors, and the smell of linseed oil, mineral spirits and benzene.
I would work at the factory during my summer vacations from High School and from College and during my many periods of unemployment in the theatre. I was taught to make paint, and I mean from scratch. Soiled, worn formula cards gave the ingredients and amounts and soon ultramarine blue, or cadmium red was spinning in the mixers, and then rolling off of the mill. Working the mill required some care in that a loose shirt sleeve or cleaning rag could pull your hand, arm and you into the mix of ultramarine blue. At the end of a run, it was necessary to clean the mills, and extra care was required to remove the 3 foot razor sharp blade that cleared the paint from the speeding roller mills. As I recall, I was never allowed to remove, nor clean that blade. Birdeye, or Sidney would religiously do the job. As careful as they were about the machinery, no one thought twice about using the benzene to clean up. After a day of making oil paint, there was paint, pigment residue in every orifice of one’s body. Water may be the source of life, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the cleansing power of benzene.
The Bocour Factory was always a place where artists were visiting to either schmooze with Leonard or Sam. One of my favorite memories was when Zero Mostel would visit the factory.
The factory elevator opened and suddenly the Bocour factory was bombarded with the banging and clanging of 50 gallon drums, and the bellowing of “hello, hello, anybody here?”. Zero’s cane smashed on the drums announcing his grand entrance. Dressed to the nines, full bodied, full of bluster and full of life force, Zero, as known to intimates, had arrived. He entered the factory as though he was coming on stage. Paint makers like Bird Eye, Sidney, Tiny (all 6’8”) and the entire work force would peer around corners to see Zero making those grand entrances. His friendship began with Leonard in the early days of Bocour and well before his career on stage and film. Truly a man for all seasons – extraordinary actor, raconteur, and artist.
During the early 60’s, I was substitute teaching in city schools, and constantly looking for work in the theatre or at least in lounges of the Catskill hotels. I would often visit the shop and I particularly remember one hot, muggy summer day in 1964. I was hungry, and could almost taste the corned beef sandwich that my Dad and I would order from a deli at the corner of 52 st. and 11thAve. I walked into the factory and there was Sam Golden, my father, the husband of Adele, talking to a stunning, 5’8” flaming red head. Mara McAfee was bartering two paintings for paint. Long story short, she asked if I would model for her for a series of paintings featuring the card deck picture cards. I immediately agreed, forgetting the corned beef sandwich. The painting, ‘King of Spades, Real King and Tom’ was the joyous result of several modeling sessions. That ex-Las Vegas showgirl was not only beautiful, but more so, Mara became a unique figure in the pop art era, and went on to a successful career as a painter and magazine illustrator.
There were so many wonder artists and characters visiting the shop and some I’d visit with my dad. Whether it was visiting with Ben Tatti, or Elias Friedensohn or hearing the incredibly vulgar banter from Ahron Ben-Shmuel, it felt incredibly romantic to be amongst these amazingly talented artists. Sam truly delighted in these relationships and loved the requests he got from artists to make them something new.
Sam had a small area in the shop, he said was the size of 55 gallon drum to conduct his experiments with new and custom paints for artists. But that didn’t stop him from using our homes in Brooklyn and then in Hillsdale, NJ for experimenting. I remember his experiment in painting the lower half of our home in Hillsdale with a mixture of Cobalt Blue and Titanium White. He was experimenting with a white that would self-clean. Not only did it show a clean surface after every rain, but the garage wall which was also our stick ball backstop, picked up every mark of the tennis ball hitting the surface. The chalking on the balls did keep them very new looking for a long time.
Sam and Leonard enjoyed a unique relationship with the world of art and artists. It was the loss of these relationships that became the nagging voice in Sam’s head to go back to the work he loved. That my dad was a paintmaker was clearly not just a profession for him, but it was in large measure who he was. Golden Artist Colors was certainly that clear expression of this passion.