Abstract Expressionism

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Abstract Expressionism 1932

by Gary Comenas (2009, Updated 2016)

The Great Depression continues. Unemployment rises to 15 million. (DK90)

January 29, 1932: "Surrealism Paintings, Drawings & Photographs" exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery.

Portrait of Julian Levy (c. 1932) by Jay Leyda

The exhibition is sometimes referred to as "Surrealisme."

According to one of Arshile Gorky's biographers, Nouritza Matossian, it was the first Surrealist show that Gorky saw, although he "had talked about Surrealism to his students as early as 1928, almost simultaneously with his discovery of Cézanne." (BA201)

The exhibition featured Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory (which had previously been shown at the 1931 exhibition "Newer Super-Realism" in Connecticut) - as well as work by Picasso, Pierre Roy, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Joseph Cornell and others. (MA296) Levy had purchased The Persistence of Memory from the Pierre Colle Gallery in 1931 for the trade price of $250.00. When Levy showed the work to his father, Levy's father urged his son to change the title of the work to "The Limp Watches." (MA70-71/296)

1932: First Miró solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse.

Although Pierre Matisse was the son of the artist Matisse, during the 57 years that his gallery was in operation (at 41 East 57th Street) he never had a Matisse exhibition - but he did have 37 Miró exhibitions as well as 16 exhibitions of Chagall, 7 of Yves Tanguy, 7 of Balthus, 12 of Dubuffet and 5 of Giacometti. (PM/BA292)

Pierre Matisse began his career by first selling prints through E. Weyhe, Inc. before joining the Valentine Dudensing Gallery. He opened his own gallery in 1932. (PM)

1932: Arshile Gorky and Sirun Mussikian split up.

Sirun (aka Ruth French) had become increasingly disenchanted with the Gorky. He was beginning to remind her of his father. (BA546)

Sirun Mussikian:

"He was like my father. If you asked him something, he would give a great big lecture and bore you out. It's not what you wanted. You wanted a little comfort and warmth." (BA186)

After an argument, Sirun stormed out. Gorky found an unmailed letter from her to another man among her possessions. Gorky went to the address on the letter and found Sirun with a Mexican guitarist, Fernando Felix.

Sirun Mussikian:

"He [Gorky] dragged me out of Felix's by the hair and made me get in the taxi... He just dragged me up, pulling it. He was so mad. He was crazy. He brought me back and put his fist in my face. The blood was everywhere." (BA187)

After Sirun left him, the Armenian-born sculptor, Raoul Hague, recalled that Gorky "wept like a child." (BA187) An Armenian friend of Gorky's, Yenovk Der Hagopian, recalled that after the break up of their relationship, Gorky "came to Watertown." He "never talked about art. Only about the love affair. We came home at two o'clock in the morning. Broken-hearted. He was broken." (BA188)

1932: Willem de Kooning and Nini move to Greenwich Village.

Willem de Kooning, his mother and Nini (R) in New York, 1935

After leaving their E. 55th street apartment Willem de Kooning and his lover Nini Diaz first lived at an apartment on W. 45th Street but after being robbed there headed downtown. Their new place was on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street in an old mansion known as Marble House. The apartment was rent-free as de Kooning was rebuilding the top floor. A friend recalled later that it was "the tidiest, neatest place I've ever seen." De Kooning hung out at George's in the Village - a tiny diner with a back room where customers could hear jazz bands over a nickel a glass beer. Artist Milton Resnick later recalled about George's "On Saturday night you'd get some singer who was being tried out. That started there because all these artists knew what was good." Fellow artist David Margolis would sometimes take de Kooning to Harlem to the Savoy Ballroom to watch the dancing and later recalled that de Kooning, who had a keen interest in jazz, was fascinated by Harlem. (DK89)

De Kooning's enthusiasm for music was demonstrated by a purchase he made during the early thirties while still employed as a window dresser by A.S. Beck (see late 1929). The purchase was a Capehart high fidelity music system - one of the first to feature automatic record changing - costing around $700 - more than half of his yearly salary. He paid for the system with an advance from A.S. Beck. (DK92) (A new car would have cost about $600 in 1932.)

February 1932: Barnett Newman gets teaching position at Grover Cleveland High School.

Barnett Newman got a position as a regular substitute art appreciation teacher at the high school in Ridgewood, Queens. (MH)

April 5 - 17, 1932: "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" exhibition at the Downtown Gallery.

The controversial series of 23 gouaches and temperas, painted during 1931-1932 by Social Realist artist Ben Shahn, were widely covered in the press and popular with the workers and labor organizers who held rallies at nearby Union Square. Shahn, born in 1898 in Lithuania, had previously done work (in 1930) based on the Dreyfus Affair. (PB)

Shahn continued to use Sacco and Vanzetti as a subject after the exhibition, including the drawing below:

Sacco and Vanzetti drawing, 1952, Ben Shahn, (5 3/4 x 8 7/16 in.)

See "Ben Shahn."

May 10, 1932: Arshile Gorky's sister Vartoosh and her husband Moorad return to Armenia.

The Communist Party of Armenia gained control of Armenia on November 29, 1920. Prime Minister Simon Vratsian ceded control of the country to the Communists on December 1, 1920. Armenian newspapers urged emigrants to return to take part in the new culture and economic prosperity. Russia had saved Armenia from the Turks. Gorky, not yet an American citizen, told his sister Vartoosh, "You go over and I'll join you later, as soon as I have some money." Before she left Gorky painted a picture of her which Vartoosh recalls was "as large as a door." The size of the painting made it impossible to take with her, so she left it with her half-sister Akabi along with about 8 to 15 other pictures that Gorky had painted - an action she would later regret. Akabi threw the paintings away in February 1934 after a fire broke out at her house and the paintings suffered water damage. (BA200)

June 12, 1932: Adolph Gottlieb marries Esther Dick.

Adolph Gottlieb and Esther Dick, 1932
(Photographer unknown)

Esther Dick was a young woman from Connecticut working in a design shop in New York. After marrying Gottlieb she managed to get a full-time job teaching sewing and design at a Brooklyn high school. They lived in a small studio apartment at 14 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village until moving to Brooklyn in November 1933. (AG16)

Summer 1932: Jackson Pollock meets David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Manuel Tolegian and Pollock hitchhiked again to Los Angeles where Pollock was introduced to Siqueiros, a political exile who had been living in L.A. since May. (PP317)

Manuel Tolegian:

We made several trips together... I remember one trip, I think it was '32 or '33, we just couldn't get a ride, nobody would give us a ride out from the big city so I thought of the idea - when I was little boy here in Los Angeles I worked in the markets. I thought we would go into a marker, and you can't go further East, these trucks have got to go West, so we looked at these license plates to see which one is going furthest West and we found one that was going to Pennsylvania, it was strawberries and he had a load on the trucks. So I just went up to him and I said, "If we unload these strawberries from the truck would you give us a ride to where you're going to?' He said, "Sure, go ahead.. We eventually landed in Cleveland of all places, doing the same thing, going to the market, picking up trucks. But then we couldn't get any ride... maybe fortunately because then we began to draw. We practically walked through the state of Kansas, nobody would give us a ride through there at all... I think it was '33, '34. Finally we landed in Los Angeles about a month later with our knapsacks and our paints. We were really very idealistic, you know, we were doing this American scene. (ST)

August 16, 1932: The ACA Gallery opens on Madison Avenue.

The original founders of the ACA (American Contemporary Artists) Gallery included Herman Baron, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Adolf Dehn. Herman Baron who ran the gallery was a Communist and the art exhibited tended to be Social Realism or art with a political message. The second exhibition held there was "Selections from the John Reed Club." (See "A Concise History" of the ACA.)

Bernarda Shahn [Ben Shahn's wife]:

... the ACA Gallery was phenomenal in a certain sense. That is Herman Baron, who ran the ACA Gallery - it was a cooperative gallery - This man and wife were such gentle, such utterly angelic people. To them the Soviet Union was God... I didn't even belong to the Gallery, but I used to go there a lot.... I believe there were artists at the ACA Gallery who were not members of the John Reed Club. I’m pretty sure there were. I’m not sure – I think that [Robert] Gwathmey used to exhibit there. I don’t think he was ever a member of the John Reed Club. Quite a few artists who exhibited there – Philip Evergood was a member of the [Artists] Union. I don’t believe he was a member of the John Reed Club, either. It was a very small group and very, very much into the Party. I won’t mention the names of the people.

In 1938 Barnett Newman would organized a protest exhibition at the gallery titled "Can We Draw? The Board of Examiners Says - No!" (TH10/MH)

Autumn 1932: Jackson Pollock moves into 46 Carmine Street.

After returning to New York from his summer in Los Angeles, Jackson moved to the apartment his brother Charles used as a studio at 46 Carmine Street. Charles and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in an apartment across the street. Charles used the front room of 46 Carmine Street for his studio. Jackson's bed and paintings occupied the back room. (PP317/329n6)

1932 - 1937: Robert Motherwell attends Stanford University in Paolo Alto, California.

Prior to starting at Stanford Robert Motherwell studied briefly at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Motherwell graduated from Stanford in 1937 with an B.A. degree in Philosophy. (RM131) He then attended Harvard University as a graduate student of philosophy.

Robert Motherwell:

In those days everybody in California went either to Berkeley or to Stanford. I really wanted to go to Berkeley but Berkeley had subject requirements as well as grades. Stanford cared only about grades. I had very high grades, but because I had gone to a very small prep school with a limited faculty I didn't have all the courses that Berkeley insisted on. So I had to go to Stanford... There were several professors who I learned a lot from. There was a professor of Romance languages named Frederick Anderson from who I took a year-long course in Dante's Divine Comedy which made an indelible impression on me. There was a Frenchman named Albert Guerrard who gave a year-long seminar for graduate students in Art for Art's Sake. He ultimately published lectures as a poet. As a sophomore I forced myself on him. He said, "You's not eligible." And like a bulldog I'd say, "I'm going to come anyway." He couldn't believe it. Finally out of a kind of stupefaction he said, "You're not qualified; if you come after a few weeks I'm going to have to show you you're not qualified." I said, "All right, then show me." And I came and actually I got an A in the course. I wrote on Somerset Maugham. There was somebody else I also took a course from on André Gide. (SR)

October 3, 1932: Jackson Pollock becomes a class monitor.

Jackson Pollock, now in his third year at the Art Students League, was living at 46 Carmine Street. As the class monitor for Thomas Hart Benton's class he hired models and assisted Benton during teaching. In exchange he didn't have to pay tuition. (JP62/PP317)

November 5 - December 3, 1932: "Surrealiste" exhibition by Max Ernst at the Julien Levy Gallery. (MA298)
November 12, 1932: Mark Rothko marries Edith Sachar.

Mark Rothko had met Edith at a campground at Hearthstone Point during the summer of 1932. She had been attracted by the sound of Rothko's mandolin which he had brought with him on the trip. In August, after meeting him again in Albany, she wrote to him, "You have no idea how much I learned to care for you and how my opinion altered and my affection grew." In September, after she had become involved with Christianity, she wrote "my love for you I said is complete - yet it is not restful as the love I feel for God." They married in November in a ceremony performed by an old high school friend of Rothko's - Rabbi Max MacCoby in Rothko's apartment at 314 75th Street with Rothko's cousin, Harold Weinstein and his wife, as witnesses. (RO81) According to Edith their "first possession was a piano with a harpsichord attachment - which Rothko would play by ear." (RO82) Although Rothko would eventually get rid of the piano "because he said it was occupying too much of his time" he particularly liked to play Mozart on it, sometimes saying that "Mozart was a Jew" and playing the music of the composer in a Yiddish style.

Rothko was twenty-nine when he married Sachar. She was twenty. He had only one previous relationship with a woman (known only as Ida from Staten Island). Edith's parents were Russian Jews who had immigrated to the United States as adolescents. Her father owned the Empire Upholstery Company in Brooklyn. Edith had attended a leftist experimental college, Commonwealth College in Arkansas, which she had arrived at by hitchhiking with a friend from New York. She attended the college for only two quarters - autumn to winter 1931/2. (RO83)

Edith later recalled that her and Rothko they were "so poor that all they had to eat was bean soup." Rothko earned some money from teaching art two days a week to children at the Center Academy (part of the Brooklyn Jewish Center) which he had been doing since 1929 and Edith worked occasionally as a sales girl in a dress shop. Later she would work for the WPA and teach crafts part-time at the Yeshiva that Rothko taught at. Eventually she would start her own jewelry business. (RO86) She later recalled that during that autumn in New York, Rothko took watercolours he had painted to various galleries "and he hadn't gotten any reaction." (RO85)

According to Edith, "painting was a sort of tormented act" for Rothko. "He was tortured when he painted and when you watched him when he painted, the expressions on his face, he seemed to go through agony." (RO93/94)

October 1932: Bing Crosby records Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

The song (sometimes sung as Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?) was written in 1931 and was featured in the Broadway musical, New Americana, which opened in 1932. By the time the song was released, one in four Americans were out of work. It was an instant hit.

November 1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected U.S. President.
Late 1932 - 1933: Philip Guston and Reuben Kadish paint murals for the Los Angeles branch of the John Reed Club.

The murals didn't last long. In 1933, the same year the Legion of Decency was formed, the so-called "Red Squad" of the L.A. police raided the club and destroyed the murals.

From A Critical Study of Philip Guston by Dore Ashton:

In late 1932 Guston, Kadish, Harold Lehman, and several of their friends decided to respond to the John Reed Club's call to "abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art's sake." They undertook to paint "portable" murals on the theme of the American Negro, who was seen by all liberal publications of the time as the victim of lynching and other barbarous practices. Guston's mural, based directly on accounts he had read of the trial of the Scottsboro boys, showed Ku Kluxers whipping a roped black man. The murals, executed on separate panels in a shed owned by a Mexican painter, Luis Arenal, were each about 6´ 8 feet in size and were painted in fresco on increasingly fine layers of sand and cement poured into wooden frames. This undertaking was to provide the young painters with the first confirmation of their suspicions that America was in a dangerous state of violent confusion. Early one morning a band of raiders, thought to be led by the chief of the Red Squad, a man called Hines, and abetted by members of the American Legion, entered the John Reed Club brandishing lead pipes and guns. They totally destroyed several murals and, as Guston recalls with a shudder, shot out the eyes and genitals of the figures in his completed work. An eyewitness came forward to say he had seen the police enter the premises, and the artists, almost all of them in their late teens, decided to sue. At the trial the judge looked with distaste upon these insurgent Americans, declared that the murals had been destroyed by parties unknown, and suggested that it was the painters themselves who had probably done it to call attention to their cause. (DA27)

December 1932: Thomas Hart Benton's murals, Arts of Life in America, are unveiled at the Whitney Museum.

Detail from the Arts of Life in America (1932) by Thomas Hart Benton

Jackson Pollock helped Benton install the set of murals titled Arts of Life in America in the Whitney Museum's reading room. Soon after the murals were unveiled, Benton was offered a commission to paint the history of Indiana for the Indiana Pavilion at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. He left his teaching position at the Art Students League and moved to Indianapolis in December 1932, returning to New York the following autumn.

The murals were sold by the Whitney when it moved location in 1954.

to 1933

to 1931

Abstract Expressionism

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