Abstract Expressionism

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Abstract Expressionism 1953

by Gary Comenas (2009, Updated 2016)

to 1954

Elaine de Kooning: "We thought it was social drinking because everyone else did it." (MM69)

1953: Adolph Gottlieb resigns from the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. (AG28n53)
1953: Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage tour France and Italy.

Tanguy and his wife both had exhibitions in the countries at the time. (SS416)

1953: Richard Stankiewicz solo exhibition at the Hansa Gallery.

Stankiewicz' "junk" sculpture can been seen as a precursor to the use of urban detritus and common household objects (or representations of such) in Claes Oldenburg's Store and Andy Warhol's early Pop paintings. (See here.)

William Geist referred to Stankiewicz' 1953 show as ''a miracle in the scrap heap.''

1953: Burton and Emily Tremaine purchase Mark Rothko's Number 8, 1952. (RO640n29)
1953: Willem de Kooning Retrospective at the Workshop Center for the Arts in Washington and School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Clement Greenberg wrote the foreword for the catalogue of the small retrospective:

Clement Greenberg:

De Kooning strives for synthesis, and in more ways than one. He wants to re-charge advanced painting, which has largely abandoned the illusion of depth and volume, with something of the old power of the sculptural contour. He wants also to make it accommodate bulging, twisting planes like those seen in Tintoretto and Rubens... This is painting in the grand style... No wonder de Kooning has had such a tremendous impact on American painting in the last several years. He is one of the important reasons, moreover, why that painting has ceased to be a provincial one and become a factor in the mainstream of Western art today. (DK390)

1953: Robert Rauschenberg erases a de Kooning.

Rauschenberg arrived at de Kooning's studio with a bottle of wine and asked him if he could have a drawing to erase. (DK360) It took Rauschenberg nearly three weeks to erase the drawing that de Kooning provided.

Wedding photo - Robert Rauschenberg and his bride, Susan Weil, June 1950 (Rauschenberg later became lovers with the artist, Jasper Johns, from 1955 - 1961 (SCH36))
(Photographer unknown)

Robert Rauschenberg:

I love drawing, and one of the things I wanted to try was an all-eraser drawing. I did drawings myself and I erased them, but that seemed like fifty-fifty. So then I knew I had to pull back farther. If it was going to be an all-eraser drawing, it had to be art in the beginning, and I went to Bill de Kooning and told him about it. When I was knocking on the door, I was hoping he wouldn't be there, so I wouldn't have to go through with it. But he was, and we went through this thing, and even though he said he didn't approve of it, he didn't want to interfere with my work.

I started with a portfolio of drawings, and he said, 'No, not those.' Then we went to another portfolio, and he said, 'These are drawings that I would miss.' So he pulled out one and put it back. Then he said, 'Now, I'm going to give you one really hard to erase,' and he picked out another. And he was right: I think I spent nearly three weeks with no fewer than fifteen different kinds of erasers. And that made it real. I wasn't just making a few marks and rubbing them out. (PA91-2)

According to de Kooning biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, "Later, de Kooning became angry when the younger artist publicly exhibited Erased de Kooning. De Kooning believed the murder should have remained private, a personal affair between artists, rather than splashed before the public. He was from an older generation." (DK360)

[Note: Stevens and Swan indicate that their information about de Kooning becoming angry was based on interviews with Emilie Kilgore and Susan Brockman. De Kooning did not object to the erased drawing in published interviews.]

1953: Willem de Kooning drinks.

According to de Kooning biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning's drinking increased after he asked Alcopley for advice on controlling his heart palpitations.

From de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan:

His [de Kooning's] heart palpitations worsened. Sometimes, he thought that he was dying. One night he rushed over to the studio of Conrad Marca-Relli and pounded on the door. "He woke me up about two in the morning and said, 'Jesus Christ, I think I'm going to die. I can't stop'" The doctor had told him "You've got to calm yourself. You're overanxious. This whole idea of painting a figure and destroying it... this is doing something to you''... In desperation, he asked Alcopley - whom he knew to be a scientist as well as an artist - for advice. Alcohol widens the arteries around the heart, Alcopley told him, thereby improving the circulation of the blood. Why not have a drink to calm down?

De Kooning rarely drank in the thirties and forties. At the Cedar Tavern in 1951 and 1952, he typically lingered over one or two beers, and when Harold Rosenberg brought a bottle to the studio to juice up the afternoon's talk, Rosenberg himself drank most of it. Now, de Kooning brought a bottle of whiskey into his Fourth Avenue studio. He would nip at the bottle when his heart began racing. The whiskey sometimes helped, loosening the knot in his chest. Sometimes, he also prescribed alcohol for his other main health problem - his difficulty getting going in the morning. A taste in the morning was a traditional home remedy, and in that era was generally regarded as harmless. It helped him, de Kooning said, "sneak" into the day. In this mild and medicinal fashion began the desperate story of de Kooning's alcoholism. In the future, when friends said drinking would kill him, de Kooning would sometimes respond by asking, "How do you know? Maybe drinking saved my life." (DK314)

Elaine de Kooning with second generation Abstract Expressionist, Joan Mitchell, in 1975
(Photographer unknown)

Elaine de Kooning:

The whole art world became alcoholic... We thought it was social drinking because everyone else did it. Everyone was hung over every single day. Everyone would have blackouts and repeat themselves and get so smashed they'd be staggering around. Everyone was a stand-up comic. It was like a ten year party. (MM69)

1953: Robert Motherwell's daughter is born.

Motherwell had divorced the Mexican actress, Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers, in 1949 and married Betty Little in 1950. His first child, Jeannie, was born in 1953. (HM) Jeanie Motherwell was educated at the Art Students League and Bard College and is currently an artist.

1953: Adolph Gottlieb designs Ark curtain for Congregation Beth El, Springfield, MA.
1953: Adolph Gottlieb participates in the conference "Art Education and the Creative Process" sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art.
January 1953: Second Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture at the Stable Gallery.

Included Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, William Baziotes, Alfonso Ossorio, John Ferren, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Jimmy Ernst, Richard Pousette-Dart, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Hans Hofmann, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, Jack Tworkov, Helen Frankenthaler, Isamu Noguchi and Earl Kerkam. Clement Greenberg wrote the text on the poster which can be found here.

[Note: The Franz Kline chronology in Franz Kline by Harry F. Gaugh places this exhibition in 1952. (FK178) ]

c. January 1953: Philip Guston exhibition at the Egan Gallery.

Dore Ashton [Guston biographer]:

The exhibition in 1953 was widely discussed. It set the small gallery aglow with reverberations of light that led many to talk about Guston's work in terms of "Abstract Impressionism..." Guston's new work was regarded with sympathy, although newspaper reports were hostile... Fairfield Porter, writing in Art News [February 1953], sees the paintings as descendants of Cézanne's watercolors, but with less air. "Where he weaves the paint again and again the color gets pinkish and translucent, like a bit of sky from a landscape by Sisley or Pissarro. In the middle there are a few bright red or orange strands that center the weight and the color. He seems to have gone beyond Cézanne to Impressionism thereby developing what could be an essential of this style." The reference to Cézanne is apt, but those to Impressionism and Sisley are somewhat misleading.. Until roughly 1954, several critics placed Guston more precisely in the radical perspective of the whole Abstract Expressionist movement.

... Lawrence Alloway noted [in Art Journal, Fall 1962] that these "pink paintings" were works 'in which, under the mask of discreet lyricism, he has been most radical, presenting paintings that are the sum of their discrete visible parts. In this structural candor he can be likened to Pollock in his open drip paintings (though not the densely textured ones).'"(DA101-2)

Musa Mayer [Guston's daughter]:

Despite critical acclaim, Philip Guston is never included - even now - in that unassailable 'inner circle' of Abstract Expressionism, with Pollock, de Kooning, Kline and Rothko... While they pioneered abstraction in New York, my father had been out in the Midwest... His success there - the grants and prizes and publicity - was something neither he nor the New York painters had particular respect for. His conversion to nonobjective painting had been late and difficult. (MM64-65)

Bill Berkson [Guston's poet friend]:

What made being with Philip such a pleasure was that he was completely engaged with a pursuit of - well, truth. I mean "The Truth." (MM63)

January 5 - 24, 1953: "Imaginary Landscapes and Seascapes by Adolph Gottlieb" at the Kootz Gallery. (AG173)
January 16, 1953: Discussion of Harold Rosenberg's article, "Action Painting," at the Club.

Philip Pavia described the evening with a question - "Title ['Action Painting'] better than Abstract Expressionism?" (NE172)

January 23, 1953: "Young Artists" at the Club.

Moderated by Joop Sanders. Panelists: Paul Brach, John Grillo, David Slivka and Jean Steubling. (NE172)

January 30, 1953: Jam session arranged by Herman Cherry at the Club. (NE172)
February 6, 1953: "Spectorama" at the Club with speaker Yanti Shawnsky.

Philip Pavia notes that the lecture was "at the suggestion of a member." (NE172)

February 7 - 27, 1953: Robert Motherwell solo exhibition at the Fine Arts Club of Chicago.

The catalogue featured text by James Johnson Sweeney. (MR135)

February 13, 1953: "Museum Exhibitions" panel at the Club.

Moderator: Jack Tworkov. Panelists: Andrew Richie, Lloyd Goodrich and Aline Louchheim (collector). (NE172)

February 20, 1953: "Materials" at the Club with speaker Ralph Meyer, introduced by Frances Avery. (NE172)
February 27, 1953: "Trends in Contemporary Sculpture" at the Club.

Panelists: Sid Gordin, David Slivka, Isamu Noguchi and Ibram Lassaw.

March 1953: "De Kooning Paints a Picture" by Thomas Hess appears in Art News.

Hess documented de Kooning's struggle with Woman I likening it to a "voyage; not a mission or an errand, but one of those Romantic ventures which so attracted poets..." (DK354)

March 13, 1953: "Relationships in the Arts (Dealers and Artists) at the Club with moderator Charles Egan. (NE173)
March 16, 1953: De Kooning's first show at the Sidney Janis Gallery opens.

Willem de Kooning
(Photo: Maurice Berezov)

With his first show at the gallery, de Kooning officially changed his representation from the Egan gallery. (DK319)

The exhibition consisted of six large Women oil paintings in one room and sixteen pastels and drawings on the same theme in another. According to Robert Jonas, de Kooning was still retouching some of the paintings when they were already hanging in the gallery. Reaction from the mainstream press was mixed. Howard Devree of the Times wrote, "May one go farther and feel that the figures are the outcome of highly cerebral concepts rather than emotional reactions to the theme?" (DK356-7)

Jackson Pollock was at the party after the opening and shouted drunkenly to de Kooning, "Bill, you betrayed it. You're doing the figure, you're still doing the same goddamn thing. You know you never got out of being a figure painter." De Kooning responded, "Well, what are you doing, Jackson?" Pollock stormed out, thinking that de Kooning was making a derogatory reference to Jackson's difficulties at the time with painting his own work. (DK358-9)

The Museum of Modern Art eventually bought Woman I and Blanchette Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller III) purchased Woman II. (When introduced to Blanchette Rockefeller, de Kooning told her "You look like a million dollars.") (DK358)

March 20, 1953: "Sculpture II" at the Club.

Moderator: Calvin Albert. Panelists: Frederick Kiesler and Hale Woodruff. (NE173)

March 27, 1953: "The Figure in Painting" at the Club.

Moderator: Joan Mitchell. Panelists: Paul Brach, Edwin Denby, Al Leslie, Larry Rivers, Mike Lowe, Alfred Russell, Leon Smith and Leo Steinberg. (NE173)

April 1953: Jackson Pollock drives on the wrong side of the road.

Pollock continued to drink, often ending up at the East Hampton police station being reprimanded for drunken recklessness. One of his favourite local bars was Cavagnaro's on Newtown Lane. The owner later recalled him "pulling up in his coupe at eight-thirty or nine in the morning for his double Grand-Dad on the rocks." (JP238) In April Pollock drove on the wrong side of the road on Main Street forcing another motorist off the road.

April 3, 1953: "Where the Arts Meet" at the Club.

Moderator: Ary Stillman, cellist. Panelists: Frank O'Hara (poet), John Cage (composer), John Ferren (painter) and Herbert Ferber (sculptor). (NE173)

April 6 - 25, 1953: Robert Motherwell solo exhibition at the Samuel Kootz Gallery in New York. (MR135)
April 8, 1953: Business meeting/members only at the Club. (NE173)
April 9 - May 29, 1953: "12 Peintres et Sculpteurs Américains Contemporains" at the Musée national d'art moderne, Paris. (PP327)

The exhibition was organized by the International Program of The Museum of Art, with works chosen by Andrew Carnduff Ritchie. After its run in Paris, the exhibition traveled to Zurich, Dusseldorf, Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo. (PP327)

It included four paintings by Jackson Pollock: The She-Wolf, Number 6, 1952, Convergence: Number 10, 1952 and Number 12, 1952.

April 17, 1953: "Image of the Clown" at the Club with speaker Wolfgang Zucker.

Philip Pavia notes that the talk was "one member's suggestion." (NE173)

April 24, 1953: Cafe night at the Club. (NE173)
Spring 1953: Franz Kline moves to the top floor of 32 East 10th Street.

Kline had been evicted with only a month's notice from 52 East 9th Street but stayed at that address until the last minute. He and his belongings ended up on the sidewalk outside the building. He stayed at East 10th Street for about nine months. (FK179)

Spring 1953: Philip Guston and Franz Kline exhibit in a group show at the Fine Arts Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Kline exhibited several paintings, along with Philip Guston, George McNeil and Jack Tworkov at the festival which took place at the Women's College at the University of North Carolina. Kline and Guston took part in a panel discussion with John Opper at the College. (FK179)

May 1, 1953: "After the United Nations Building" at the Club.

Panelists: Professor Charles Rigger, T. Creighton (ed. Progressive Architecture), D. Haskell (Architectural Forum), Philip Johnson (MoMA), Frank Lopez (Architectural Record), Melhorn (House and Garden), E. Raskin (Columbia University), Edgar Taffel (architect). (NE173)

May 11, 1953: Bradley Walker Tomlin dies in New York City.
May 15, 1953: "Color" at the Club. (NE173)
c. Mid 1953: The Rothkos take on a lodger.

Cecile Abish was a student who boarded with the Rothkos for six months. She recalled that during the evening Rothko "would lie on the couch for hours saying nothing, just contemplating or looking at one of his pictures that was hanging up. Mell would be sitting there, sewing maybe. They'd be listening to music... I think he was thinking about his work. And when he wasn't thinking about his work, he was thinking about how he could get his work out." (RO365)

May 22, 1953: "Vocabulary vs. Modern Art" at the Club.

Speakers: Alfred Frankfurter and others. (NE173)

June 1953: Barnett Newman buys one of his own paintings.

Newman purchased Untitled (No. 1) from Alfonso Ossorio, writing to Ossorio that "I have decided to withdraw all of my 'small' canvases at this time, from public view... The conditions do not yet exist... that can make possible a direct, innocent attitude towards an isolated piece of my work, particularly one of my 'small' ones." (MH) After his exhibit at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 he would not participate in any shows until December 1955. (MH)

June 17 1953: Alfred Jensen visits Mark Rothko.

Rothko's friend Alfred Jensen transcribed Rothko's comments about art in a letter to someone named Elise. (RO617n12)

Alfred Jensen:

Again I had a long conversation with Rothko. We gradually discovered that Michel Sonnabend's visit to Rothko's studio had been instrumental in affecting both of our attitudes toward art... I told Rothko about Sonnabend's criticism of his work. He felt that Rothko's paintings failed to satisfy universal standards, that they lacked touch with the life patterns of generalized experience. These lacks explained S's preference for Tomlin's paintings which he found had more universal content...

Rothko replied, 'Michel Sonnabend in the first place is not a highbrow even though he claims to be. And I cannot agree with the idea that a painter must step down to the public's level and deal with familiar generalities in order to become universal. Tomlin dealt with the more traditional patterns of picture-making; therefore his work is perhaps better liked than mine... I know my own paintings have universal appeal... If this were not true why do people from all over the world visit my studio? The reactions I myself get from the Japanese, the Germans, the French, etc., is they are all agreed my work has the power to convey a new vision. Its message becomes visible in a new structural language never before experienced by them. In my work one therefore finds the direct awareness of an essential humanness. Monet had this quality and that's why I prefer Monet to Cézanne... I feel that in American art today a valid sense of scale has returned. In Greek painting of the great period two kinds of specialists were known - the vase painters and the mural painters. They really monopolized the field. The vase painter was dealing with a relatively small three-dimensional object in a decorative vein. The other was working on a large two-dimensional surface, creating a new reality. Maybe you have noticed two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say...'

... Rothko finished his talk with me. He has been suffering from an attack of gout for the last couple of weeks but now he is again back at work and has recommenced a large fifteen-foot canvas, the one I described to you last year. It is a red picture with a sense of inward suction rushing into a blue rectangular shape, a shape that exists within the red surface of the entire picture. After a year's rest from working on this large painting Rothko said, "I can't recognize myself any longer in this particular painting, and therefore I must take it up again. I am forced to continue working on it... When I recognize myself in a work, then I realize it's completed." (RO300-302)

1953 - 1954: Franz Kline teaches at the Pratt Institute.

Kline taught the non-credit course, "Basic Drawing and Design" at Pratt's night school, directed by George McNeil. He was paid $25 per session. (FK179)

October 15 - December 6, 1953: Jackson Pollock shows at the Whitney Annual.

Jackson Pollock showed Number 5, 1952. (PP327)

Kirk Varnedoe:

In 1953, for the first time in a decade, Pollock had no solo exhibition; there was no new body of work to show. From that year till his death he made fewer than ten new paintings... Outside the studio, life tumbled on through longer and longer benders... (KV66-67)

Musa Mayer [Philip Guston's daughter]:

Jackson Pollock was a frightening figure to me, in serious decline during the last three years before his death in 1956. On one occasion, he terrified me by barging into our room at the Albert Hotel, raving drunk and belligerent, looking for my father... One night at a party, according to friends, Pollock actually tried to push my father out an upper-story window during a drunken fight over who was the greatest painter. (MM65)

November 22, 1953: "French Criticism and American Painting" at the Club.

Panelists: John Ferren "and several French-speaking artists." Translated by Yvonne Thomas. (NE174)

December 23, 1953: Jackson Pollock is found in a drunken stupor outside a police station.

The East Hampton Police daily log noted "Found Jackson Pollock outside on the sidewalk lying down." (JP239)

to 1954

Abstract Expressionism

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Ab Ex Essays