Abstract Expressionism

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Abstract Expressionism 1954

by Gary Comenas (2009, Updated 2016)

to 1955

1954: Barnett Newman's wife takes on a second job.

While still working as a full-time teacher at Bryant High School Annalee also started teaching evening classes at City College's Baruch School of Business. Newman, having withdrawn his paintings from exhibition after two unsuccessful shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery, remained unemployed. The couple would also supplement Annalee's income by taking loans, pawning a few valuables and, in the case of Barnett, trying to develop a winning system at the horse track. (MH)

1954: Ruth Kligman tells a friend that Jackson Pollock would fall in love with her - if he knew her.

Two years before meeting Jackson Pollock, Ruth told a friend who was "putting him down" that "If Jackson Pollock met met me I'm sure he'd fall madly in love with me and me with him." (RK31)

1954: "The New Decade: 35 American Painters and Sculptors" at the Whitney Museum.

Mark Rothko was asked to participate, but declined. (RO374)

January 1954: Franz Kline solo show at the Institute of Design in Chicago. (FK181)

The show was organized by Hugo Weber. Kline attended the opening. The Allan Frumkin Gallery exhibited drawings and easel-sized works by Kline in conjunction with Institute of Design show. Kline participated in a panel discussion at the Institute with Weber, Frumkin and Katherine Kuh. (FK179)

January 1954: "Nine American Painters Today" exhibition takes place at the Sidney Janis Gallery. (JP235)

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles was sold to Fred Olsen at the urging of Tony Smith who was designing a house for the Olsens in Connecticut. Janis received $6,000 and gave Pollock $4,000. Two years later Olsen sold the painting to Ben Heller for $32,000. In September 1973 Heller sold it to the Australian National Gallery in Canberra for $2 million which was, at the time, the highest price paid for a work by an American artist. (JP236)

January 8, 1954: Café night at the Club. (NE174)
January 15, 1954: Café night at the Club. (NE174)
January 22, 1954: Ad Reinhardt's travels in the "Near East" with slide show at the Club. (NE174)
January 29, 1954: "What's the Gimmick in Art" slide show at the Club. (NE174)
February 1 - 27, 1954: Jackson Pollock's second solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery takes place. (PP328)

Jackson had progressed from introducing figurative patterns into his "black" paintings of 1951 to full blown figuration in 1953 in works such as Portrait and a Dream and the de Kooning-esque Ritual.

Ten paintings, all dated 1953, were featured in Jackson's second solo exhibition at the Janis Gallery, including The Deep, Easter and the Totem, Ocean Greyness, Portrait and a Dream, and Uniformed Figure. (PP328)

Emily Genauer exclaimed enthusiastically in the February 7th issue of the Herald Tribune, "To begin with they're really painted, not dripped!" (JP239)

February 5, 1954: Café night at the Club. (NE174)
February 12, 1954: "Pop and Progressive Jazz" at the Club.

Speaker: Joe Tarbes. Introduced by Joop Sanders. (NE174)

February 19, 1954: Café night at the Club. (NE174)
February 26, 1954: Speaker Sabro Hasagawa (from Japan) at the Club, introduced by Franz Kline.

Included slide show. (NE174)

March 5, 1954: Walter Lewisohn presents films of Haitian dances at the club, introduced by Jeanne Miles. (NE174)
March 16, 1954: Franz Kline and Josef Albers participate in an American Abstract Artists forum at The Museum of Modern Art.

In addition to Kline and Albers, the panel also included Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Sabro Hasegawa, George L.K. Morris and Aline Saarinen. (FK179)

March 16, 1954: Mark Rothko is informed by Brooklyn College that his contract will not be renewed.

There was only one tenure-line position and three other teachers were up for the position, including Jimmy Ernst who got the job. The personnel and budget committee, chaired by Robert Wolff, and including Ad Reinhardt, voted unanimously not to renew Rothko's contract. (RO292)

Rothko appealed the committee's decision to fire him and was given a hearing but lost. After being shown Robert Wolff's letter to the dean of the college recommending that Rothko be terminated, Rothko wrote his own letter to the dean. He criticized Wolff's presentation of the curriculum of the design department as "mechanical and statistical," adding that "it is only by the circumvention of the real intent of the Bauhaus ideology of the courses in Basic Design, Drawing, Color 1 & 2 that I have been able to lay before my students what really I felt had to be said." (RO292) (In one draft of the letter, Rothko wrote "I wish to say to the committee as I have repeatedly expressed myself to PW [Professor Wolff] during these years that I reject the philosophy of the Bauhaus on which our curriculum is based [as] being invalid to the proper ideas of the liberal arts.") (RO616fn55)

Milton Brown:

We knew that Mark was a more important artist than Jimmy, but Jimmy was much more versatile, and of course younger, and willing, and Jimmy was willing to teach advertising, he was willing to teach anything. (RO293)

Later, in February of 1956, Rothko would lament the loss of the job to Alfred Jensen, confiding "I'm in terrible circumstances at present. I could kick myself for having messed up my teaching job at Brooklyn College, but how could I have done otherwise?" (RO292)

A few months after he got fired (or not re-hired) from Brooklyn College, Rothko was offered a temporary position at the University of New Mexico but he declined, expressing interest in teaching during the summer session (which he never did.) (RO350)

March 19, 1954: Café night at the Club. (NE174)
March 26, 1954: Party for Matta at the Club. (NE174)
Spring 1954: Willem de Kooning has an affair with Marisol Escobar.

It was a brief affair. Marisol later commented "He always seemed to have three women. It was embarrassing to visit him, because often there were others there." (DK369)

Marisol Escobar:

There was something about him that was like a little boy. Something in his face, expression. Also the way he would walk. He also liked young people... He had that socialist air. He was dressed in overalls. He had been a commercial artist. They were a Depression generation. Poverty in those days wasn't sad. They had enough to eat and it didn't matter to have a beautiful loft. It represented a kind of honesty. (DK369)

When he would drink, however, Marisol thought that de Kooning developed an expression "like a deep brooding." She recalled that after one particular night, when the two of them were still up at 6 am after a night of drinking, Bill thought the pebbles in the street were floating and "wanted to be taken to the doctor then and there. Bill thought he was dying." (DK369)

April 1954: Mark Rothko moves to 102 West 54th Street. (RO312)

Mark Rothko and his wife, Mell, moved from their "condemned Sixth Avenue building" to a their new apartment - around the corner from Rothko's studio at 106 West 53rd Street. (RO313)

In the evenings Rothko would sometimes visit Jerry's Bar at the corner of 54th Street and Sixth Avenue. An actress, Sally Scharf, who also hung out at Jerry's recalled that "Mark came in wearing his big long overcoat - with a cigarette dangling from his lips - he moved like a ferryboat bumping from side to side in port." (RO319)

During the daytime Rothko sometimes ate at Baby's - a drugstore with a counter for eating. Schary recalled that he would have breakfast there and often "linger and talk over coffee and cigarettes - he was a chain smoker, one cigarette after another - and Kate [Rothko's daughter] would spread out on the floor and have a beautiful tantrum and Mark would just stay and try to talk above her." Another Baby's regular recalled that Rothko would sometimes go to Baby's in the late afternoon "and he'd always have a glass of tea. He insisted they put it in a glass. The old Russian, the Russian in him. He really did love that drugstore. They knew him very well." (RO319)

April 2, 1954: Café night at the Club. (NE175)
April 5 - 24, 1954: "Adolph Gottlieb: An Exhibition of Recent Paintings" at the Kootz Gallery. (AG173)
April 9, 1954: "Has the Situation Changed?" at the Club, with moderator Harold Rosenberg. (NE175)
April 13 - May 8, 1954: Franz Kline's third solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery. (FK181)

The gallery was now located at 46 East 57th Street. (FK179)

April 16, 1954: "Has the Situation Changed? II" at the Club with moderator John Ferren. (NE175)
April 21, 1954: "Has the Situation Changed? III" at the Club.

Panelists: William Baziotes, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, Harry Holtzman and Roy Newell. (NE175)

April 23 - May 5, 1954: "A Retrospective Show of the Paintings of Adolph Gottlieb" at the Bennington College Gallery, Bennington, Vermont. (AG173)

Catalogue text was by Clement Greenberg. After closing at Bennington College, the exhibition traveled to the Lawrence Museum, Williamstown, Massachusetts (May 7 - 23, 1954).

[Note: The Gottlieb Foundation's chronology lists this exhibition in 1953.

April 28, 1954: "Has the Situation Changed? IV" at the Club.

Panelists: Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, Roy Newell, Frank O'Hara, Ad Reinhardt, Larry Rivers, Harry Holtzman and Franz Kline at the Club. (NE175)

May 1954: Huntington Hartford takes out an ad to protest modern art with the heading "The Public Be Damned?" (DK369)
May 5, 1954: "Has the Situation Changed? V" at the Club, moderated by Harold Rosenberg. (NE175)
May 12/15, 1954: Talk by Hubert Crehan and Feinstein at the Club. (NE175)
May 19, 1954: "Ideas in the Art of the Past Decade" at the Club.

Panelists: Piero Dorazio, John Ferren, Sidney Geist, Willem de Kooning, Robert Goldwater and Theodore Roszak. (NE175)

May 26, 1954: "This is Not the Time" at the Club with moderator Paul Brach. (NE175)
Summer 1954: The de Koonings and Franz Kline rent a red house on Long Island.

Elaine, Bill and Franz rented a dark red Victorian house in Bridgehampton with Nancy Ward and Ludwig Sander. Nancy was having an affair with Franz Kline at the time. Her twin sister, Joan had previously had an affair de Kooning (see 1952). Although de Kooning was no longer in a relationship with her Joan also stayed at the red house for two weeks during the summer although didn't resume her affair with Bill.

Elaine later described the red house as "that crazy house, the most unusual house on the road, the famous red house on the road at the edge of Bridgehampton, ridiculously cheap... and each of us had a room with two doors, an entrance and an exit. The exits appealed to us most... Bill painted out in the garage behind the house." According to Elaine, they were so poor that they used paper plates which they washed and re-used. (DK370)

Jackson Pollock was a frequent, usually drunken, visitor. During one visit de Kooning embraced his friend and both fell into a ditch. Pollock's ankle snapped and he had to be taken to a clinic in East Hampton. Word spread that his injury was a result of a fight between him and de Kooning. (DK373)

Elaine de Kooning:

It was a kind of pleasant but nightmarish summer, parties every night, entertaining in the way a nightmare could be entertaining, if you know what I mean... I mean a tremendous amount of social life. An artist needs his isolation even if you enjoy people's company: There is such a thing as too many friends, too much talk, too much booze, too much of a good thing. These are problems of the City and the City was brought to the Red House in Bridgehampton. (DK373)

At the end of the summer, a large party was held at the house which attracted hordes of people - cars were parked down both sides of the Montauk Highway. Joan Ward was there and later recalled "The next morning there were people in the bushes. Three days later they found a couple still in the attic." (DK374)

Summer 1954: Publication of Ad Reinhardt article causes Barnett Newman to sue.

Ad Reinhardt's article, "The Artist in Search of an Academy, Part Two: Who are the Artists?" was published in the summer issue of the College Art Journal. In the article Reinhardt referred to Newman as an "artist-professor and traveling-design salesman... avant-garde-huckster-handicraftsman... [and] holy-roller-explainer-entertainer-in-residence." Newman sued. After two days of hearings in front of a judge and jury the suit was dismissed in February 1956. (MH)

Summer 1954: Willem de Kooning's mother visits the red house and Manhattan.

De Kooning got the money for her ship fare by selling some pictures to Martha Jackson who was visiting Long Island and purchasing works of art directly from the artists who were there at the time. Once his mother arrived they spent much of their time together arguing. She wasn't very pleased with the amount of drinking he was doing. (DK375)

Joan Ward:

Most of the time he knew what was going on - she kind of clawed at him - but he would get a couple of drinks in him and finally they'd start screaming at each other and there'd be this argument in Dutch. Both of them at the top of their voices. He would retire sadder and she would retire completely happy. She'd had his full attention. She loved a good screaming match. (DK376)

After the summer ended and everyone returned to Manhattan so did the mother. Elaine and Bill were living in separate apartments by that time - Elaine on East 28th Street and Bill on 10th Street - so Bill's mother stayed for a time with Elaine's sister Marjorie Luyckx and during another time at the apartment of a Dutch artist, Martha Bourdrez.

Elaine's brother Conrad Fried later recalled an argument that took place between de Kooning and and de Kooning's mother.

Conrad Fried:

Bill comes in and is very well dressed. He has a highball, a few drinks, gets a bit sloshed. Then he and his mother had heated words. Bill throws about half a highball into his mother's face - he was capable of doing that when drunk. His mother, by now an old lady who was sober, then takes a coffee cup filled with hot coffee and hurls the whole thing at his head. He ducks and it breaks and shatters into a million pieces on the shelf behind him. (DK377)

According to Martha Bourdrez, de Kooning's mother stayed with her for a time because "they didn't know where to put her up and she didn't talk a word of English." Bourdrez recalled that she was a "difficult woman. She was so crazy about Bill but so opinionated. This wasn't good and that wasn't good. Constant criticism." (DK377)

De Kooning's mother even passed judgment on the Cedar. She thought the people there looked "sinister" and unhappy and didn't know how to have fun when drinking. (DK377)

When de Kooning's mother returned to the Netherlands, his sister, Marie scolded him in a letter about his drinking. (DK378)

June 1, 1954: "Abstract Expressionism" at the Club.

Moderator: Harry Holtzman. Panelists: Milton Resnick and Ludwig Sander. (NE175)

June 15/22/29, 1954: Café nights at the Club. (NE175)
Autumn 1954: Willem de Kooning paints "abstract urban landscapes." (DK378)

Thomas Hess referred to the works with titles such as Gotham News, Saturday Night, Street Corner Incident, Police Gazette and The Time of the Fire as "abstract urban landscapes." De Kooning referred to the colours in the pictures as "circus" colours. (DK378)

October 8/15, 1954: Café nights at the Club. (NE176)
October 15 - December 31, 1954: "Gallery of Art Interpretation: Recent Paintings by Mark Rothko, Contemporary American" exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
October 18, 1954: Party for Cavallon at the Club after his opening at the Egan Gallery. (NE176)
November 1954: Jackson Pollock's mother has a series of heart attacks. (JP328)
November 5, 1954: "Hasegawa Zen" at the Club with speaker Mitsumi Kanemitsu.

Philip Pavia notes "Nothing to do with Abstract Expressionism, attractive to abstractionists." (NE176)

November 14 - December 4, 1954: Robert Motherwell solo exhibition at the Samuel Kootz Gallery. (MR135)
November 19, 1954: "Zen II" at the Club. (NE176)
December 3, 1954: Movie on Matisse at the Club. (NE176)
December 10, 1954: "Zen III" at the Club. (NE176)

to 1955

Abstract Expressionism

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Ab Ex Essays