Abstract Expressionism

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Abstract Expressionism 1957

by Gary Comenas (2009, Updated 2016)

to 1958

Mark Rothko: "Action Painting is antithetical to the very look and spirit of my work." (RO389)

1957: Sidney Janis becomes Robert Motherwell's exclusive dealer. (HM)
1957: Robert Motherwell separates from Betty Little. (HM)

Motherwell would marry Helen Frankenthaler in 1958.

c. January - June 1957: Franz Kline lives at 473 6th Avenue. (FK179)
1957: Franz Kline and Philip Guston go on a drunken spree while serving as jurors for the "Exhibition Momentum '57" in Chicago.

Sam Hunter was also a jury member. Kline, Guston and Hunter took part in a discussion panel on the opening of the exhibition with Joshua Taylor moderating. Hunter later recalled "Kline was hilarious, once he was recovered from a neighbourhood tavern and positioned upright on stage." (FK179)

During their visit to Chicago Guston, Kline and Aaron Siskind went to Calumet City for a drunken spree. Noah Goldowsky gave them about $200 to finance their "adventure." Upon returning to New York the artists paid Goldowsky back by each sending him a drawing. (FK179)

In 1960 Kline exhibited three paintings whose titles were inspired by the drunken spree - Chicago, Calumet City and Orleans. (FK126)

1957: Tanager Gallery artists plan a series of exhibitions and a book (unsuccessfully).

Irving Sandler:

"Although I was a member of the de Kooning camp, as the 'manager' of the Tanager Gallery I was also in the midst of artists who were unsympathetic to his school although they admired him as a master. In 1957, they sensed a certain dullness in New York art - and wondered why. They asked whether the New York School had become a new academy and decided to assess the situation... They decided to use use their findings to arrange a series of exhibitions, each centered on a group of related artists, and to publish a book addressing the situation of current art.

All this required winnowing and classifying some 200 artists, a task that proved so complex that it took two months of frequent meetings to complete... Those in regular attendance were Charles Cajori, Lois Dodd, Sidney Geist, Sally Hazelet, Angelo Ippolito, Ben Isquith, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Raymond Rocklin, and myself as a notetaker and tabulalator. They decided to avoid existing labels, such as abstract expressionism, abstract impressionism, and action painting, which, they claimed, were the outworn inventions of critics... At one meeting of the Tanager members, it was suggested that artists might be grouped according to their intentions, processes, and products... Another evening was spent trying to classify art under the headings of symbol, paint mechanics, personal mythology, explicit subject ('nature observed') and implicit subject ('nature departed')... Isquith's list consisted of Sturm and Drang (Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning); Now You See It, Now You Don't (Ad Reinhardt, himself); Ah! Wilderness (Pearlstein, Fairfield Porter); The Light Never Seen on Land or Sea (Philip Guston, Ippolito); Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital (Joseph Cornell); Erotica (Balcomb Greene, Louise Bourgeois, Marison); and Radiation (Mark Rothko).

The book we worked on long and hard was not published. The Tanager members rejected Elaine de Kooning, and her husband refused to participate. Given his prestige, that was enough to bury the project. (IS226-7)

1957: Ben Heller buys Barnett Newman.

Heller purchased two paintings - Adam and Queen of the Night I, for $3,500. (MH)

Beginning of February, 1957: Leo Castelli opens an art gallery. (AD87)

Leo Castelli [c. 1970]:

"I opened my gallery in February. It was the fifth of February 1957. I'd like to describe to you the scene at that time. To begin with, I must say that it was a very modest affair on the fourth floor of this building where I still am; I lived also in that apartment. The gallery was in the back and just one office, and all the storage I had was a large, walk-in closet. Imagine! Now I have a warehouse with something like 7,500 square feet, and it's not sufficient...

Abstract Expressionism was the dominant movement then, and I really had no clear ideas about what I was going to do. I had some European paintings that I had accumulated over the years, more as a collector than as a dealer up to that moment, and I sort of felt that American painting was much superior to European painting; it was clear to me much earlier, say, in the beginning 1950s, early '50s and even late '40s when Pollock appeared upon the scene.

... in my first show I wanted to stress this idea that American painting was just as good as the European, the great Europeans. So I had a show which included Léger, Mondrian, Giacometti, Dubuffet, to mention just a few Europeans, plus Pollock, David Smith, and de Kooning... From then on I really didn't know exactly what to do... Some of my Abstract Expressionist, young Abstract Expressionist friends wanted to show in the gallery, and I was game, but I wasn't convinced that that was the ultimate goal, that I had to show secondary Abstract Expressionists.

In May I had my first important show. It was called "New Work," which was often misspelled in various magazines and newspapers as "New York"... Who was there? There was Jasper Johns with the Flag [1955], one of the large early flags, which now belongs to Philip Johnson. There was a painting by Bob Rauschenberg called Gloria [1956]. Gloria was Gloria Vanderbilt, who was getting married to Sidney Lumet at the time. That image of the wedding with Sidney Lumet grinning and her grinning appeared three times: that was her third marriage, and not her last, as you know. Then there was Al Leslie and Friedel Dzubas... Morris Louis was there with a painting that did not look at all like the ones he did later. Marisol, David Budd... Although I knew already that Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg would be the stars of my gallery, I did not imagine that they would be the ones who appeared at the very beginning and would still be with me. There are no others except those two." (PA89-91)

[Note in The Art Dealers: The Powers Behind the Scene Tell How the Art World Works, Castelli says the gallery opened on February 1st. In Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene, 1940-1970 he says it opened on February 5th.]

April 1957: Mark Rothko declines an invitation to take part in the Whitney Annual (again). (RO374)
1957: Mark Rothko sells 17 paintings for $19,133.00 (after 1/3 gallery commission deducted).

Rothko sold Earth Greens (1955) and White Band (1954) to Ben Heller for $2,000 and $2,500 respectively. Duncan Philips bought Mauve Intersection (1948) and Green and Maroon (1953) for $2,400 each (asking price was $2,500 but he received a $100 discount.) (RO636fn5) Earth, Green and Blue (1957) was sold to the University of Arizona. (RO640n28) John and Dominique de Menil purchased Number 10, 1957. (RO640n29)

In 1956 Rothko had sold 8 works for $6,805 after the deduction of gallery commission. (RO334)

1957: Adolph Gottlieb teaches at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn and at UCLA in Los Angeles.
January 6 - February 26, 1957: "Paintings by Mark Rothko, Bradley Tomlin and Kenjo Okada" at the Phillips Collection museum in Washington D.C.

Two of the paintings on exhibit - Mauve Intersection (1948) and Green and Maroon (1953) - had been purchased by Duncan Phillips in February 1956. (RO648)

January 29 - February 23, 1957: "Adolph Gottlieb" at the Martha Jackson Gallery. (AG173)

Adolph Gottlieb's first "Burst" painting was shown at the exhibition.

Adolph Gottlieb:

"... after doing the imaginary landscapes until, say, '56, in '57 I came out with the first burst painting... Well, it happened that the title of that first painting was "Burst" so since then everybody calls them Bursts. Although I give them all different titles. But there was a different type of space than I had ever used and it was a further clarification of what I was trying to do. The thing that was interesting was that it was a return to a focal point, but it was a focal point with but the kind of space that had existed in traditional painting. Because this was like a solitary image or two images that were just floating in the canvas space. They had to hold the space and they also had to create all the movements that took place within the rectangle...

When I started doing the Bursts, I began to do part of the painting horizontally. It was necessary to do that because I was working with type of paint which had a particular viscosity which flowed and, if it were on a vertical surface, it would just run. If it were on a horizontal surface, I could control it. So I'd put my paintings down horizontally but I didn't put them on the floor. I had them set up on horses or stools, so that I was at a good working height." (AS)

February - March 1957: Mark Rothko works as Visiting Artist at Tulane University in New Orleans. (RO353)

Mark Rothko was paid a fee of $1,000 as the Visiting Artist at the Newcomb Art School at Tulane University. (RO623n64) His family accompanied him to New Orleans. According to faculty member Pat Trivigno who had invited Rothko to the University, Rothko was "very offended" by the "upper-middle-class neighborhood" where his accommodation was located (in a suburb called Metairie). In a letter to the Ferbers dated March 14, 1957 he described Metairie as "an exact equivalent of plush Westchester" with their house having a "garden of proportions" with "manicured lawns and manicured neighbors." He noted, "we are being dined and wined by these same neighbours whose wives have the restless itch and have glued their souls to the University Art department. I weep for us and their husbands more. If there were any doubts, we can say firmly now that these represent the lowest point of civilization anywhere and anytime, and here like the poisons by which empires destroy themselves." (RO353)

Rothko gave a series of lectures and critiques at the University rather than teaching classes. According to Trivigno he "would just talk, rarely about art, usually about music or literature." (RO354)

During his time in New Orleans Rothko produced two paintings White and Greens in Blue and Red and White and Brown. According to Trivigno, Rothko considered these "breakthrough" paintings. (RO355)

May 4 - August 25, 1957: Picasso 75th Anniversary exhibition on the first floor and auditorium of The Museum of Modern Art.
May 15, 1957: Franz Kline attends members preview at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo.

Kline attended the members' preview of "Contemporary Art - Acquisitions 1954 - 1957" with Elisabeth Ross Zogbaum. (FK179)

May 22 - September 8, 1957: Picasso 75th Anniversary exhibition on the third floor of The Museum of Modern Art.
June 1957: "American Painting 1945 - 1957" at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Included in the exhibition was Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis. Frank Getlein reviewed the show for the New Republic, writing "the most asinine thing on board is Barnett Newmans Vir Heroicus Sublimis in the Design Division. Eight feet high, Vir is damn near 18 feet across and is painted a flat red." Newman responded to his criticisms in a letter to the editor, "It was unnecessary for Mr. Getlein to swear at the 'damn' size of my pictures when a glance at the exhibition catalogue would have given him the exact size." (MH)

c. July 1957: Franz Kline moves from 473 6th Avenue to 242 West 14th Street.

The rent at his new studio was $160 month. His initial lease lasted three years (July 1, 1957- June 30, 1960) although he would remain there the rest of his life. (FK179)

On January 29, 1958, he wrote to friends, "The Village has changed so much with the blocks being remodeled and modern apartment buildings taking the place of the Italian section, Mark Twain's house and everywhere you look; it's just like being uptown now! My new studio is wonderful; spacious and loft-like only on the second floor." (FK179)

August 1957: Franz Kline paints in John Little's barn in East Hampton.

Kline gave the Littles a black and white painting, Untitled (1957). (FK179)

c. Autumn 1957: Willem de Kooning begins an affair with Ruth Kligman. (DK402)

The gossips at the Cedar had a field day, particularly with de Kooning telling others that "she really puts lead in my pencil." (DK402) Kligman had originally met de Kooning with Pollock in the spring of 1956 at the Cedar. Willem asked Pollock if Kligman was his girlfriend. Jackson held his hands around her and said "Keep away from her your old bastard," then "rushed" her out of the Cedar. (DK404)

According to Ruth, she ended up with de Kooning after he saw her at the Cedar Street Tavern and ""He looked at me in a certain way, and I didn't feel like talking to him because he'd been drinking so much. And he ran out of the bar and he came back with a bunch of violets and gave them to me." (DK404) Kligman later recalled, "We saw each other almost every other night, you know - like it would be weekends, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then we wouldn't see each other until Wednesday." (DK404) The off and on relationship lasted about three years. Kligman later said she wasn't looking for boyfriends at the time, she was looking for "geniuses," she was looking for "ideas." (DK404)

Ruth Kligman:

"I would say even now he [de Kooning] was the most interesting person I ever met, truly brilliant, and I mean brilliant in an unconventional way, in the sense of his mind... You know, he'd always turn paintings around. Every painting should work on all four sides. He loved seeing how things looked upside down, which was part of his vision." (DK405)

September-December 1957: Abstract Expressionists are represented at the IV Bienal de São Paulo.

The main part of the U.S. exhibition at the Bienal was a retrospective of drawings and paintings by Jackson Pollock. The second part of the exhibition included paintings by James Brooks, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline and Larry Rivers. Sculptors represented were David Hare, Lassaw and Seymour Lipton. Lipton won the top acquisition prize (for a living artist) and the Pollock retrospective received an hors de concours.

1957: Elaine de Kooning teaches at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. (DK432)
October 9, 1957: John and Dominique de Menil buy Mark Rothko's Painting, Number 10, 1957.

They purchased the work directly from the artist instead of through his dealer, Sidney Janis. (RO651n16)

Winter 1957: Discussion panel "The Accidental in Art" takes place at The Club.

Irving Sandler [organizer of the panel]:

"I met Nicholas Marsicano soon after, and in recalling the panel, he lamented the 'loss' of accident. 'Ten years ago we didn't want to make a painting out of reason or existing values. Therefore, we painted with abandon, spontaneously. We did a painting in one sweep.' He then added: 'The drip today is a much a technique of painting as impressionism was. The old kind of accident-making is now a conscious method. I wish to God I knew what the accidental was today so that I could use it. We've got to paint with our left hands.' (IS223)

Late 1957: "Two Americans in Action: Franz Kline and Mark Rothko" by Elaine de Kooning is published in the Art News Annual. (Art News Annual XXVII, 1958)

The article was published in the 1958 Art News Annual which came out in 1957. The "two Americans in action" were Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. The night before the article was due to be submitted to the publisher, Elaine showed it to Mark Rothko. His reaction was "I like the part about Franz very much, but he part about me I don't agree with." When she asked what he objected to, he answered "All of it." Elaine tore the article up and spent the night re-writing it. Rothko asked if he could wait while she wrote the new version. The re-write took all night. As she finished a page she would show it to Rothko and Elaine would make changes as they went along until Rothko was satisfied with the end result. (One change that she later remembered was that Rothko asked her to remove a sentence about Milton Avery's influence on him.) Elaine would later comment, "Mark really wanted not only to control his paintings, but he wanted to control what was said about his paintings." (RO387)

Elaine de Kooning:

"We [Mark Rothko and Elaine de Kooning] argued about the significance of his paintings because he felt that they had a certain sense of foreboding and so on, and I didn't feel that at all. I felt they were very involved with comfort and luxury and they looked very natural in Jeanne Reynal's luxurious house, and people looked very well against them. They made a wonderful graceful decor, all of which was anathema to Rothko. I think in his very last paintings that he had down at the Rice Institute that there he got what he was talking about to me in the early '50s, but I don't think he had it then. I think when he got away from the pretty colors, beautiful colors and he got into those mysterious blacks and nameless deep, dark colors, that then the paintings did have this sense of foreboding. And I think they're his most magnificent paintings." (SE)

Elaine thought that for Rothko (and Barnett Newman), it was important to "pin things down in words:"

Elaine de Kooning:

"He [Mark Rothko] was very articulate. He spoke slowly and would give anything he said a great deal of thought and spoke in well-rounded sentences. And he formulated his ideas... Willem de Kooning or Arshile Gorky or Franz Kline would leave whole areas that they didn't feel it was necessary to pin down in words. But Rothko felt - and Barney Newman felt - that it was necessary to pin things down in words... He [Rothko] studied at Yale... but the people that taught were predictable, and there wasn't anything that they had read that de Kooning and Gorky hadn't read. But there were things that Gorky and de Kooning had read that Rothko and the college educated artists had not. In a way, it seemed, they were less natural. They were less like professional artists. Bill, Gorky, Franz were much more entrenched in art, and I felt that Rothko and Barney came to it through a much more intellectual avenue." (SE)

November 28, 1957: Barnett Newman and wife spend Thanksgiving with Lee Krasner on Long Island. (MH)
November 30, 1957: Barnett Newman has a heart attack.

Newman had a heart attack at a dinner party at the home of Jeanne Reynal and writer Thomas Sills. He was hospitalised for six weeks. (MH)

c. November/December 1957: The Whitney Annual.

The exhibition consisted of 143 paintings and 43 sculptures. Artists included Robert Motherwell, James Ernst, Charles Sheeler and Mark Tobey.

From Time magazine [December 2, 1957]:

"The Whitney Museum's annual roundup of contemporary American art may not accurately reflect the merits of modern American painting, but it is a jolting reminder of the power and influence of the new academy of abstract expressionism... typical of the show as a whole was Robert Motherwell's entry - loud, messy, vigorous and oblique. Part of the title - Je t'aime, No. 11-A - was scrawled with grey mud against a background of black and orange bars. Beneath the letters was a bloody smear, at the point of what might be an upright brush. It did seem an odd way to say: "I love you, No. 11-A."

The work cited by Motherwell was part of his Je t'aime series which he began painting in the mid-1950s in which he incorporated words as part of the painting. When asked in 1971 if the series was the first time he used words in paintings, Motherwell replied:

Robert Motherwell [1971]:

"No. There's an early collage with "Viva" in it. No, I'm sure there were many before. You see, I never really was a Surrealist but I did go around with them for two or three years and picked up a lot. And certainly one of the things was a belief that generally speaking there's something marvelous about painters and poets together, that they're involved in different media but in a very parallel enterprise; and secondly, the Surrealists all the time used words interchangeably with blocks of color, or certain shapes, and so on; and I guess in a literal sense it was a Lingua France. And I took that for granted...

Last year I was waiting in Bill Rubin's office to see him about something. He was late so I looked on the table and there was this catalogue of Frank Stella's show which I had never read. I began to look at it. Suddenly I came across my name and Je t'aime and a footnote. I looked in the back of the book at the footnote and it turns out that Stella made a series of pictures with some really Pop titles like Purple Lips I Love You or something and Stella had told Rubin that this was a parody of my Je t'aime series and that was how it occurred to him to do it. I don't know the exact words we could look it up...

... At times in my life when I painted I would play certain pieces of music again and again... Another thing I often do is obsessionally read a book of poetry during a period. There was a period when I had a book of Paul Eluard's poems. It was a moment when I was very unhappily married, teaching at Hunter, feeling very lonely, very uptight. In one of the poems there was a line "Jour la maison nuit la rue" (meaning "In daytime at home, at night in the streets). And that was exactly my miserable life at that time. I would stay home in the daytime and paint and by nighttime I couldn't stand it anymore. I'd wander the streets, go to the Cedar Bar, drop in on Rothko, go to Times Square, or go to a movie, or I don't know whatever. So that no, the phrase was not a decoration but a declaration. The Je t'aime series was done about the same time when I was equally miserable. People used to think I must have fallen in love and that's why I was painting these. it was the exact opposite; it was really a cry that I would like to love and probably an incorrect thing. I also wrote it in such a way that certain French people thought it said, "I'm hungry" (j'ai faim). Then everybody said: 'okay, you don't know French very well really; you like lot of French things; why don't you write it in English?' ... [Because] it would have had what nowadays we would call a Pop quality that I didn't want. Whereas in a foreign language it was exactly what I meant and yet it was one step removed." (SR)

November - December, 1957: "An Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Adolph Gottlieb" at The Jewish Museum.

Clement Greenberg wrote the text for the catalogue. (AG173)

December 1957: Art News publishes Mark Rothko's response to Elaine de Kooning's article. (RO388)

Although Rothko had apparently read and approved Elaine's new draft of her article about him (see above), he was still dissatisfied with it when it came out. He wrote a letter to Art News which was published in their December 1957 issue:

Mark Rothko [from the letter to Art News]:

"I reject that aspect of the article which classifies my work as 'Action Painting.' An artist herself, the author must know that to classify is to embalm. Real identity is incompatible with schools and categories, except by mutilation.

To allude to my work as Action Painting borders on the fantastic. No matter what modifications and adjustments are made to the meaning of the word action. Action Painting is antithetical to the very look and spirit of my work. The work must be the final arbiter." (RO389)

Late 1950s: Willem de Kooning has a brief affair with Shirley Stoler. (DK400)

Stoler was an actress who had first met de Kooning at a party where Larry Rivers was playing the clarinet, according to de Kooning biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. [Note: Stevens and Swan describe the instrument as a clarinet in de Kooning: An American Master<, however, Rivers usually played the soprano sax which can sometimes be mistaken for a clarinet.]

De Kooning's affair with Stoler lasted two weeks, with de Kooning visiting her in her apartment on Avenue C. Stoler recalled, "He didn't seem to be painting much during that two-week period. We'd wake up midday and go to the Jumble Shop for brunch. Then he'd go to the Cedar, usually." Stoler wasn't a heavy drinker and so would usually leave the Cedar early and Bill would visit her after midnight. She remembered him talking about his daughter - "he was crazy about her" - and offered to give her a drawing as a present which she declined, saying "You're my present." She thought he was "sweet, gentle, interested in me, quite virile and a good lover." (DK401)

to 1958

Abstract Expressionism

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Ab Ex Essays