Abstract Expressionism

Ab Ex Contents

Ab Ex Essays


Abstract Expressionism 1958

by Gary Comenas

to 1957 | to 1959

Irving Sandler: "... Sitting quietly in the back of the room, Allan Kaprow, who had begun to make environments and would soon become famous for happenings, took the floor and challenged the audience: 'I am convinced that painting is a bore. So is music, literature, etc., etc. What doesn't bore me is the total destruction of ideas that have any discipline. Instead of painting, move your arms; instead of music, make noise. I'm giving up painting and all of the arts by doing everything and anything.'"

1958: "Has the Situation Changed?" panel discussion takes place at The Club.

Irving Sandler [from A Sweeper-Up After Artists]:

In 1957, the question of whether gesture painting had become academic began to be hotly debated in privately in artists' studios and the Cedar Street Tavern.... In 1958, I decided to bring the artists' private conversations on the new academy out into the open at The Club. I framed the issue as a question: What had changed from the late 1940s to the late 1950s? To begin, I asked Alfred Barr, Thomas Hess, and Harold Rosenberg to address the question at a panel titled 'Has the Situation Changed?'

... Sitting quietly in the back of the room, Allan Kaprow, who had begun to make environments and would soon become famous for happenings, took the floor and challenged the audience: "I am convinced that painting is a bore. So is music, literature, etc., etc. What doesn't bore me is the total destruction of ideas that have any discipline. Instead of painting, move your arms; instead of music, make noise. I'm giving up painting and all of the arts by doing everything and anything." Someone in the audience shouted "You sound like Billy Graham," and there was a general hubbub. From within the bastion of Abstract Expressionism, Kaprow had broadcast John Cage's call for a new art that would break down barriers between art and life.

Leaving The Club that night, I thought that what was clear from the panel discussion was that 'the situation' had changed. And that change had become widely accepted in the art world. (IS231)

1958: Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt, Harold Rosenberg and Jack Tworkov participate in "The Concept of the New" panel at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. (HM)
1958: Franz Kline makes "sfumato" paintings: Siegfried and Requiem. (FK178)
Early 1958: Barnett Newman recovers from heart attack.

After a six week hospital stay Newman was nursed back to health at his Brooklyn Heights apartment by his mother, sister and wife, Annalee. The first work he completed after his heart attack was Outcry. (MH)

January 3 - 31, 1958: "Adolph Gottlieb: New York" at the Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York. (AG173)
January/February 1958: Mark Rothko's second (and last) show at Sidney Janis. (RO336)

The show featured eleven new paintings. (RO383)

Rothko's new, more somber paintings were generally received well by the press. E.C. Gossen, referring to the exhibition as "a handsome, major show," in Art International (issue 2-3, 1958) noted that "The New Rothkos are darker, composed of the rich reds, browns and blacks we associate with the luminous, the royal and the religious." Dore Ashton wrote in Arts and Architecture (April 1958), that Rothko "struck out with exasperation at the general misinterpretation of his earlier work - especially the effusive yellow, orange and pinks of three years back" and praised his "deeply developed sense of the tragic." (RO356/RO624n70)

January 20 - February 8, 1958: Jasper Johns' first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery. (JJ128)

The show featured Jasper Johns' Flags, Targets and Numbers, including Flag (1954-55).

Leo Castelli:

In January, 1958 I had my first Jasper Johns show. It was probably the crucial event in my career as an art dealer, and, I think, an even more crucial one for art history... Tom Hess, the editor of Art News and a wonderfully perceptive critic, had heard about Johns from Rauschenberg, and stopped in to look at the paintings that were lined up along the walls in preparation for my show. He was visibly impressed. 'Can I take this one [Target with Four Faces] with me?'... He said he'd bring it back the next day. you cannot imagine the way things were handled in those days. Without thinking to ask what he wanted to do with it, I said I guessed the painting was small enough to fit into a taxi. Not long after that, it appeared in color on the cover of Art News the month of the opening, January 1958. (AD89-90)

Although the painting on the cover of Art News was one of Johns' Target paintings, it would be his Flags that received the most attention. He had started painting his first Flag in late autumn 1954 after he dreamed he painted "a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it." (JJ124)

It was not the first time that Castelli had exhibited Flag (1954-55). He had also included it in a group show, "New Work," which took place May 6 - 25, 1957. (JJ127) The first time one of Johns' flags had been exhibited in any gallery was in a group show of drawings at the Poindexter Gallery (December 19, 1955 - January 4, 1956) which included Flag (1955). Before that show took place, however, Johns' lover Robert Rauschenberg included one of Johns' Flags in a combine painting, Short Circuit, shown at the "Fourth Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture" at the Stable Gallery ("The Stable Show") from April 26 to May 21, 1955.

Johns also displayed a flag painting, White Flag (1955-58), in one of its early incarnations as part of a Bonwit Teller department store window display created by Gene Moore from January 31 - February 7, 1956. (JJ126). Johns' Flag on Orange Field (1957) was displayed in another window display at Bonwit Teller in 1957. (Rauschenberg and Johns did window displays for Gene Moore under the pseudonym of Matson Jones. Andy Warhol's Pop paintings would also first be displayed in a Bonwit Teller window.)

Gene Moore:

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns called themselves artists but were unknown when they first came to see me. Rauschenberg came first. He'd been down to Black Mountain College in South Carolina, had heard about me, and came up to my office at Bonwit's. He'd been doing work with enormous sheets of blueprint paper. He'd take these sheets and lay all sorts of things on them, flowers and ferns, sometimes a body. I used them in the windows at Bonwit's... During the period Rauschenberg was contributing to the displays at Bonwit's, he met Jasper Johns. They became friends and shared a loft downtown... The first showings of John's paintings were in exhibitions I organized at Bonwit's. I'd ask him for a painting, he'd bring one up to the store, and I'd put it in one of the windows. He was then doing lots of flags and targets; in 1957 I showed Flag on Orange Field in a Bonwit's window. (GM69-70)

All but two of Johns' works on exhibit were sold by the time the show closed, with Alfred Barr acquiring three works for the Museum of Modern Art . (RO427) It appeared that no sooner had the American abstract artists finally gained acceptance for their work that figurative art was making a comeback among younger artists. Johns was 28 and his lover, Robert Rauschenberg, was 33. When Mark Rothko attended John's solo exhibition at Castelli, he commented, "We worked for years to get rid of all that." (RO427)

c. February 1958: Barnett Newman has canvases stretched for First Station (1958) and Second Station (1958) of his Stations of the Cross series. (MH)

The paintings would be the first two in a series titled Stations of the Cross.

c. February/March 1958: Willem de Kooning takes Ruth Kligman to Cuba. (DK406)

Joan Ward, the mother of de Kooning's daughter, was furious when she heard about it. He hadn't told her he was going. While in Cuba de Kooning and Kligman visited Ernst Hemingway's house. De Kooning would later say that Cuba was "like being in New Jersey, except for the palm trees." (DK406) When he got back, de Kooning told Ward that Kligman was "a pain."

De Kooning and Kligman drifted apart during the spring but eventually reconciled and took a brief trip together to Martha's Vineyard in early summer 1958 and then spent time together at Marca-Relli's cottage in the Springs. (DK406) While at Martha's Vineyard, de Kooning also befriended the lawyer Lee Eastman. (DK411) In the late summer of 1958 Kligman traveled by herself to Paris and Venice, writing regularly to Bill, telling him to come. In the autumn of 1958 he arrived in Venice, staying at the Cipriani and hanging out at Harry's Bar. He left for Rome however after finding out that Ruth was seeing someone else. In Rome he hung around with Gregory Corso who showed him the sights over several days before de Kooning returned to the U.S. (DK409) De Kooning would later give Corso money for The Living Theatre in New York. (DK424) (Corso would later appear in one of Andy Warhol's early films, Couch, and would live with Warhol star Edie Sedgwick at the Chelsea Hotel.)

Kligman continued to write Bill from Europe after he returned to the U.S. When she returned they continued to see each other.

Joan Ward:

How did we get through those two years? It was terrible... So finally I said, 'Okay, let's set this up. Let's have you come and have a regular day when you take Lisa out.' So then he'd go and get drunk with Ruth and Sunday afternoon would arrive and.... it was just impossible. A very ugly, tawdry period. (DK412)

March 1958: Lee Krasner exhibits at the Martha Jackson Gallery.

Seventeen large oil paints by Krasner were exhibited including Birth, Visitation and Listen. The largest was about 17 feet long. Lee moved back to Long Island the same year using the barn as a studio just as her husband, Jackson Pollock, had done before his death in 1956. (JP252)

March 10 - March 29, 1958: Allan Kaprow exhibition at the Hansa Gallery.

Kaprow's installation, described as an "environment with sound and light" was followed in November with another Kaprow environment at the Hansa with "sound, light and odors" which ran November 25 - December 13, 1958." (BM137)

From Blam! The explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance, 1958-1964 by Barbara Haskell:

For Kaprow, Pollock's large-scale allover canvases had become environments in their own right, extending psychologically beyond the rectangle into the room and enveloping the viewer... In his exhibition at the Hansa Gallery in new York in the fall of 1958, Kaprow created an encompassing, maze-like environment. Viewers made their way through strips of slashed and painted colored fabric suspended from the ceiling in rows, interspersed with sheets of plastic, crumpled cellophane, tangles of Scotch tape, and Christmas lights. Once every hour five tape machines located around the gallery played electronic music.

... Kaprow's environments remained fundamentally indebted to and nourished by Abstract Expressionism: he translated its energy, improvisational technique, and textural attributes into actual materials. His cluttered, seemingly disordered arrangement of street junk suggested flux and impermanence, an association with Abstract Expressionism furthered by his gestural handling of paint. Indeed, visually, Kaprow's environments seemed a natural extension of the Abstract Expressionist sensibility.

Kaprow's works were nevertheless quite different from their Abstract Expressionist antecedents: they mark a shift from a subjective abstraction toward a more objective, unmediated relationship with the environment. By interjecting soiled and untidy artifacts of the street, Kaprow, along with Rauschenberg, evolved a new vernacular realism. This attraction to concrete objects would shortly lead artists into Happenings and, from there, into Pop Art. (BM18-19)

Allan Kaprow [October 1958]:

[Jackson] Pollock's choice of enormous canvases served many purposes, chief of which for our discussion is that his mural-scale paintings ceased to become paintings and became environments... Pollock's choice of great sizes result in our being confronted, assaulted, sucked in... the entire painting comes out (we are participants rather than observers), right into the room. It is possible to see in this connection how Pollock is the terminal result of a gradual trend that moved from the deep space of the fifteenth and sixteen centuries to the building out from the canvas of the Cubist collages. In the present case the "picture" has moved so far out that the canvas is no longer a reference point... Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. (LJ6-7)

March 18 - 28, 1958: Franz Kline solo exhibition at Galleria del Naviglio in Milan.

In addition to his paintings Kline exhibited small drawings. (FK179)

May 19 - June 14, 1958: Franz Kline's second solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery. (FK181)
April 19, 1958 - May 26, 1958: "The New American Painting" opens at the Kunsthalle Basel.

The exhibit was a traveling show organized by the International Program of The Museum of Modern Art, New York under the auspices of the International Council at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Chairman of the Board of the International Council was August Heckscher. Honorary members included C. Douglas Dillon (the Deputy Under Secretary of State), Senator J. William Fulbright and Dag Hammarskjold (Secretary General of the United Nations). (NP1-3)

Seventeen painters were included in the exhibition: William Baziotes, James Brooks, Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin and Jack Tworkov. (NB88-96)

The exhibition traveled to Milan (Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna June 1 - 29, 1958); Madrid (Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporéneo July 16 - August 11, 1958); Berlin (Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste September 1 - October 1, 1958); Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum October 17 - November 24, 1958); Brussels (Palais des Beaux-Arts December 6, 1958 - January 4, 1959); Paris (Musée National d'Art Moderne January 16 - February 15, 1959) and London (Tate Gallery February 24 - March 23, 1959) before opening at The Museum of Modern Art in May 1959. (NP4/RO629n42)

International press reaction was mixed, although most reviewers noted the extraordinary size of the paintings.

Mercedes Molleda [Revista, Barcelona, August 30, 1958]:

I had resigned myself to not seeing the exhibition. But others did not resign themselves, and thus in rapid, improvised, and exhausting days, it was possible to move eighty-one canvases, packed in more than forty enormous cases, from Milan to Madrid. To judge the size of the transoceanic guests, a detail will suffice: to bring into the Museum two of the canvases, one by Jackson Pollock and one by Grace Hartigan, required sawing the upper part of the metal entrance door of the building the night before the inauguration.

Upon entering the room, a strange sensation like that of magnetic tension surrounds you, as though the expression concentrated in the canvases would spring from them. They are other myths, other gods, other ideas, different from those prevailing in Europe at present, and from that greyish and textured Parisian fog which also in this country of light and color today masks the polychromatic traditions.

Each picture is a confession, an intimate chat with the Divinity, accepting or denying the exterior world but always faithful to the more profound identity of conscience. The present painting is a mystery to many who wish to understand its significance without entering into its state, thereby committing an error as profound as he who wishes to attain the Moradas of Teresa de Avila by means of intelligence and not by means of Grace. (NP9)

The French were less enthusiastic about the show. Although Andre Chastel wrote in the January 17th issue of Le Monde, that the exhibition emphasized "to an extreme degree the originality of the American scene - or more exactly of the New York milieu," the reviewer for Le Figaro thought that the only "greatness" on exhibit was the "size of the canvases."

Claude Roger-Marx [Le Figaro Littéraire, Paris, January 19, 1959]:

Why do they think they are painters? We would end up by being, I won't say convinced - for the only greatness here is in the size of the canvases - but disarmed if we did not deplore the terrible danger which the publicity given to such examples offers, as well as the imprudence of the combined national museums in offering official support all too generously to such contagious heresies. (NB13)

May 1958: Barnett Newman retrospective at Bennington College in Vermont.

The exhibition was installed by faculty members Tony Smith and Paul Freely. It consisted of approximately eighteen works from 1946 - 1952. Clement Greenberg contributed an essay to the catalogue.

British art writer Lawrence Alloway visited the exhibition (with Betty Parsons) on his first trip to the United States. Impressed by the work, Alloway then visited Newman in his studio where he saw First Station and Second Station on raw canvas, not yet titled. (MH)

May 18, 1958: Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell sign an agreement authorizing Bernard Reis to represent them in their dealings with Sidney Janis. (RO397/RO632n83/DK411)

1958: During 1958 Mark Rothko sold 13 paintings earning him $20,666 after 1/3 gallery commission was deducted. (RO334)

In 1957 he had earned $19,133.00 from the sale of 17 paintings. (RO334) Rothko's Browns (1957) was sold to Ben Heller for $4,000 in 1958. (RO636fn5) Donald Blinken purchased Number 9, 1958. (RO639fn22)

Red, White and Brown (1957) was sold to the Kunsthalle Basel; Olive over Red (1956) to the Baltimore Museum of Art and White and Greens in Blue (1957) to Nelson Rockefeller (the painting was destroyed in a fire at the governor's mansion). (RO640fn28)

May 1958: Life magazine covers Expressionism.

The illustrations were accompanied by captions such as "Violent Images of Emotion... Horror and Anxiety" and "Power of Love." (SB6)

May 1958: Willem de Kooning hires Bernard Reis as his accountant. (DK411)
Summer 1958: First magazine article devoted to Barnett Newman appears in Art News.

The article was "The Philosophic Line of B. Newman" by E.C. Gossen. Gossen was the director of exhibitions and professor of art at Bennington College which hosted a Newman retrospective in May.

June 6, 1958: Sidney Janis confirms Mark Rothko's commission for the Seagram murals. (RO373)

Frank R. Schwengel, president of Seagram, had announced in July 1954 that they were to build a modern office building at 375 Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets for Seagram's 100th Anniversary in 1957. The original architects, Pereira and Lockman, were given a $15 million budget. The founder of Seagram, Samuel Bronfman, sent a copy of the architectural plans to his daughter Phyllis Bronfman Lambert who wrote a sixteen page critique of the plans. Her father asked her to find a better architect and she enlisted the help of Philip Johnson, finally choosing Mies van der Rohe for the job, with Johnson assisting him. (RO371)

In the spring of 1958 Johnson approached Rothko about doing a series of paintings for the smaller of the two dining rooms planned at the building's restaurant, the Four Seasons. Bronfman's daughter had been aware of Rothko's work since 1954. (During the same year that Rothko was commissioned to do the murals for the restaurant she purchased Rothko's Brown and Black in Reds (1958) for the Seagram collection of art. (RO373))

In a letter from Rothko's dealer, Sidney Janis, to Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, Janis confirmed the arrangements for the restaurant murals. Rothko would provide provide "500 to 600 square feet of paintings" for $35,000.00. The House of Seagram issued a purchase order on June 25th for Rothko's "Building Decorations" for $30,000 to $35,000, with $7,000 to be paid immediately and the rest to be paid in four annual installments. The agreement also specified that "if for any reason the paintings are to be offered for sale during the payment period, they are first to be offered to the artist at a cost no greater than the sum paid." Philip Johnson later recalled that Rothko "was given carte blanche to design the wall decorations any way he chose." (RO373)

Later, questions would arise over whether Rothko was aware that the paintings he was going to provide were for the expensive Four Seasons Restaurant in the building. According to Rothko's assistant, Dan Rice, Rothko was originally told that the smaller room (where Rothko's paintings would be hung) would be a boardroom and the larger one an employee cafeteria. Rice recalled that Rothko's room "could be seen virtually as a proscenium, or at least one long wall could be seen through the open doors from the cafeteria where the workers of the building ate." According to Rice, "It pleased him greatly that the workers in the building would be looking at one wall of his creation." Rothko's friend, Dore Ashton also recalled that the artist's paintings were to be seen "from an adjoining employee's dining room through large doors." (RO375) Rothko's wife, Mell, recalled that Rothko did not know that the room would be a restaurant and that he "simply had the dimensions of the room to work from." (RO626n15)

Both Phyllis Lambert and Philip Johnson said that Rothko was aware that the space where the murals were to be shown was in a restaurant. Johnson wrote to Ronald Alley at the Tate in London (which would eventually receive some of the panels) on March 30, 1972, "The space was always intended to be a restaurant and Mr. Rothko was thoroughly aware of this. Lambert wrote to Johnson on April 25, 1972, "as I remember, Rothko absolutely knew it was a restaurant." (RO626n13) Rothko's lawyer, Bernard Reis attended a meeting with Rothko where the restaurant's architect "started the conference by pointing out there would be two dining rooms - one for the caviar high-class trade, and one for the general public. He wanted Rothko to do something for the fashionable restaurant." (RO626n15) An architect's drawing of the project, published in Interiors magazine in December 1959, labeled the larger room as "Dining Room" and the smaller room (where Rothko's work would be featured) as "Private Dining Room." (RO626n15)

June 14 - October 19, 1958: Mark Rothko is featured at the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. (RO383)

The United States Pavilion showed the work of two sculptors, David Smith and Seymour Lipton and two painters Mark Rothko and Mark Tobey. The catalogue included an essay by Sam Hunter on Rothko. (RO629n41) Rothko was represented by ten of the eleven new paintings he had shown earlier in the year at the Sidney Janis Gallery. (RO383)

June 16, 1958: Franz Kline orders a black Thunderbird.

When the car arrived, he took one look inside and commented "It looks just like a washing machine." (FK179)

Summer 1958: Rothko spends the summer in his newly purchased house in Provincetown. (RO379)

Rothko and Mell purchased a small house at 250 Bradford Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. At the age of 58, Rothko had finally become a property owner. In a 1961 financial statement prepared by Bernard Reis and Company the net cost of the property was estimated as $10,075. (RO628n29)

Despite the purchase, Rothko remained a city slicker. Stanley Kunitz recalled, "He didn't want to be associated with nature. In fact, one of his statements that shocked me most was saying that he really hated nature, that he felt uncomfortable in the natural world." (RO380) Rothko's daughter Kate recalled "I think my father, if he had a choice, would not have left the city ever. He really didn't enjoy summer vacation very much." (RO380)

Rothko converted the second floor of the house into a studio. When he wasn't painting he often could be seen, according to Katherine Kuh, walking "up and down Commercial Street looking for an occasional acquaintance to chat with, to gossip with." (RO380) He was also going back and forth between New York and Provincetown looking for a studio space in Manhattan to begin working on the Seagram project. (RO380)

1958: Robert Motherwell marries Helen Frankenthaler. (HM)
Summer 1958: Robert Motherwell spends the summer in Spain and France. (HM)

Motherwell and Frankenthaler spent most of the summer in Saint-Jean-de-Luz where he began the Iberia series of black paintings. (RM132)

July 1958: Mark Rothko rents a studio space to begin working on the Seagram murals.

The large room (approximately 46' x 32' x 23') was previously the gymnasium in the former YMCA building at 222 Bowery. The space was approximately nine feet shorter, two feet wider and eight feet higher than the actual dining room at the Four Seasons restaurant where the murals were supposed to be hung. About ten feet from the room's west wall Rothko built an 18' high plasterboard partition. He continued the plasterboard along the south and east wall in order to hang canvases as the walls were made of brick. He installed a movable wooden fourth (north) wall incorporating a pulley system allowing him to adjust the height of his paintings. Rothko kept the room very dark when exhibiting the work to visitors - the plasterboard partition blocked the light from the four windows in the west wall and from the lower hales of two windows in the south wall, which left only two small, high north-wall windows. (RO381) Robert Motherwell later described the room as "a darkened movie set." (RO3)

After spending much of the summer in Provincetown, Rothko returned to New York to work on the murals. During the summer he had hired Dan Rice to help renovate the new studio space. As Rothko's assistant, Rice stretched canvas (purchased by Rothko from a tent and awning shop) and assisted Rothko in applying the ground color to the Seagram canvases - a mixture of rabbit-skin glue and coloured pigment. All other layers were applied by Rothko himself. Rothko worked quickly using large five-inch housepainter's brushes. Then, according to Rice, he "would sit and consider the painting for long long periods of time, sometimes hours, sometimes days." (RO382) Rothko later told journalist John Fischer that he had sold a first set of panels "separately as individual paintings" because they "didn't turn out right." (RO382)

Rothko would arrive at the studio between 8:30-9 a.m., usually in a cab to work on the panels. He initially produced about 40 mural-size canvases along with some smaller individual works which he turned to when he felt he wasn't making progress on the large canvases. (RO381) Dore Ashton later recalled Rothko telling her about the murals, "They are not pictures. I have made a place." (RO4)

The approximately forty panels produced by Rothko were, apparently, divided into three sets (or "series"). Rothko's assistant Dan Rice later recalled that "there were, even given the exact dimensions, three separate sets of murals, two of which were rejected, plus a lot of individual paintings that were done almost in exact terms." (RO634n104) When, in 1969 Rothko worked out a deal with the Tate Gallery in London to purchase some of the Seagram panels, the then-director of the Tate, Norman Reid, recalled that Rothko told him "he had made three sets of paintings and that the ones we were looking at were drawn from two of the series." (RO634n104)

James E.B. Breslin [from Mark Rothko: A Biography]:

During his two years working on the project, Rothko... produced approximately forty panels. Catalogue essays by Michael Compton and Thomas Kellein have attempted to identify which of these panels belong in which series, as well as to recover Rothko's final selection of paintings for the restaurant. We can say that Rothko probably intended to hang seven paintings, three on the east wall, three on the west, one on the south. We can also say that many of the paintings are characterized, in Compton's words, by a "more sombre colouring and by a more opaque pigment and brushwork," and that these paintings, reflecting Rothko's view that in the second series he'd backed off too much, probably belong to the third series.

Yet Dan Rice [Rothko's assistant at the time he was working on the Seagram panels] observed that, in addition to his three sets of panels, Rothko also made "a lot of individual paintings that were done almost in exact terms," Rice commenting that "it would be very difficult to say that one was intended as part of the murals and one was not." It would be even more difficult to say that one painting belonged to the second as opposed to the third series, or that a given work was one Rotko intended to install or where he would have installed it. It's impossible to reconstruct an intention that was never realized. (RO406)

Ronald Alley [from the Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art, 1981]:

The only picture from the first series that has been definitely identified is White and Black on Wine, 1958, formerly in the collection of William S. Rubin, New York, and now in that of Ben Heller, which has two horizontal soft-edged rectangular patches of white and black on a wine-coloured background. (RO634n108)

Rothko would back out of the Seagram deal in late 1959/60 after visiting the restaurant in which the panels were supposed to be hung. (See c. Late 1959/early 1960: Mark Rothko backs out of the Seagram deal.)

September 1958: Mark Rothko refuses a prize from the Guggenheim Museum.

Rothko's dealer, Sidney Janis had submitted White and Greens in Blue to the Guggenheim's International Awards competition without telling Rothko. Rothko's work was the "national winner" of the competition earning him $1,000. He refused the award and returned the cheque for $1,000 privately, writing to James Johnson Sweeney on September 9th, "I am writing this in privacy. I have no desire to embarrass anyone, should you wish to substitute anyone else's painting." (RO374)

October 1958: Barnett Newman moves for the last time.

Barnett Newman and his wife Annalee moved from their Brooklyn Heights home to 685 West End Avenue in Manhattan where they would live for the remainder of Barnett's life. (MH)

October 27, 1958: Mark Rothko offers up a recipe for art. (RO389)

[Note: The editor of Mark Rothko: Writings on Art gives the date of Rothko's Pratt lecture as "November 1958." (WA125)]

Rothko offered up the recipe for a work of art in the course of a lecture he gave at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn - his first public statement about painting since "The Romantics Were Prompted" in 1947. The lecture was taped and later transcribed. (RO389) He started his lecture by explaining that he "began painting rather late in life" and that, for him painting a picture had more to do with communication than "self-expression."

Mark Rothko [from the Pratt lecture]:

I have never thought that painting a picture has anything to do with self-expression. It is a communication about the world to someone else. After the world is convinced about this communication it changes. The world was never the same after Picasso or Miró. Theirs was a view of the world which transformed our vision of things. All teaching about self-expression is erroneous in art; it has to do with therapy. Knowing yourself is valuable so that the self can be removed from the process. (WA125)

Rothko then presented what he referred to as "the recipe of a work of art - its ingredients - how to make it - the formula." (WA125)

Mark Rothko: [from the Pratt lecture]:

1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of morality... Tragic art, romantic art etc. deals with the knowledge of death.

2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.

3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.

4. Irony. This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.

5. Wit and Play... for the human element.

6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element.

7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.

Art, for Rothko, communicated Universal concepts such as mortality and irony rather than expressing an individual's personal "self." He noted that "as soon as an act is made by an individual, it becomes universal."

Mark Rothko [from the Pratt lecture]:

I want to mention a marvelous book: Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which deals with the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Abraham's act was absolutely unique... But what Abraham did was un-understandable; there was no universal law that condones such an act as Abraham had to carry out. As soon as an act is made by an individual, it becomes universal. This is like the role of the artist. (WA126)

In regard to his own work Rothko noted, "My pictures are indeed facades (as they have been called). Sometimes I open one door and one window or two doors and two windows. I do this only through shrewdness. There is more power in telling little than in telling all." (WA126)

He ended his lecture with a short explanation of his own artistic journey from figuration to abstraction.

Mark Rothko:

I belong to a generation that was preoccupied with the human figure and I studied it. It was with the most reluctance that I found that it did not meet my needs. Whoever used it mutilated it. No one could paint the figure as it was and feel that he could produce something that could express the world. I refuse to mutilate and had to find another way of expression. I used mythology for a while, substituting various creatures were were able to make intense gestures without embarrassment. I began to use morphological forms in order to paint gestures that I could not make people do. But this was unsatisfactory. My current pictures are involved with the scale of human feelings, the human drama, as much of it as I can express. (WA126)

November - December, 1958: "Jackson Pollock" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Organized by The Museum of Modern Art. Included a screening of Hans Namuth's film of Pollock painting. (DJ229)

December 5, 1958–8 February 1959: The 1958 Pittsburgh Bicentennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture takes place at the Carnegie Institute.

Barnett Newman's Day Before One was included. (MH)

to 1959

Abstract Expressionism

Ab Ex Contents

Ab Ex Essays