Mark Rothko on the Seagram Murals: "They are not pictures. I have made a place."(RO4)
Mark Rothko on the Four Seasons Restaurant where the murals were meant to be hung: "Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine."(RO406)
Lamar wrote that she admired his pictures so much she bought one and also asked him if he, like herself, was of Austrian descent. (IS58)
Among the paintings sold in 1959 were: Four Darks on Red (1958) to Ben Heller for $8,000 (RO636n5); Red, Brown and Black (1958) to The Museum of Modern Art; Red over Black (1957) to the Tate Gallery, London (RO640n28); Sienna, Black on Dark Red (1959) to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller (RO640n29); and White Center (1957) to Robert and Ethel Scull. (RO422)
De Kooning's new studio was near his old one on Tenth Street but much larger - with a skylight and large windows facing the street. (DK411). (In 1974 Andy Warhol would move to offices nearby at 830 Broadway.)
The Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased Newman's Abraham (1949). At the time no other U.S. museums owned a Newman, although Newman's Day Before One had been purchased earlier in the year by the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel - making it the first public collection to possess a Newman worldwide. Arnold Rüdlinger had been to the states on a buying trip for the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel and had purchased Day Before One after viewing it on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. (MH)
Kline purchased No 15 Cottage Street in Provincetown, with occupancy by May 1. He and Elisabeth Ross Zogbaum drove to Provincetown to inspect the property before completing the sale. (FK180)
The show was the inaugural exhibition of the new contemporary gallery, French and Company, located at 978 Madison Avenue. Clement Greenberg, advisor to the Gallery, initiated the show which covered the same period as the Bennington retrospective but was larger, consisting of twenty-nine paintings. (MH)
Although the press for the show was generally negative, the exhibition was viewed with interest by the younger generation of New York artists including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Larry Poons and Frank Stella. (MH)
Clement Greenberg wrote the text for the catalogue published in French and English.
By the end of the week all the works were sold. Nineteen of the twenty-two oil paintings were sold by noon the first day of the exhibition. The works were priced from $2,200 for a small oil sketch to $14,000 each for 5 large works. (DK412) De Kooning commented to a journalist from Time magazine, "There's no way of astonishing anyone any more. I'm selling my own image now. It's being understood. That's the way it's supposed to be." (DK413)
The name change was made legal in papers filed with the Superior Court, NY (File no. 4641 - 1959) (RO632n83)
The exhibition had previously traveled to Basel, Milan, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London before opening at The Museum of Modern Art. Eighty-one paintings were shown by seventeen artists: Mark Rothko, 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, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin and Jack Tworkov. (RO629n42)
Howard Devree reviewed the show in the May 31, 1959 issue of The New York Times:
Howard Devree [The New York Times (May 31, 1959)]:
Except for two versions of de Kooning's horrendous Woman and suggestions in one or two of Gorky's canvases, the paintings are essentially non-figurative. Most of them are quite large. Reproductions in black and white are inadequate for acquaintance except in such simplified statements as the overpowering scaffoldings of Franz Kline, for color is of the essence of the work, as in Brooks' lyrical curvilinear floating shapes or the best swirling and interlacing organizations by Pollack [sic]. Despite landscape suggestion as a source of inspiration, as in certain paintings by de Kooning, Guston and Stamos, the exact urgency which called forth the particular statement is in various degrees enigmatic. And preoccupation with the new techniques for their own sake is another danger for artists.
...Some of the paintings through shapes and colors call up a sense of something ominous as in occasional work by Baziotes, Gottlieb, Tworkov or Motherwell. Where Kline and de Kooning achieve powerful visual impact, Guston is sensitive and reflective...
The roots of this work are many - rebellion against photographic and illustrative realism; dismay at the picture that expanding science presents; the sweeping revision of our viewpoints through post-Freudian psychology; the renewed influence of the old orient; and as that discerning French critic Andre Chastel pointed out, elements of such European forerunners as fauvism, German Expressionism, Klee, Picasso, Matisse and perhaps Masson's surrealism... On the other hand to Zen Buddhism has been attributed notable influence, although one artist thus singled out had to make a hasty trip to the library to find out what Zen is about.
Should both Mell and Rothko die, Herbert and Ilse Ferber were to serve as their executors and Kate's guardian, with the Reises named as alternates. If Kate died at the same time as her parents, Rothko's estate was to be distributed in seven equal shares among his two brothers, his sister, Mell's two sisters, Ferber and Stanley Kunitz. On June 11, 1959, Rothko specified how his paintings should be distributed in a letter to the Ferbers and Reis.
Mark Rothko [from the letter to the Ferbers and Reis, dated June 11, 1959]:
We have just made wills which provide that in case of our death and Kate's, you are to be the Executors. Our estates will be divided as set forth in our wills. The principal item in the estates, of course, is the inventory of paintings, and it is our wish that the pictures should be sold as follows:
(a) The museum or individual who will acquire the largest number to be held in a single place should be given preference;
(b) To museums outside of New York City and in Europe which will acquire at least six paintings;
(c) To museums or individuals who will acquire at least three paintings;
(d) These conditions for distribution should be adhered to for a period of five years...
The article was in two parts - the first part appeared in the Summer 1959 issue and the second part in the September 1959 issue. (RO431)
Rothko had been working on the murals for about eight months prior to the trip. On the boat to Europe he met John Fischer, who was then the editor of Harper's magazine. Later, in 1970, Fisher recalled that Rothko compared the Seagram Murals to Michelangelo's Laurentian Library. Rothko had visited Florence during his last trip to Europe in 1950.
Mark Rothko [quoted by John Fischer in Harper's magazine in July 1970 - after Rothko's death - from notes made in 1959]:
After I had been at work for some time, I realized that I was much influenced by subconsciously by Michelangelo's walls in the staircase room of the Medicean Library in Florence. He achieved just the kind of feeling I'm after - he makes viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they do is butt their heads forever against the wall. (FI130)
During their first month in Europe the Rothkos traveled from Naples (visiting Pompeii) to Rome, then to Tarquinia (for the Etruscan murals), followed by Florence (viewing the Fra Angelico frescos and visiting Michelangelo's Laurentian Library aka the Medici Library).
After Florence the Rothkos visited Peggy Guggenheim in Venice and then went on to Paris, arriving there by July 15th. After Paris they went to Brussels where the Rabins were living. Rothko's daughter Kate stayed with the Rabins while Mark and Mell visited Antwerp. Then all three of the family went together to Amsterdam and finally to London, returning to the U.S. on the QE2 on August 20th. (RO399/400)
... it was a working trip. He went to see art. On the entire trip, we spent three days at the beach and that was all we did that a child might have liked. Not that I disliked everything we did, but I was tired, at the end of two and a half months, of visiting museums. (RO399)
[Note: On page 398 of Mark Rothko: A Biography, James E.B. Breslin writes "On June 15, 1958, Mark, Mell and Kate Rothko sailed, tourist class, on the USS Independence, arriving in Naples seven days later." However, the letters that Breslin quotes in regard to the trip are dated 1959 and he has used the 1959 date in other sections of his biography. Although the 1958 date would make sense as Rothko's work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale that year, Breslin cites a letter from Rothko to his nephew Kenneth Rabin and his wife Joy, dated May 7, 1959, in which Rothko gave details of their itinerary which Breslin notes "was written close to" the time of their trip. Rothko had also written to the Rabins on May 2, 1959 in which he mentioned their return date and the name of the ship they were due to take. (RO632n88/RO633n92)]
The land was on Woodbine Road in the Springs just off the main highway to East Hampton. He paid $500 an acre for the land (to the artist owner Wilfred Zogbaum.) (DK414)
The opening of the Four Seasons restaurant which was meant to house Rothko's Seagram murals was announced in an article titled "$4.5 Million Restaurant to Open Here" in the July 16 issue of The New York Times. The restaurant was also covered in the October 2nd issue of The New York Times as well as the November-December, 1959 issue of Evergreen Review and the December 1959 issue of Progressive Architecture. (RO633fn99)
The Times heralded the restaurant as "one of the most opulently decorated dining establishments in the United States" and noted that a stage curtain painted by Picasso for a 1919 Ballet Russe performance had already been hung in the restaurant which would eventually be displaying murals by "Mark Rothko, an Abstract Expressionist," in its smaller dining room. (RO404)
According to the article the restaurant had an annual budget of $50,000 for seasonal planting and a staff of twenty captains and fifty waiters. Prior to Rothko's Seagram Murals, a stage curtain painted by Picasso for a 1919 performance of the Ballet Russe had been hung and, until Rothko's work was ready, a mural by Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, was hung. (RO404)
De Kooning had previously visited Italy in 1958 during a European trip with Ruth Kligman. Kligman had remained in Europe when de Kooning returned to New York. In July 1959 de Kooning went back to Italy.
Afro Bassaldella and the art dealer Plinio de Martiis picked up de Kooning at the airport. According to de Martiis, "We drove to the Piazza del Popolo and stopped the car." When Afro asked de Kooning what he thought of it, Bill replied, "Old hat." De Kooning rented a place on the fifth floor of the Pensione Pierina at 47 Via Due Macelli, with Ruth staying at the Excelsior Hotel. (DK415) De Martiis recalled, "There was this myth of American painting. Action painting. And this small group. There was a romantic sense of a burned generation. And the drinking. A little like Fitzgerald." (DK415) According to collector, Barone Giogio Franchetti, de Kooning "was received in high society. In Italy there is a peculiar situation - high society is more aware of contemporary arts. One who entertained him was Dado Ruspoli, the son of the prince of Ruspoli. He was one of the highlights of the international jet set. He had cocaine and joints at his parties. Bill functioned extremely well in this world." (DK415) Art critic Gabriella Drudi, a close friend of Thomas Hess and Gregory Corso, was there at the time:
All the young artists, even the amateurs, asked him [de Kooning] to come to see their shows. And if it was a painter, he felt he had to go. He had this feeling that if somebody wanted to be an artist, you had to respect him. That was a disaster for him. When we walked down the Via due Macelli to the Via Margutta, there were a lot of artists there then. "Ciao, de Kooning" and so on. There was the pressure of the artists, but that didn't disturb him. What was bad for him was the social life Ruth wanted. (DK415)
Marisol, who was also in Rome at that time (where she was occasionally mistaken for Elizabeth Taylor), recalled that it was a largely social scene: "Afro, Marca-Relli, Twombly, Burri, Plinio, Salvatore Scarpita... The group would go out to dinner every night... In Italy I have the feeling we went mainly to restaurants rather than museums..." (DK416)
During the five months he was in Rome de Kooning worked on a number of works and some collages. He used black enamel paint mixed with ground pumice to dim the sheen which Hess would later refer to as having an "almost Chinese, Zen like" character. (DK416) In the autumn Sidney Janis visited Bill to make sure he wasn't selling work to dealers in the city. According to de Martiis, Janis was "tough," informing others that he had an "exclusive" on Bill: "When Janis was here, de Kooning was like a puppy. But as soon as Janis left, he said, 'Don't worry. I'll give you stuff.' Then he did." (DK417)
Barnett Newman and his wife Annalee went to Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada where Barnett led a summer workshop for Canadian artists. One of the artists, sculptor Robert Murray later commented that Barnett "helped us to get over our provincial paranoia... He made it seem important to be an artist." (MH)
[Note: Although James E.B. Breslin indicates that the Rothkos took the Queen Elizabeth II to the U.S. in Mark Rothko: A Biography, the ship's maiden voyage (from Southampton to New York) did not take place until 1969.)]
When de Kooning returned to New York from Italy in early 1960, he flew to San Francisco hoping to convince Joan and Lisa to return to New York. They remained in San Francisco. (DK424)
Not long after the Dynaton exhibition in 1951, Paalen and his wife moved to Paris where he rented Kurt Seligmann's house and attended Breton's gatherings of Surrealists at the cafe on the Place Blanche. By the mid 1950s he was back in Mexico where he married Isabel Marin, the sister of Diego Rivera's first wife, Lupe. In Mexico he dealt in Mexican antiquities and was implicated in a scandal involving stolen objects. Before his suicide, Paalen arranged for a friend in Taxco to collect his body after he killed himself and paid for his friend's hotel expenses in advance. He wrote to Gordon Onslow Ford that he wanted to save what little honour he had. (SS419/416)
The event took place for the opening of the Reuben Gallery. (BM32)
From Blam! The explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance, 1958-1964 by Barbara Haskell:
For this ninety-minute piece, Kaprow divided the gallery into three sections with translucent sheets of plastic. The performers, who included Kaprow, Whitman, Sam Francis, Alfred Leslie, and Segal, executed simple activities such as bending forward and extending their arms like wings, bouncing a ball, reading from placards, and playing records, as lights and slides went off and on in carefully programmed sequences. The piece was the first of what generically became known - to everyone save their creators - as Happenings. (BM32-3)
Kaprow's Happenings had its antecedents in Dada performances of early twentieth century and John Cage's interdisciplinary performances during the early 1950s. Kaprow studied under Cage at the New School in New York from 1956 to 1958.
From Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology by Michael Kirby:
John Cage, the composer, integrated various dominant strains in the Futurist-Dada tradition into his own work. Speaking along with tape recordings of his own voice, Cage was able to give 'simultaneous lectures' reminiscent of the activities in the Cabaret Voltaire. He proposed the "simultaneous presentation of unrelated events" - a theatrical position clearly derived from Dada activities. And in a single presentation at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952 (the authoritative anthology on Dada which included, among other things, Kurt Schwitters' description of Merz theatre had been published the preceding year), he was able to combine a variety of expressive elements including indeterminate nonmatrixed performing in a compartmented structure that made use of an expressive spectator-performance relationship. (HA31)
Cage's 1952 performance event included Cage reading a lecture on Meister Eckhart, David Tudor playing the piano, Robert Rauschenberg operating a hand-wound phonograph and Merce Cunningham doing an improvised dance around the audience. Other participants planted in the audience stood up at various intervals and said a line of two of dialogue. (HA31-2) Kaprow's first experiment with a performance event took place in 1958 at a picnic for Hansa Gallery artists.
From Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance 1958-1964 by Barbara Haskell:
Kaprow, for one, was particularly affected by his experiences in Cage's class. His first experiment with an elaborate performance event occurred at a picnic for member of the Hansa Gallery at George Segal's farm in New Jersey several months before Kaprow showed his environmental piece at the Hansa Gallery in 1958. Structurally similar to Cage's 1952 Black Mountain performance, Kaprow's event called for members of the group to perform simultaneous but unrelated tasks: jumping through the props Kaprow and Segal had made from lumber and plastic sheeting; sitting in chicken coops rattling noisemakers; collectively painting a picture. (BM32)
Kaprow was reticent to speak of his performance events as "Happenings" - a term which was embraced by the pop culture of the 1960s and used as the title for a 1970 film and a song by The Supremes.
Robert L. Pincus:
Happenings became a pop-culture term in the '60s, an umbrella for events like love-ins, be-ins and even political demonstrations, as well as the title of a forgettable 1970 movie and a companion song by The Supremes. He [Kaprow] ultimately left the term behind, preferring “activities,” which probably fit the increasingly intimate nature of his work. (RL)
Life magazine did a two part article on the "new" art. The first part appeared in the November 9th issue ("Baffling U.S. Art: What It Is About") and was mostly about Jackson Pollock.
Excerpt about Jackson Pollock from "Baffling U.S. Art: What is it all about?," Life magazine, November 9, 1959
The second part ("The Varied Art of Four Pioneers") featured Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Rothko was photographed with an untitled work that was juxtaposed with a photograph of a sunset. (RO637-8n12)
Excerpt from "Abstract Expressionism, Part II," Life magazine, November 16, 1959 (Photo: Bert Stern)
The exhibition concentrated on the hard edged color field work of Frank Stella over the abstractions of de Kooning and his followers. (DK435) It also included nine works by Jasper Johns and seven combine paintings by Robert Rauschenberg. Alfred Barr bought Stella's The Marriage of Reason and Squalor for The Museum of Modern Art. (RO428)
The death blow to academic gesture painting was struck by Frank Stella, at age twenty-three, in the prestigious "16 Americans" show at The Museum of Modern Art at the end of 1959. The deadly stroke was a roomful of his abstractions composed of symmetrical, concentric configurations of black stripes... It was not only Frank's paintings that infuriated me, but also what he - and sympathetic writers said about them. While participating on a panel at a New York University in 1960, he remarked that he found few creative ideas in current art; there were not even any good gimmicks. He then said that it was enough for him to have an interesting idea; he would be happy if someone else, or a machine, made his pictures according to his specifications. What interested him most was the idea and not the process of painting. He couldn't understand why it was bad for an artist who had a good idea to just execute it or have someone else do it... I attended Frank's talk at NYU with Robert Goldwater, who was just as outraged as I was. When we left the lecture hall, he turned to me and said: "That man's not an artist. He's a juvenile delinquent."
In the most vicious review I ever wrote, published in Art International at the end of 1960, I compared Frank to Ad Reinhardt, commenting that both use "geometry and monochromatic 'colour," but where Reinhardt is engrossed with purity in art and paints monotonous pictures because he feels that art should be difficult, aloof, for the museums and hence, dead, Stella seems interested in monotony for its own sake, as an attitude to life and art... Frank did not hold my hostile critique against me, and when I asked to interview him on the radio in 1962, he agreed... Frank said that he wanted to make direct paintings, paintings you could see all at once, whereas Reinhardt wanted the opposite... I then asked Frank whether he thought his work was boring. He replied that it was boring to make but shouldn't be boring to look at. He then quoted John Cage that if something looks boring after two minutes, look at it for four; if it's still boring, try it for eight, then sixteen. At one point it will become very interesting. (IS281-2)
Stella's comments were not unlike the comments being made by Andy Warhol during the 1960s and 1970s. Just as Stella "would be happy if someone else, or a machine, made his pictures," Warhol wanted to be a "machine" and would, at one point, claim that one of his superstars, Brigid Berlin painted his paintings. Like Stella Warhol was interested in "monotony for its own sake." He had filmed a stationary building in 1964 for more than six hours and when asked during a college appearance at Rutgers University on March 9, 1966 about his intentions in regard to his films, he was quoted as saying, " “If they can take it for ten minutes, then we play it for fifteen... That’s our policy. Always leave them wanting less," similar to Stella's paraphrase of John Cage to Sandler, "if something looks boring after two minutes, look at it for four..."
After dinner at the Ristorante Passetto (an event billed as the 'Grand Cotillion'), one of the guests, Judy Gendel asked de Kooning to draw a cat on a menu and then asked him to sign it. Ruth interjected, telling de Kooning not to. He did anyway. Then the party moved to the Excelsior Hotel and then a nightclub. De Kooning and Kligman quarreled. According to Drudi, " It was four or five in the morning and it was absolutely awful. They were screaming at each other. Finally Bill said, 'Why don't you go into the grave with your Jackson Pollock'...And Ruth said, 'I had two months with Jackson Pollock but he's jealous.' " (DK418)
Mark Rothko, through his dealer Sidney Janis, had agreed to paint mural-sized paintings for the Seagram building's Four Seasons restaurant on June 6, 1958. In July 1958, Rothko took on a new studio space large enough to paint the murals in. During June 1959 Rothko had commented to a fellow passenger on a ship he took to Naples for a summer break in Europe, that he had accepted the mural project "with strictly malicious intentions" and wanted to make the diners feel "trapped."
The restaurant opened in c. late July 1959. After visiting it in late 1959/early 1960 Rothko backed out of the project even though he had already completed three sets of panels.
From Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E.B. Breslin:
Sometime after his return from Europe that summer and after the restaurant had opened in late July, Rothko decided that he and Mell should have a meal there. Rothko believed that it was 'criminal to spend more than $5 on a meal,' but he did like to eat; and he could, now that the restaurant was complete, see how and where others would eventually see his work. After passing a Miró tapestry hung in the travertine lobby, walking up the short stairs to the smaller lobby where the Picasso stage curtain hung, turning left and walking down the dining room vestibule, past the concierge, past the glass-in wine cellar, through the French walnut doorway and into the main dining room, Mark and Mell Rothko entered a sumptuous, high-ceilinged room... The two interior walls, divided into a grid of vertical panels, were covered with natural rawhide. Beyond the marble pool, nine steps rose to the smaller dining room, where Rothko's murals would be installed and Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles now hung...
Seated in 'Brno' chairs designed by [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe] himself, Mark and Mell Rothko contemplated a menu which offered them a cuisine 'derived from many of the cuisines of the world'... Rothko had hoped to paint something that would ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever ate in that room. Instead, the concrete reality of the restaurant probably ruined his appetite, and certainly ruined his project...
When he got home that evening, he called Katharine Kuh 'in a state of high emotion' to say he was returning the money he'd received and withdrawing his paintings. 'When he was working on the project, his imagination plus a dash of wishful thinking projected an idyllic setting where captivated diners, lost in reverie, communed with the murals. I'm afraid it never entered his head that the works would be forced to compete with a noisy crowd of conspicuous consumers.' But 'real transactions' were not on the Four Seasons menu. The next morning, arriving at his Bowery studio, 'he came through the door like a bull, as only Rothko could, in an absolute rage,' said Dan Rice. "He said quite explosively - no good mornings or anything... slamming his hat down on the table and pounding, 'Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine.' 'He was furious,' Stanley Kunitz said 'I've never seen him so angry about anything. He could talk about nothing else for weeks." (RO404-5)
Rothko's daughter, Kate, would later recall that the visit to the Four Seasons was "the turning point - when they actually ate there, they were totally turned off." (RO633-34n103)