Abstract Expressionism

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Abstract Expressionism 1965

by Gary Comenas

to 1964 | to 1966

In 1965, Milton Avery dies; Burgoyne Diller dies; Barnett Newman makes his first steel sculpture; David Smith dies in an automobile accident; Willem de Kooning has an affair with Molly Barnes; "The New York School: The First Generation, Paintings of the 1940s and 1950s" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; "Lee Krasner; paintings, drawings and collages" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London; "Robert Motherwell" retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art; Robert Scull sells thirteen Abstract Expressionist paintings at auction: Philip Guston has an affair.

* * *

The Parke-Bernet auction of AbEx paintings from Scull's collection was covered by Newsweek which noted that the auction "was bound to raise the question that the art world had been quietly asking: is Abstract Expressionism passé?" Scull was apparently selling off his Abstract Expressionist works in order to finance his Pop Art buying spree.

* * *

January 3, 1965: Milton Avery dies. (RO490)

Mark Rothko spoke at Avery's funeral:

Mark Rothko [January 7, 1965]:

"I would like to say a few words about the greatness of Milton Avery.

This conviction of greatness, the feeling that one was in the presence of great events, was immediate on encountering his work. It was true for many of us who were younger, questioning, and looking for an anchor...

I cannot tell you what it meant for us during those early years to be made welcome in those memorable studios on Broadway, 72nd Street, and Columbus Avenue. We were, there, both the subjects of his paintings and his idolatrous audience. The walls were always covered with an endless and changing array of poetry and light.

The instruction, the example, the nearness in the flesh of this marvelous man - all this was a significant fact - one which I shall never forget... There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush... I grieve for the loss of this great man. I rejoice for what he has left us." (WA149-50)

Milton Avery is buried in the Artists Cemetery, Woodstock, New York.

1965: Robert Motherwell creates the Lyric Suite series.

The series consisted of 565 "automatic" paintings in ink on Japanese rice paper. (HM)

1965: Adolph Gottlieb receives American Academy of Achievement award in Dallas, Texas.
January 30, 1965: Burgoyne Diller dies.

Abstract artist Burgoyne Diller was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists and, during the latter half of the 1930s, headed the Mural Division of the Federal Art Project of the WPA. He continued to work for the WPA in various roles during the first half of the 1940s. It was largely through his efforts that abstract art was accepted on the Project.

Irving Sandler:

"In 1958, I arranged to interview Burgoyne Diller at his home in highland Park, New Jersey. I had already recognized him as one of the finest American artists to have emerged in the 1930s - on a par with Milton Avery and Stuart Davis. Diller was an imposing man and handsome, although ravaged by alcohol. He first took me down to his cellar studio. Nonobjective works of art, many on paper, were strewn on the floor. At one point I said to him: 'Mr. Diller, it's damp down here and your works will be destroyed.' He said: 'Nobody wants them and besides, they're no good. I'll toss out most of them anyway.' 'But Mr. Diller, they're terrific, and many look as if they're from the 1930s. You mustn't scrap these pictures.' Diller got angry. 'Don't tell me what I can do with my own work.' It made me uncomfortable to argue with a distinguished artist, but I wouldn't back down. 'You have no right in 1958 to destroy work you did decades earlier. You put yourself in the role of art historian.' He shouted: 'How dare you!' But he quickly calmed down and we went for a ride in his car, hitting about eight different bars. He had a double shot of whisky and a small beer chaser in every one but with no visible effect. He remained lucid throughout our entire conversation... Diller had a serious drinking problem. A number of his friends in the 1930s remained loyal to him, notably Ad Reinhardt, who in Diller's most wretched days saw to it that he continued to teach at Brooklyn College and covered for him when necessary. Shortly before he died, the owners of the Chalette Gallery took Diller in hand, saved his work, and exhibited it. I encountered Diller near the end. He was then emaciated but he shook my hand warmly, smiled wanly, and recalled our conversation. (IS103/4)

1965: Barnett Newman makes his first steel sculpture.

Newman's steel sculpture, Here II was cast at the Treitel-Gratz company foundry on East 32nd Street in an edition of two. (Here I (1962), a bronze sculpture, had also been cast in an edition of two.) (MH)

Early January 1965: Mark Rothko signs a $250,000 contract for the Houston Chapel murals. (RO459)

Rothko had already received the commission and had started to work on the paintings by the time the contract was signed. He would complete a total of fourteen panels for the project. (RO468)

January 13 - February 19, 1965(?): "The Decisive Years, 1943 to 1953" at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Included work by Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still.

[Note: In a listing of the contents of Robert Motherwell's scrapbooks by The Museum of Modern Art, a press release for the exhibition is listed with the year of the show indicated as 1964. The Barnett Newman Foundation's chronology places the show in 1965. Sam Green apparently had a hand in bringing the show to the ICA and he did not start working as ICA's director until 1965. In an article ("ICA’s early years still Green in his mind") published in The Penn Current on December 11, 2003, Heather A. Davis notes "As Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner said on Dec. 3 at the ICA’s first lecture in a series celebrating their 40th anniversary, [Sam] Green’s hire was heralded with excitement. He managed to sustain that level of excitement with shows like “Decisive Years—1943-1953,” an impressive collection of Abstract Expressionism works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack [sic], Clyfford Still and others."]

February 1965: Willem de Kooning formally ends his relationship with Sidney Janis.

Janis was becoming increasingly angry at de Kooning for selling his works privately. When de Kooning's lawyer, Lee Eastman, officially ended de Kooning's arrangement with Janis, an exhibition scheduled for later that year was cancelled. (DK475) Janis claimed that de Kooning owed him money.

c. March 1965: Mark Rothko receives a Creative Arts Award medal from Brandeis University. (RO676fn68)
March 30, 1965: Willem de Kooning sues Sidney Janis. (DK475)

The suit, with de Kooning represented by Lee Eastman, alleged that Janis owed him $150,000 for selling work to insiders at favourable prices. He also wanted approximately sixty unsold works returned to him. Janis filed a countersuit for $203,000 claiming that de Kooning "breached an exclusive contract with Mr. Janis by selling $450,000 of his works himself, on which Mr. Janis is entitled to $150,000 in commissions." (DK476)

Spring 1965: Willem de Kooning and Susan Brockman move.

From about the spring of 1964, de Kooning and Brockman had leased a house owned by Nicholas Carone and his wife, Adele, for a year on Three Mile Harbour Road, near to de Kooning's studio on Woodbine Drive. When their lease on the Carone house ended they rented a cottage that both of them "hated." By the summer, de Kooning was again drinking heavily and Susan considered ending the relationship, later saying "We met on a bender and we are ending on a bender." (DK478-9)

April 8 - May 2, 1965: Willem de Kooning retrospective at Smith College.

"Willem de Kooning: a Retrospective Exhibition from Public and Private Collections," was a small retrospective of thirty-five paintings. De Kooning's lawyer, Lee Eastman, had established an annual series of lectures at the college in memory of his first wife, and invited de Kooning to speak in conjunction with the exhibition. De Kooning accepted, but when Eastman's son went to collect de Kooning, he was told by Susan Brockman that the artist was on a binge and would be unable to attend. (After the exhibition closed, it traveled to The Hayden Gallery at MIT from May 10 - June 16, 1965.)

May 23, 1965: David Smith dies in an automobile accident.

David Smith died in a car accident near Bennington Vermont. Robert Motherwell was designated as the executor of Smith's estate. In 1969 the Guggenheim Museum held a retrospective of Smith's work.

June 16 - August 1, 1965: "New York School: The First Generation: Paintings of the 1940s and 1950s" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Included work by Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and others.

Summer 1965: Robert Motherwell visits Paris, Venice, Dubrovnik, Athens, the Greek Islands and London with his family. (HM)
Late Summer 1965: Susan Brockman moves back to New York.

Brockman and de Kooning had ended their relationship. De Kooning gave her $500 to cover the expense of moving. She would also visit de Kooning in the winter and he gave her an Abercrombie and Fitch coat for Christmas the following year, along with an affectionate letter. According to Mary Abbot, "He really did love Susan. He told me that he cut it off because he didn't want to upset her life. I do believe that. He was being very decent; he wasn't being dramatic." (DK479)

Autumn 1965 through 1966: Willem de Kooning sorts out legalities, including a will.

Willem de Kooning's lawyer, Lee Eastman, had contacted Joan Ward, the mother of de Kooning's child, in January 1965 to come to an agreement regarding the support of Joan and the daughter she had by de Kooning. (DK475)

De Kooning missed his daughter and Joan who were living in New York in an old apartment on Third Avenue. He made sporadic visits to them in New York where he would stay at the Chelsea Hotel. (DK493) According to de Kooning's biographers, Joan Ward's conditions for getting back together with Willem "included financial and legal commitments from him, which he began to meet. He drafted a will that left most of his money to Lisa. Then he gave paintings to Joan and Lisa. Joan also pressed for clarification of de Kooning's relationship with Elaine... On five separate occasions, according to Joan, de Kooning began efforts to divorce Elaine." (DK479)

Joan Ward:

"He [de Kooning] was afraid of divorce - he had a peasant's fear of the law - but that didn't mean that he didn't get the lawyers. But each time Elaine would disappear or he would lose interest. At one point he was so furious. He came back and slammed things around. He said, 'She said that her analyst said it would be 'catastrophic' at this time to get a divorce." At that point Bill had given Elaine a whole collection of drawings as a first installment to pay for the divorce. As part of her settlement. Then she was going to get a picture. Things were being worked out. At that point she called a halt." (DK480)

De Kooning never got a divorce. (DK480)

1965: Willem de Kooning hires Michael Wright. (DK481)

According to de Kooning's biographers, "In the Springs, an important early assistant had been the painter Athos Zacharias, who helped de Kooning establish his initial studio in the garage on Accabonac... But Zacharias would not work full-time, so de Kooning hired John McMahon... for the next twelve years McMahon devoted much of his life to de Kooning... After several years as de Kooning's full-time assistant, McMahon... began looking for another artist to help out." (DK481) Michael Wright was offered the job. He later recalled, "This was '65. Bill came over one day while I was doing carpentry on John's house and he said, 'I heard all about you. That you're an artist and have three kids and been in the army. That's impressive. Want to work for me? You work for me three days a week and get four days off to do your own work." (DK481) Wright accepted the job.

Michael Wright:

"He [de Kooning] led a very Spartan life while he was painting. After breakfast, he'd start to work. He'd go for a month or so without drinking. He'd work and suddenly you'd see him start to get a little testy, a little nervous. He knew that it [a binge] was probably going to happen again... He did phenomenal drinking. I was amazed that he could stay alive. He would hardly eat anything. He'd be up all night, wandering around, and you'd try to get some sleep... Bill usually would drink until he was retaining so much water that he was all bloated and could hardly move... By then John and I would say, 'Time to get him to the hospital.' Then we'd call an ambulance or we'd take him and he'd dry out for two or three weeks... When Bill was drunk he could be terribly abusive. Booze would release a lot of feeling... He didn't like his mother very much. He would rant and rave and scream about how much he hated her: 'She's ninety years old. How long is she going to live? And then he would rant and rave and scream about Elaine, how much he hated her." (DK482)

According to Wright, when de Kooning was done ranting and raving, the artist would play "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony" on the stereo and "cry and moan. I had to go through hours of this with him." (DK483)

Mid 1960s: Willem de Kooning has an affair with Molly Barnes.

Barnes was from California and spent summers on Long Island, with occasional visits during the rest of the year. Her father and first husband were involved with the movie business. She was approached by John McMahon at the post office where he and de Kooning would collect the mail and told her, "Mr. de Kooning would like to meet you."

Molly Barnes:

"He (de Kooning) always wanted to know about John Wayne and Doris Day. And then if I came up with somebody I'd just met, some movie person, then he'd want to know all about them and then it would trail off into his own interpretations of what they were like as public figures... I would have loved to get closer to him. He was my idol. But he was very elusive... I'm sure any woman who got involved with him had the same difficulty because he wasn't there for you all the time." (DK483)

July 16 - August 1, 1965: "The New York School: The First Generation, Paintings of the 1940s and 1950s" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Included Jackson Pollock Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. (RO459)

Barnett Newman commented, in response to the curator's stipulation that no paintings after 1959 were to be included, "It seems to me that the attitude toward the show by those who organized it is as if we were all dead." (RO430)

Rothko made a similar comment during a dinner at Dore Ashton's house the same year, although not specifically in regard to that exhibition. According to the painter John-Franklin Koenig who was also at the dinner, Rothko "stated that he felt as if he were dead; after having been brought to a pinnacle during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, he was left in the heights where only museums and large corporations could acquire him. On the other hand he was no longer 'hot:' no magazines even mentioned him, no young artists even tried to visit him." (RO430)

September - October, 1965: "Lee Krasner; paintings, drawings and collages" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
September 1965: Barnett Newman travels to Brazil to see his work at the Eighth São Paulo Bienal.

Barnett Newman was the main artist among seven exhibited at the U.S. Pavilion (curated by Walter Hopps) at the Eighth São Paulo Bienal. The other artists were Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Donald Judd, Larry Poons and Frank Stella. Newman specified that his seven paintings and two sculptures should be shown out of competition. (MH)

October 1-November 28, 1965: "Robert Motherwell" retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art.

After showing at MOMA the exhibition traveled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen and Turin during 1965 - 1966.

Robert Motherwell [1971]:

"... the last show I had at Marlborough in 1969, three years ago, - well, less than three years ago, was of huge paintings. so large as Marlborough is, we could show only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen. I sent forty pictures over and was quite sure that I would show, say thirteen of them and that it would be a question of what the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth one would be. As it turned out, out of my original selection only three were shown when we tried to set up the ensemble. The ones I thought in my mind would work well together didn't at all. Well, in the same way at the Museum of Modern Art show when O'Hara and I were working on it we'd go through all the photographs and say yes, that one is important. And I also made an agreement with him which he violated. The Modern Museum asked me who I would like to have as the curator in charge of my show. O'Hara had never put on a show but he was a poet. And what I didn't want was a historical show but a show of what I thought in the boundaries of my work were the most radiant works. and I thought I'd have a much better chance with a poet than with an art historian to bring it about that way. In fact, O'Hara, maybe because it was his first show, fell right back into the art historian thing so that we chose - I don't know - a hundred and twenty pictures or something, many of which for historical reasons. When they were all together and we were trying to assemble it in a terrible gallery - I had the first show in that Philip Johnson wing with no windows, no anything - it's like being in the middle of a pyramid - I realized that thirty percent of the pictures, or twenty percent, or whatever, shouldn't be there. And then I confronted reality. I said, 'Let's just put those out. We made a mistake. We were guessing. We guessed wrong there.' And it was pointed out to me that we couldn't put any of them out; that the pictures had been borrowed from lenders and the lenders in their vanity would be mortally wounded, would say to the Museum: You asked me to lend my picture, now when you get it there you discover that it's not good enough. And so we had to put the whole goddamned thing on. Which very badly hurt it; which is to say with any show with a picture itself you edit it. And I was put in a position where I could not edit anything." (SR)

When asked what he meant by editing the picture, Motherwell replied:

Robert Motherwell:

"Oh, you can have a beautiful passage in a picture and want to retain it at any cost and ultimately realize that, beautiful as the passage is it's hurting the picture as a whole and then you paint it out. Or you paint a lousy picture and you burn it. Or whatever. Photographers do the same thing. They crop, they tear up, they throw away. Writers revise, change, get the galleys back, cut certain parts off. I mean it's part of the creative process. I was put in a position with the most important show of my life, perhaps probably the most important show I will ever have, and not being allowed to edit at all. So though it was marvelous that it happened at that institution that I love above all other institutions, it was not the show I wanted." (SR)

October 1965: The director of the Tate in London visits Mark Rothko.

Norman Reid visited Rothko in his studio to discuss the purchase of more paintings. The Tate had purchased Rothko's Light Red over Black (1957) in 1959. During their conversation the idea of having a separate room at the Tate to display Rothko's paintings on their own was brought up. Rothko wrote to Reid on October 16, "the whole idea sprang newly born as we sat facing each other. Since then, the idea has seemed better and better... So let us both think about it and I think for the present we should keep these ideas to ourselves." (RO513)

During their conversation Reid mentioned the Seagram panels. The Whitechapel Gallery in London had previously shown eight of the panels. In a letter to Reid dated December 8, 1965 Rothko wrote, "I have kept the entire exhibition which took place at the Whitechapel intact." According to Reid, Rothko later told him that he had offered the whole exhibit to The Museum of Modern Art in New York but that they declined it. (RO513)

October 13, 1965: Robert Scull sells thirteen Abstract Expressionist paintings at auction.

The Parke-Bernet auction was covered by Newsweek which noted that the auction "was bound to raise the question that the art world had been quietly asking: is Abstract Expressionism passé?" Scull was apparently selling off his Abstract Expressionist works in order to finance his Pop Art buying spree.

The New York Times (October 14, 1965) gave the results of the auction: Painting - 1951 by Clyfford Still went for $29,000. Barnett Newman's Tundra went for $26,000; Willem de Kooning's Police Gazette went for $37,000; Tobey's Wild Field went for $14,000; Franz Kline's Shenandoah went for $19,000, Kline's Initial for was sold for $18,000; and Rothko's Reds, Number 22 went for a relatively low price- $15,500. (RO642fn71)

November 9, 1965: Barnett Newman's mother, Anna, dies. (MH)
Late 1965: Mark Rothko hires Roy Edwards to be his assistant. (RO472)
Winter 1965 - Winter 1966: Philip Guston has an affair.

Philip Guston with composer Morton Feldman in Guston's New York studio on 20th St., NYC, 1965
(Photo: Renate Ponsold)

Musa Mayer:

My father was in crisis with his painting... His retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962 had left him nowhere to go... By the end of 1965, he had stopped painting altogether... Everything - his work, his marriage, his stature in the art world - seemed uncertain, in flux... For once, I didn't care about my father's reasons, his needs. All I knew was that at fifty-three (old enough to know better, I thought), he had left my mother for some young photographer from The Museum of Modern Art barely older than I was... My father's drinking was out of control. Robert Phelps remembers visiting my father in the hospital during this time, where he was drying out. "They had the most hectic, frenetic relationship" he says of my father and the photographer. "He talked incessantly about her, how madly in love with her he was ..." (MM132-33)

During his separation from his wife, Guston lived at least part of the time in a house he had built in Florida on Siesta Key, across from Conrad and Anita Marca-Relli. (MM136) According to Musa, her father "did scores of charcoal and brush drawings that difficult winter in Florida. Some of them were abstract and gestural; others were clearly figurative, but deceptively simple." (MM142)

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Abstract Expressionism

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