Abstract Expressionism

Ab Ex Contents

Ab Ex Essays


Abstract Expressionism 1970 - 1974

by Gary Comenas (2009, Updated 2016)

De Kooning was admitted into the clinic barefoot - his feet had swollen up so badly that his shoes wouldn't fit. Instead of his signature, he made an X because his hands were trembling so much. While there he attended AA meetings which he continued when he left although later, after his drinking continued, he told Mimi "I'm all right in the [AA] meetings, I just can't take it home with me. When I feel broken down I take a drink and that works for awhile.'" (DK567)


c. End 1969/early 1970: Rothko's Seagram paintings are packaged and shipped to the Tate Gallery in London. (RO518)
1970: Robert Motherwell moves.

Motherwell moved his main studio and residence from New York City to Greenwich, Connecticut, keeping his Provincetown studio and residence for the summers. (HM)

1970: Barnett Newman signs a "Declaration of Solidarity with Soviet Jews."

The declaration was organized by the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews. Newman spoke at the press conference announcing the declaration. (MH)

1970: Jackson Pollock's psychotherapist sells his pictures.

Pollock had given his psychotherapist (Joe Henderson) 82 drawings and one gouache during 18 months of treatment beginning in January 1939. Henderson sold the works to a San Francisco art gallery in 1970, causing him to be accused of violating his patient's confidentiality. (JP96)

Early 1970: Adolph Gottlieb has a stroke.

Gottlieb was confined to a wheelchair with his left side paralyzed. Despite the stroke he still attended Mark Rothko's funeral in February and also continued to paint. (LM4)

January 1970: Art News publishes a feature honouring the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its hundredth anniversary.

The article included a contribution by Barnett Newman:

Barnett Newman:

I have always had a distaste - even a disdain for reproductions and photographs of artworks - even those of my own work... I can only feel fortunate that my art education came not from the scrutiny of photographs and the spectaculars of slides or even from teachers, but... from myself in front of the real thing. (MH)

January 1970: Willem de Kooning goes to Japan.

De Kooning visited Japan on the suggestion of Fourcade who accompanied him on the trip. The World's Fair in Osaka was due to open in March and would include an exhibition by international contemporary arts, including work by de Kooning. The trip would also give Fourcade the opportunity to find new collectors for de Kooning's work. (DK529/530)

February 24, 1970: Mark Rothko has dinner with Rita Reinhardt.

During the dinner, Rita and Rothko discussed an appointment he had the following day with Donald McKinney, the Vice-President of the Marlborough Gallery. McKinney was to collect Rothko at his studio and take him to the warehouse where his paintings were stored. They planned on selecting works for purchase under Rothko's new contract with the gallery and also to find some missing paintings. Rothko had postponed the visit twice. McKinney would later comment that "I think he [Rothko] felt felt that he had sold enough paintings... that he had sold his soul. I think he wanted some privacy about his work, and I don't think he wanted us to know how much work was still available. I mean, any issue of selling to Frank Lloyd again, that was certainly an issue. But there were other issues, like he didn't want to disclose, to let us know what he still had." (RO542)

At dinner with Rita, Rothko complained about the third sale to the Marlborough within a year. Rita felt that Rothko was "uneasy about what Bernard [Reis] was doing and was "questioning and doubting him." She later recalled that Rothko had said "How dare Lloyd force his way into the warehouse to pick and choose from the long-treasured hoard of paintings." and "Why had Bernard pressed him to do this? Whose side was Bernard on?" Rita told Rothko that he did not have to complete the deal with Marlborough and that he could tell McKinney that she was ill and postpone the trip to the warehouse. But Rothko kept the appointment. By the time McKinney arrived at Rothko's studio the next morning, Rothko was dead.

Early Morning February 25, 1970: Mark Rothko commits suicide. (RO521)

Mark Rothko's body was found by his assistant, Oliver Steindecker when Steindecker arrived in the morning for work. Rothko was lying face-up on the kitchen floor of his studio in a pool of blood, his arms outstretched. He was dressed in an undershirt, long johns and long black socks. He had removed his glasses, shoes and trousers (which were found folded over the back of a chair) before slitting his arms with a double-edged razor. He first took the razor in his right hand (after carefully wrapping a tissue over one one side of the razor) and made a cut in his left arm. He then switched the razor to his left hand and made an even deeper cut in his right arm. Both cuts were made just below the bend of the elbow.

Upon seeing the body, Steindecker ran to Arthur Lidov's studio next door and knocked on the door. It was opened by Lidov's assistant who called Lidov who then immediately went over to Rothko's studio and saw he was dead. At 9:35 am the police and an ambulance were called. An intern from Lenox Hill Hospital, located nearby, officially declared Rothko dead. Rothko's cardiologist, Dr. Meade, was called. He arrived, examined the body, measured the pool of blood surrounding the body and noted the existence of two empty bottles of a sedative, choral hydrate. He concluded that Rothko had been dead for at least six to eight hours.

The first of Rothko's friends to arrive at the studio was Theodoros Stamos. He and Steindecker rang the deceased artist's family and friends. Stamos asked Lidov to photograph Rothko's body but Lidov refused. (RO543) Anne Marie Levine, and later Morton Levine, arrived at the studio and then brought Rothko's wife, Mell, to the studio in a cab. At about 12:35 pm Dr. Helen Strega from the medical examiner's office also arrived, examined Rothko's body, talked with Mell and tried unsuccessfully to ring Rothko's psychiatrist. She wrote a report suggesting that Rothko, in addition to slashing his arms, had also taken an overdose of barbiturates. (RO521-524)

Rothko had once discussed suicide with one of his assistants, Jonathan Ahearn, telling him "If I choose to commit suicide, everyone will be sure of it. There will be no doubts about that." Yet, he had left no suicide note. Lee Seldes, in The Legacy of Mark Rothko, cited the absence of a suicide note among other anomalies regarding Rothko's death which led some people to question whether it had been a suicide at all. The fact that Rothko was found without his glasses on was curious. He suffered from myopia so badly that, according to Seldes, it would have been unlikely that he could have cut his arms without them. Seldes also questioned the mode of death: "Why had he chosen to bleed to death when he was fearful at the sight of a drop of blood?" (LM309) In 1976, the painter Agnes Martin, expressed doubts about Rotho's suicide to Art News.

Agnes Martin:

I wish you could publish that I don't believe for a minute that Rothko committed suicide. Nobody in that state of mind could. He was done in, obviously... by the people who have profited or have tried to profit. (LM309)

Rothko's daughter also had doubts which she expressed to her lawyer, Edward Ross. According to Seldes, Kate Rothko "wished to be 'certain' that it had been suicide, to be relieved of any hideous doubt. A man who tends to take conspiracy theories seriously, Ross concocted several scenarios from the facts. He says he believes Rothko, from all he has learned about him, did not commit suicide." (LM309)

Some of the doubts about Rothko's suicide derived from the different accounts of the event given by Theodoros Stamos to different people at different times.

From The Legacy of Mark Rothko]: by Lee Seldes:

It was Stamos who had telephoned most people to tell them the tragic news before they read it in the newspapers. But many of those he telephoned give divergent accounts of what happened... Philip Guston, who believes Stamos called him about noon, says he thinks Stamos told him that he found the body, and that Rothko had slashed his armpits. Perhaps out of his own sense of drama, Stamos reportedly told several others that Rothko must have been in a frenzy: the studio and particularly the bed were a 'wreck,' and Rothko had clearly struggled with the sheets, which were 'all churned up as though a cyclone had stuck.' This varies with Lidov's memory and with the reports of the police and medical investigators. When they arrived, there was no sign of disarray; had someone cleaned up earlier?... Though Guston says he thought Stamos had told him he had found the body, to most others, Stamos later said that he was second on the scene after Oliver Steindecker - apparently forgetting or choosing to overlook Lidov and his assistant.

But the most puzzling aspect of Stamos's stories concerns the timing of his phone calls. One artist says she is certain that he called her at 9 a.m. sharp - before Oliver discovered Rothko's body. Stamos told her, she believes, that Rothko had cut his wrists and that Mell had been sent for. On later occasions, Stamos described to others how he, not Lidov, had forcibly restrained Rita Reinhardt from entering the studio.

Katherine Kuh also remembers Stamos calling her very early, and she believes that he said that Rothko had died of an overdose. Since Rothko talked of suicide to her six weeks earlier, she registered little surprise, just a numbing sadness and concern for the family and Rita Reinhardt. She asked about Mell's whereabouts. Mell, Stamos told her, was still in Washington visiting Rothko's nephew and would be back that afternoon.

Whether Stamos had been in a state of shock or people had been confused by their emotions at the time, or whether the obfuscation was something more serious is unclear.

On that Wednesday morning, Mrs. Reinhardt told Lidov and others that she had come to the studio that morning because she had promised to go to the warehouses with Rothko and McKinney. Afterward, Rita's explanation was that she was there because she had become alarmed when she telephoned Rothko and received no answer. Her arrival with McKinney was coincidental, she maintains. (LM311-12)

Seldes also notes that on the day after Rothko's body was found, Mrs. Reinhardt "told Lidov that she had talked with Rothko at midnight or thereabouts. And Stamos had told Ralph Pomeroy that he had talked with Rothko sometime in the early hours of the morning. He had repeated Rothko's complaints about the cold, leading Pomeroy to believe that Rothko must have been taking drugs. (LM312)

Lee Seldes [from The Legacy of Mark Rothko]:

The detailed notes that had been dictated by pathologist Judith Lehotay as she performed the autopsy tended to confirm the suspicion of the medical investigator on the scene - that Rothko had taken a big overdose of drugs. But what had happened to the missing medicine and their vials? Where was the Sinequan Dr. Kline had recently prescribed for his terrified patient? Why had no one but Dr. Allen Mead seen the empty vials on the floor, which had looked to him as though they had contained chloral hydrate? Where was the medicine for gout, hypertension, and all the rest? Had Rothko or someone else cleaned up all the medications and disposed of everything except the two empty vials found by Dr. Mead and the bottle half full of phenobarbital that Dr. Strega had found?

Signs of gastritis due to acute drug poisoning were found in Rothko's stomach and pylorus (the entrance from stomach to duodenum), according to Dr. Lehotay's report... All of this was what led Dr. Lehotay (and the four pathologists who had witnessed the autopsy) to conclude that there were two probable causes of death, loss of blood from the slashed brachial artery and acute 'barbiturate poisoning' ... But when Dr. Lehotay sent the contents of the stomach and samples of the tissues from the brain and liver with blood and urine to the toxicological lab, the lab found no trace of barbiturates... According to the report by Dr. Charles Ungerberger, the chief of the laboratory at the time, there was no alcohol in Rothko's blood, no 'basic drugs' in the stomach, no traces of barbiturates in the brain tissue, and no acidic drugs in his stomach. His findings completely contradicted the autopsy... (LM312-3)

When, in 1974/5, the discrepancy between the lab report and the autopsy was brought to the attention of Dr. Lehotay (who had never seen the lab report previously), she was convinced the lab had made a mistake. She suggested that Rothko's tissue samples be re-tested. The New York medical examiner keeps samples of the tissues of a corpse and these could be re-tested although new tests may require a court order. In early 1975 Kate Rothko's lawyers wrote the Acting Chief Medical Examiner Dominick J. di Maio requesting the tests but Maio never responded. (LM316)

Regardless of the anomalies in the reports and the gossip amongst the New York art scene, it is unlikely that there was any foul play involved in Rothko's suicide. The discrepancies in Stamos' accounts could be explained by the shock of the incident, Stamos' sense of drama or the faulty memories of those involved.

Prior to his death, Rothko was being treated for depression with the anti-depressant drug Sinequan and was also drinking heavily. Anti-depressants can worsen "suicidality" in some patients. Although the 2005 FDA-approved Medication Guide for Sinequan warns particularly of the danger of suicide when treating children and adolescents with the drug, the guide also notes that "Adults with MDD or co-morbid depression in the setting of other psychiatric illness being treated with antidepressants should be observed similarly for clinical worsening and suicidality, especially during the initial few months of a course of drug therapy, or at times of dose changes, either increases or decreases."

Drinking the amount of alcohol that Rothko drank while taking Sinequan contributed to him taking the Sinequan erratically - changing his dosage on a whim. Arthur Lidov later recalled Rothko commenting about his medication, "The doctor says take two of them, but who's counting?" (RO535) His personal doctor, Dr. Meade (sometimes spelled "Mead"), noted after Rothko's death that "right after Rothko would start with a new dose of Sinequan, he would become much more depressed and more irritable." (RO534)

The same morning that Rothko committed suicide his Seagram paintings arrived at the Tate Gallery in London. (RO518)

February 27, 1970: Mark Rothko's funeral takes place.

The funeral took place at 2:30 pm at the Frank E. Campbell funeral parlor. The body had lain in state since the previous day. Rothko's six year old son Christopher had placed a recording of Schubert's Trout Quintet in the coffin with Rothko's body and his nineteen year old daughter Kate added Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio. Theodoros Stamos, one of the three executors of Rothko's will who would later be sued by Kate and Christopher, placed a flower on Rothko's chest. (LM4)

Artists who attended the funeral included Adolph Gottlieb; Robert Motherwell and his wife Helen Frankenthaler; James Brooks and his wife, the artist Charlotte Park; Philip Guston; Jack Tworkov; Hedda Sterne; Barnett Newman and Lee Krasner. Other art world attendees included collectors Ben Heller and John de Menil; Alfred Barr Jr. and Dorothy Miller from The Museum of Modern Art; curator William Rubin; Henry Geldzahler from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; John Baur from the Whitney and Donald McKinney and David McKee from the Marlborough Galleries. Stanley Kunitz and Herbert Ferber spoke at the funeral, with Rothko's brothers reciting the Kaddish. (LM5-6)

Stanley Kunitz [from his funeral oration]:

... wearing his battered black fedora perched high on the glistening dome of his forehead... his nearsighted eyes behind the thick glasses are liquid with patriarchal affection and solicitude... Once I told him that he was the last rabbi of Western Art. And that made him smile, which was a relief, since one could never be quite certain when his face would darken.... Others could and still do produce paintings that resemble his, but Mark's transcendental quality, his effect of a pulsing spiritual life, of an imminent epiphany, was a secret he did not share with others and maybe only partly understood himself... (LM6-7)

April 1970: Henry Moore visits Willem de Kooning.

Henry Moore was in New York for a show at the Knoedler Gallery and visited de Kooning in the Springs. (DK531)

April 19, 1970: The New York Times Magazine publishes an account of Mark Rothko's death. (RO670fn4)

A journalist, Paul Wilkes, had been trailing two policemen, Patrick ("Paddy") Lappin and Thomas Mulligan for two weeks to research an article he was writing for The New York Times Magazine titled "Why So Many Real-Life Detective Stories End With a Rubber Stamp." He later condensed the two weeks into one day for his article. While he was trailing the policemen they received notification of Rothko's death. Although Wilkes gave the impression he was with the two policemen when they were called to the scene of Rothko's suicide in his article, he actually was not with them at the time but did return to the studio with them either at the end of the day or the following morning. By the time he arrived at the apartment, the body had already been removed, but he reconstructed the events in his article to give the impression that he was there when they discovered the body. (RO523)

Paul Wilkes:

The body is lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen and the water in the sink is still running. Lappin glances quickly around the room and sees that the double-edged razor blade that apparently inflicted the deep gashes has a piece of Kleenex on one side. 'Suicides are amazingly careful not to cut their fingers as they slash their forearms' says Lappin. The artist's trousers are folded neatly over the back of a nearby chair. 'Didn't want to get blood on them. And the water in the faucet was on because he didn't want to leave a mess for somebody. He did himself in at the sink and fell to the floor when his blood level got too low. And he has hesitation marks on his forearm - little cuts to test the blade while he thought about it.' Rothko's wallet is intact and there is no sign of rifling in the studio, which contains scores of the artist's works, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A call was to the artist's doctor reveals that Rothko had been despondent after a recent operation and that his health generally had not been good. 'An open-and-shut suicide' says Lappin. Although he has never heard of Rothko and has no idea what the artist's works are worth, he takes no chances; he arranges for the police to guard the studio 24 hours a day.

Wilke's reconstruction was taken as fact by many readers.

Robert Motherwell:

We were surprised to learn that his suicide was so ritualistic. We had been mourning him and then we happened to see that article a few months later and the pain was revived. (RO523)

April 27, 1970: Mark Rothko's will is admitted to probate. (MR)
May 1970: The Mark Rothko room opens at the Tate Gallery in London.

The Mark Rothko room (Gallery 18) contained all nine murals from the 1967 and 1969 bequests. (RO668fn21) The works were moved to the Tate Modern after it opened where they remain as of 2008 - exhibited together in a separate dimly lit room as per Rothko's request.

May 17, 1970: Barnett Newman receives a medal from the Brandeis University.

The university, located in Waltham, Massachusetts awarded Newman with a Creative Arts Medal in Painting. (MH)

May 21, 1970: Executors of Rothko's estate sell all of his paintings to the Marlborough Gallery.

All 798 paintings owned by Rothko's estate, and bequeathed to the Rothko Foundation, were sold by the executors of the estate - Bernard Reis, Theodoros Stamos and Morton Levine in two contracts, both dated May 21, 1970. In addition to being the executors of the estate the three were also directors of the Mark Rothko Foundation, along with Clinton Wilder and Morton Feldman. Reis, Stamos and Levine neglected to tell Feldman and Wilder that they were selling the paintings. (MR/RO541) They also neglected to consult Rothko's widow, Mell, or his two children, Christopher and Kate.

The terms of the two contracts were later revealed in court documents.

From Court of Appeals of New York, Matter of Rothko (43 NY2d 305), Court decision argued October 4, 1977, decided November 22, 1977:

... the estate executors agreed to sell to Marlborough AG., a Liechtenstein corporation (hereinafter MAG), 100 Rothko paintings as listed for $1,800,000, $200,000 to be paid on execution of the agreement and the balance of $1,600,000 in 12 equal interest-free installments over a 12-year period. Under the second agreement, the executors consigned to Marlborough Gallery, Inc., a domestic corporation (hereinafter MNY), 'approximately 700 paintings listed on a Schedule to be prepared,' the consignee to be responsible for costs covering items such as insurance, storage restoration and promotion. By its provisos, MNY could sell up to 35 paintings a year from each of two groups, pre-1947 and post-1947, for 12 years at the best price obtainable but not less than the appraised estate value, and it would receive a 50% commission on each painting sold, except for a commission of 40% on those sold to or through other dealers. (MR)

July 4, 1970: Barnett Newman dies.

Newman died of a heart attack at age 65. In his studio were three completed untitled works. On the wall of his studio was Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV. There were also two unfinished works in his studio - an eight by eighteen foot canvas and a right-angled triangular canvas.

Barnett Newman:

Some of twenty-two years ago in a gathering, I was asked what my painting really means in terms of society, in terms of the world... And my answer then was that if my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism. Because to the extent that my painting was not an arrangement of objects, not an arrangement of spaces, not an arrangement of graphic elements, was [instead] an open painting... to that extent I thought, and I still believe, that my work in terms of its social impact does denote the possibility of an open society. (MH)

Summer 1970: Willem de Kooning does lithography.

De Kooning's previous experience with lithography was when he and other artists were asked to contribute lithographs in 1966 to a book to memorialise Frank O'Hara. At that time, De Kooning did twenty drawings on Mylar to be made into prints and also made seven other original prints in 1966 with Irwin Hollander. In 1970 he did more lithographs at Hollander's workshop, initially using his Japan trip as inspiration, producing work such as Love to Wakako and Weekend at Mr. and Mrs. Krisher. Toward the end of the summer, he returned to women as subject matter, producing Woman at Clearwater Beach. By autumn he was doing denser work such as The Marshes. (DK535)

August 26, 1970: Mark Rothko's widow dies.

Mark Rothko had stipulated in his September 1968 Will that his brownstone house on 95th Street and its contents, including 44 paintings, should go to his wife, Mell. The remainder of Rothko's works (798) were left to the Mark Rothko Foundation. Under New York State law Mell was entitled to file 'elections' on behalf of her two children against the Mark Rothko Foundation. The state law stipulated that when a deceased person left his estate to a charitable organization, the children were still entitled to half of the estate should they elect to exercise that right. As the Rothko Foundation was registered as a charitable organization, Before her death Mell exercised that right on behalf of her and Rothko's two children, Kate and Christopher who were still minors. (Kate was twenty years old and Christopher seven). When Mell tried to find out more information about the paintings, however, she was given the runaround by the Marlborough Gallery and the executors of her husband's Will who were also directors of the Rothko Foundation. Katherine Kuh later recalled that Mell had expressed doubts about what was going on to her in the spring when they were walking together to a dinner party to which they had both been invited. According to Kuh, Mell said to her, "Katherine, I don't know what to do. I'm not sure, but I think there is some real hanky-panky going on with Mark's estate. It's all so tangled up I don't know how to handle it." (LM118)

Mell never had the opportunity to discover what was behind the "hanky-panky." She died suddenly on August 26th as she was walking to the bathroom in her home - the brownstone on 95th Street that Rothko had left her. She was only 48 years old at the time and, although a drinker, did not have any major health problems. No autopsy was performed. Someone rang her doctor who confirmed by telephone that she had high blood pressure so "Hypertension due to cardiovascular disease" was put on her death certificate as the cause of death. (LM120) No autopsy was performed and the actual cause of death remains unknown. Her own Will, written in 1959 before Christopher was born, stipulated that should she die Herbert and Ilse Ferber would become Kate's guardians. By the time of her death, however, the Ferbers had divorced and Mell had not spoken to them for years. (LM118)

From The Legacy Of Mark Rothko by Lee Seldes:

When Mell died, Bernard Reis [a director of the Mark Rothko Foundation and an executor of Mark Rothko's Will] was again visiting his daughter in California. On his return he made a thorough search of the brownstone, looking for a later Will, but finding none telephoned Ferber in Vermont to inform him that Ferber possibly was Mell's executor and Kate's guardian. A few weeks after the funeral, Kate made arrangements to meet friends at the brownstone where she planned to pack up some things to take back to Brooklyn. To her horror the house had been turned upside down. As her friend, Jackie Rice describes it, 'they had rifled through the house like vultures, pulling out all the drawers, going through the cupboards and closets, and scattering their contents'...

Early in October, Kate had a tearful meeting with the three executors at the Reis house. She asked if she could have her share of the inheritance in paintings, which would entail a little less than one-fourth of the estate (the children's share was subject to inheritance taxes, while the foundation, a charity, was tax-free) - or possibly about 150 paintings. All three executors, Kate says, assured her that she could have some paintings. Levine remembers saying that she ought to discuss just how many with her guardian, Ferber, and that he believed a 'judicious admixture' of paintings and money would be more prudent...

For a time Kate believed that the emotional meeting with the executors had resulted in a solution to her problems. But despite the assurances of the three men that day, her hopes of inheriting her father's paintings - or seeing any one of them on the walls of her ninety-dollar-a-month Brooklyn apartment - were frustrated. Mell's suspicions were to be confirmed. There was indeed some 'hanky-panky' afoot concerning the legacy of Mark Rothko. (LM121-2)

August 1970: Willem de Kooning meets Emilie Kilgore.

In mid-August Willem de Kooning was taken by Harold and May Rosenberg to a dinner in Bridgehampton given by the Iranian painter Manouche Yektai and his wife, Niki. Guests included Saul Steinberg, Robert Fizdale, Arthur Gold and Emilie Kilgore (nicknamed "Mimi") who, at the time, was married to a lawyer and partner of a venture capital firm.

Emilie Kilgore:

I was sort of transfixed... I think I was unaware of anything else going on. And we just talked, looking straight at each other for a long, long time. And then he was leaving, because he was going home with Harold and May, and he said, 'Am I ever going to see you again? You know, I don't drive a car. Do you ride a bicycle?... We could take a bike ride maybe. (DK537)

After meeting casually a few times, the two continued to see each other, upsetting Joan Ward who thought "The Emilie bit was just a little too much. It was getting a little too cutesy. We were getting older, and the same old game was being played out again." (DK539) Joan called Kilgore's husband in New York:

Joan Ward:

He [Mimi's husband John Kilgore] said, 'Can't you control your husband?' I said, 'Can't you control your wife?' He was mad. The next day Bill looked at me with a horrified admiration. "That was a terrible thing to do, Joanie. That man was very upset." I imagine he was. (DK539)

Between 1970 and 1979 de Kooning sent Mimi seventy-five long, passionate love letters, telling her "Day after day I have you in front of me... I see you in all other women. Your outlines are in my heart." In another letter, he compared his "strange and longing feelings" to those he had as a young man in Holland. (DK541)

Willem de Kooning [from a letter to Mimi]:

It has to do with having strange and longing feelings I had - many - years ago. I remember walking in quiet streets. In a part of the Hague in Holland which was close to the sea then. It is natural to have those longing feelings when so young. I am walking there again now. For you.

De Kooning drew a charcoal drawing of Mimi's head on the letter and wrote underneath "and love you." On a separate page he added a few more words - several of which were misspelled reflecting his Dutch background: "After reading the letter over... maybe it's not so really very good. And thinking it over... I remember when I was wayting for you at the Guggenheim Museum. What a gorgeous day!!!" (DK542)

October 1970: Philip Guston solo exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. (MM149)

Guston had joined the Gallery in 1966. He had left the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1962 - the year of his retrospective at the Guggenheim museum - in revolt against Janis' exhibition of Pop Art.

The exhibition at the Marlborough was the first showing of Guston's new work which was figurative and incorporated hooded Ku Klux Klan type figures.

Philip Guston:

About these hooded men... The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in L.A. In those years they were mostly to break strikes, and I drew and painted pictures of conspiracies and floggings, cruelty and evil... In this new dream of violence, I feel like Isaac Babel with his Cossacks; as if I were living with the Klan. What do they do afterwards? Or before? Smoke, drink, sit around their rooms (light bulbs, furniture, wooden floors), patrol empty streets; dumb, melancholy, guilty, fearful, remorseful, reassuring one another? Why couldn't some be artists and paint one another? (MM149-50)

It wasn't the first time that Guston had painted KKK figures. Herman Cherry, who organized Guston's very first exhibition at the Stanley Rose Gallery in Hollywood, had purchased a painting of his which included the hooded figures in 1933. The klansmen also appeared in the murals that Guston painted on the walls of the Los Angeles branch of the John Reed Club in the early thirties. In 1933, The Red Squad of the L.A. Police Department broke into the club and shot out the genitals and eyes of a mural by Guston which depicted a black man being flogged by Ku Klux Klan members. (MM19)

The new work was not well-received - the reviews were generally unfavourable or perplexed - as were some artists' reactions. Guston's wife wrote in her diary that "P. [Philip Guston] said Lee Krasner hadn't spoken to him at the gallery; had told someone that the work was 'embarrassing.'" (MM157)

Hilton Kramer gave a particularly scathing review with the title "Pretending To Be A Stumblebum" in the October 25, 1970 issue of The New York Times:

Hilton Kramer [from "Pretending To Be A Stumblebum"]:

Speaking of his new paintings and the startling change of style they represent, Philip Guston is reported in the current issue of Art News to have declared recently: "I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell Stories!" Well, the paintings - all 33 of them, most of them huge - have now come to the Marlborough Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, and they certainly tell us a story all right, though not perhaps the story the artist had in mind.

For some years now, at least for some people, Mr. Guston has been something of a sacred figure... Mr Guston was second only to Willem de Kooning in commanding the allegiance of those who found in both the ethos and the esthetics of Abstract Expressionism the last embodiment of the "New" they were prepared to embrace without reservation... If Jackson Pollock was the cowboy of the New York School, all muscle and violence, Mr. Guston was claimed to be its poet, all sensibility and shimmering delicacy.

... in offering us his new style of cartoon anecdotage, Mr. Guston is appealing to a taste for something funky, clumsy and demotic. We are asked to take seriously his new persona as an urban primitive, and this is asking too much. With a little help from (among others) Red Grooms and Claes Oldenburg, Mr. Guston is now attempting to do a Dubuffet, and even Dubuffet knows it is too late for that...

What these new pictures by Mr. Guston offer us, with their 'funny' Ku Klux Klan figures, their 'innocent' drawing and their "childlike" rediscovery of the world is the artistic equivalent of a "pseudo-event." As it happens, we already have a living master who has given us a whole new view of the socioesthetic terrain that Mr. Guston pretends to have illuminated in these paintings - I mean Saul Steinberg...

Robert Hughes also alluded to what Hilton Kramer had called Guston's "cartoon anecdotage" in a review that appeared in the November 9, 1970 issue of Time magazine.

Robert Hughes:

At 57, Guston has returned to painting figures. He has also turned political. It may seem a little late in the century to mount an entire exhibition on the theme of the Ku Klux Klan, but that is what he has done... Guston's obvious debts are to American graphic art, to 'some of the comic strips I used to really love - Mutt and Jeff, and Krazy Kat.' But the idiom is overloaded to the edge of portentousness...

Musa Mayer [Philip Guston's daughter]:

As a boy, my father loved the newspaper serials and comic strips. Particular favorites were George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Budd Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. For his thirteenth birthday, his mother gave Philip a year's correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Cartooning.

Philip Guston [1977]:

... when the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid...Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.

c. October 1970: Bernard Reis is shocked by the condition of the Mark Rothko's Harvard murals. (RO454)

Bernard Reis, through his connection with one of the Harvard chefs, managed to view the Harvard murals privately and was "shocked" by their condition. Agnes Mongan, who had replaced John Coolidge as Director of the Fogg Museum in 1969, wrote to the conservator of the Fogg Museum, Elizabeth Jones, that Reis "thinks they have been maltreated and that they are in need of care." He threatened to have the works removed and their care (or lack thereof, documented.) (RO454). Harvard was aware of the problem. John Coolidge had written to Eugene Kraetzer on October 26, 1967 that the murals were "in appalling shape. They have faded and changed color variably and in some cases extremely." He advised at that time that Rothko should be contacted to "discuss with him what should be done."

After Agnes Morgan told Elizabeth Jones about Reis' concerns, Jones recalled previously discussing the murals with Rothko in a letter to Agnes Mongan dated November 3, 1970. According to her, Rothko had said that he had used "mostly oil, that he had glazed over with egg white areas he decided to repaint (the deterioration of the central panel may be the result of this layering of paint) and that when he ran out of paint he had gone downstairs to the Woolworth's and bought some more paint - he didn't know what kind it was." Jones proposed giving the paintings "a light spray-coating of polyvinyl acetate to protect them" but Rothko "said he did not want me to do that." Jones concluded "There is nothing I can do, I'm afraid, about the deterioration of poor paint." (RO455/RO649fn24)

The deterioration may also have been due to Rothko's use of Lithol Red in painting the crimson backgrounds of all five panels and in the foreground images in two of them. It is now known that Lithol Red is very sensitive to light. (RO456)

November 1970: The Mark Rothko Foundation directors amend the certificate of incorporation.

The directors amended the certificate to stipulate that the sole purpose of the Foundation was "to provide financial assistance to mature creative artists, musicians, composers and writers." (RO541) With all of Rothko's paintings sold to the Marlborough by three of the Foundation's directors, there was no reason to provide provisions for the display of his works.

Rita Reinhardt:

I am still convinced that Mark wanted his paintings kept, put in the Foundation for the purpose of showing his work in the best possible way. And he was not interested in selling off his paintings for anybody. That was the furthest from his wishes. (RO542)

November 1970: The Whitney Museum shows 65 drawings by Jackson Pollock previously owned by his psychotherapist.

The 65 drawings were part of the lot of 82 drawings and 1 gouache that Jackson gave to his psychotherapist during 18 months of treatment beginning in 1939 (see January 1939 and January 1970). Lawrence Alloway reviewed the show in the November 2nd issue of The Nation, referring to the drawings as "heavy-handed and banal, the work of a man who did not get going as an artist until 1942." (JP96)


1971: The Phillips Collection sells Mark Rothko's Mauve Intersection through Park-Bernet. (RO648fn10)
February 28, 1971: The Rothko Chapel is dedicated.

The chapel, which was originally planned to be Catholic, was now ecumenical. Religious officials from Catholic, Jewish,Buddhist, Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Protestant presided over the dedication ceremonies. (RO474)

When first installed, the paintings were illuminated by a central skylight, sometimes supplemented by six floodlights surrounding the skylight and a row of flood lights about halfway down the ceiling.

Dore Ashton [from "The Rothko Chapel in Houston," Studio International (June 1971)]:

... the downright Americanness of this great misunderstanding of simplicity is seen in the tasteless, low skylight with its cheap aluminum mullions, its naked I-beam supports and its exposed bolts. Ever so functional. But fundamentally dysfunctional, for the searing Western light invades the entire chapel from its lowbrowed, shallow dome, and annuls the very essence of Rothko's work: its slow revelations in time. (RO655n67)

Lawrence Alloway [from "Art," Nation magazine, March 15, 1971]:

... too much light streams in by day, illuminating the middle of the floor like a skating rink, and pushing the paintings back out of the way. (RO482)

The strong Texas sunlight created other problems. It was damaging the paintings. Various efforts were made to deal with the problem. By 1974 a scrim was installed beneath the skylight to diffuse the light - serving a similar function that Rothko's parachute had served in his studio when he was creating the paintings. (RO482) In 1976 both Philip Johnson and Eugene Aubry were consulted about the lighting problem. In 1976, a wooden replica of the chapel was built on the outside lawn to help seek a solution. (RO655n68) The scrim was replaced by a metal baffle during the same year, leaving in shadow the lower parts of most of the paintings. (RO483)

April 2, 1971: Bernard Reis visits Rothko's Harvard murals again - this time with Alan Thielker, a restorer for Marlborough Galleries. (RO455)

Marlborough Galleries paid for the trip. (RO455) Although Reis had previously expressed his "shock" at the deterioration of the murals, he asked Agnes Mongan, the Director of the Fogg Museum, if Harvard was interested in selling the murals. (RO455)

June 1971: Willem de Kooning sculpts Clamdigger.

De Kooning returned to sculpture creating a large male figure which eventually evolved into Clamdigger. He explained the appeal of sculpting to Craft Horizons magazine in 1972: "You can work and work on a painting but you can't start over again with the canvas like it was before you put that first stroke down. And sometimes, in the end, it's no good, no matter what you do. But with clay, I cover it with a wet cloth and come back to it the next morning and if I don't like what I did, or I changed my mind, I can break it down and start over. It's always fresh." (DK545)

When de Kooning finished Clamdigger around March 1972, he dated it on the underside of the penis. (DK547) By late autumn he had finished other sculptures including Cross-legged Figure and Floating Figure in addition to Clamdigger, Seated Woman and the thirteen small figures from Rome. (DK 547)

In 1973 he would complete four new pieces. (DK559) In 1974 he completed his final sculpture, Large Torso. (DK559)

August 1971: Willem de Kooning leaves the Accabonac house and moves into his studio. (DK545)
October 21, 1971: Barnett Newman retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art opens.

Newman had begun planning the exhibition with Thomas Hess in 1969. (MH)

November 23, 1971: Kate Rothko and Christopher Rothko's guardian file a lawsuit against the owner of the Marlborough Galleries and the executors of Rothko's estate.

The lawsuit accused Frank Lloyd, the owner of the Marlborough galleries, and the executors of Rothko's will (Bernard Reis, Theodoros Stamos and Morton Levine) of conspiracy and a conflict of interest in regard to their sale and consignment of the 798 paintings left in Rothko's estate when he died.

The lawsuit, brought by Kate Rothko and the guardian of Christopher Rothko, sought to cancel the May 21st contracts (see above). They alleged that the gallery had paid much less for the paintings than their true value and under terms that were highly disadvantageous to the estate. (ML)

December 30, 1971 - February 1972: "Seven by de Kooning" exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art. (DK548-9)


1972: Robert Motherwell marries photographer Renate Ponsold. (HM)
1972: Robert Motherwell signs with Knoedler's.

Motherwell had previously been signed to Marlborough whose New York gallery was the Marlborough-Gerson. After being with Knoedler for two years, Motherwell commented, "I made twice what I had in nine years at Marlborough, and was given fifteen exhibitions." (LM67) During his first year he had exhibitions at Knoedler and Co. in New York as well as in their galleries located in London and Zurich. (HM)

1972: Xavier Fourcade leaves the Knoedler gallery to open the Fourcade, Droll Gallery. (DK491)
June 1972: Willem de Kooning and Mimi attend the Venice Biennale. (DK553)

De Kooning and Mimi stayed with her cousin, the artist Timothy Henderson.

June 26, 1972: The Surrogate Court issues a temporary restraining order against the Marlborough Gallery and the executors of Mark Rothko's estate regarding the sale of his paintings as contracted on May 21, 1970. (MR)
September 26, 1972: The Surrogate Court issues a preliminary injunction preventing the sale of Rothko's paintings by the Marlborough Gallery and Rothko's executors.

The order prevented the Marlborough and Rothko's executors from "selling or otherwise disposing of the paintings referred to in the agreements dated May 21, 1970, except for sales or dispositions made with court permission." (RO)

c. October 1972: Willem de Kooning has a final exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery.

Although de Kooning was still with the gallery he left Sidney Janis for - the Knoedler Gallery - he had one final exhibition at his previous gallery as part of a legal settlement negotiated by de Kooning's attorney, Lee Eastman and his son John Eastman. It would end 5 years of legal wrangling. According to Manuel Gonzalez who worked at the Janis Gallery at the time, "It was more of a lovers' quarrel than anything else. But Sidney thought he had won. All he wanted was a last show. He wanted to prove that he was right. He gave his lawyer an Arp to pay him." (DK548) As part of the deal Eastman retained the right to set the prices for the paintings. He priced them so high - around $80,000 per painting - that Janis sold few of the works. De Kooning's sculptures were also exhibited. (DK548)

End 1972: Willem de Kooning's daughter, Lisa, moves to New York.

After staying for a short period with her father in his studio in the Springs, she moved into a rented apartment on Third Avenue and Tenth Street, sometimes hanging out with the Hell's Angels whose headquarters was located nearby. She would later say "I felt safe with them." (DK546)

Heidi Raebeck [Lisa's roommate in 1973]:

I lived with LIsa and walked down St. Mark's Place, and there were hundreds and hundreds of young lost little hippie souls. There was a lot of mescaline and acid and psychedelic drugs. (DK546)

Lisa found work teaching at a local Head Start program before becoming the adoption coordinator for the ASPCA. De Kooning kept tabs on her through his friends who still lived in New York, such as Lou Rosenthal of New York Central Art Supply who lived near her and Carlos Anduze who would hover around Lisa at bars in the Village to help if she got into trouble. John McMahon was sent to New York occasionally to check on her. (DK547)


1973: A seven-inch tear is found in Panel Four of Mark Rothko's Harvard murals. (RO456)

The panel was removed for conservation.

1973: John de Menil dies. (RO462)
February 1973: Willem de Kooning is admitted into hospital (again).

De Kooning once again ended up in Southampton Hospital after a binge with a seriously damaged liver and pancreas. (DK558) A volunteer helper at the hospital later recalled that she saw de Kooning "sobering up maybe six times... You felt that nobody was taking care of him. He had this orphan quality." (DK565)

Nov. 1973 - Jan. 1974: "Lee Krasner: Large Paintings" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
October 27 - December 2, 1973: The "New York Collection for Stockholm" at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden.

The exhibition was funded in large part by the Swedish Ministry of Education. The honorary chairman of the show was the Mayor of New York City, John V. Lindsay. The poster was designed by Robert Rauschenberg. The catalogue featured text by Pontus Hultén, Emile de Antonio and Billy Klüver with statements from the exhibiting artists.

Pontus Hultén [from the catalogue text]:

In November 1971, J. Wilhelm Klüver [aka Billy Klüver] asked me to come to New York to discuss a project that had by then been in the picture for some months. The point at issue was whether it was worth trying to make up a collection of important works during the 60's, and if so where such a collection should be housed.

The organization of which Billy Klüver is president, and for which he took the initiative, Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), has during the 60's played the more important main role in the art life of New York, outside the official museums, the galleries, and the dealers... "

The new project was dubbed the "New York Collection." Apart from the interesting and meaningful task of putting together a major meaningful task of putting together a major collection to be housed on public premises, the original intention was to cater not only to the recipient of the donation but also in various ways to other interested individuals and groups in the art world, above all the artists, i.e. the originators, and initiators, i.e. EAT.

The "collection of important works during the 60s" exhibited at the Moderna Museet did not include any of the first generation Abstract Expressionists. Artists in the show were Lee Bontecou, Robert Breer, John Chamberlain, Walter de Maria, Jim Dine, Mark de Suvero, Öyvind Fahlström, Dan Flavin, Red Grooms, Hans Haacke, Alex Hay, Don Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, Richard Stankiewicz, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Noland and Robert Whitman. (Ray Johnson gets a name check in a piece by Nam June Paik which is "dedicated to the great communication-artist Ray Johnson.")

October/November 1973: Willem de Kooning goes to rehab. (DK558)

The artist, David Porter, visited de Kooning and Joan Ward one Saturday morning and found them in bad shape at the Accabonac house. Bill had helped Porter in 1970 when Porter suffered near fatal burns over 70% of his body. Bill had contacted nine successful artists he knew and asked each to contribute $500 to Porter and his wife because they "needed the money." Later when he went to thank de Kooning, Bill offered him more money, pulling out a roll of bills. Porter later recalled "I never saw so much money in life... He said it was $100,000. I said, 'Bill I don't need it now.'" (DK566)

When Porter saw the state of de Kooning during his Saturday morning visit, he asked if he would like to go to a treatment center. Porter was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and was already familiar with the treament centres on Long Island.

David Porter:

They [Joan Ward and Willem de Kooning] were both at the kitchen table and Bill's ankles were like this [extremely swollen]. He had no shoes on. And each was drinking solid dark brown alcohol, probably Scotch. He was so drunk. She wasn't so bad. I talked to them both. She said to Bill, "Do you want to try to stop drinking?" He said yes. So I said, 'I'll take you to a place that will help you stop drinking..." I drove [de Kooning] to Amityville, a long drive... the whole time he had his hands around me and I almost choked. It was terrible - I'll never get over that... And when Joan and I got him inside he couldn't sign his name... (DK566-7)

De Kooning was admitted into the clinic barefoot - his feet had swollen up so badly that his shoes wouldn't fit. Instead of his signature, he made an X because his hands were trembling so much. While there he attended AA meetings which he continued when he left although later, after his drinking continued, he told Mimi "I'm all right in the [AA] meetings, I just can't take it home with me. When I feel broken down I take a drink and that works for awhile.'" (DK567)


1974: Robert Motherwell is diagnosed with severe cardiac illness and has surgery. (HM)
1974: Fourcade, Droll organizes a traveling exhibition of Willem de Kooning's lithographs.

The show traveled throughout the United States until early 1977.

1974: Exhibition of Willem de Kooning's drawings and sculpture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (DK564)
March 4, 1974: Adolph Gottlieb dies in New York City.

Gottlieb had suffered a stroke four years earlier. His funeral service was held on Wednesday, March 6, 1974 at Frank E. Campbell. He was buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Hawthorne, NY. ("Deaths," The New York Times, March 5, 1974, p. 36)

Adolph Gottlieb:

The subconscious has been my guiding factor in all of my work. I attempt to deal with inner feeling. I reject the outer world - the appearance of the natural world. Subjective imagery is an area which I have been exploring. I was once asked by the Whitney Museum to make a comment on a show they put on called Nature and Art. I told them that, when I'm in the presence of nature, I never think about art, and when I am painting, I never think about nature... I am a painter who deals with feelings - my own feelings. I find people who react to them must have similar feelings.

Other painters had other approaches. I mean, Barney Newman always put a big literary superstructure upon a single line... I used to room with Barney Newman when we were just starting out. Barney couldn't paint at all. He just wrote. He used to write introductions to catalogues for Betty Parsons. He was never an artist. If he became an artist, he became a manufactured artist... Gorky was an artist. I knew Gorky from the thirties. I knew him through John Graham, who had been a friend of mine, and of course, Gorky and Graham were very close... Anyway, I wasn't friendly with Gorky, but I did know him for a long time. He was very difficult. He could be very caustic. But among painters, he was probably the most scholarly and astute... I always admired what he had to say. For example, one of the things I thought was actually very funny was when he referred to Social Realism as "poor paintings for poor people."

... I was never really enmeshed in the Action Painting group. But I admired what they did. I have always thought that painting was thinking in the form of action and that the whole idea of action painting is really an old idea. It all goes back to the Renaissance when it was called "Alla Prima" painting, where what appeared on the canvas was the final, spontaneous stroke, not based upon the underpainting that medieval painting used...

I may not have liked some of the artists of the fifties, but I never had any fights with them. I always had my fights with dealers... " (JG258-60)

September 1974: The Australian National Gallery buys de Kooning's Woman V for $850,000. (DK564)

It was a record amount paid for a work by a living American artist. (DK564)

Late 1974: John McMahon quits his job as Willem de Kooning's assistant. (DK565)

McMahon had married and would move to Atlanta. His wedding reception was held at de Kooning's studio. De Kooning gave McMahon a suit for the wedding - one of the suits he had purchased with Ruth Kligman in Italy. (DK565) Before leaving McMahon hired Dane Dixon as de Kooning's new assistant. Unfortunately Dixon, like de Kooning, was also an heavy drinker. (DK566)

to 1975

Abstract Expressionism

Ab Ex Contents

Ab Ex Essays