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Abstract Expressionism
by Gary Comenas

abstract expressionism

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Mark Rothko, Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb and The Opportunity Gallery

to: c. November 1928: Mark Rothko shows at the Opportunity Gallery

to: January 1929: Adolph Gottlieb exhibits at the Opportunity Gallery

Mark Rothko, Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb became friends around the time that all three were exhibiting at the Opportunity Gallery on 56th Street. According to Milton Avery's wife, Sally, "the start of the friendship between Gottlieb and Rothko and Milton really was based a lot on the Opportunity Gallery." (SW) Rothko began showing at the gallery in the autumn of 1928. It was the first group show he participated in. (RO91)

Sally Avery [Milton Avery's wife]:

"The first time we met Mark Rothko I think was in either 1929 or 1930. He was a friend of Louis Kaufman, a musician, who came from Portland, Oregon, where Mark was brought up. And Louis Kaufman was crazy about Milton's work and he was always bringing people to see it. One day he said to us, "I have an artist who came from Portland I'd like you to meet," and he brought Rothko over and Milton and he liked each other immediately... At that time they were both showing at the place called the Opportunity Gallery, which was a small gallery subsidized by the City that gave opportunity to artists to show their work. And they gave monthly exhibits which were more or less judged by some well-known artist like Max Weber or somebody else of that caliber. And each artist would submit one or two works and both Rothko and Milton submitted and they were accepted. And that was the same place that we met Adolph Gottlieb. So after that we saw each other a great deal. In fact, we went away summers together and we became very, very friendly. At that time Rothko was a student of Max Weber at the Art Students League and meeting Milton really changed his idea of what art was all about. After that, he stopped going to the League and began painting on his own more." (SW)

Work by Milton Avery was also included in the autumn 1928 show at the gallery that included Rothko's paintings. Modernist artist Barnard Karfoil acted as curator for the show, choosing which artists were included. In addition to Rothko and Avery the exhibition also included paintings by Louis Harris and Lewis Ferstadt. According to a review of the exhibition in the November 12, 1928 issue of the New York Sun, Karfoil chose forty works from two hundred submitted to the gallery. The review noted that "M. Rothkowitz [Mark Rothko] has a painter's vision." Another review of the show in the December 1928 issue of Creative Art praised "the landscapes of M. Rothkowitz." (RO579-80n35) Rothko lived with Louis Harris, one of the other artists in the show, when Sally and Milton Avery first met him.

Sally Avery:

When we first met him [Mark Rothko], he was living with Louie Harris in an East side tenement with the toilet in the yard or something... Someplace down on the East Side. I don't remember. Up three or four flights... There was an elevated train by where we lived when we first met him because we lived where Lincoln Center now is, and the 9th Avenue elevated went right by our place. But he lived...let's see now. When we moved to 72nd Street, he got a place right across the street from us and we used to go back and forth. You know, he was at our house every night till one day he said, "You have to come over to my place. I'm going to make the tea tonight." So we went over. It was just across the street. He worked there and lived there. He served us this tea and I said, "Mark, this tea tastes very funny. What did you do with it?" He looked over and said, "Oh, my God, I made it in the same pot I cooked my glue." (SW)

ADOLPH GOTTLIEB

In January 1929 Adolph Gottlieb participated in a group show at the Opportunity Gallery. It was at the opening of that show that he met Milton Avery. (AG14). The artists who exhibited at that show were chosen by Max Weber. In addition to Gottlieb, the exhibition included Nathan Kronitz, Edith Bry and Ly Stella Harding. Five paintings by Gottlieb were included.

Adolph Gottlieb:

"...towards the end of the '20's I was supporting myself with part-time jobs, working settlement houses... Then I'd work in summer camps, teaching arts and crafts. I wasn't much good at it but I got by. Then I began exhibiting and one of the first places in which I can recall exhibiting was something called the Opportunity Gallery which was on 56th Street. It had something to do with the Art Alliance. There was something called the Art Alliance and they had this gallery. It was for young painters and every month a different artist who was established would come and be the juror. Some of the artists were like Kuniyoshi, Alexander Brook, and whoever in the '20's was well known. Almost every month I'd submit something which would get in. So this was pretty good for me. Then I got to be known among the younger painters. One of the painters who used to show there was Mark Rothko and Avery. Milton Avery was given a one-man show there." (AS)

A short review of the exhibition appeared in The New York Times on January 20, 1929.

From The New York Times review:

"The young artists brought together here are not afraid to express what they wish, though many of them encounter difficulties through their technical limitations... Ly Stella Harding and Adolph Gottlieb are among the most developed of the oil painters." (NG)

MILTON AVERY

Gottlieb and Rothko became part of a group of artists centred around Milton Avery which included Paul Bodin, George Constant, Joe Solman, Vincent Spagna (AG16), John Graham, Barnett Newman, Wallace Putnam, Louis Schanker, Jack Kufeld and sometimes Louis Harris. (RO92)

Adolph Gottlieb:

I have always thought he [Milton Avery] was a great artist. When Social Realism and the American scene were considered the important thing, he took an esthetic stand opposed to regional subject matter. I shared his point of view; and since he was ten years my senior and an artist I respected, his attitude helped to reinforce me in my chosen direction. I always regarded him as a brilliant colourist and draftsman, a solitary figure working against the stream."

Joseph Solman later recalled that "Avery was older than us and his style was so well developed. We were all seeking the flat, the exaggerated, and the Expressionist in our own romantic different ways. He [Milton Avery] had fulfilled it." (AG16) Jack Kufeld later recalled that among the artists, there was "sort of an agreement generally that Avery was on the right track in terms of color relationships. And his simplicity." (JK)

Jack Kufeld:

"... every Saturday we used to meet at Milton Avery's. There was myself, Mark [Rothko], Adolph Gottlieb once in a while, and sometimes Lou Harris. We'd hire a model and we'd do some sketching and after it was all over we were supposed to contribute something. We'd have some kind of little party. I invariably baked a cake. I had a recipe and I made a cake. Everybody had something. I remember the kind of things that Mark used to to do - little drawings. They were very nice." (JK)

Poetry would often be read at the gatherings at the Avery's home - including the works of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. According to Sally Avery, Rothko "hated to paint" and was a "natural sufferer," but "used to tell fabulous stories. He was a continual raconteur." (RO93)

MARK ROTHKO

Sally Avery:

"He [Mark Rothko' was always a brooding type of person, but we just considered that was the Russian in him. No one thought of it seriously. I remember one incident that shows you how neurotic he was. He thought he was sick all the time. He thought he had cancer - I mean he was always imagining that he had these terrible diseases. And once he went into the hospital and stayed there three weeks and they did all sorts of tests on him; of course they didn't find anything... He was very much a hypochondriac... This was when we first met him in the '30s. But there were lots of times when he was just great." (SW)

Rothko's sketch books from the 1930s include drawings of Milton Avery, Milton and Sally and one of Milton, Sally and himself. Rothko's biographer James E.B. Breslin thought that Rothko's painting Mother and Child (c. 1938 - 1939) was based on Sally Avery and her daughter March. (RO93)

Mark Rothko's Mother and Child can be found at:
http://www.artnet.com/Galleries/Artwork_Detail.asp?G=&gid=1108&
which=&ViewArtistBy=&aid=14602&wid=424307395&source=artist&rta=http://www.artnet.com
.)

Jack Kufeld:

"I suspect that Mark learned a good deal from Avery in terms of Avery was pretty - how should I put it - pretty sure of what he wanted and he usually got what he wanted. And he does everything by his own aesthetic point of view. Like when he looked at my things the first time I came to him, he said to me, 'You've got it.' And I said, 'I've got what?' I didn't know what in the heck he was talking about. And what he was talking about was the fact that there was a kind of - how should I describe it - kind of tonality which Avery made a fetish of, you'll recall on his work. And I think Mark accepted that too and many other painters did too. (JK)

Willem de Kooning's wife, Elaine, recalled that Rothko once told her that Avery was the first professional, "24 hour a day" artist that he had met.

Elaine de Kooning:

"... Avery influenced Rothko. Rothko explained to me that Avery was the first person that Rothko knew who was a professional artist 24 hours a day. And he gave Rothko the idea that that was a possibility. But also Avery's attitude toward color - I mean, Rothko had much more to do with Avery. Of course, what Rothko had that Avery did not have was scale. And also Rothko freed the color from shapes. I mean, with Avery the color always inhabited shapes and, you know, logical divisions. So Avery was a very powerful influence on Rothko's life. However, when I mentioned that in my article about Rothko, he wanted me to delete it. He had this curious lack of generosity that certain artists have toward people to whom they are in debt. I mean, I was a bit disappointed in Rothko that he wasn't more accurate. I mean, where generosity was a matter of accuracy, he wasn't more generous. He should have been generous, but he didn't want to give credit where credit was due, which is very characteristic of a great many artists." (SE)

Mark Rothko, Jack Kufeld, Joseph Solman, Adolph Gottlieb and Louis Harris would all become members of The Ten - a group formed at Joseph Solman's studio on 2nd Avenue in late 1935 - which was one of four groups to participate in the opening exhibition of the Municipal Art Gallery which opened on January 7, 1936.

Gary Comenas
(London)

to: c. November 1928: Mark Rothko shows at the Opportunity Gallery

to: January 1929: Adolph Gottlieb exhibits at the Opportunity Gallery

abstract expressionism

| 1800-1899 | 1900-1909 | 1910-1919 | 1920-1924 | 1925-1927 | 1928-1929 | 1930 | 1931 | 1932 | 1933 | 1934 | 1935 | 1936 | 1937 | 1938 | 1939 |
| 1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 (a) | 1945 (b) | 1946 | 1947 | 1948 (a) | 1948 (b) | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 |
| 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964 | 1965 | 1966 | 1967 | 1968 | 1969 | 1970-1974 | 1975 - 1979 | 1980s+ |