Abstract Expressionism

Ab Ex Contents

Ab Ex Essays


Abstract Expressionism 1939

by Gary Comenas (2009, Updated 2016)

From 1929 to 1939 membership of the American Communist Party grew from 12,000 to 100,000. (SG18) By 1939 more than a million works of art had been produced under the WPA. (MM27)

1939: Barnett Newman becomes interested in botany.

Newman spent much of his free time at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. His wife, Annalee, got a regular teaching post at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens. (MH)

1939-1946: Joseph Hirshhorn runs an art collectors club.

The club consisted of six or seven businessman who would have lunch on Saturdays and visit artists in their downtown studios. (DK470)

1939: Clement Greenberg becomes an editor at Partisan Review.

Clement Greenberg was the son of Lithuanian Jews, born in the Bronx and mostly raised in Brooklyn, with a brief period in Norfolk, Virginia. After graduating from Syracuse University he moved to Greenwich Village in New York where he attended a summer session at the Art Students League. He also attended lectures at Hans Hofmann's school and made the rounds of galleries, often accompanied by Jackson Pollock's future wife, Lee Krasner. (DK221)

1939: "Figure Paintings" exhibition at the Marie Harriman Gallery.

Included were ten works by Picasso. (DK137-8)

1939: "Picasso before 1910" exhibition at the Perls Gallery. (DK138)
1939: Defeat of the Coffee-Pepper bill.

The bill would have created a permanent Bureau of Fine Arts.

January 1939: Jackson Pollock sees another psychiatrist.

Jackson was referred to Jungian psychotherapist Joseph Henderson by a friend of Helen Marot - the teacher who had hired him to be a janitor at he City and County School. Marot had remained in contact with Pollock after he left the job and was concerned by his continued drinking. Jackson would see the psychotherapist for 18 months. (JP94-5) The psychiatrist encouraged Jackson to bring in his work for Jungian analysis and Pollock ended up giving Henderson 82 drawings and one gouache. (JP96)

January 1939: The WPA Federal Art Project begins laying off artists.

The press had ridiculed WPA workers as "boondogglers" and "leaf-rakers" and rumours circulated that the program was to be shut down. Jackson Pollock's brother Sande wrote to their brother Charles in January that the "immediate concern" was "the lay-offs" from the program. He added, "There are one hundred and ten pink slips in the mail right now. The union is stirring and raising hell but frankly I can't see that we can do so very much about it." (JP94)

February 5 - 26, 1939: "Third Annual Exhibition: Art in a Skyscraper" takes place.

The exhibition was the third annual of the American Artists' Congress. (AA277)

March 1939: Arshile Gorky finishes his mural for the World's Fair.

Gorky received $250 a month while he was working on the mural, Man's Conquest of the Air. He was off the WPA from January 11 to June 9th, 1939. (BA281) Gorky's mural was eventually demolished and only preparatory sketches and gouaches remained. (BA283/522)

March 1939: Jackson Pollock is investigated by the government.

Jackson's brother Sande wrote to their brother Charles in March that he and Jackson had been "investigated on the project."

Sande Pollock [from the letter]:

We have been investigated on the project. Don't know yet what the result of it will be. Should they ever catch up with my pack of lies they'll probably put us in jail and throw the key away! They are might clever at keeping the employees in a constant sate of jitters. Jack is still struggling with the problems of painting and living. (JF45)

March 21 - April 17, 1939: Dali exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery. (MA305)
April 19, 1939: The World's Fair opens. (BA522)

Artists whose work appeared at the fair included Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Salvador Dali, Ilya Boltowsky, Louis Schanker, Byron Browne and Balcomb Greene

Philip Guston's World's Fair mural, 1939 (MM)

Guston's assigned theme was "Maintaining America's Skills." The New York Times noted "In a clear positive statement Guston has given visual form to a strongly felt abstract idea." Visitors to the World's Fair voted his work the best outdoor mural of the more than four hundred on exhibit. (MM31)

Willem de Kooning also painted a mural for the fair - In 1938 he was commissioned to design one of the three sections of the mural, Medicine, for the Hall of Pharmacy.

Hall of Pharmacy facade and mural at the 1939 World's Fair.
(Photo: Gottsch-Schleisner, Inc. (1939 or 1940). Lib. of Congress Prints and Photographs Div., Washington, D.C.)

Arshile Gorky di a mural, "Man's Conquest of the Air," for the Aviation Building at the World's Fair. (The mural has since been destroyed.)

Arshile Gorky's Man's Conquest of the Air

Salvador Dali did an underwater fantasy which featured topless mermaids wearing false breasts.

Footage of Salvador Dali's underwater fantasy at the 1939 World's Fair can be seen here (about 50 seconds in)
(or click on photo)

May 10-September 30, 1939: Art in Our Time: 10th Anniversary Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The exhibition was divided in to sections such as American Popular Art, Twenty-one Prints, Seven American Photographers, Houses and Housing and Cycle of Seventy Films. It was the first exhibition in the museum's newly constructed building, the Goodwin-Stone building at 11 West 53rd Street. The museum had opened in October 1929 in the Heckscher Building at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. In 1932 it moved to a townhouse, leased from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. at 11 West 53rd Street but had to move temporarily in early 1939 to a temporary location in the concourse of the Time-Life building in Rockefeller Center while the premises at 11 West 53rd were being re-built.

To mark the museum's opening in the new purpose-built building, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a radio speech on May 10, 1939 which was reprinted in the Herald Tribune the following day. In his speech he emphasised the link between the State and the museum, referring to it as a "national institution" and referred to traveling exhibitions as a way of bridging the gap between art and industry and the "great American public."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Because it has been conceived as a national institution, the museum can enrich and invigorate our cultural life by bringing the best of modern art to all of the American people. This, I am gratified to learn, will be done through the traveling exhibitions of the museum.

It is most important that the museum make these traveling exhibits an essential part of its work. By this means the gap between the artists and American industry, and the great American public, can be bridged...These traveling exhibits will extend the perspective of the general public, which too often has been accustomed to think of the fine arts as painting and possibly sculpture. But the proposed traveling exhibitions and nationwide shows will make all of our people increasingly aware of the enormous importance of contemporary industrial design, architecture, including the great social art--housing--which by its very nature is one of the most formidable challenges to a democracy, as well as photography, the printed book, the illustration, the advertisement, the poster, the theater and the moving picture.

He then went on to extol the American tradition of art as evidenced by the "great Treasury projects" of the WPA (a program he introduced) and the work of the WPA artists which reflected the spirit of "his fellow countrymen everywhere." (Presumably Mr. Roosevelt was unaware that many of the WPA artists were either die-hard Communists or Communist sympathizers.)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Art in America has always belonged to the people and has never been the property of an academy or a class. The great Treasury projects, through which our public buildings are being decorated, are an excellent example of the continuity of this tradition. The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration is a practical relief project which also emphasizes the best tradition of the democratic spirit. The W.P.A. artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere. I think the W.P.A. artist exemplifies with great force the essential place which the arts have in a democratic society such as ours.

For the Abstract Expressionists, however, the problem was that Roosevelt's "fellow countrymen everywhere" favoured realism (in the form of Regionalism or American scene painting), as did most of the people in charge of commissioning work for the WPA. Abstract art was the exception to the rule among the WPA artists.

Two nights before the re-opening of the museum there was a ceremonial dinner on the penthouse floor of the museum. Nelson Rockefeller replaced Conger Goodyear as the museum's president when the new building opened and Rockefeller presented him with a painting at the end of the dinner - Playbill and Dollar Bill by Realist painter William Harnett. The painting later turned out to be a fake.

May 1939: The Museum of Non-Objective Art opens.

Financed by Simon Guggenheim to house his collection of art, the museum was run by his mistress, the baroness HIlla Rebay. Guggenheim's collection included Kadinsky, Hans Arp (another of Rebay's lovers), Chagall, Delaunay, Klee, Moholy-Nagy and Vlaminck. The museum was located in an ex-car showroom at 24 East 54th Street that had been re-designed by William Muschenheim. Arshile Gorky knew both Muschenheim and Rebay. He attended tea parties given by Rebay and stayed with the Muschenheims in August 1939. (BA287) Rebay thought Surrealism was "crazyism." (BA285) but that non-objective art reached "the cosmic beyond where there is no meaning, no intellect, no explanation, but something infinitely greater - the wealth of spiritual intelligence and beauty." (EH)

May 1939: Wolfgang Paalen emigrates from France.

Wolfgang Paalen with his portrait of fellow surrealist, André Breton, c. 1942 - Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City
(Photographer unknown)

Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen arrived in the U.S. with Alice Rahon and Eva Sulzer. After visiting New England they departed for British Columbia and, in September 1939, made their home in Mexico. (On September 16, 1939 André Breton wrote a letter of introduction on behalf of Paalen to Leon Trotsky's secretary in Mexico (SS115)) It was in Mexico that Paalen met Robert Motherwell, who would work with Paalen on Dyn magazine in 1942. When, in 1945, Motherwell worked with George Wittenborn on the Problems of Contemporary Art series, the first book to appear as part of the series was Paalen's Form and Sense. (SS188-9) In 1947 Paalen stayed in San Francisco where he, Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican formed the Dynaton group which would have an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum in 1951. Paalen committed suicide in Mexico in 1959.

From Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School by Martica Sawin:

Following the Dynaton show Paalen moved to Paris where he rented Kurt Seligmann's house in the Villa Seurat and attended Breton's meetings at the cafe in the Place Blance... by the middle of the decade Paalen was back in Mexico where he married an old friend, Isabel Marin, sister of Diego Rivera's first wife, Lupe. There was no sequel to the ground-breaking ideas he had articulated in his essays for Dyn, and he was never quite able in his painting to follow through on the implications of his brilliant and prophetic works of the early 1940s. He continued to deal in Mexican antiquities and became implicated in a scandal involving stolen objects. In 1959 he took his life, having arranged by letter in advance for a friend to come to Taxco to collect his body and even having paid beforehand for that friend's expenses at the hotel. (SS419)

According to Sawin, "Although Paalen was something of a Marxist, he was a strong anti-Stalinist... He concealed the fact that one of his parents was Jewish, which was not extraordinary under the circumstances, yet undoubtedly a source of some of the anxieties that beset him. He remained deeply disturbed over the fact that one of his brothers had committed suicide and another had disappeared. He told his American neighbour, Edward Renouf: 'All my life is seeing if I can find my brother again.'" (SS253)

May 1939: Picasso's Guernica is exhibited at the Valentine Dudensing Gallery.

During the same month that Roosevelt was extolling the virtues of the Museum of Modern Art as a means of exporting American democracy, Guernica had arrived at the Valentine Gallery on a tour to raise money for the the Spanish fight against Fascism. Stuart Davis was on the committee that brought the painting to America.

Willem de Kooning attended the exhibition with his wife-to-be Elaine Fried who later described their reaction: "We were stunned - really bowled over - by Guernica. Talk about passion. It was just pouring out of that enormous painting. Bill and I just stood before it - in awe, in wonder, and in a kind of terror. We didn't talk for a long time." (DK164/138)

Dorothea Tanning recalled visiting the exhibit and being treated to a talk by Gorky about the work.

Dorothea Tanning:

We listened as a gaunt, intense, young man, with an enormous Nietzchean moustache, sitting opposite us talked about the picture. It was not his accent, which I couldn't place, that held me, but the controlled passion in his voice, at once gentle and ignited, that illumined the painting with a sustained flash of new light... Only afterward I was told that the man's name was Arshile Gorky. (BA284)

Another visitor to the gallery was Jackson Pollock who viewed the painting as well as the preparatory sketches. He visited the gallery numerous times, sometimes sketching. (PP319)

May 20, 1939: Arshile Gorky becomes an American citizen.

Gorky was now officially eligible for WPA programs and various grants and fellowships which were denied to aliens. When Vartoosh's son, Karlen, later wrote a book on Gorky after the artist's death, he asked his mother why it had taken so long for Gorky to become a citizen. Vartoosh responded, "No reason. It was like that in those days. Don't mention that in your book!" (HH180/BA288)

May 23, 1939: Franz Kline celebrates his 29th birthday at the opera.

Franz Kline and his wife, Elizabeth, attended a gala performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera. Several days later he purchased second-hand recordings of the opera. Kline's interest in Wagner would be reflected by the titles of various works - Wotan (1950), Siegfried (1958), and Curvinal (1961). (FK177)

Spring 1939: Franz Kline paints a backdrop for a fortune teller.

The backdrop was for a fortune teller in a nightclub, possibly the Pepper Pot on West Fourth Street. (FK177)

Spring 1939: Dr. Theodore J. Edlich, Jr. visits Franz Kline in his studio.

Edlich was Kline's doctor and an early patron of the artist, commissioning portraits of his wife and three sons, including Stephen (Portrait of Steve (1946)) who would later become an artist. Other commissions from Edlich included a Gandhi portrait from a photograph that appeared in a newspaper and a painting of Washington Square on a folding screen that the doctor placed of front of his examination table. On the back of the screen Kline painted characters from Greenwich Village in the style of Phil Mays. According to Edlich prints of the characters had originally been pasted on to the screen but they fell off as Kline carried it to Edlich's office. (FK46/FK177)

Kline also met another early patron in 1939 - I. David Orr. They were introduced by Sam Kramer, a silversmith in Greenwich Village who, like Kline exhibited his work in Washington Square art shows. Klein painted six portraits of Orr and often worked at Orrs' home. Orr would eventually commission a total of thirteen portraits of family members - his mother (Portrait of David Orr's Mother (1951)), his sister, wife and daughter Sue over the period 1941 - 1951. (FK46) In 1943 Kline would incorporate painted images derived from eight different photographs of Orr's relatives into Vanished World, a dark interior featuring a Jewish bride. (FK47)

A third patron-friend introduced to Kline in 1939 or 1940 was Harry F. Bent who collected books, records and art and was introduced to Kline by a Village character nicknamed 'The Major.' (FK46)

Summer 1939: Peggy Guggenheim closes her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London.

A party was held for the last show on June 22, 1939 at which Gisele Freund showed her color slides of cultural luminaries such as James Joyce, H.G. Wells, Marcel Duchamp and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Peggy was pregnant at the time and would have an abortion not long after. (MD184)

July 1939: The Federal Art Project is reorganized as the WPA art program. (PP319)
c. July 23 - August 7, 1939: "Fourth Annual Competitive Exhibition" at the ACA Galleries.

The show was the fourth juried exhibition of the American Artists' Congress. (AA278)

Summer 1939: Mark Rothko and his wife stay at Trout Lake, New York.

While on vacation, Rothko held an informal art class for vacationing students in the area. (RO148)

Summer 1939: Gordon Onslow Ford rents a chateau in Chemillieu, France.

Onslow Ford and guests at the chateau in Chemillieu. L to R: Anne Matta, Ithiel, Matta, Onslow Ford (with sunglasses) and Esteban Frances (SS)

British-born Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford had moved to Paris from England in 1937 determined to become an artist. During his first year in Paris Ford met and befriended the Chilean Surrealist Matta. During the summer of 1939 Ford rented a chateau at Chemillieu and was accompanied there by Matta and his wife Anne, the Spanish painter Esteban Frances and Yves Tanguy with André Breton arriving soon after to join the group who were in the midst of making arrangements to immigrate to the United States in view of Hitler's advance into Europe. Staying in a nearby pension was Kay Sage (Princess di Faustino) who would marry Tanguy the following year in Reno, Nevada.

From Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School by Martica Sawin:

Although they [Ford, Matta and Esteban Frances] regarded the visionary works of Tanguy as part of their ancestry and also looked beyond him to his source of inspiration, De Chirico, these three artists, then in their mid-twenties, were creating paintings that were radically different than those of the preceding generation of Surrealists. Matta had brought from architecture a great facility in the depicting of multidimensional space. To this he added drawings made from a book of botanical photographs... At the urging of Onslow Ford, he then began to supplement his line drawings with amorphous sweeps of color... Onslow Ford had been working on a series of 'transparent mountains' in which he tried to deal simultaneously with solidity and transparency... Another work of this period is seminal for what he was to take up later; Man on a Green Island includes a small configuration of the kind he was later to call 'live line beings.' This personage (his term for spirit presences) is isolated in a limitless space over which the artist imposed a grid of lines, almost like navigational coordinates on a chart. From the little that can be retrieved of the work of Esteban Frances, it appears that he was working in a direction similar to that of Matta and Onslow Ford... His technical polish gives his work a drier, less experimental look, but his interest in non-Euclidean structures with conflicting perspectives and multiple vanishing points coincides with theirs. (SS61-62)

Summer 1939: Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning visit Balcomb Greene in Fishkill.

Gorky and de Kooning spent a fortnight with Greene in the countryside near Fishkill in the Hudson Valley, along with other visiting artists. Greene later recalled, "Gorky loved to go around without a shirt and with flowers stuck in his hair," and that "Socially, his [Gorky's] happiest moments were probably in the country... Sitting around after dinner outdoors where he cooked his shish-kebab and then we would sing. He really had a very beautiful voice." (BA286-287)

Summer 1939: Adolph Gottlieb paints Surrealist sea still-lifes.

From "Adolph Gottlieb: His LIfe and Art" by Mary Davis McNaughton in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective:

... beginning in the summer of 1939 in East Gloucester he [Adolph Gottlieb] focused on still-lifes of sea objects in a more illusionistic style influenced by Verist Surrealism... Although Gottlieb had been interested in Surrealism for several years, it was in 1939-40 that he clearly incorporated it in his work. He was first impressed by the work of de Chirico and Dali, which were then being exhibited in New York. In Picnic (Box and Figure) (1939-40)... Gottlieb recalls de Chirico's metaphysical painting in his creation of an unreal space with a rectangular box in an empty landscape. Gottlieb's manikin figures derive directly from de Chirico's work of 1915-17, such as The Duo (1915)... Gottlieb pursues the theme of spatial dichotomy in Untitled (Box and Sea) (1939-40)... His arrangement of the box against a remote sea and sky suggest the example of Dali's Illumined Pleasures (1929)... which was exhibited in 1936 at the Museum of Modern Art [in the "Fantastic, Art, Dada, and Surrealism" exhibition]... His [Gottlieb's] style is more painterly than Dali's and his space is flatter. To reduce a sense of recession Gottlieb also paints the box frontally and buries its interior perspective lines in Shadow. For the first time he simplifies the composition of one box with multiple compartments, which was suggested by a slotted, wooden bottle crate he had seen on the beach in Gloucester. This kind of box also points to Gottlieb's awareness of Joseph Cornell's works, such as Soap Bubble Set (1936)... which, in 1936 had been exhibited in "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" and illustrated in Julien Levy's book, Surrealism. But Gottlieb takes a different approach to the box than Cornell, working in two instead of three dimensions... In Box and Sea Objects Gottlieb creates Surrealist-inspired metamorphic images... He also gives objects sexual innuendos... This sexual imagery, revealing his interest in the later thirties in Freud, resurfaces in more abstract form in his Pictographs of the forties. (AG24-5)

August 10, 1939: 400 writers, artists and intellectuals publish a petition in favour of Soviet Union.

The petition was a reaction to criticism of the Soviet Union. As news of the Moscow Trials filtered through to the United States many intellectuals began to question the idea of a Popular Front with the Soviets. Organizations were formed, such as the League for Cultural Freedom and Socialism (established by Dwight Macdonald) and the Committee for Cultural Freedom (headed by Sidney Hook and John Dewey), which condemned totalitarianism in any form whether it be under Fascism, Communism or American Capitalism. (SG28/38)

The petition defending the Soviet Union was published in the August 10th issue of Nation magazine. (SG38)

August 17, 1939: The WPA drops Mark Rothko.

Rothko was handed his pink slip on August 17th and was no longer employed by the WPA Federal Art Project. (RO121/147)

August 23, 1939: Hitler and Stalin sign the Russo-German pact.

Just two weeks after Nation magazine published the petition of 400 American intellectuals defending the Soviet Union, the Soviets signed a non-agression pact with Fascist Germany. The pact included a secret protocol for the partition of Poland. Supporting Stalin in in view of the Moscow trials and, now, the pact with Hitler's Germany, became increasingly difficult for American intellectuals.

c. Late August/September 1939: Mark Rothko and David Smith end their friendship.

From Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E. B. Breslin:

As they had for the last few summers, Rothko and Edith rented an abandoned schoolhouse at Trout Lake, New York, about seven miles north of Hearthstone Point, where they had first met seven years before... Just 'over the hill,' was the Bolton Landing farmhouse where Davis Smith lived with his first wife, Dorothy Dehner. Smith and Rothko had been friendly for several years, though Smith mockingly labeled Rothko, 'the sad rabbi' and the two men had increasing political difference. In 1940 the radical Smith would stay with the Stalinist American Artists' Congress from which the liberal Rothko would split.

Not long after the signing of the German-Soviet pact in August of 1939, Rothko and Edith came to a lunch at which, Dehner recalled, the two artists 'renewed' their political debates. Smith offered the standard American left account of the treaty: the Russians were 'buying time.' But Rothko didn't buy that at all. His position focused on anti-Semitism. 'I think he feared the persecution of Jews wherever it might be and I think that was very prominent in his political attitudes, how the Jews were being treated,' said Ms. Dehner. The argument effectively ended the Rothko-Smith friendship. (RO148)

Autumn 1939: Avant Garde and Kitsch by Clement Greenberg is published.

Clement Greenberg's article, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" was first published in Partisan Review VI, no. 5, Fall 1939, pp. 34-49. In the article, Greenberg defended socialism and railed against the state-endorsed "kitsch" art of Germany, Italy and Russia, arguing that "the encouragement of kitsch" was "merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects." (AT548)

see "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" by Clement Greenberg

September 1, 1939: Germany invades Poland from East Prussia and Slovakia.

The invasion of Poland was the first battle of the German Blitzkrieg ("Lightning War").

Arshile Gorky was at the studio of Isamu Noguchi when the Blitzkrieg was announced. Artist David Margolies arrived with the news. Gaston de Havenon was also there. They took turns at contributing to group drawings expressing their feelings abstractly. Later Gorky went to the Art Students' League where other artists were discussing the beginning of the Blitzkrieg including Raoul Hague, Jackson Pollock, Reuben Nakian and Philip Pavia.

Philip Pavia:

He [Gorky] made a big speech to all of us. He said the Blitzkrieg was wrong, and he didn't like Hitler, but he said the idea of instantaneous war was exciting, and that we should make art instantaneous. That's when Gorky started to give classes at the Grand Central Art School. He called them "Blitzkrieg Classes." (BA289)

September 2, 1939: Mark Rothko sketches Joseph Liss.

Mark Rothko and his wife spent Labor Day weekend with Joseph and Milly Liss in a rented cottage on the Housatonic River near Derby, Connecticut. Rothko had met Liss in the mid-1930s. Liss was a writer studying with the Theater Collective. Rothko had stepped on a nail the day before and had to have a tetanus shot which kept him off his feet. (RO149)

September 3, 1939: France and Great Britain declare war on Germany.

Both countries had a treaty with Poland which stipulated that an attack on one of the countries would mean an attack on all three.

September 17, 1939: Soviet troops invade Poland.
September 1939: Leonore Gallant visits Arshile Gorky's sister, Vartoosh, in Chicago.

Leonore was returning from a visit to Canada and Gorky was still love with her. He warned his sister Vartoosh, "Don't say anything about Father to Leonore." Gorky had kept the existence of his father a secret and had told others in New York that he was dead. Presumably he still felt that his father had deserted the family in Armenia - a fact he hid when he was regaling other artists with stories of his childhood - also omitting the horrors of the Armenian genocide he had witnessed.

Gorky was unable to make the trip to Chicago because he couldn't afford the train fare. Leonore impressed Vartoosh by singing Gorky's Armenian songs. Apart from the love letters he sent to Leonore, he also gave her numerous pictures, including a small oil painting of flowers (inscribed "To My Lovely Leonora With Love Arshile, 1939), a colour gouache of the Marine Building at the World's Fair, a still life of flowers in a vase and various drawings - horses, seated and dancing figures, portraits of her and scenes from his childhood. (BA287)

September 1939: Kurt Seligmann arrives in the United States.
October 1939: Yves Tanguy arrives in New York.

Following the declaration of war by Great Britain and France against Germany in September, Kay Sage made plans with Yvon Delbos, the French Minister of Education for a series of exhibitions in New York with the proceeds going to help artists in France. It was agreed that Tanguy would travel to New York to inaugurate the series. Tanguy's first solo show in New York would be at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in December 1939. (SS67/70) The gallery eventually agreed to provide Tanguy with a monthly stipend in exchange for one painting a month. (SS70/178)

October 1939: Matta arrives in New York.

Matta (Roberto Antonio Sebastián Matta Echaurren) was a Chilean artist with an architectural background who studied at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago before moving to Paris in 1933 where he become involved with André Breton's Surrealism group. (see ANDRÉ BRETON: Surrealism, Dada and the Abstract Expressionists) (SS70) (RO181) (DK172) (RO147) He arrived in New York with his wife, Anne, who he divorced in 1943 after she gave birth to twins.

According to de Kooning biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Matta encouraged Arshile Gorky to to dilute his paint to achieve a freer look and to use accidental drips "to spark improvisations." (DK173) Gorky's friend, Robert Jonas later explained "Gorky had Surrealism innate in him because of his Armenian background, independently of the Surrealists. They didn't implant it in him. Fantasies and dream images have been present through the ages. And his Armenia abounded in them." (DK173)

In 1948 Matta had a brief romantic liason with Gorky's wife just prior to Gorky committing suicide. He was then expelled by André Breton from Breton's group of Surrealists because of the affair but rejoined their fold in 1959.


Matta (1941)
(Photo: Sidney Janis (WR))

Julien Levy [art dealer]:

Matta burst on the New York scene as if he considered this country a sort of dark continent, his Africa, where he could trade dubious wares, charm the natives, and entertain scintillating disillusions... For me, he was easily the most fertile and untrustworthy of the younger Surrealists.

A newcomer to Surrealist ranks, he came recommended by André Breton... He appeared at my gallery confident, exuberant, and mercurial and produced a portfolio of explosive crayon drawings, vowing he would complete enough canvases for an exhibition in the next two months if I was interested... He and his wife, Anne, soon found a small cold-water room in picturesque Patchin Place in the Village. I had recently moved to the Village to Grove Street, so were neighbors and began to see each other frequently outside of working hours... Matta and I explored the village for cheap but good eating, looking for the New York equivalent to the bistros of Paris, and in those days we were often successful... Evenings I participated in Matta's preparation for his show, as his neighbor, rather than his dealer. He showed me his sketches and canvases as they progressed... He found a shop that sold fluorescent mineral paints, bought a special lamp that burned with "black light" that activated the colors of the minerals, and excitedly began a series of paintings using a palette of these fluorescent colors... Even without the black light, Matta's show was colorful, meteoric and mystifying... Instead of a catalogue for the Matta show I published a leaflet in the form of a pseudo-newspaper... with the collaboration of two of the more interesting young poet-critics, Nicholas Calas and Parker Tyler... I invited [James Johnson] Sweeney to a preview. He was polite and noncommittal... The exhibition was a resonant flop... Several summers later, when I saw Matta again, it was the year he had his "eye put out of joint." He had been commissioned to paint a mural in a bar-restaurant in Southampton... He had a black patch over one eye; the other eye was inflamed, too, and seemed infected. He was very excited about the hidden obscenity he was incorporating in his mural. He showed me a few sketches; I never saw the finished work. He was separating from Paquarito because she was subjecting him to the indignity of becoming a father. "I take it as a form of half castration," he said. "I consider fatherhood an indignity to my testicles, and that is why I am losing one of my eyes, because I have displaced from the lower balls to the eyeballs..." It soon turned out that Parquarito gave birth to twins - two unidentical boys. (MA247-52)

According to Levy, "When Pierre Matisse opened his gallery he took over Calder, de Chirico, and later Giacometti, Matta, and Tanguy." (MA136)

Surrealist artists would continue to arrive from Europe during the next few years. Breton was a relatively late arrival in 1941, followed by Duchamp in 1942.

Robert Motherwell:

...all the Europeans worked very hard... And where they were very lucky was that the best galleries - Curt Valentin, Pierre Matisse, Julien Levy and so on - were all for them, so that if they had the work they could immediately have shows at the galleries, make a living and so on. But they were in dead earnest because they were really up against it. And the main meeting place was the so-called Free French Canteen. This was a sort of store front that Pierre Chareau redesigned and where sort of high society Francophile Americans would provide wine and coffee. On the Fourteenth of July there's be dancing and so on. It was a kind of wartime European-in-exile canteen and people would meet there in a very friendly way. You see, Paris still at that moment in 1910, 1941, 1942 was the queen of European culture. And so France became the symbol of the whole shooting match. Russia was Stalinist. Germany and Central Europe were Nazi. The English hadn't been very involved in the modern art scene. So it was everybody who was connected with Paris and therefore with the Free French Canteen. (SR)

October 23 - November 4, 1939: Last exhibition of The Ten.

The group's final exhibition was at the Bonestell Gallery at 106 E. 57th Street. The members of The Ten at the time, as listed on the flyer for the exhibition were: Ben-Zion, Ilya Bolotowsky, David Burliuk, Earl Kerkam, Ralph Rosenborg, Marcus Rothkowitz [Mark Rothko], Louis Shanker and Joseph Solman. Karl Knaths and Jean Liberte were both listed on the flyer as "guest" exhibitors. The Ten broke up after the exhibition. Bolotowsky joined the American Abstract Artists.

Earl Kerkam of The Ten had exhibited in their first exhibition at the Mercury Galleries in 1938 as a guest . Born in in the late 1800s, Kerkam was primarily a figurative artist who socialized with and was respected by many of the Abstract Expressionists. He was Franz Kline's roommate for six months in 1948 who he had originally met in 1940 at the Washington Square Art Show. (FK73) He referred to Kline as a "drunker Mondrian."

Franz Kline:

... I've always liked Tintoretto, Goya, Velásquez and Rembrandt. Rembrandt's drawing is enough in itself! Then, too, people like Earl Kerkam have affected me; I've talked a lot about drawing with him. I think the reason his work hasn't caught on more is because he's always been so out-and-out honest about the artists he's been influenced by. He hasn't hidden them. If he liked Cézanne, he used Cézanne. He definitely believes in influences, but naturally he's not an imitator. (KK143)

After Kerkam died in 1965, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and others petitioned The Museum of Modern Art to show his work, writing "Kerkam in our eyes is one of the finest painters to come out of America….(W)e could afford the stimulation such an exhibition would provide us and the younger generation who have not had the opportunity to study his work.”

Although respected by other artists, Kerkam never achieved the success of many of his colleagues. When a friend asked, "Where are the people?" at the poorly attended opening of a 1963 exhibition of his work (due at least partly to a newspaper strike which meant a lack of publicity), Kerkam responded, "They'll come when I die. I'm not a fashionable man."

November 4, 1939: United States passes the Neutrality Act.

It amended earlier Neutrality Acts in order to include the Nazi threat. U.S. boats were forbidden from entering combat zones and U.S. citizens were barred from sailing on belligerent vessels. (In November 1941, after the passage of the Lend-Lease Act, the Neutrality Act of 1939 was amended to remove these restrictions.)

November 15 - 1939 January 7, 1940: "Picasso: Forty Years of His Art" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

The show featured 362 works by Picasso, including Guernica and Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon. Les Desmoiselles had been purchased by the museum after two years of negotiation. (DK138)

November 30, 1939: The Soviet Union invades Finland.

From How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art by Serge Guilbaut:

After the attack on Finland, the leadership of the American Artists' Congress, apparently in the hands of the Communist party, kept quiet. Stuart Davis, the national president of the congress, was approached by Ralph Pearson, an influential founding member, who urged that a clear statement of position be put to a vote. David preferred to do nothing, owing, he said, to the 'ambiguities' surrounding the affair. For the Soviet Union to have been condemned by a Communist-dominated Congress would have been unthinkable. A dissident group characterized as Trotskyist formed around Meyer Schapiro. This group had already been critical of the organization for several months, charging that the congress had followed a Stalinist line and had manipulated the majority of artists for political reasons. On April 4 [1940], a petition calling for free discussion of the position to be adopted by the congress on the Finland question circulated among members of the group. Among the signers of the petition were Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Lewis Mumford, Jose de Creeft, and Ilya Bolotowsky. (SG40)

to 1940

Abstract Expressionism

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