Abstract Expressionism

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Abstract Expressionism 1966

by Gary Comenas

to 1965 | to 1967

In 1966 Adolph Gottlieb's studio and its contents are destroyed by a fire; Barnett Newman completes Here III; "Philip Guston: recent paintings and drawings" at the Jewish Museum; Willem de Kooning is admitted to Southampton Hospital after a binge; André Breton dies in Paris, France; Barnett Newman has his first solo exhibition in a museum; Barnett Newman asks "Who's Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue;" Frank O'Hara is hit by a car on Fire Island; Mark Rothko visits the Tate Gallery in London; Philip Guston ends his affair and returns to Woodstock.

* * *

Willem de Kooning: "We were very good friends... It was terrible. I wasn't able to work for weeks. Everything you do is without meaning. A total void. And of course after a few weeks you start over again. You want to live and keep on seeking for something. And at the end you die. And that's a kind of fiasco." (DK484)

* * *

1966: Robert Motherwell executes large mural for the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, Boston, MA.

From Time magazine ["Assassination in Boston," (August 26, 1966)]:

The abstract mural in Boston's new John F. Kennedy Federal Building is a full 180 sq. ft., cost $25,000, and was simply titled by its painter, Robert Motherwell, New England Elegy. But it did not remain that for long. Up on the wall last week it became everyone's Rorschach. Office workers began to see in the top black band the outlines of a gun stock. Then reports got around that the title was actually The Tragedy of President Kennedy's Death.

Where did it all lead? To the experts, of course. Shown a photograph of the painting, Boston Museum of Fine Arts Assistant Curator Thomas N. Maytham noting the massive angular shapes, suggested that "one black blotch may represent the profile of the President's head, a very direct and specific depiction of the most brutal moment of the tragedy, when Kennedy was struck by the bullet. The lines near the 'profile,' " he said, "represent either the trajectory of the bullets or spatters of blood. It is hideous in one sense," he concluded, "because it doesn't try to walk around the issues." Which was more than Maytham could claim when he later recanted, pleading ignorance of the actual title.

By that time, though, the only one who couldn't see something in the painting was the artist himself. Fumed Motherwell: "The painting is totally abstract. It is not a picture of Kennedy's death, but an elegy, which is an expression of grief for someone dead, like a requiem mass." Motherwell should know. It is the 104th elegy that he has painted in the past 18 years, and nobody has ever admitted seeing anything in one before.

1966: Adolph Gottlieb's studio and its contents are destroyed by a fire.

Among the works destroyed were outdoor sketches Gottlieb made during summers in Gloucester from 1933 - 1938. (AG18)

1966: Barnett Newman completes Here III.

Barnett Newman's sculpture Here III (1965 - 1966) was cast in steel, as was Here II (1965). Here I (1962) was in bronze. Here I and Here II were cast in an addition of two whereas Here III was cast in an edition of three. The steel used for Here III was stainless steel and Cor-Ten steel.

January 12 - February 13, 1966: "Philip Guston: recent paintings and drawings" at the Jewish Museum.

Harold Rosenberg wrote text for the catalogue. After the Jewish Museum show, Guston turned to everyday objects for his inspiration - possibly reflecting the influence of Pop.

Philip Guston, Jewish Museum retrospective, 1966
(Photo: Renate Ponsold)

Philip Guston:

After the show at the Jewish Museum in 1966 I must have done hundreds of paintings of shoes, books, hands, buildings and cars, just everyday objects... I couldn't produce enough. I couldn't go to New York, to openings of friends of mine like Rothko, de Kooning, Newman. I would telephone Western Union with all kinds of lies such as that my teeth were falling out, or that I was sick. It was such a relief not to have anything to do with modern art. It felt as if a big boulder had been taken off my shoulders. (MM204)

Guston was still separated from his wife at the time, still having an affair with a photographer, but he invited his wife to the opening. The woman that Guston was having an affair with was also there and Dore Ashton pointed her out to Guston's wife: "You haven't met her? There she is." (MM133)

January 1966: Mark Rothko hires Ray Kelly as an additional assistant. (RO472)
January 1966: Willem de Kooning is admitted to Southampton Hospital after a binge.

After spending Christmas alone, de Kooning went on a binge in the new year and ended up seeing a psychiatrist at Southampton Hospital - Dr. Wayne Barker - to deal with his alcoholism. (DK480)

Late January 1966: De Kooning attends Lisa's birthday party in NY and returns to Long Island alone. (DK480)
February 18, 1966: André Breton dies in Paris, France.

From André Breton's obituary in The New York Times:

When Mr. Breton returned to France in 1946, the world had changed. If such painters as Matta or Wilfredo Lam had given surrealist art a new lease on life, existentialism was dominating the literary scene... Nevertheless he continued to write, publishing two magazines, a work on Rimbaud, poems and essays... The last years of his life were spent in a country house in southwestern France and in an apartment at the bottom of Montmartre littered with manuscripts, books and African art. He was suffering from Marcel Proust's disease, asthma, and recently told a friend that the one writer he envied was Victor Hugo "because at his funeral were all the people of Paris."

April 1966: Barnett Newman has his first solo exhibition in a museum.

The exhibition "The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani" took place at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and was organized by Lawrence Alloway. Regarding The Stations of the Cross Barnett Newman wrote in the May issue of Art News, "I wished no monuments, no cathedrals. I wanted human scale for the human cry... I wanted to hold the emotion, not waste it in picturesque ecstasies." Although art critics John Canaday and Dore Ashton were critical of the exhibition, it was well attended. (MH)

May 1, 1966: Barnett Newman defends the Stations of the Cross in a public discussion with Thomas Hess.

"Hess and Newman: A Conversation" took place at the Guggenheim Museum during the Stations of the Cross exhibition.

Barnett Newman:

When I call them Stations of the Cross, I am saying that these paintings mean something beyond their formal extremes... What I'm saying is that my painting is physical and what I'm saying also is that my painting is metaphysical... that my life is physical and my life is also metaphysical. (MH)

When Hess asked him about the exclusion of color in the works, Newman responded, "Tragedy demands black, white, and gray. I couldn't paint a green passion, but I did try to make raw canvas come into color. That was my color problem - to get the quality of color without the use of color. A painter should try to paint the impossible." (IS287)

1966: Barnett Newman "confronts" the primary colours, blue, red and yellow for "Who's Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue." (MH)

Just as the Pop artists seemed to be re-discovering the primary colours, Newman also began "confronting them" for his series "Who's Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue."

Thomas Hess:

In 1966, Newman stretched a canvas to seventy-five by forty-eight inches, and planned an image which would present a gleaming six-by-four-foot rectangle of red, with a narrow yellow stripe at the right edge and a wider blue one to the left. In 1969 he wrote about the work:

"I began this, my first painting in the series 'Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,' as a 'first' paintings, unpremeditated. I did have the desire that the painting be asymmetrical and that it create a space different from any I had ever done, sort of - off balance. It was only after I had built up the main body of red that the problem of color became crucial, when the only colors that would work were yellow and blue.

It was at this moment that I realized that I was now confronting the dogma that color must be reduced to the primaries, red, yellow and blue. Just as I had confronted other dogmatic positions of the purists, neo-plasticists and other formalists, I was now in confrontation with their dogma, which had reduced red, yellow and blue into an idea-didact, or a best had made them picturesque.

Why give in to these purists and formalists who have put a mortgage on red, yellow and blue, transforming these colors into an idea that destroys them as colors?

I had, therefore, the double incentive of using these colors to express what I wanted to do - of making these colors expressive rather than didactic and of freeing them from the mortgage.

Why should anybody be afraid of red, yellow and blue?'" (TH76-7)

July 1966: Frank O'Hara is hit by a car on Fire Island.

O'Hara was riding in a beach taxi on Fire Island at 2:00 a.m. and one of the tires came off the vehicle. He got out of the taxi and was standing apart from it when he was hit by an oncoming jeep. Elaine de Kooning heard about the news at a party in East Hampton and rushed to tell Bill. They drove together to visit O'Hara in the Bayview General Hospital in Mastic Beach. According to O'Hara's friend, Joe LeSueur, de Kooning presented the hospital with a blank cheque saying "I vant the best for our friend." (DK483) De Kooning, who was one of the few people who were allowed to see O'Hara in his bed, later recalled "He [O'Hara] had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony." (DK484) O'Hara died two days after the accident.

Willem de Kooning:

We were very good friends... It was terrible. I wasn't able to work for weeks. Everything you do is without meaning. A total void. And of course after a few weeks you start over again. You want to live and keep on seeking for something. And at the end you die. And that's a kind of fiasco. (DK484)

O'Hara's funeral took place on July 28th. He was buried in the Green River Cemetery across from de Kooning's Accabonac house - the same cemetery that Jackson Pollock was buried in. (DK484)

1966: Willem de Kooning paints new women.

According to de Kooning biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, "In much of the art of the period, de Kooning seemed to focus upon the youth-oriented culture around him. He occasionally drew peace signs on the backs of his paintings. He felt an affinity, he said, with 'the young kids with their long hair and strong fists'... Although he emphasized that he was 'not a member of any political power,' he also said he was 'very involved with American problems' and even signed an antiwar protest, an uncharacteristically political act that ended the invitations extended to him by the White House... On trips into New York, de Kooning frequented Max's Kansas City... At one point, de Kooning grew his hair longer in a version of a Beatle haircut, and he sometimes talked about the atom bomb and modern technology. 'The future lies with chemistry and electronics,' he said. 'ICI and IBM have a finger in the pie everywhere. Also in my studio...' De Kooning often caricatured the young women of the time and, beginning in 1966, drew and painted a series of these new American girl-icons. In Women Singing I, two members of a singing group... stood before the microphone... They appeared to wear the tiniest hot pants, and they had, on their faces, a vacant stare. The same sort of figures permeated de Kooning's drawings. In one, Screaming Girls or Untitled, two female groupies, like those who mobbed concerts by the Beatles, stood screaming at their idols." (DK485)

c. Summer 1966: Mark Rothko visits the Tate Gallery in London.

Mark Rothko visited the Tate at the end of a trip to Europe. According to Kate Rothko, her father went to Europe in the summer of 1966 for two months, spent mostly in Rome and London. (RO654n50) It was his third trip to Europe during his lifetime. (RO694)

He arrived at the Tate without prior arrangement at lunch time on the day of a board meeting. Reid introduced him to the board members and showed him the room that the museum was offering to exhibit his paintings. Rothko wrote to Bernard and Rebecca Reis from London, saying "London has been rainy and my impression of the Tate dubious. It has become a junk yard like our own MoMA. It is something I want to talk to you about." (RO514)

When he returned to New York, he wrote Reid on August 24, 1966, "Your complete personal neglect of my presence in London and your failure to provide adequate opportunities for these discussions, poses for me the following question: was this simply a typical demonstration of English hospitality, or was it your way of indicating to me that you were no longer interested in these negotiations? I would really like to know." (RO514)

Prior to Rothko's letter, Reid had written the artist on August 22nd, but Rothko did not receive the letter until after he sent his letter to Reid. In his letter Reid wrote, "we should encourage you to present the whole of the Whitechapel Group of pictures which was your first idea. It would be a princely gesture." (On the back of his letter, Reid wrote "This note was written before the arrival of your letter (as you can see from the Date) It was not sent because it was incomplete but I think you should see it now because it shows what I had... in mind.") (RO667n7)

Winter 1966: Philip Guston ends his affair and returns to Woodstock.

Musa Mayer:

In the winter of 1966, when all of my father's dark paintings had played themselves out, he gave up his affair with the photographer. Apparently, she had delivered an ultimatum. No more having it both ways; he must end his marriage. And my father could not bring himself to do that... He began drawing again, those single lines and simple forms he later called the 'pure drawings.' They [Guston and his wife] traveled to the Yucatán in Mexico, to see the Mayan ruins. They came home, to Woodstock. (MM136)

to 1965 | to 1967

Abstract Expressionism

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