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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Legendary Artists

When we think of legendary artists, we most usually think of the Renaissance "big-three," Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo; or perhaps the roguish exploits of Caravaggio; or the entrepreneurial enterprises of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Reynolds; or the cosmopolitan affairs of Whistler, Sargent, and Manet; or perhaps the hardships of Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh.  More recently, the showmanship of Picasso and Dali comes to mind. However, the incubation period for a whole new echelon of legendary artists has passed and now we can recall with a mixture of awe and humor some of the legends of Modern Art--Pollock, Rothko, Warhol, Kline, Motherwell, and others from the New York School and the Abstract Expressionist period of more than fifty years ago. Moreover, like their paintings, this group was so colorful as to make legendary figures such as Rembrandt, or Whistler, or even Caravaggio seem dull by comparison.

Mark Rothko, 1953
Jackson Pollock 1949, photo by
Arnold Newman

It's said, for instance, that a 20-year-old Mark Rothko decided on a career in art when, in 1923, he walked into an art class at New York's Art Students League to meet a friend. He caught a glimpse of the nude model and decided to enroll. Or, at a time when Jackson Pollock was still cleaning up any dribbles of paint, he was living in a small apartment on East Eighth Street in New York. He had to scramble each month to afford the $35 rent until he received a commission from the bohemian art dealer Peggy Guggenheim that, before he was done, grew so large (almost 9 by 20 foot) he had to knock out a wall in the apartment to accommodate it. Within little more than a year, he could afford a place in East Hampton. And speaking of Pollock, ever wonder who taught him to drip and dribble? It was the Mexican mural painter, David Siquieros, until he marched off to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Peggy Guggenheim in full bloom
Mark Rothko once rented a basement hovel that had formerly been a dog kennel. It was so small, cold, and rat-infested he had to sleep in the bath tub with the water running to keep warm. That a was a move up though, from his previous sleeping arrangements in the New York subways. It's said that he'd admired the work of Willem de Kooning. When he saw him one day in Washington Square Park, he sat down next to him on a park bench. Though they'd never met, de Kooning recognized Rothko as well. He recalled afterwards that they were both afraid to speak lest the other would think he was gay. De Kooning's West 22nd Street loft was painted all white inside. Quite the cleanliness freak, he insisted upon washing it down every Saturday. It was so huge, he built a smaller pink loft in its center for his wife to use. Peggy Guggenheim, though not a painter, is something of a New York art scene legend too. Her gallery on West 57th Street was egg shaped, had floors painted turquoise, and always displayed her artists' work unframed. Franz Kline was so attached to his East Ninth Street loft he had to be forcibly evicted when the building was torn down in 1953. And Jim Lane...has never done anything legendary in his entire life...sigh...
Willem de Kooning's all white studio...with a touch of pink (not shown)

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