Ray Spillenger (1924-2013) belonged to the second generation of New York Abstract Expressionists who helped redefine American art in the 1950s and 60s. After his death in November 2013, a cache of 175 paintings and thousands of drawings was discovered in his 10th Street apartment, many of which hadn’t seen the light of day in 50 years. They reveal a mastery of color and composition and an original style that set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Spillenger’s longtime friend Pat Passlof once called him “the most brilliant unknown painter of his generation.”
Ray Spillenger’s friends and peers included Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Milton Resnick and Reuben Kadish, all of whom admired and respected his work and urged him to show more often than he did. He was part of the 10th Street exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 1959, along with Perle Fine, Sally Hazelet, Hans Hofmann, Angelo Ippolito, Albert Kotin, Pat Passlof, Larry Rivers, Esteban Vicente and others. But despite living in the heart of the 10th Street co-op gallery community (where he was a founding member of the March Gallery), being a regular frequenter of “The Club” and the Cedar Street Tavern, and participating in several of the Stable Gallery group shows in the 1950s, Spillenger resisted having a one-man exhibition, and it wasn’t until 1960 that he had his first one, at the Great Jones Gallery. The response was enthusiastic: Irving Sandler wrote a glowing review in the November 1960 ARTnews (“Spillenger’s new Action Paintings are simultaneously emphatic and spontaneous, gentle and subtle; they are his best yet.”); Joseph Hirshhorn bought three paintings for what would become the Hirshhorn Museum collection in Washington, D.C.; and distinguished curator Martin Friedman acquired another painting for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1961.
But this would be his one and only one-man show – while he was alive. Just as he was hitting his stride, Pop Art arrived on the scene, fashions changed, and Abstract Expressionism fell out of favor with galleries and critics. This sea change, coupled with his general aversion to self-promotion, resulted in Spillenger’s work disappearing from public view, though he continued to paint.
The rediscovery, cataloguing and conservation of Ray Spillenger’s work beginning in 2014 offers us access to a collection of exciting, beautiful and original paintings that also opens a window onto the vibrant New York art scene as it thrived in the 50s and 60s, influenced by but distinct from the more familiar figures of the Abstract Expressionist pantheon.