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Theodoros Stamos & Louis Meisel

A Serious Collection of Abstract Expressionist Paintings

By 1966, I had a serious collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings. I had first-generation paintings by Stamos and Rothko, and second-generation works by Basq, Ball, Humphrey, as well as a few others. At that time, I was acquiring works in a variety of ways, which mostly hinged on personal introductions.

After my first ‘sale’ of a Stamos in 1965, in which I got a painting as a commission, I managed to sell two works that year. In each case, Stamos looked in the racks and pulled out a small painting to give me for my efforts. Later that year when I sold a fourth painting, he looked in the racks and around the studio and did not find something he wanted to give me. I was disappointed, because selling art and getting art was more fun than almost anything I had ever done. He then said, “Let me give you $1,000 of the $4,500 sale.” I was overwhelmed. My rent was $165 a month in Chelsea, and that commission would cover 6 months! That night was the moment I knew that I was going to be an art dealer!

Stamos’ introductions became my gateway to the other Abstract Expressionists. He is the one who took me to Rothko’s studio in the late 1960s. The studio was located off Third Avenue and was in a carriage house on the Upper East Side. When we arrived, Stamos banged on the door. Rothko answered, and they growled salutations at each other. I was so intimidated and in awe of Rothko that I couldn’t really speak, but he ignored me anyway.

We entered the studio where there were three paintings on a wall with only a skylight for illumination. Rothko sat in an Adirondack chair, Stamos and I sat on a bench against the wall, and we all “contemplated” the paintings. For 20 minutes, no one said anything. Then Stamos got up and walked over to scrutinize the paintings, and I followed. Whew! What a first experience!

Mark Rothko in front of his work

Things weren’t much different during subsequent visits. Then one day Stamos called and asked me to take him and Rothko to buy some special French paper they wanted to paint on. I had a station wagon at the time, and was sort of knowledgeable about paper since my father was in the fine paper business. (He owned Capital Paper Company, and I had opened an art Publishing Company called Eminent Publications in my maternal grandfather’s print shop in Chelsea.) I took them to Andrews Nelson Whitehead Paper Company, where I helped them select what they were looking for. I delivered them a half a carton each to their studios. I remember that they each got 75 sheets.

Six months later, I got a call in my Chelsea apartment. The caller barked, “It’s MARK!” At first, I didn’t know who it was… I didn’t know a Mark. Then I realized I was “alone” with Rothko! Even if it was only on the phone. He said, “Remember that paper you got me?” I said yes. He said, “I need more, GET it!” and hung up.

I went back to Andrews Nelson Whitehead Paper, paid $300 for the carton, and delivered it to the studio—still totally intimidated by the great artist. He asked me how much it was, and I told him. He said I don’t have any money here, so “take one of those…” One of ‘those’ was a painting he had done on the first delivery of paper!

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