Many artists are forgotten after they die, and some before they die. The Abstract Expressionist painter Theodoros Stamos (1922-97) is remembered, but not so much for his artwork. Rather, Stamos is best known for his role in the epic lawsuit brought by the heirs of painter Mark Rothko against the people who were supposed to protect Rothko’s legacy. (Hint: Stamos was one of Rothko’s estate executors.)
For the last 30-plus years of his life, Stamos was something of an art-world pariah, at least in the United States, although over the years one New York City art dealer after another has sought bring the painter back into the public eye. Such an exhibition is taking place right now, at New York’s Hollis Taggart Galleries, which has prepared a 50-painting retrospective of the artist’s career, May 13-June 19, 2010.
Perhaps a revival is in the offing. The prices are certainly nothing to sneeze at: paintings on canvas are $80,000-$375,000, and works on paper are $20,000-$30,000. Most of the works are owned by the gallery, which has been active in the artist’s market for the past several years, according to gallery manager Martin Friedrichs, who added that no gallery represents the Stamos estate.
Those prices represent a sizeable jump from the prices sought by Kouros Gallery when it put on a Stamos show in 2005 (paintings were $50,000-$200,000). Part of the allure of Stamos’ work is the astronomical prices brought by his fellow Abstract-Expressionists. "A good piece by de Kooning, Kline, Rothko, Clyfford Still is unavailable to all but the wealthiest collectors," Friedrichs said, "so people ask who else was active in this group -- the second tier." Other artists in this group are James Brooks, Conrad Marca-Relli and Esteban Vincente.
The Kouros Gallery, which exhibits the work of a number of living and deceased Greek artists, has the largest collection of paintings by Stamos -- "86 or 87 paintings and maybe four works on paper," said gallery owner Angellos E. Camillos -- purchased from the artist’s sister, Georgina Savas, who had been left in charge of the estate. Those purchases largely depleted the estate, with the exception of a few pieces that his sister has sought to place in museum collections.
Friedrichs noted that younger collectors, as well as "a younger generation of curators," have begun to look at Stamos’ work with "fresh eyes. More and more, people are seeing Stamos as a very interesting commodity." Fresh eyes are needed to overcome older resentments. "I’ve talked to Rothko collectors who’ve told me they would never look at something by Stamos, but how long does someone have to repent before his work is viewed as art for art’s sake?"
So we reach what is perhaps the central question of Theodoros Stamos: his work. Part of the New York Abstract-Expressionist group, Stamos gained plaudits from critics and collectors for his sense of color and whimsy. A writer for ARTnews in 1946 praised the "quiet poetic quality" of his work, while a critic for ART Digest lauded a painting’s "low-keyed beauty of a subtle, sensuous nature" at a 1947 show. Though these and other notices were positive, a more sour note -- and perhaps a more important one -- was sounded by art critic Clement Greenberg, writing in The Nation in 1948: "Stamos, as it happens, has borrowed most of his style from the lower registers of William Baziotes, a serious and vastly superior artist."
Sales were not always brisk, but they took place, allowing him to close his frame shop after seven years in 1948 and devote his time to painting and occasional teaching. He had solo shows at the Duncan Phillips Gallery (later the Phillips Collection) in Washington, D.C., in 1950 and ‘54, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in ‘58 and the Andre Emmerich Gallery in ’66, among others. Stamos works made their way into major museum collections, including the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.
In February 1970, his good friend Mark Rothko committed suicide (Rothko’s wife died of heart failure six months later). Stamos offered the Rothko family a part of the Stamos family burial plot in East Marion, Long Island, and was asked to take over the installation of the Rothko Ecumenical Chapel in Houston. Two years before taking his life, Rothko had drawn up a will, naming three executors who would create a foundation that would receive the bulk of his paintings: Bernard Reis, an art collector and accountant; Morton Levine, an anthropology professor at Fordham University, who was also named guardian of the artist’s youngest child, Christopher Rothko; and Stamos. One of the executors’ first actions was to sell 798 of Rothko’s paintings to New York’s Marlborough Gallery for $1.8 million and consign to the same gallery 698 more at a 50 percent commission.
It was because of these two actions that, in 1971, Herbert Faber, the guardian of Rothko’s older child, Kate, filed a lawsuit accusing the three executors of conspiracy to defraud the estate and waste its assets: Frank Lloyd, the owner of Marlborough Gallery, had purchased a huge quantity of artwork by a major American artist for far below its actual value, and some quick sales that he made on a number of those paintings realized profits of 800 percent for him. In the legal complaint, Reis was charged with self-dealing for being the accountant to both the Rothko family and the Marlborough Gallery at the time of these contracts, while Stamos was accused of going along with the deal in order to be taken on as a Marlborough artist. In fact, in 1971, Stamos became part of Marlborough’s stable, and his first exhibition at the gallery was held the following year.
In a ruling handed down in 1975, Stamos and the other two executors were removed from the Rothko estate and the contracts they made selling and consigning the 798 paintings to Marlborough were canceled. In Stamos' case, conflict of interest was not proved, but the judge found that there was a "self-serving breach of loyalty" and that he acted "improvidently and negligently in view of his own knowledge of Reis' self-serving and the entire case of events." As a result, Stamos and Reis, jointly with Frank Lloyd of Marlborough, were deemed liable for the present value of the paintings sold by Lloyd, or $9.3 million. Stamos’ appeal of the enforcement of the decision, claiming hardship -- his only assets were his house and his artworks -- was denied in 1977.
However, since Lloyd was the only one charged who actually profited from the sale of Rothko's paintings, he was required to pay the entire $9.3 million in fees and fines, returning some of the paintings to the estate for credit. The court awarded Stamos' Manhattan residence to the Rothko estate in lieu of legal fees, but Kate Rothko gave Stamos a life tenancy. He lived there four months a year thereafter, spending the remaining months in Greece, on the Island of Lefkada. Although born in New York City, he cemented his relationship to his parents’ homeland with a gift of 45 of his own works to the National Gallery of Athens in 1975; he was celebrated there as one of Greece’s great artists. In 1997, the exhibition, "Theodoros Stamos: 1922 – 1997, A Retrospective," went up at the National Gallery Alexandros Soutzios Museum in Athens.
The Rothko case blackened Stamos’ reputation, and he did not have another New York exhibition until 1977. He was represented by a number of dealers, one of whom -- Louis K. Meisel, who handled the artist’s work from 1976 to 1982 -- claimed that the Rothko trial "put Stamos on the radar scope for a lot of collectors. A lot of people had heard of him, but now they decided to look at his work, and many of them became buyers." In 1983, Stamos filed a $5 million libel suit, which he later dropped, against the BBC for the production and broadcast of a docudrama based on the Rothko case, called The Rothko Conspiracy, which aired first in England and later in the United States.
Also in 1983, a small number of mainly European collectors of Stamos' work formed a group called "The Circle of Friends of Theodoros Stamos," which aimed to promote Stamos' work primarily in Europe, but also in the U.S., believing that the Rothko scandal hurt Stamos' reputation, and his work had been greatly undervalued. In a coda to the controversy, Kate Rothko successfully sued in 2008 to have the remains of her father and mother exhumed from the Stamos burial site and moved to a Jewish cemetery in Westchester County.
In the realm of artists whose lives have colored appreciation of the work they created, Stamos arguably rates better than Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl but worse than author P.G. Wodehouse (whose humorous wartime radio addresses on behalf of the Nazis have barely affected the popularity of his books). Perhaps, as Friedrichs suggested, the art market will rescue his reputation by providing material to avid collectors of Abstract Expressionism who have been priced out of the top tier.
Just this past February, Stamos’ 1957 oil Home of the Sun earned $283,150 at Christie’s London, setting a new auction record for the artist. The resuscitation of his career may well be under way.
"Theodoros Stamos: A Communion with Nature," May 12-June 18, 2010, at Hollis Taggart Galleries, 958 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
DANIEL GRANT is the author of The Business of Being an Artist (Allworth Press) and several other books.