George Kokines: a Local Artist of International Fame

Painter George Kokines. (Photo: You Tube)

The late George Kokines, internationally recognized artist, is receiving a long overdue hometown salute. On September 20, 2018, the National Hellenic Museum opened its “George Kokines: Layers Revealed,” exhibition, the first ever retrospective of the artist. Employing a mix of loaned objects along with those from the NHM Collections, this exhibition traces Kokines” artistic development and accomplishments both in the terms of Abstract Expressionism as well as the artist’s lifetime journey to embrace his Greek American identity.

Kokines was born in 1930 in Chicago to Greek immigrant parents. While never finishing high school Kokines nonetheless studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, earning a BFA in 1960 piece graduation, Kokines won the Art Institute’s Frank G. Logan medal and prize for emerging artists for his piece, “Embracement No. 1.” With this award came $2,000 giving Kokines not only the confidence but the very means to devote himself full-time to his art.

In 1963, Kokines was invited to exhibit work at the Whitney Museum’s Annual Contemporary Painting Show. Two years later, the removal of his colorful abstract paintings from a show at the Chicago Cultural Center started a media debate on censorship and taste. “In 1965 after the main library’s chief librarian removed eight of his abstract paintings, deeming them too suggestive (Chicago Tribune December 7, 2012).” But this controversy included supporters of Kokines as well as critics. “After the Chicago librarian pulled his paintings, Mr. Kokines won support from nuns at Barat College in Lake Forest (IL), who exhibited 20 of his paintings , and also from his former employer, Hugh Hefner, who brought the eight paintings the library had found too provocative (Chicago Tribune December 7, 2012).”

In 1966, Kokines moved to New York City in 1966 while continuing to show in Chicago. For nearly 40 years Kokines continued to paint. Kokines and his family first moved to Greenwich Village where they lived throughout the 1970s. Kokines maintained a studio in SoHo while working at two SoHo artist bars, the Broome Street Bar and Fenella’s. Kokines “was in on the original happening of SoHo, during a time when the area was still mainly factories, and just beginning to be wildly creative, and the Broome Street Bar was the epicenter of the young art crowd. Robert Mapplethrope was a regular, along with Robert Jacks, Ken Tisa, Robert Boyles, George Kokines and many other talents who formed an exciting, entertaining and encouraging clique of artists (The Villager, April 3, 2014).”

It was while Kokines was in New York that he “increasingly used textured surfaces, and, during a residency in Italy, began constructing cement surfaces which he incised and painted. These pieces were shown in Ferrara, Italy, Chicago, and New York. He also continued to produce extensive works on paper, including small accordion books and the Etudes series, a return to free-form organic shapes. Kokines taught periodically throughout his career, holding artist-in-residence positions at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and teaching classes at NYU and RISD. He also served as a guest lecturer at schools around the city (georgekokines.com).”

Then, in 1993, Kokines traveled through Greece, making stops at his parents” hometowns. “Orthodox Mythological” is among his art works inspired by this visit (Independent Press-Telegraph, April 26. 1964). Various writers have noted that this extended visit Kokines markedly reconnected his personal and family history (and so artwork) to ancient Greece.

Kokines” later studios were located in Long Island City and lower Manhattan, where he witnessed firsthand the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This event affected his life and his work for the remaining years of his life. “Kokines was two blocks from his lower Manhattan studio, having coffee across the street from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He witnessed the falling towers and was turned out of his home and studio for several months (georgekokines.com).” As he recalled for the press later, “That’s my studio,” says the 70-year-old Chicago-born and schooled Abstract Expressionist painter, pointing to a converted loft building once at the foot of the World Trade Center. Inside are more than 200 paintings and drawings, a lifetime of work that may not have survived the attacks, and a home that’s still virtually off-limits weeks later (Chicago Tribune, October 16, 2001).”

In 2005, Kokines returned to Chicago moving to the Rodgers Park neighborhood “quickly becoming a part of the neighborhood’s arts community (Chicago Tribune December 7, 2012).” With Kokines” return to Chicago, he began work and completed his “September 11” pieces. About these works, he said, “People who know how to read the code will understand it and those who don’t will never understand it.” This installation was first exhibited in Elgin, Illinois in 2011 (georgekokines.com).” Of special note to Greeks and Greek-Americans is that the current NHM exhibition includes the painting “Agios Nikolaos,” representing the small Greek Orthodox church that also stood at Ground Zero.

George Kokines” standing as an international recognized artist can, in part, be documented by the number, variety and locations where his art has been exhibited or held by public institutions. A representative number of Kokines” solo exhibitions includes: the current National Hellenic Museum, Chicago September 2018; Centro Cultural Borges, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2001; Brooklyn Brewery 2000; Gruen Gallery, Chicago 1993, 1999; Rosenberg Gallery, New York 1985; Musei Civici d’Arte Moderna, Palazzo dei Diamante, Ferrara, Italy 1982; Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago 1965, 1967, 1968, 1972; Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago 1962, 1964 and the John Gibson Gallery, Chicago, 1962.

A selection of Kokines” group exhibitions includes, but is not limited to the O.K. Harris Gallery, New York 1998; Rosenberg/Kaufman Gallery, New York 1995; Andover Gallery, New York 1994; Blondie’s Gallery, New York 1991, 1994; Arts Club of Chicago 1963, 1966; Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago

Henry Gallery, Seattle; B.C. Holland Gallery, Chicago 1960, 1961; Allen Frumkin Gallery, Chicago 1960, 1961; John Gibson Gallery, Chicago and the Hyde Park Art Center 1959, 1962.

A selection of Kokines” museum exhibitions would have to include the Art Institute of Chicago, Local Artists 1959 – 65; Walker Museum, Minneapolis 1965; Tacoma Art Center, Tacoma 1965; Krannert Museum, Champaign, Illinois 1963; and the Whitney Museum, Annual Exhibition, New York 1963.

A short list of the public institutions that hold various examples of George Kokines” artwork includes the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; National Hellenic Museum, Chicago; Danforth Art Museum, Framingham, Massachusetts; Michigan State University/Broad Museum, East Lansing, Michigan; Musei d’Arte Moderna, Palazzo Massari, Ferrara, Italy, Ferrara, Italy; New York Public Library, Prints and Artists Books Collection, New York City.

On November 26, 2012, it was announced that George Kokines died of leukemia at his home in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. “George Kokines: Layers Revealed,” now showing at the National Hellenic Museum is a partnership project presented also as part of Art Design Chicago, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy, with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. The works in this exhibition exemplify Kokines” improvisation and the textural and large-scale style of his work. Demonstrating his mastery of abstraction, this exhibition reveals the brilliance and skill of George Kokines. Showcased during this year-long exhibition is George Kokines” largest art-installation of his career, “September 11.” Clearly, this is a major exhibition of an international recognized Greek-American artist. Complementing the art are the related educational programming, docent-led tours and field trips for school children that will be offered throughout the year.

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