1924 - 2013
Ray Spillenger, artist and lifelong New Yorker, died on Wednesday, November 20, 2013, at the age of 89. He was the last surviving member of the "Action Painting" group, sometimes called Abstract Expressionists, who brought New York to the forefront of the art world in the 1950s and 60s.
He was born on October 24, 1924, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, flying C-47s over The Hump from India to China. After his discharge in 1946, he studied art and design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, graduating in 1948.
That same year, he attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he met painters Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Pat Passlof, all of whom would remain lifelong friends, as well as Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and Fielding Dawson.
In 1951-52, he lived and studied art in Rome, where he claimed to have visited every church in the Eternal City.
In 1955 he married Marian Katz and lived with her for a time at her cold-water flat on University Place. With the birth of their first child, they moved to a bigger apartment on East Tenth Street in 1956, which was at that time the vibrant hub of the New York art scene. De Kooning and Philip Guston had studios on Tenth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, and Kline lived a block away. A number of artist cooperative galleries, such as the Tanager, March and Brata, all flourished there.
In later years, he put aside the large abstract oil canvasses of his younger days and began painting smaller, more figurative pieces, mainly in black and white. But the interest in line, geometry and the emotional power of implied gesture remained central to his work.
In addition to being a painter, he was an activist. Before it was fashionable or safe, he actively opposed the Vietnam War, and he was a key figure, during the 1970s and 80s, in the fight against efforts by real estate developers to rezone the East Village for high-rise luxury apartment buildings.
Politically, he considered himself an anarchist and a pacifist for most of his adult life.
A true New Yorker, he continued to walk the streets of his native city until the end. He was loved by his neighbors in the building where he'd lived for 57 years and by many in the neighborhood for whom he'd become a familiar and always affable presence.
His wife Marian died in 1997. He is survived by two sons, Paul and Clyde and a grandson, Franz. A private memorial gathering will be held. The family may be contacted at email@example.com or 310-663-7447.
Published on NYTimes.com from Nov. 22 to Nov. 23, 2013