John J. Sheehan

(Abstract Expressionist Painter NYC) –

Biography (1913 – 1996)


‘”John J. Sheehan’” (July 29, 1913 – June 03, 1996) was an American painter. He is associated with the Abstract expressionism|Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. John, along with other  Action painting action painters including  Jackson Pollock,  Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Conrad_Marca-Relli and Lee Krasner, as well as local poets, dancers, and musicians came to be known as the informal group, the New York School (art)|New York School. Although John did not seek recognition in his field he explored the same innovations to painting as the other artists in this group. John’s work is unique in itself although taking influence from other artists in the Village at that time.

John Joseph Sheehan was born on the Upper East Side, New York on the 29th July 1913, At just twelve years old Sheehan managed to enroll in The Mechanics Institute; General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York)  he was 5” 10 and tall enough to lie about his age; He took classes and studied Cast_Drawing and Life Drawing (Figure_drawing). At 14 he was drawing naked life models, he graduated at the age of 16, the youngest graduate in the School’s history. Bryant Park, New York and graduated from [Mechanics Institute

In 1928 – 1929 John Mother intended for him to become and investment banker as his uncle William, Although there was little work during the period of The Great Depression John decided to leave the security of his family circle to pursue his passion for art. John found a job with a civil war veteran in Bridgeport as a surveyor. He would create sketches during his break which led to a job sketching views of the entire project – and leading to a salary increase from $12 a week to $20.

”’1930 – 1931”’ John sketched drawings with the intention of use for local newspapers, circuses or accidents. There was a fire at a local building which John sketched – this led to his employment with The Bridgeport Post He was offered $5 increase on his wages – however upon realising that he was replacing the existing illustrator for the post he declined the position and the original illustrator was re-employed. Johns memoir describes the desperation cues containing hundreds of men lining up for jobs on the docklands.

”’1931 – 1933”’ – John relocated to Maine, New York in search of work where he took up Two-man Saw labor. The work was described as backbreaking however after a year John had enough money to open a small hamburger stand and general store stocking only basics “Chocolate, Canned milk, Powdered coffee… stuff like that” He knew the woodcutters would stop in. After his time in the General store John stayed with a lady called Helen on a nearby farm. He worked on the farm and surrounding areas taking odd jobs with cutting wood and working the river for cash crops. In addition to cutting wood John went hunting deer to find food during this period. John enjoyed listening to Helen play classical music by the large open fire. He wished to marry Helen however she presuaded him it wouldn’t work out. He left her “a couple of hundred pound of flour, a hundred pound sack of sugar, split peas and lentils” and returned to New York with $60. John described how he missed “The Museums, The Theatre and availability of books and information a city could supply”

Sheehan returned to Greenwich Village in 1933 he met Franz Kline in a coffee shop on Sixth_Avenue_(Manhattan)., Kline had a copy of Pernell’s Pen & Ink Drawing with him, which caught John’s attention as he had studied the same book (Both young men were excellent draftsmen & were interested in Illustration as it was the only work a painter could hope for at that time), and from this initial meeting Sheehan & Kline became lifelong friends: During the 30’s they collaborated on murals for the Speakeasy’s and nightclubs in the Village; drew Caricatures on the street next to the West 4th St. subway station

John also tried his hand at “bootlegging” – describing how he met a “backwoodsman” who offered to supply whiskey at a low price. However the sheriff was alerted and he had to destroy the whiskey. The hamburger business was successful until the loggers had to relocate leaving John with $200 and many unpaid credit notes. At this point he decided to return to New York

Sheehan’s studio was the first floor (above a Chinese Restaurant) of one of the merchant buildings that form 8th St., with his front room windows overlooking the corner of Macdougal_Street, where it meets 8th Street_(Manhattan); He had rented many spaces (empty store fronts, small studio apartments ) since arriving in Greenwich Village in 1929, before moving into 27 West 8th St.; his studio for over 50 years until the year before his death .

Artistic development

 Early work 

Johns artistic training focused on Life models and Cast modelling, He continued to study the great classical painters and spent much of his time after retuning to New York in the The Museum of Modern Art. After years in illustrating and drafting. During the early 1930s through to late 1940s John worked across various mediums and stylistically, with extensive pen and ink realism, characters to various abstract painting with acrylic being his primary paint medium.

Middle Works

Sheehan painted abstract landscapes and paintings in addition to commissioned portraits and murals. He worked on various commissioned pieces for the Speakeasy’s and Cafes in the Village Greenwich Village along side his long time drinking buddys Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Conrad_Marca-Relli

Johns middle works revealed his interest in reconstructing representative forms into abstract forms with clean brushstrokes and bold simple patterns often containing simplified forms similar to Franz Kline Johns work is known for his usage of square block buildings, single, simplified trees, crescent and full moons persisting throughout the years. No doubt inspired by his time working as a logger in Maine, New York

Upon return to Bridgeport John realised there was less work than before, and he couldn’t find any mural work. The only work he could find was at the foundry – with the “Poles and Hungarians” He was the only Irishman in the whole place. He describes working there as heat like “Dante’s Inferno, as men stripped to the waist, dripping with with sweat, strained themselves to the utmost under the tremendous weights they were required to handle”. Compared to this he said “Wood-cutting seemed to be God’s country”

Late Works

John was very thrifty, having been formed in The Great_Depression; so his economic use of the scanty funds available to us made possible and affected the materials used throughout his late period. In 1982 Christopher Yowell  his son sold 18 paintings to a private collector; one of them was a Sheehan from his middle work. The money from this sale kept them in painting materials, and because Sheehan had rent control since the early 40’s, they managed to spend most of the time painting full time.

In the beginning they started on linen canvas but changed to wood panels to enable the larger works. Eventually they only painted on wood panels. The works on linen canvas that had initially been stretched were removed from stretchers and rolled away, until they were mounted on wood panels.

When they started Sheehan would have Yowell pin linen canvas to a 1/2″ pressed cardboard board, later they switched to Wood panels. Sheehan would begin with a charcoal drawing of the outline of his design. Some of the paintings would change as they evolved by verbal direction from Sheehan until complete; though most were straight forward following the original drawing; mixing of color and application of paint was then by verbal instruction to Yowell.

Around 1990 he requested two diamonds be applied on some work to the lower right hand corner of the border area. Subsequently he asked for most of them to be removed, when he felt they were interfering with the painting and defeating the purpose of the borders i.e. as a buffer to keep distractions away.

They worked in three sizes (1) where the shortest side was four feet. (2) where the longest side was four feet. (3) where one side was 2 feet or less.

Sheehan produced approximately about 100 works over the fifteen years they worked together. Yowell also produced over 200 of his own works during this time.

Sheehan and Willem de Kooning

Pictured Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning – Photograph taken by John J. Sheehan

Willem de Kooning had a place in Carmine Street the Village near Carmine_Street_Guitars. Willem spent most of his time uptown and didn’t really have much to do with Kline or Sheehan except living in the Village. There is no visible evidence of Kline’s influence in any of de Kooning’s paintings, because they really didn’t have much to do with each other until after they had already matured as Artists.

Sheehan also believed de Kooning used to fake being drunk when he was in the Cedar, as he could become unnaturally sober at any time throughout the night. He never had serious discussions with Bill about Art or painting, most of their encounters were blagarding each other.

In the late 40’s when Kline started to get some recognition John recalled how de Kooning came over to where he & Kline were talking in the Cedar and said ” Franz us Dutch gotta stick together” This was the first time de Kooning acknowledged Kline as an Artist after knowing him for almost 18 years; and even though De Kooning later worked on a book with Kline his painting was never influenced by Kline’s Painting and Kline was never influenced by de Kooning’s painting, neither before or after this invitation to stick together.

Sheehan and Franz Kline

Kline was a couple of years older than Sheehan and had just returned from studying at the Slade School in England when they met in a cafeteria (Seven Brothers on 6th & Waverly_Place) Kline had a copy of Pennell’s Pen & Ink Drawing that Sheehan recognised as he had just purchased a copy a few weeks earlier and they started a friendship that lasted till Kline’s death: Kline asked for Sheehan to come visit him on his deathbed, their friendship was genuine, based on mutual respect for each other’s love of Painting.

In those early days of the Great_Depression it was next to impossible to find work as an Artist, so Sheehan & Kline worked on the street doing portraits & caricatures, collaborated on murals for the night clubs (The Jungle Room) in the Village. O ne time on of the owners didn’t pay them & Sheehan took them to court to get it. They were desperately poor & would pad the bills for the paint to get paint for their own work. They were also the only two painters who didn’t go on the WPA; Kline had a small stipend from his family and Sheehan was too stubborn or proud to “sign something that said I couldn’t earn a living as an Artist”

They also drew caricatures & portraits on the street near the West 4th Street Subway entrance on Bleeker St.; alongside a Fortune Teller called The Major, who had a small ground floor shop nearby; where he would read fortunes with a deck of cards, the cards themselves were found among Sheehan’s personal effects.

Sheehan and Conrad Marca-Relli

There are 2 original works of Marca-Relli contained within the JJSEA archives alongside rare photographs of Conrad Marca-Relli in his studio in New York.

Sheehan and Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock only met up with Kline & Sheehan towards the end of his life; they became Pollock’s’ best Painter friends after 1950. Jackson used to meet up with Sheehan at The Cedar Tavern almost every Sunday night during the last few years of Jackson’s life; They would Talk & drink beer till late, sometimes stopping for a steak at a place on (12 st.?) Jackson would stay at Sheehan’s studio, 27 West 8th Street

Sheehan met Jackson Pollack when he was visiting his friends Conrad Marca-Relli & Don Braider, author of ‘The Color of the light  ; about El Greco and The Palace Guard’ about the aftermath of Jackson Pollock’s death. Don had opened The House of Music & Books in Sag Harbor; where he gave Jackson Pollack one of his first shows. Marca-Relli had photographic Portraits taken by Sheehan years previously; he gave Sheehan two of his earliest paintings from the 1920’s as payment:

War Effort (1942 – 1945)

Sheehan designed Aircraft Controls for the Dept, of the Navy from 1942 until 1945.

Interior Design

Sheehan’s studio was the first floor (above a Chinese Restaurant) of one of the merchant buildings that form 8th St., with his front room windows overlooking the corner of McDougal Street, where it meets 8th Street; He had rented many spaces (empty store fronts, small studio apartments ) since arriving in the Village in 1929, before moving into 27 West 8th_Street_(Manhattan); his studio for over 50 years until the year before his death (when he moved with my wife, Theresa, myself and our son Finn to Ireland in 1995.)

It was a spacious walk through, 1 floor apartment divided by open plan design. John designed and built furniture in the 40’s and used all his own designs when it was designated ‘The Apartment of the Year’ by Look_Magazine 1952 ; Sheehan’s dinning room chairs were exhibited at M.O.M.A in 1952 and Andy_Kaufman

asked John for them for in his famous Falling Water House designed by the Architect Frank_Lloyd_Wright. As far a I know they are still there.


Sheehan’s dinning room chairs were exhibited at MoMA in 1952

 See Also 


The General Society of Mechanics and Trades men of the City of New York 

Museum of Modern Art – New York City

References The Good Design Show – MoMA 1951

== Further Reading ==

* Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan , ”de Kooning – An American Master,” (Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York, II/2004.) {{ISBN|0399129103}}. p. 230-268

* Jeffery Potter ,  ”To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock Hardcover – November 1, 1985” (Putnam Pub Group, 1985) {{ISBN|0399129103}}. p. tbc

External links


 The Good Design Project, MoMA

 MoMA Press Release

MoMA Press Release 2

MoMA Press Release 3

 MoMA John Sheehan 1951