Sheehan on the painters in the Village 1930-45

Friendship with Kline.

Sheehan moved to Greenwich Village, 1929,  in 1933 he met Franz Kline in a coffee shop on 6th Ave.,   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 an 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

, depicted in this photograph See image 2

John Sheehan, Franz Kline & The Major early 1940’s 35mm Slide

Franz Kline early 1940’s Slide by John Sheehan Slide 35mmImage 2    Photograph of John Sheehan, Franz Kline and The Major (who told fortunes with reading cards) cir. early 40’s.  Some of these street Caricatures  still hang in the Minetta Tavern,


llsa no.

Franz Kline by John Sheehan 4×5 TransparencyFranz Kline

Either drawn by Sheehan or Kline?

pencil on paper

These two young painters were well aware of the Modern sentiment coming to America from Europe, being shown in the galleries uptown, they were influenced more by Les Refusés of Paris, Malevich, Kandinsky and Gorky to name a few, then any of the painters in America at that time (George Bellows, Edward Hopper The Ashcan School etc): as American Painting was still embroiled with the narrative of Illustration.

Seeing this European wave of Modern Painting was liberating for them and they were soon contributing their own unique, rugged individualistic vision to this New Visual Revolution.
Although Franz Kline is well documented from the time he became famous cir, 1950 there is hardly any documentation of him before this; Among John Sheehan’s Estate are many exquisite Photographs (with the positives & negatives) of  Franz Kline (both in color and B&W) some are portraits and others more casual. Sheehan said.  ” Kline liked to think he looked like Errol Flynn.”

The Puppet by John Sheehan 1930 – 1944? Sheehan & Kline made a living off during the depression

There are many other Photographs, with the Negatives & Positives,  taken by John Sheehan of the Painters from these early years  (long before anyone had ever heard of them) .   Sheehan also won The Edward Steichen Award for Photography from the Museum of Modern Art 1947?
Sheehan and Kline were the only painters who didn’t join on the WPA  as Sheehan was too proud to say he couldn’t earn a living from painting ( a Stubborn Irish Catholic ethos as he himself put it) and Kline had a small stipend from his parents to get by on.
In the backgrounds of some of the photographs of Kline painting in his studio cir 1946-8 are a number of paintings, clearly showing the way Kline was painting before he developed his Black & White Period: at the same time documenting those particular paintings.
Although Willem De Kooning lived in The Village and had a rented studio on Carmine Street, he kept to himself, spending most of his time uptown with two Ballet Dancer friends of his, and didn’t have much to do with the other painters meeting in the Coffee Houses (being The Great Depression, Bars were too expensive for these poor painters, whereas in the Coffee Houses they could get a coffee for 5 cents and linger for hours.

John Sheehan was a quiet, unassuming classicist with an easy manner laced with wit.

  ” The most important thing that People do is conversation.”

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 St.;  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 shown at M.O.M.A in 1952 and Kaufman asked John for them for in his famous Falling Water House designed  by the Architect Frank Lord Wright.  As far a I know they are still there.

Sheehans chair designs – as featured in MoMA Good Design show Nov 27 1951 – Jan 27 1952

I remember paintings by Franz Kline on the walls when I was very young;   John told me he had sold them to  Dr. Theodore Edlich,  who had a  Dental practice at No.2  5th Ave. There are two small paintings Franz Kline gave to Sheehan still in the estate.

Postcard from Dr. Theodore Edlich to John thanking him for the Kline paintings


The ‘Abstract Expressionists’ did not start out with this Movement Label or Fable in mind.

During the early years when Franz Kline and  John Sheehan met, 1929-32, in Greenwich Village they were young men who were aspiring to become Illustrators.  They had both become proficient in Classical Drawing, this ability served them both well throughout their life’s work.

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) 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.

The Toff

The puppet paintings by Franz Kline is one example of the direct influence of  Sheehan,  as Kline borrowed the puppet from him.

During the 30’s the other painters they knew in the West Village were Conrad Marca Relli, George Speventa Philip Piva & Wilhelm de Kooning.  John said that he understood why Gorky committed suicide as he had a colostrum  attached to his bowels, and was in great pain.  As a painter Sheehan liked Gorkey’s paintings and his flamboyant ways when socializing.

An amusing story – Christophe P Yowell memoirs.
He told me how once late at night Kline called him to come over, as his wife Elizabeth was hysterical.  She had thrown the puppet out the window claiming it was staring at her.  When John arrived she was incomprehensible while they waited for the ambulance men from Bellevue to come.  When the ambulance men were taking her away, Sheehan overheard one of them say to his mate “No wonder she went crazy living with those paintings.”















See : Sheehan and Bill de Koonig

Sheehan and Jackson Pollock