Second-generation Abstract Expressionist Ray Spillenger has been described as "the most brilliant unknown painter of his generation." Born in Brooklyn in 1924, Spillenger’s mother took him to his first art class at the Brooklyn Museum when he was eight years old. As an adult Spillenger was studying at the Pratt Institute in 1942 when his education was interrupted by World War II. After enlisting in the Army, Spillenger worked as a pilot of a C-47 transport plane and was assigned to fly the Hump in Burma, China, and India. Spillenger was awarded the Army Air Corps’ highest honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross, at the conclusion of the war.
Returning to New York City in 1948, Spillenger finished his Pratt degree in May and quickly enrolled in a summer seminar at Black Mountain College. There he studied under Willem de Kooning and Josef Albers alongside Elaine de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. The following summer Spillenger left for Italy where he would study painting for the next year and a half at the Museo Artistico Industriale with Pericle Fazzini (1913–1987) in Rome. Once back in New York in 1951, Spillenger moved to the Lower East Side and continued to paint among a circle of downtown artists that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman.
Throughout the 1950s, Spillenger immersed himself in the downtown co-operative exhibition spaces known collectively as the “Tenth Street Galleries.” The Tenth Street Galleries ran from 1952 to 1962, and held approximately 250 dues-paying members, exhibiting the work of 500 to 1,000 artists. Seeking to control how their work was exhibited and sold, the artists pointedly rooted these galleries in the neighborhood where they lived and, most importantly, where they collaborated. Establishments like Cedar Tavern, the Artist’s Club, and the New School served as the backdrop to the co-ops and were indicative of the artistic community created by the New York School. From 1953 to 1955, Spillenger’s work was included among the “Stable Annuals,” which were yearly exhibitions hosted by the Stable Gallery on West 58th Street that featured the work of Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and other notable Abstract Expressionists of the day. During this time, Spillenger continued his education at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts. A few years later, Spillenger was an original member of the co-op March Gallery, which ran from 1957 to 1960. While working with the March Gallery, Spillenger’s work was featured in 10th Street, a group show held at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in Texas, and in a solo exhibition at the Great Jones Gallery in New York City.
Spillenger is known to have suffered from depression and would occasionally spend up to a week in bed. As his colleagues transitioned from local to international success, Spillenger retreated and in the early 1960s he stopped exhibiting his work. Though his sons cite a few reasons for this withdrawal, Spillenger’s melancholia coupled with his personal hesitation to enter the fray of the competitive art world seem to be the force behind his decision to turn away from his career as an artist. During the years that Spillenger refused to sell and showcase his work, Abstract Expressionism suddenly became passé as pop art, minimalism, and conceptualism dominated the scene. While the art world around him changed, Spillenger stopped working all together in the late 1970s and instead threw himself into community organizing and political activism. It was not until the late 1990s, around the time that his wife of 42 years, Marian, passed away that Spillenger decided to return to his art. After having abandoned painting for approximately 15 years, Spillenger’s mode of representation turned from abstract to figurative. Spillenger remained in his home on the Lower East Side until his death in 2013, at age 89.