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Abstract artist George Kokines, 82, dies of leukemia

George Kokines

George Kokines

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Updated: January 3, 2013 10:49AM

Artist George Kokines only saw flowers in the eight paintings he had on display at the Chicago Cultural Center.

A librarian saw something else, calling the abstract oils and pastels “pubic art.” She said she didn’t want patrons to get the idea the library was exhibiting “hot stuff.”

It was 1965. The culture storms were just beginning, as the cold front of the 1950s gave way to a Swingin’ ’60s warming trend.

Mr. Kokines’ paintings were removed from The Cultural Center, then Chicago’s main library.

And one of the city’s liveliest art uproars began.

Nuns at Barat College scolded the library, saying they were fans of Kokines’ work. Other artists threatened to cancel their exhibits. Mr. Kokines was indignant. “If it’s not censorship,” he said, “I’d like to know what is.”

Even Hugh Hefner got involved.

The Playboy founder, a collector of Kokines creations, bought the controversial paintings and announced they would be displayed at Playboy clubs. “We strongly believe in freedom of expression as it concerns all forms of the arts,” Hefner said.

But most of the time, when people discussed Mr. Kokines, they talked of the beauty and power of his abstract expressionism. The Greek-American’s paintings were often awash in the cerulean blues of the Aegean Sea. After witnessing the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, he incorporated the brutality he saw in monumental canvases.

He exhibited his paintings in Argentina, Italy, New York and Seattle. They are in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the New York Public Library, and arts patrons including Susan and Lew Manilow.

Mr. Kokines died of leukemia Monday at his Rogers Park home at 82. He was diagnosed Nov. 6.

His mother, who was from the Greek fishing village of Koroni, immigrated to Chicago and married a Greek man. He ran a diner where their son, young George, would work.

Even as a little boy, he had a stolid determination. He was the baby in his family for five years, until his mother had another little one. “Apparently at five years old,” said his daughter, Anna Miller, “he took the streetcar over to his aunt’s house, and said, ‘You know they have a new baby at my house. Can I be your baby?’ ”

As far back as he could remember, he felt the need to draw. “He told me he used to make sketchbooks and sell them for money when he was a kid,” his daughter said.

He was a Marine cook during the Korean War. He would marry a pretty customer of the family diner, an Irish-American named Rosemary McConville.

His Orthodox parents didn’t attend their wedding at a Catholic church, but they softened and accepted her so thoroughly that at Greek Easter, “They would save the lamb’s head for her, because it was special,” their daughter said.

When they were newlyweds, Mr. Kokines bartered paintings for a dining room set and a sewing machine.

He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1962, he won a prestigious Logan medal from the Art Institute and $2,000 — then a whopping fee — for one of his paintings. He taught at schools including Northwestern University.

For a short time, he worked in Playboy’s art department. His buddy Kerig Pope, Playboy’s former managing art director, recalled that they laughed for years about how the martial arts once saved them.

They were striding down North Avenue in the beatnik era, a time when gang members seemed to rule the street. “Three really rough-looking characters came toward us, mere art students,” Pope said. “George slipped, and his foot went out, and one of the guys yelled ‘karate!’ and they ran.”

He loved a good laugh. Once, when dancing with the famed prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, Mr. Kokines pretended he didn’t know who she was. “Boy, you can really dance,” he said.

He could also belt a song Ethel Merman-style, “as much as a Greek-American man could sound like Ethel Merman,” his daughter said.

In the late 1960s, the Kokines family moved to New York City. Later, he had an art studio near the Twin Towers. He was having coffee outside when the first plane hit. “He heard this sound and he looked up and he thought it was snowing,” Anna Miller said. “It was papers coming down. He saw and he felt the second plane hit. . . .he always talked about the firefighters, about how he was running away, and the firefighters were running to.”

After returning to Chicago in 2005, he painted canvases linked to Sept. 11. “They are majestic,” his daughter said. “They were abstract, but you would see fire and you would see the sky.” Some of the works were used in a 2010 Elgin Art Showcase staging of “The Guys,” a play about the firefighters who died.

He had a leonine dignity, said his friend, novelist Harry Mark Petrakis. “Greece is a land of rocks and mountains and there was something equally imposing and enduring about George,” Petrakis said. “He was a gifted artist with a muse that remained young.”

Though their marriage ended in divorce, he and his ex-wife remained on good terms. When she was in hospice, he helped care for her. Mr. Kokines is also survived by his sisters, Esther Leszczynski and Penelope Marzolph; his brothers, Bill and Jim, and two grandchildren. A private memorial is planned.

His final creation went back, beyond his beginnings. He fell in love with his mother’s village, Koroni, during a trip to Greece. It was the last canvas he painted.

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