Ivan Albright

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through May 11

By Mark Swartz

Ivan Albright was a horrible painter. Using a garish, juvenile palette, he rendered flesh, furniture, and clothing in such a way as to make them all look like satin stained with grease. And although the detail in his paintings impresses me, his painstaking technique remains more of a parlor trick than anything else. The pictures have a moral quality–Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute in the 1940s, called him “our own Jeremiah”–but the moral is hackneyed, about the inevitable decay of objects animate and inanimate.

If the art fails to please aesthetically, the technique distracts, and the message, if it ever was affecting, is now outdated, where is the appeal? The answer lies in Albright’s status as a leading nonconformist of our times, a quixotic hero ignoring first the tide toward abstraction and later the whole postmodern thing; the badness of his art only emphasizes his heroism. His every artistic instinct runs counter to the progress of American art in the late 20th century–which, I admit, sometimes seems like a good idea.

I like to think of Albright as the anti-Warhol. Andy Warhol, the torchbearer of the present artistic fin de siecle, made thousands of pictures and there isn’t a moral to be found among them. He grew up in a working-class family and led a quintessentially unconventional life, never marrying. Albright came from a well-to-do family and led a mostly conventional life, marrying somebody even more well-to-do, Tribune heiress Josephine Medill Patterson Reeve. Warhol paid scant attention to art history and loved nothing more than endearing himself to international industrialists and big-name entertainers. Warhol’s portraits made famous people look like corporate logos. Albright revered the masters and largely ignored collectors, preferring to imagine his work in museums (all of his major paintings but one, The Vermonter, ended up at the Art Institute). Albright’s portraits made ordinary people look like corpses. Warhol encouraged a partylike atmosphere in his studio, relying on teams of assistants to actualize the photo silk screens that occurred to him every now and then. Albright practiced his art in solitude, wielding a brush with a single bristle and gaining at most a square inch of canvas per day.

Even if you value Warhol–which I do–you have to admire someone like Albright who missed the zeitgeist so completely. That doesn’t negate the badness of his art, which I think has to be acknowledged if Albright is to be appreciated. When I say he was a horrible painter I mean bad, but I also mean that he was a painter of the horrible. In two of several Albright exhibits at the Art Institute, one of his paintings and the other of works on paper, he subjects people and objects alike to the same unique light–a creation of his own that’s neither the light of puppet theater nor the light of the operating theater but a little of both. The portrait called Flesh (Smaller Than Tears Are the Little Blue Flowers) and the still life Wherefore Now Ariseth the Illusion of a Third Dimension both have the aroma of dead fish about them. It’s no surprise that Albright enjoyed depicting dead fish too; my favorite is a gouache called Ah God, Herrings, Buoys, the Glittering Sea, from 1940. (Let’s not even mention Albright’s horrible titles.) The eyes are the same, whether they’re fish eyes or his own eyes in any of dozens of self-portraits.

The horribleness of the subject matter and the horribleness of the painting might suggest a certain harmony–it’s possible to imagine that over the years Albright came to a profound comprehension of horror, terror, evil. But instead I find that he treats all his subjects the same. The works vibrate with multitudes of colors, but the idea that animates them is monochromatic. The pinnacle of his exploration of evil, The Picture of Dorian Gray–created for the MGM movie of the Oscar Wilde novel–ripples with blisters, spittle, and detritus, but overall Dorian looks less like a man who’s succumbed to all his worst impulses than he does like a foe of Batman or an extra from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. And the army of rotting corpses who rose from their graves in that video revealed the adolescent male’s idea of horror: if a little guck is scary, then a lot is scarier. True horror, in contrast, can come about only when something is left to the imagination.

Albright’s two greatest works overcome his lack of imagination when it comes to true horror: they allow the mystery to fester rather than give away every last detail. The Door, which took 10 years to complete, and The Window, which took 21, both allude to a figure, but rather than the whole individual all you get is a hand. In The Door a woman’s bejeweled hand grips a door frame, leaving the viewer to invent a story. It doesn’t matter that the story is obvious–the door is death, and the woman is pausing to reflect on her life–as long as there’s something to contemplate as you marvel at the intricacies of the scarred, battered wood of the frame. The hand in The Window suggested to me an old man in an empty house whose dying gesture is pushing open the window to let in some fresh air. The picture is hardly spare–every surface of every object is elaborately realized–but the story behind it is spare and chilling.

Knowing the heroic amounts of time Albright spent on these two paintings made it impossible for me to just look at them and walk away. I wanted to stand there long enough to repay him for his effort. But the feeling that I wanted to give him his due clashed with the sense that I’d seen all he had to offer, so I stood before each longer than I usually would before a painting, then walked away in a kind of reverie, more slowly than usual. It was another way of being transfixed by art, one I’m sure the artist never intended.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Woman” by Ivan Albright.