When I graduated from Brookline High School in Massachusetts in 1989, my art teacher, Osna Sens, gave me an oversize monograph of Ivan Albright paintings as a present. I was a depressed, lonely kid whose only true outlet was painting and drawing. Perhaps Ms. Sens thought Albright’s ghoulish pictures might strike a chord. I didn’t know then that I would make Chicago my home, but Albright’s lurid, often nightmarish portraits were an early introduction to one of the more unusual artists our city has produced. With “Flesh,” a selection of some 30 paintings from its collection, the Art Institute gives Chicago an opportunity to get reacquainted with Albright. It is the museum’s first exhibition devoted to his work since 1997.
“2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first time Ivan Albright exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918,” the show’s curator, John Murphy, tells me via e-mail. “We wanted to honor his close ties to the School and the Museum through a focused exhibition that would give visitors the first chance in over 20 years to see a significant group of Albright paintings together.”
Albright is probably best known today for painting the decaying portrait in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray. This was an appropriate assignment for an artist who spent time as a medical draftsman during World War I and dedicated his career to meticulous renderings of the effects of disease and the ravages of time on the human body.
Albright’s ambition was clearly stated in this passage from a private notebook: “Make flesh more like flesh than has ever been made before; make flesh close, close, and closer, until you feel it.” Indeed, Albright’s approach to the figure is almost topographical. No blemish, bruise, bump, pockmark, or any other imperfection is ignored. As is noted in the wall text for Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (1929-30)—a painting I’ve admired on the walls of the museum for nearly 30 years—the model was an attractive and youthful woman. What the artist has made is an imagined future portrait, after time and the elements have made her beauty begin to wilt and fray.
The obsessive meticulousness of Albright’s technique is a hallmark of his work. The underdrawings took him months, while a finished painting might be labored on for more than a decade. “I have noticed visitors getting up close to the paintings to try to see every individual stroke and detail,” Murphy notes. “He is very obviously a ‘new’ Old Master, someone who consciously competed with artists such as El Greco, Rembrandt, and Albrecht Dürer. So his work does not belong to his own time, but for all time.”
The culmination of the show is a series of self-portraits Albright undertook late in his life. These paintings differ from much of his output in their looser style and more varied approach. It’s as if, sensing that the end was near, he finally loosened the death grip on his brushes. “Late in his life Albright knew that he would not have time to complete one of his monumental paintings—which could take years or even decades to finish—so he concentrated instead on smaller self-portraits,” Murphy explains. “Taken together, the late self-portraits represent some of the most powerful and haunting work of his career. In terms of style, some are looser and less detailed than usual for Albright. Yet they also continue his lifelong examination of the body, mortality, and the ‘way of all flesh.’ He made three self-portraits after a debilitating stroke, and one three days before he died. Although he had a reputation for being a morbid or cynical artist, Albright’s total commitment to art until the very end is ultimately life-affirming.”
As a high school student about to enter the School of the Art Institute, the same art school where Albright studied, I found his painstaking pictures fascinating. That an artist could dedicate himself to the end of human beauty and vitality was oddly inspiring. It showed a young aspiring artist a different way forward. In a 1960 interview Albright asked, “Are there such things as death and decay? In any part of life you find something either growing or disintegrating. All life is strong and powerful, even in the process of dissolution. For me, beauty is a word without real meaning. But strength and power—they’re what I’m after.”
I was glad to revisit Albright’s paintings 29 years after first seeing them. While many of these portraits are truly grotesque, the careful attention paid in their creation should be an inspiration for any young artist. Were I a high school art teacher today, I wouldn’t hesitate to give an Albright monograph to my favorite student. But if he or she were in Chicago, I’d send them to the Art Institute to experience his work in the flesh. v