Nicolas Carone, Untitled, 1955 Credit: Courtesy Rare Nest Gallery

Nicolas Carone, who died in 2010 at 93, was a painter, sculptor, and beloved teacher of generations of artists. Megan Williamson, his student, has curated “Carone Centennial Chicago,” one of five national exhibitions being produced to mark the centennial of his birth. The show features drawings, paintings, and a bronze statue that come from private collections and Carone’s estate—they reveal a nimble draftsman whose energetic evocation of landscape and figure are evidence of a restless seeker of deep personal expression.

“Carone Centennial Chicago” is also the inaugural exhibit for Rare Nest Gallery in Avondale. Rare Nest is an unassuming storefront space located just off a quiet stretch of Milwaukee Avenue—but it harbors serious ambitions. Keith Bringe, its proprietor, told me he plans to concentrate future exhibitions on artists 50 or older, and he hopes to handle several artists’ estates. “Carone Centennial Chicago” indicates that Rare Nest will likely become a go-to destination for fans of serious painting.

Carone was born in Manhattan to Italian parents but spent much of his childhood across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey. He quit high school after two years to pursue painting and sculpture as a profession. He studied under muralist Leon Kroll in the 1930s and German expatriate Hans Hofmann in the ’40s, giving him a direct line to the European modernist tradition. After winning the Prix de Rome in 1941, he spent time in that city, reconnecting with his ethnic roots, and was newly influenced by old masters. Soon afterward, Carone became a close friend of Jackson Pollock’s. Later in life, Carone was often summoned to authenticate Pollock’s paintings when they surfaced for sale; he was also a key consultant on Pollock, the 2000 film starring and directed by Ed Harris.

Carone had many exhibitions in New York and elsewhere in the 50s and 60s but started to teach full-time in 1965. He wouldn’t exhibit his work again until he was in his 80s, preferring to earn much of his living as a teacher. Williamson told me she thinks the long gap may have been due to Carone’s disgust at the commercialization of his more famous friends’ artworks, fueled by the feeding frenzy over abstract expressionism in the American art market. Yet Carone never stopped producing—by the time those close to him finally convinced him to share his efforts with the public again, there was a treasure trove of material to choose from.

Throughout his long career, Carone vacillated between abstraction and figuration. At Rare Nest there are earthy red figures rendered in crayon—somehow reminiscent of both Michelangelo and Picasso—and also mysterious, cloudy, and calm oil portraits that recall the early 20th-century Ashcan school, the art of ancient Greece, and the Italian Renaissance. There are paintings that could be mistaken for de Koonings.

But regardless of the medium or the tools, there’s always a tactile and searching quality to Carone’s art. No matter how sketchy or unfinished a work might appear at first, further examination shows that every inch of its surface was considered or repeatedly refined. Carone’s output is evidence of an endless engagement with the painted plane.

My deep appreciation of “Carone Centennial Chicago” doesn’t feel accidental. Williamson had been friends with my teachers at SAIC, some of whom had taught at the International School for Art, the summer art program Carone founded in Todi, Italy. She recalled to me how early on in their acquaintance, Carone took her by the arm, looked her in the eye, and told her she was now family. “Nick taught the language of the picture plane, believed in the metaphysics of art making, and encouraged his students to pursue their own path,” Williamson says. “He was a connection to the grand tradition of painting.” It’s a chain that links Carone, Hoffmann and Kroll, Picasso and Matisse, and all of Western painting.  v