DescriptionARTHUR BEECHER CARLES (American 1882-1952)
Untitled Abstraction, circa 1921-27
Oil on canvasboard
16 x 20-1/2 inches (40.6 x 52.1 cm)
Sale, Bonham's, New York, November 29, 2005, Lot 95;
Arthur B. Carles was one of the finest colorists among the early American modernists as well as one of the most original American interpreters of the Fauvist and Cubist styles. A native of Philadelphia, Carles trained from 1900 to 1907 at the local Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where he quickly mastered the rigorous academic curriculum under an exceptional group of artists with very different styles and philosophies: William Merritt Chase, Thomas Anschutz, Hugh Breckenridge, Cecilia Beaux, and Henry McCarter. Perhaps owing to this early exposure to wide artistic diversity, Carles was extremely open-minded as a painter as well as enthusiastically experimental. For Carles, Chase proved a particularly influential figure: he taught his students to paint quickly, with loose, dynamic brushwork and the idea that the abstract composition of a painting was more important than its story or subject matter. Under Henry McCarter, who was universally regarded as the academic bastion's recognized modernist, Carles adopted a preference for a radically colorful palette which doubtless predisposed him to the work of the Fauves a little later on.
Carles enjoyed early artistic recognition at the Academy, winning numerous prizes and awards for his work, including the prestigious Cresson Traveling Scholarship which he won not once but twice. In 1905 the first Cresson took him abroad for the summer, while the second (1907) with its cash award of $2,000 enabled him to spend the next three years abroad (1907-1910). Like many of his contemporaries, Carles selected Paris as his place for European art training, but unlike so many other young Americans, Carles gravitated to the radical avant-garde rather than ateliers of academic figure painters and impressionists. He renewed his association with the American modernist John Marin, whom he had known as the Academy, and visited the home of Leo and Gertrude Stein-probably through contact with the another talented American, Alfred Maurer-where he was exposed to the work of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse. These figures had a profound impact upon the future direction of his art, specifically in the use of color both for its expressive and structural properties. Also in Paris, Carles formed a fast friendship with the American photographer Edward Steichen, whom photographer/gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz had enlisted to help identify artistic innovations and innovators in the French capital. In the company of Steichen and Marin, Carles began to paint landscapes of the French countryside using electric colors and thick impasto. The contact with Steichen drew Carles into the Stieglitz circle of the American avant-garde. Carles became a founding member of the New Society of American Artists in Paris in 1908-a group which provided the basis for an exhibition at Stieglitz's "291" Gallery in New York two years later. Entitled "Younger American Painters," Stieglitz's show was the first exhibition of American modernism, predating by three years the landmark Armory Show which brought a large concentration of European (and American) modern art to the attention of the American public for the first time. Between Stieglitz's exhibition and the Armory Show, Carles returned to France where he galvanized his modernist style, cropping, conflating and flattening space. Never a timid painter, Carles-even in his earliest efforts in the new idiom-pushed his new style as far as he could. His boldness was recognized and two of his confident French landscapes were chosen for inclusion in the Armory Show.
As the present work from the following decade amply demonstrates, Arthur Carles was far less literal in his approach to the Fauvist and Cubist styles than many American abstractionists who had a very hard time letting go of the subject altogether. This work is a prime example of how radical Carles' work could be, and how close he came to non-representational painting some twenty-five years before the advent of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, while this painting probably has as its objective inspiration a still life arranged on a tabletop (a related work from circa 1921-27 showing a similar blue vase with a multicolored handle is reproduced in Arthur Beecher Carles 1882-1952, exh. cat., essay by Meredith E. Ward, Richard York Gallery, New York, 1997, no. 8, p. 12), there are few real "markers" identifying the subject. The subject is quite obviously the paint. Not surprisingly, because such abstractions were extremely precocious, often rendered with a painterly abandon and a gloppy, overloaded brush in the manner of a later artist like Hans Hoffmann (who vastly admired Carles' work), Carles' paintings were difficult for the public to accept and understand. Interestingly, his daughter, Mercedes, who herself became an artist and married the noted Swiss-born graphic designer, Herman Matter, became close friends with the maverick Abstract Expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock, around the time he was developing his breakthrough "drip" paintings. Clearly her father's brand of creative freedom led her to seek out like-minded artists.
Artistically, Arthur Carles pushed the envelope very far. While his persistence in painting abstractly did win him the support of a tight group of discerning Philadelphia collectors such as R. Sturgis Ingersoll and Earl Horter and the admiration of Leopold Stokowski, it also made him art world adversaries. On the other hand, his energetic support of modern art intensely endeared him to his students at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he taught from 1917 to 1925 (roughly the same timeframe as the present painting). During his tenure at his alma mater, Carles worked to bring an awareness of his modernism not only to his students, but to Philadelphia at large, organizing many exhibitions of contemporary art. Sadly, his efforts were not only unappreciated but discouraged by the staid faculty. He was reprimanded for his outspoken advocacy of modernism in 1920, and then eventually dismissed from his post in 1925. Undaunted, Carles continued painting in his chosen style, teaching privately, and exhibiting widely. By 1928, Carles had developed a new interest in Cubism. In his paintings of still-lifes, nudes and landscapes-his three primary subjects-the artist began fracturing forms into planes that intersect and collide with one another.
By the 1930s, Carles' health began to deteriorate largely from a lifelong practice of drinking, which he felt enhanced his perceptions. In 1941, just a year after his first one-man show at the Pennsylvania Academy, he experienced a tragic fall while he was intoxicated which left him paralyzed and unable to paint. He spent the final decade of his life confined to a nursing home, where he died in 1952.
The most important holdings of Arthur Carles' work are the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
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