Editor's note: The following essay was published on February 17, 2012 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author at this web address:
A Good and Gracious Man
by Brett Busang
I knew Carroll Cloar somewhat distantly, and as a kind of late arrival to his life and legend. I did not, in fact, meet him until the last year (1984) I was in Memphis. However, we had some personality quirks in common and hit it off reasonably well. I regret to say that I visited him only a few times, but, if he knew I was in town, he affirmed that my "visiting privileges" were still good. I failed to capitalize on them, not because I had lost interest in the man, but because, when I had received these messages, my own life was in less than perfect control and I chose not to inflict it on other people.
By this time, Cloar was arguably an eminence grise. His paintings commanded prices that were a source of gladness on the one hand and concern on the other. (More of that in a minute.) He was, by general acclamation, an icon of regional art, standing toe to toe with the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, John Stewart Curry, and Grant Wood -- though I would personally deny him such stature, as I will explain. He was kindly, courteous, and accessible. An aspiring artist-friend told me that he was an occasional guest at the converted farmhouse that came to be synonymous with Cloar's agreeable, but somewhat spartan, lifestyle. He'd make my friend some tea, sit down with him, and ask him questions my friend had to think about before answering. When the conversation turned to painting, he didn't so much as tell my friend how to paint as to open the door to whatever possibilities he, my friend, might have been contemplating at the time. (I don't think Carroll Cloar ever taught, as so many painters do. His personal income was such that he didn't have to. Whatever he offered, he offered in a collegial spirit.) If he was working on something, he motioned for my friend to come and watch him. Obscurantist posturing was as alien to his nature as an over-decorated house. He did not disguise his comfort; rather, he shared it. As far as I know, he barred the door to no one -- while maintaining a work schedule that might have tossed sociability out in the cold.
Before I met him, I had resented his aura somewhat. He represented a backward-looking strain I chose to find somewhat corny. If a man is as big as a tree . . . okay, what else have you got? A cluster of mailboxes on the side of a road. A tree-scape Gustav Klimt might have done on an off day. Tired-looking people crossing railroad tracks that, because of the artist's folk palette, looked more pleasing than they actually were. Stylized tree-forms and polka-dotted landscapes. What else have you got indeed?
Yet when I met the man, everything changed. His own humanity was so genuine that I could allow myself to see it in his paintings. (See it or not, it was indubitably present.) What I had chosen to regard as sentimentality was informed by a darker side - the side that sees Uppercase Death and walks right toward it. His humor wasn't merely gentle; it dealt in hard truths and genuine circumstances. As his widow observed, he was a funny fellow. That's the side of him I'll remember best. It was in all of his paintings. The humorous "slant" that informs so much his imagery yanks it out of the populist rut where a lot of folk art justly belongs. In his best work, form and content find a perfect vehicle.
I do not, however, think he achieved the greatness some observers, including myself, reserve for the likes of Andrew Wyeth - or even Thomas Hart Benton. Both men had more breadth, though in vastly different quantities and "accents." Yet all three drew upon fast-disappearing phenomena. Wyeth's was embedded not only in his family, but in a country boy's feeling for American history. (Wyeth was the last American painter to feel the Revolutionary War under his feet.) Benton's subject was America itself, but a stylized America that he could not resist caricaturing. In his more heroic paintings, there is a kind of nervous tension between their bigger-than-life quality and the comic-book forms that give them breadth and movement. At their best, they have baroque elements that allow them to soar. At the worst, they are dumb-shows that don't give their subjects the full measure of their dignity. Benton was a complicated man whose reach exceeded his grasp. It is to his credit that he kept on reaching. Cloar's subjects came from everyday life in Earle, Arkansas, which he chronicled as a folk artist in disguise. Yet he's not the cracker-barrel philosopher a first glance will give you. His roots run too deep and his sense of caring is too genuine. I don't get much of a physical sensation when I look at his work; the impressionists do that a whole lot better. But I get a kind of mythic reality that is as convincing as any optical sensation. If I'm quiet enough, I can almost hear his, or another townsman's, drawl making up the story I'm looking at. Storytelling is justifiably identified with the South. And while it permeates our literature more, it is always at the threshold of a Cloar painting which can be heard as readily as it can be seen.
Cloar's sophistication was, however, undeniable -- and as formidably present in him as it was in Benton or Wyeth. He just didn't let on about it. Art critics who wish to demolish reputations they don't completely understand have not been kind. But fratricidal impulses are part and parcel of the breed. Cloar did, however, have his champions -- some of whom were too provincial to see their idol's limitations. I think Cloar appreciated his own worth, as well as his niche in American painting, as well as anyone. Like a lot of people who are dedicated to a singular vision, he may have considered himself too indispensable. I would suggest, if you subtracted Cloar instead of Wyeth from the artistic landscape, you'd hardly miss him. But his voice is a distinctive one; in a world that falls into lockstep position in art school and doesn't waver a whole lot afterwards, a distinctive voice, no matter how frail, is worth getting excited about.
I don't know much about Cloar's childhood -- nor his life as a young man. A Memphis Magazine profile told of a stint as a drummer aboard a cruise ship. No less a person than Edward R. Murrow, who happened to be master of ceremonies, chided him for a too-exuberant approach to the drumroll. But Cloar's wanderlust was, in the meantime, satisfied. The profile spoke of classes at The Art Students league, where he was an indifferent student. Eventually, however, he found a way to weave his memories onto a canvas and was given the encouragement a young man who was in the process of inventing new worlds should get. After what most artists would consider a moment's notice, be began selling his work which was not an easy thing to do. America was in the grips of a Depression. When money was available, it went towards practical things. But Carroll Cloar managed to attract it anyway. And got down to the business of painting long before many of his contemporaries did. Well, he'd never been a joiner. And would not, as far as I know, ever dignify a professional association or support group. Ever. I was proud of him for that.
I'd wanted him to talk about such things, but our conversations were rooted in the present. I think, if my few visits had occurred later on in the day -- or sometime during the evening -- he might have taken me a little farther down the road he'd come. Even in the South, people have schedules. Cloar stuck to his to a degree day-laborers would appreciate
Being a Yankee, I was flummoxed by, and fascinated with, Southern culture. (Spending time around Carroll Cloar accentuated that.) I tried to fake a Southern demeanor -- which was easy enough. But there was that little thing called substance, which I could never get. I could not relax into a long afternoon the way Southerners could. I could not go to a restaurant and just sit there. I could listen to tall tales and garish obscenities, but not as a participant. If asked to provide obscenities of my own, I couldn't do it. I was an intruder who clearly wanted to get inside. And for that reason alone, I was humored on a good day and tolerated during a bad one. Drinking helped ease me into the dank and dirty situations I longed to experience, but I could not hold onto them afterwards. I was ashamed for having let my guard down; worried that I'd slip into such behavior chronically; concerned about my health. If I could have been any kind of Southerner, it would have been a Southern nerd. Every genuine Southerner can discern the pocket-protector of my mind. Best to let him (or her) do it and enjoy the backlash. Cloar did it easily and joked with me about it. He'd say, "This may be too broad for your subtle intelligence," and tell me something that was subtly intelligent. He wasn't good at concealing self-delight, which was part of his charm. He'd gotten me and he wanted to share his triumph; that I happened to be his victim was irrelevant. He'd try to get my goat by observing that my own work was not human-oriented. "You've got to have people. Everything starts with them!" Such comments annoyed me, but I wouldn't let on because they were intended to. Among the good people of Memphis, foreigners are hazed. And in spite of having grown up there, I was a foreigner then, a foreigner tomorrow, and a foreigner always.
I have followed, through other sources, including Marilyn Sadler's excellent profile in Memphis Magazine, Carroll Cloar's journey from Earle to New York and, finally, back to Memphis again. He was very comfortable in New York, staying at the Algonquin, seeing plays, and rattling around town on the subway. He apparently had a weakness for ties, on which he'd overspend. But extravagance didn't suit him. The ties he bought in New York were never worn. He let himself be infected with the local virus, which gives outsiders a temporary lease on their impulses. They know they've got it, but sail into questionable transactions and fly-by-night relationships with gusto. When they leave, they come back to their senses. New York has always been that way: grab it, squeeze whatever you can out of it, and go home. Carroll Cloar was just being traditional
Over time, his prices became a source of trouble. Yet for a long while, he kept them down -- in order to be able to sell his paintings to as large a number of people as could afford them. Of course, they weren't cheap. In the Sixties, three to five thousand dollars constituted a school teacher's yearly income. But school teachers, then as now, rarely buy paintings -- even if they might appreciate them more than the moneyed people who eventually do. After dealers began to grab market-share, the forces they unleashed led to more inflationary prices, with the result that Cloar's paintings -- whatever their intrinsic worth became commodified. I'd not heard the story about a doctor and his family descending upon the Cloar demesnes and persuading him -- on the pretext that they were absolutely smitten with the three paintings they would eventually buy -- to sell these paintings. This was a rare concession; Cloar didn't like to make multiple sales. The doctor turned around and "flipped" those three paintings for twice their value. It is an ugly tale, but not a surprising one. Commerce is necessary to an artist's productivity, but, once it begins to accelerate, it can be fearfully destructive.
Cloar felt betrayed -- which is understandable. He'd acted in good faith, been traduced for it, and had no legal recourse. We may consider accomplished liars morally retrograde, but we cannot prosecute them.
Yet the incident did not hurt him in the long run. His good nature simply prevailed. He never minded doing well, but he wasn't greedy. I think he meant what he said about making his work available to as many people as could afford it -- rather than sell it to a few collectors who'd hoard the stuff because it had become so precious. He also recognized that reputation was a good thing as long as it didn't go to your head -- though he did let it go to the heads of other people. It takes a lot for an art dealer to risk his or her own reputation on a single product, but very late in Cloar's career, Memphis' most prominent gallerist decided to throw caution to the winds, mount an enormous exhibit, and see just how devoted Memphis was. The wager paid off quite handsomely. From then on, Cloar let his dealer handle the business side of things while, with waning energy, but a still-thriving appetite for work, he continued to create. As always, Cloar seemed to invite goodwill, which he also projected. If anybody deserved the support that was lavished upon him, he did. And I will have to say that I cannot begrudge it.
He married three times, though his most enduring relationship happened rather late in life -- a good thing for an artist who could have lost valuable years to loneliness. (Good relationships are said to promote longevity -- and there is anecdotal evidence, legitimate research, and good gut instinct to back it up.) When I visited Cloar, she was always with him. They had a fine rapport, with much private banter circulating between them. I could tell that they quarreled and wondered how often and with what vehemence. If there was a protector, it was she. He was the resident genius and she was genius' handmaiden - insofar as a woman with liberal leanings could accept such subordination. I found her warmly personable, though she lacked her husband's subtle wit and would talk over it. I don't remember why I mentioned it, but I told her of an old dressmaker's dummy I'd found in New York. She said she wanted it, so I gave it to her. I'm glad I did. Aside from having found "the right person" for it, it was better off in her possession. In my care, it would have eventually been lost or left behind.
I knew that he had taken his own life, but didn't know why. My morbid imagination had supplied a scenario that was vaguely operatic: artist loses powers, can't live with himself, and does the only possible thing in the playbook. He had actually fallen ill and was losing his independence. He would ask his wife, from time to time, whether he was too much of a burden. I doubt if she ever said anything other than an emphatic "No!" But on a fine April morning, he found the gun she knew he had, but had never seen. When she came back, the housekeeper stopped her. He was, in this way, able to choose his exit. It must've been hard for him to watch the day come alive around him and decide to pull the trigger. He probably didn't want to go, but he also wanted to be kind.
The three Memphians who influenced me the most are dead now: Mr. Cloar, Charles Miller, and John Fergus Ryan. (I would add Howell Pearre -- who was not as talented as these other men, but had a breadth of knowledge and experience for which Memphis was ill-prepared. And a caustic wit that was revered -- and despised -- in equal measure.) All were friends of mine: unselfconscious Southerners to my Southern Yankee. I admired them all and wished I could have spent more time with them.
Each of them represented a past life I could only see through
them. But at least I could see it. Without their help, it wouldn't have
existed at all.
About the Author
Brett Busang is a respected American realist who has exhibited
at such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York; the Everson
Museum, in Syracuse, NY; the Greenville Museum of Art, in Greenville, NC.
His paintings are in numerous corporate collections (Capital One, Krispy
Kreme, Media General, Wheat First Union, among others), though most of his
work is in individual hands. An heir to such uncompromising voices as Edward
Hopper and Charles Burchfield, Mr. Busang interprets "his own backyard"
with a combination of personal lyricism and rigorous objectivity. His writing
has appeared in American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, American
Arts Quarterly, the New York Press and New York Newsday.
He writes a blog through his website at www.brettbusang.com and has begun
to contribute reviews to Examiner.com, an entertainment website with a nation-wide
following. He is also a satirist and playwright. He was born in 1954.
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