The Spirit of the Modern: Drawings and Graphics by Maltby Sykes

January 15 - March 20, 2005



Friendship's Garland: Remembering Maltby Sykes, "A Witness of His Time"

by Taylor Littleton


It was always Maltby who opened the door. "Come on in," he would say, "I've been waiting for you because I've some things to show you." And he always did, as we would sit down, often with Marjorie, his wife, amidst the furniture that for twenty-five years -- like his art on the walls around us -- seemed permanently contemporary. We were then engaged in our second writing project, and what he had to show were his notations either on the further design or the wording itself of the text we were preparing. Those domestic scenes, as I recall them now, are a minor image of one of the most graceful acts of the small University community where Maltby spent most of his artistic life: how the Sykes's mutual communion of understanding and support, artists from different disciplines, his wife a truly distinguished harpist, always took pride and pleasure in the other's accomplishments. And I would be much remiss if I did not, on behalf of his many friends, recall also the elastic strength of Maltby's conversations, his courtly manner, and especially his tolerance of the opinions of others amidst the spirited discourse of our common academic life.

Little in Maltby's work speaks of the personal, but one clear gesture in that direction is this exhibition's Harp Ensemble, which records Maltby's faithful attendance at Marjorie's concerts with her students throughout the South. With its vertical and linear profusion of line intersections uniting hand and string, the piece seems to evoke the sounds of flowing chordic harmony that so indescribably pervaded those occasions. But it is also important as one of the first prints derived from the multi-metal plate process whose technology Maltby would gradually expand in his lithographic progress. One additional work, the splendid oil painting, Trio (figure 1), also connects the personal with the art, but in a strangely oracular form. Executed in 1936 during Maltby's period as Diego Rivera's assistant, the painting captures the famous international musical group then performing in Mexico City led by harpist Carlos Salzedo. Maltby was unaware then that eventually Salzedo would become the most influential teacher of the young Marjorie Tyre, some twenty-five years before she and Maltby were married.

The Mexican experience was one of two of the most formative apprenticeships in Maltby's artistic life, the other being what he learned from the master printer George Miller. It seemed important to him to write about both, and while his style in each text illustrates a parallel to the unobtrusive clarity of the pictorial abstractions in this catalogue, the content of his recollections also reveal something of the genuine modesty and self-effacement that his friends and students uniformly remember.[1] The trajectory of his artistic modernity was influenced by all of his teachers and mentors, as he was always quick to acknowledge -- very early in his career, for example, Stanley William Hayter's Surrealist mode of permitting the lithographic image to appear less as a conscious act of drawing but rather as a shape dictated by the integration of surface and materials in use. His apprenticeship with Miller, of course, essentially initiated that trajectory, giving direction to the young artist who in the mid-thirties had been oriented toward portraiture, "painting my way through the Depression," he remembered, and with his many commissions for portraits of historical figures in the history of Alabama, "resurrecting at least a platoon of Confederate officers."

"I was hooked on the process," he wrote, from the moment that he first witnessed in Miller's studio the printed image emerge as a transfer from stone to press. Miller, as this catalogue illustrates, would years later print some of Maltby's own lithographs. But as his assistant, Maltby never etched or inked the stones for Miller's client contracts. He characteristically stated that he himself never achieved a Milleresque excellence, but his education was undoubtedly and uniquely enhanced by seeing a master at work, developing a sense of printing as a creative process. And, as he set out some thirty years later to reflect in writing on this part of his education, he saw Miller's long career as an essential element in the rise of lithography from the level of merely a reproductive sequence to that of a fine art. In some handwritten and unpublished notes, he offered a perception of Miller's genius as he recalled the posthumous exhibition in 1976, George Miller and American Lithography at the National Museum of American Art, sensing that his skill, historical knowledge, and commitment to excellence enabled those well-known exhibitors whose work he had printed to realize or even to surpass their aesthetic objectives.

These written remembrances reveal to us a dimension of the Sykes persona that the art itself cannot: that of the scholar-teacher, who in this conscious act describes for us what he had long before come to understand -- that from Miller and his other early mentors, he found a scale of value against which to measure his own work within the context of the techniques and achievements of others. And it is important, I think, as we consider these oblique glances at the young man who became the artist that he also recorded here his pervasive and obligatory confrontation with the quest for originality in the contemporary production of the graphic image: the peril of allowing what he called in a fine revelatory phrase, "the joy of printmaking," to be eroded by the steady advent of new sophisticated, commercial processes within the capitalism of the marketplace. His own professional and ethical response, of course, lies in the evidence of this exhibition, and that was perhaps the most important legacy he eventually bequeathed to his students in the printmaking studio: that each should establish his own expressive pathway to the image, subordinating, if not integrating, the technology itself.

It is not readily apparent what the Diego Rivera portion of his apprenticeship contributed to his teaching. The Rivera connection to the art of lithography is rather incidental, although Maltby wrote that the surface of lime plaster prepared for fresco painting "looks and feels like a lithographic stone." Still, his printed harvest from that period, mostly executed some ten years later, is considerable, and the visit to Mexico stands as but one example of his conscious search for new expressions within the international modernist scene. He had been accepted as assistant to Rivera for the Hotel Reforma murals in Mexico City based on a recommendation from George Miller, who had already done some printing for Rivera. It must have been some letter! But it was Maltby's own submissions that secured the post. As with Miller, he performed the menial tasks of keeping the workplace in orderly preparation, although those in Mexico City included trips to the local barber shop to gather hair clippings for strengthening the texture of the first, or "scratch," plaster coat. ("I never afterward went for a hair cut," he told me once, "without remembering those trips"). And also, as with Miller, his brilliant native ability soon showed itself as he was entrusted to make freehand charcoal enlargements of Rivera's mural sketches for the second plaster coat.

I mention all of this because as our afternoon conversations more and more turned toward Mexico of the twenties and thirties, it was clear to me that Maltby, here in his post-retirement years, was reflecting on the meaning of his career. Assisting Rivera some fifty years earlier was something he had wanted to describe, his written commitment to that experience coming within two years of the long analysis of his lithographic journey that began with Miller. Did the twenty-five year old apprentice in 1936 realize that he was indisputably in the presence of genius and that he was working under the dominant figure in a true "renaissance" of the artistic life of Mexico, already critically confirmed as then producing the most important painting on the continent? Perhaps not, but certainly he carried it forward in his artistic consciousness, as he stated how "exciting" it had been to see Rivera paint, integrating large masses of color and form with precise organization against a highly symbolic story of Mexico's revolutionary history and subjection to the European and American "Conquistadors."


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