Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on May 10, 2005 with the permission of the Weatherspoon Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Weatherspoon Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

On the Paintings of Bert Carpenter

by Hilton Kramer

 




Almost thirty years have passed since I had my first glimpse of the paintings of Bert Carpenter. The occasion was the artist's first solo exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery in New York. I was then writing art criticism for The New York Times, and it fell to me to review this exhibition by a painter whose work I had not seen before. I can still recall the wonderful surge of pleasure and surprise I felt on that first encounter with Bert's work.

The year was 1970, not exactly a tranquil moment in American art. Pop art and Minimalist art were still the rage. Andy Warhol was given his first retrospective exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum that year, and Frank Stella got his at the Museum of Modern Art. Owing to the madly accelerated pace that had overtaken the art scene in the 1960's, a museum "retrospective" had quickly come to mean a show of about ten years' work by an accredited art star -- one usually selected from the Leo Castelli constellation. That year, too, MoMA mounted "Information," its first Conceptual art show, and in keeping with the political temper of the time Barbara Rose, the art critic for Vogue magazine who had been a cheerleader for Minimalism in the 1960's, startled an audience at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum by denouncing the high art of modernism as elitist, divisive and undemocratic, and called instead for an art that would appeal to the masses -- the visual equivalent of Rock, as she said. It was a crazy time.

One of the places to which I often took refuge from the craziness in those days was the Zabriskie Gallery on Madison Avenue. Virginia Zabriskie was -- and still is -- a dealer with an eye for quality that is not easily diverted by the sensations of the moment. In the shows she devoted to both living artists and some earlier twentieth-century modernists, you could usually count on seeing something special, something that was either overlooked or under-appreciated by eyes easily blinded by the limelight. Even so, nothing had quite prepared me for the extraordinary paintings in this Bert Carpenter exhibition. This, in its entirety, is what I wrote about those paintings in the Times:

The rose is a venerable subject in the history of painting, but there are no roses to be found in this history quite like those that appear in the paintings of Bert Carpenter, whose one-man show is now installed at the Zabriskie Gallery, Madison Avenue at 63rd Street.
 
For Mr. Carpenter, while lavishing a familiar lyricism on the realization of this conventional subject, manages to transform it into something quite different -- the materials of "heroic" painting.
 
Mr. Carpenter projects his imagery of roses on a monumental scale, making of each petal, leaf and stem a weighty architectural member. The roses in his paintings are giant roses, monument roses -- roses that carry the humble dimensions of nature into the realm of pictorial fantasy. And yet, he effects this magical change of scale without sacrificing anything of the "realism" of his depictions. These roses, as large as the head of a man, retain all their tender luminosity.
 
As a sheer technical feat, the exhibition is remarkable. But it is also extremely interesting as virtuoso painting. Mr. Carpenter has adopted something of Alex Katz's pictorial strategy in enlarging his subjects to more than life-size, and the particular "cropping" he employs seems to owe something to Philip Pearlstein's painting -- Mr. Carpenter often cuts off the tops and bottoms of his roses the way Mr. Pearlstein crops his views of naked models. But whatever he may have borrowed in the realm of formal ideas, Mr. Carpenter's pictures establish a presence all his own. He is an interesting and powerful painter.

It may be worth adding that during my long tenure at the Times, I was generally considered a "tough" critic -- a characterization I do not quarrel with. Yet, as I have found to be the case with most critics of a similarly "tough" persuasion, nothing gives me more pleasure than to discover unfamiliar work of significant quality and intelligence. In that exhibition of Bert's paintings of oversize flowers in 1970, it seemed to me that this difficult criterion had been met with an agreeable abundance of energy and craft.

Here was a remarkable talent, I thought -- a talent that seemed to be fully alert to a broad range of contemporary developments in art, yet sufficiently confident and independent to go its own way, making use of what it deemed to be compatible with its own sensibility and standards, yet firmly resisting the many temptations then on offer to join one or another bandwagon claiming priority status.

 

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