On the Paintings of Bert Carpenter
by Hilton Kramer
For an artist to keep his head in those days -- and particularly an artist committed to the art of painting -- was no small achievement. We were in a period of uproar in the art world. While there was no shortage of good painting to be seen, painting itself no longer enjoyed its hitherto preeminent position on the art scene. The insidious influence of Marcel Duchamp, now given a new purchase on established opinion by the runaway success of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art, had the effect in certain prestigious quarters of downgrading painting to a secondary enterprise. In response to this development, the kind of painting that commanded respect in high places tended to be ironical, facetious and non-pictorial -- painting that had been Warholized. By 1972 -- at the vast "Documenta" exhibition of contemporary art in West Germany, for example -- the principal emphasis was on installation art and variations on Neo-Dada, while painting was relegated to a sideline.
How closely acquainted with these developments Bert Carpenter may have been in 1970, I had no way of knowing with any certainty. I could only infer from what I saw in those oversize flower paintings that he had a pretty accurate understanding of what was going on, and was responding to it with an aesthetic tact and what the French call mesure -- decorum, proportion, moderation -- that satisfied the dictates of his own taste. It wasn't until a later time, when I got to see the works of art that Bert acquired for the collection of the Weatherspoon Art Gallery during the years of his directorship, that my hunch about all this was abundantly confirmed. Nothing less parochial, more knowledgeable, or more generous in spirit could be imagined than the connoisseurship which Bert brought to that endeavor -- and something akin to that connoisseurship, its creative correlative and governing taste, is also what distinguishes Bert's most accomplished work as a painter.
More recently, of course, I have had an opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the Rose paintings that I wrote about in 1970. I see things in them now that I may not have had the experience or perspicacity to recognize thirty years ago. For one thing, we are nowadays more habituated to the pictorial use of the enlarged close-up -- a device painting has appropriated from photography and cinematography -- than we were then. In the interim, indeed, the enlarged close-up has become something of a cliche in contemporary art. Yet the use Bert made of this pictorial device in the Rose paintings, and in the subsequent series of Egg and Tomato paintings, has lost none of its freshness and vitality -- a painterly vitality that, unlike so much else in the painting of the time, transcends the look of a period cliché.
There are, I think, at least two reasons for this. One is that these pictures are painted in a very classical style, with the sense of mesure I have already mentioned. They owe nothing to the glitzy glamour of Pop art. This was something that I failed to take sufficient account of when I wrote about the Rose paintings in 1970. The other, which is a corollary of this classical approach to the pictorial subject, is that there is no undercurrent of, or implied reference to, irony or mockery in these paintings -- no hint of the facetious nor any wink of insouciance. For nothing "dates" a painting more quickly, whether it is a Magritte or a Warhol, than an attitude of irony, either in the way it deals with its subject or in the manner of its execution. And it is this classical sense of mesure that has enabled Bert to develop this vein of pictorial expression with continued artistic success in the dahlia, magnolia, tulip, and other flower paintings in the 1980's and early 1990's.
It may be asked, however, if there isn't an element of irony to be discerned in the practice of painting flowers with the kind of attention to their mass, contour, color, and structure that in earlier periods of art was lavished on more "heroic" subjects -- Biblical or mythological narratives, battle scenes or cityscapes. I can see why such an argument might be made, but I don't think our experience of the flower paintings supports it, and the entire tenor of modern still-life painting refutes it. For the modern still-life picture, from Cézanne onwards, has proved itself beyond dispute to be a medium of heroic painting, and it is in the history of that modern tradition that Bert's paintings in this vein can be seen to occupy a distinguished place.
About the earlier paintings -- the watercolor landscapes from the 1930's and the portraits from the 1940's, which I have seen for the first time on the occasion of this retrospective -- certain observations also suggest themselves. The first is that Bert clearly brought a large natural talent to his vocation as a painter from the outset. He brought something else too -- a taste that was as resistant to the more bogus fashions of the time as he afterwards showed himself to be in relation to the fashion of the 1960's and 70's.
Consider what were the prevailing pictorial fashions in this country in the 1930's. On the one hand, there was the cornball Regionalism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. On the other, there was the politicized Social Realism of Ben Shahn and other followers of the Communist Party line. And the influence exerted by both the Regionalists and the Social Realists on the mural projects of the Federal Art Project was simply enormous. All those smiling farmers without a trace of dirt under their fingernails! All those cheerful workers looking remarkably unfatigued by their heroic labors! For anyone who grew up in the Depression era, as I did, it was instantly recognizable as an art of fantasy, caricature and falsehood, yet this was the mainstream American art at the time. For a young artist to have avoided all that was a triumph in itself.
Seen in that context, the watercolor landscapes Bert was painting in the late 1930's look remarkably innocent and independent. Everything is freshly observed, not only the lay of the land, but the quality of the light, and it is set down in a medium that doesn't permit correction or mishap. Untainted by ideology or false sentiment, these watercolors show an impressive command of the medium.
The portraits of the 1940's likewise show a parallel command of the oil medium. Without doubt, however, the most beautiful of them all is the extraordinary Self-Portrait (p. 34) of 1945, painted in France in the last year of the Second World War, in which Bert served in the U.S. Army. It is not only as a feat of painterly command, moreover, that this picture is so impressive. For what can only be described as its magnificent self-possession, this painting is also deeply moving. Painted on a small plywood panel -- the only material available -- with the artist posed against the flowered French wallpaper in the remains of a house commandeered by the army, it is at once a somber statement of survival and self-affirmation and a declaration of future ambition. To judge by my own experience, it is a painting that remains lodged in one's memory long after it has first been seen.
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