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A Retrospective for Frank Milby
May 27 - June 22, 2008
An artist for over 45 years, and a Cape resident since 1959, Provincetown master Frank Milby will be the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Cahoon Museum of American Art, from May 27 through June 22, 2008. This is the first major retrospective given the artist in several decades.
This exhibition features over thirty paintings, watercolors, and pastels spanning the artist's entire career and encompassing his wide-ranging repertoire, including cityscapes, still life, seascapes, landscapes, and portraits. Milby's style is as wide-ranging as his motifs, and the artist good-naturedly refers to his works as "looking like a group show."
From his youth in Queens, New York, Milby drew street people" and cityscapes, poignant with empathy and unexpected beauty. An impressive canvas measuring five feet in length depicting African women queuing for water will astound viewers with its power and beauty. But then one discovers his poetic and hauntingly beautiful trees rendered in oils or delicate watercolor. These complement powerful sea and landscapes ranging from familiar scenes of Provincetown harbor to Commercial Street in winter. Those who have had the pleasure of dining at Nappi's in Provincetown will recognize Pears, a still life of that subject, the rich green hue as mouth watering as the real thing. Milby's several paintings of lilacs are both representational and strikingly modern, an activist brushwork highlighting rich hues of lavender, blue, and purple and preventing the picture from becoming a slavish imitation of reality. Underlying all is a wonderful sense of structure, carefully studied and emotionally interpreted.
An opening reception for the show will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, May 30. Refreshments will be served, and students from the Cape Cod Conservatory of Music and Arts will provide live guitar accompaniment.
On Tuesday, June 3 at 11:00 a.m. at the Museum a free public gallery talk on Milby's art and life will be presented by Robert Cardinal, proprietor of Kiley Court Gallery, Provincetown, a noted artist in his own right, and long-time friend of the artist.
On Tuesday, June 10 at 11:00 a.m. an exhibition walk-through will be offered by Museum Director and Curator Dr. Robert Gambone.
(above: Frank Milby, Fishing Boat, Provincetown Harbor, Oil on canvas, 28 inches by 33.5 inches. Collection of Cynthia Milby)
(above: Frank Milby, Bare Tree, Autumn, Watercolor on paper, 16 inches by 20 inches. Collection of Cynthia Milby)
(above: Frank Milby, Lilacs, Oil on canvas, 25 inches by 37 inches. Collection of Frank and Karen Milby)
(above: Frank Milby, Pears, Oil on canvas, 20 inches by 24 inches. Courtesy, Kiley Court Gallery)
(above: Frank Milby, East End Cottages, Oil on canvas, 34 inches x 58 inches. Private Collection)
Wall texts from the exhibition
Frank Milby was born in Queens, New York on April 24, 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. The fourth of six children, the eldest a girl, the remainder all boys, Frank developed a facility in drawing at a young age, encouraged to pursue this talent by his mother. A teacher, she worked long hours to make ends meet and hold the family together through tough times. Frank readily admits his father frequently gambled ("usually unlucky"). Mrs. Milby's untimely death in 1949 tragically cut short her devotion to her children, compelling the sixteen-year-old Frank to cook and care for two younger siblings while his two older brothers and an older sister sought work. With their often absent father at the racetrack, Frank became adept at preparing meals from most anything available, a skill that has not left him.
Frank started to paint at a very young age, and recalls famous artists such as John Hare (1908-1978), noted American watercolorist of seascapes and harbor scenes, visiting his elementary school as part of an enrichment program. Hare quickly recognized Milby's talent and encouraged the boy. In high school Frank also continued to receive recognition as various teachers called upon him to draw and paint maps and murals on their blackboards to illustrate lessons. A favorite art teacher who summered in Provincetown even invited Frank to spend the summer there, hoping the experience of living in a vibrant art colony would be a further positive influence. And although his father refused to let the boy go, Frank never forgot that invitation or the allure of Cape Cod.
Following high school, Frank enlisted in the army where he served as a photo lithographer with American troops in Germany. It was at this time that Frank began to spend long hours in the woods drawing and painting, a love of nature evident in his mature work. Recognized once more for his talent, Frank found himself assigned to paint new murals every month for the Veteran's Club and managed to visit the museums of Paris while on leave. These experiences sealed his career choice and upon returning home from military service, Frank entered an art contest and received a full scholarship to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His professional art career now began in earnest.
As a "street artist," Frank spent the early part of his career among a group of Bohemian friends living from hand to mouth while doing portraits and painting Manhattan street scenes to earn a livelihood. In the slightly gritty, run down urban neighborhoods evident in 6th Avenue and 4th Street, New York City and New York Corner, these early canvases hearken back to the Social Realist and Regionalist themes prominent in American art of the 1930s and 1940s. Because these scenes are nearly devoid of figures, the viewer focuses attention upon a landscape covered over with brick, asphalt, concrete, and replete with commercial advertising, symbols of man's domination over yet simultaneous destruction of the natural environment. While this world looks familiar, it also suggests angst about one's circumstances, a very understandable feeling given the artist's precarious livelihood and the state of the world during the Cold War environment of the 1950s.
Korean Girl, perhaps a reflection of the images of orphans and displaced persons prominently featured in movie newsreels, TV telecasts, and photojournalism of the Korean Conflict, reveals the soulful portrait of a wide-eyed, somewhat wan figure. The predominant bluish tonalities suggest a moody, brooding introspection not unlike that found in paintings of Picasso's so-called "Blue Period," an expressionistic vocabulary devised by the Spanish artist to reflect his own angst and self-doubt.
A powerful image in terms of scale and complexity of execution is African Women Lined Up for Water. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as Europeans divested of their colonial territories, several newly independent nations came into being in sub-Saharan Africa. Their future bright with promise soon became shrouded in difficulty as diverse tribes found themselves sharing the same national territory and competing for influence. Civil wars (such as the Biafra conflict of 1967-1970), a lack of sufficient infrastructure to sustain their populations, continued exploitation of natural resources by multi-national corporations, and policies fostering racial aparteid, all contributed to a litany of difficulties confronting these emerging nations. Yet Milby's painting, while alluding to this by presenting his women as queuing to obtain the basic resource of water, also represents their faces as filled with a long-suffering dignity.
Simultaneously, Frank Milby began to explore landscape as a vehicle for expressing feeling and emotion through art. Sheepshead Bay, Long Island, while set in New York State, reveals a more bucolic setting though the landscape still bears marks of an active brush and the land is shown in the midst of a change of season. Several works executed in delicate watercolor, especially of trees in winter, complement this large picture and provide evidence for Milby's sustained interest in nature and nature's moods.
1959 marked a turning point in Frank's career and life, for it was then that he finally visited Provincetown accompanied by fellow Greenwich Village artist Mal Newman. Newman hit upon the idea of starting the "Starving Artist Gallery" that employed, together with Frank, such colorful locals as Rocky Hayden and Primo.
Provincetown promised its own unique allure, especially in the quality of light, abundant natural environment, and seacoast. Prior to settling in Provincetown, and even during his time there, Frank already had found nature to be a fresh source of artistic inspiration. His paintings of trees attest to his masterful sense of composition, concern for architectonic structure, and studied eye.
While fully representational, Large Trees evidences a study of Cezanne, as do Milby's several canvases of Pears. The intense green of the fruit, its arrangement on the table or in a bowl, and the interaction of each piece with the table cloth and each other presents a composition that appears random and casual but in reality is intensely studied and intently composed.
His masterful painting, Dimitri, a rendition of the artist's erstwhile cat set against a still life of oranges, demonstrates a refined sense of color, the black haunches of the feline juxtaposed against the intense color of the fruit, the checkered tablecloth forming an at-once abstract pattern that both ties the composition together while abstracting and flattening the space of the picture plane. Still life painting is an age-old motif, and Milby's rendition of Lilacs, while acknowledging tradition, offers a modern sensibility in the freely brushed paint and play of purple, blue, and violet hues. It is representational without being slavish.
Provincetown is perhaps the most famous town on Cape Cod, a haven for artists and intellectuals for over a century. It is no accident, then, that some of Frank's most beautiful compositions are those that re-present the town in all its stark beauty, bathed in wonderful ocean light, mists, and fog.
The fishing fleets of Provincetown have become an iconic motif for artists. In Frank's paintings, individual boats at their moorings or set against a fog possess a natural beauty. Although some, as in Tom and Joan, are named, many remain anonymous. The artist has joked that each time he painted a boat and included the name of the ship, the vessel mysteriously ran into an accident at seas, was sunk, burned, or otherwise suffered misfortune, leading him to omit the name of fishing boats on future paintings lest they be "cursed" by the artist's hand. Despite this omission, the boats posses a strong, individual presence often juxtaposed with elements of clouds or sky that add to the beauty of the scene depicted.
Conversely, his pictures of the town, as in Universalist Church or East End Cottages, present well known and quintessentially Provincetown motifs. While seemingly facile, these compositions are carefully crafted and expertly edited works. If one were to eliminate the utility poles in East End Cottages, for example, an important unifying element of the painting would disappear. Universalist Church presents the façade of a famous structure that is best seen from the harbor, so even here the ever-present ocean is implied.
While most people think of Cape Cod and Provincetown as a summer playground, true Cape Codders enjoy (or endure) the peninsula environment year round. While winters can be extremely mild, occasionally a real "noreaster" can strike, and while a nuisance, the phenomenon allows artists to practice their craft in new and unexpected ways. Frank Milby is one of those artists who are equally comfortable painting Commercial Street in a Blizzard as he is the town's fishing fleet.
Frank Milby often jokes that his diverse repertoire means that people think his work "looks like a group show." In reality, the rich diversity of works and motifs is testament to his many years as a painter and his accomplished hand. Asked for his advice to young painters, Frank freely opined, "be yourself. Stare at an object until you can feel it. Really observe what you are painting from all angles. Notice the three dimensionality of it. Have emotional involvement with the painting. Painting should be a constant romance with the ever changing three dimensional composition of life."
When viewing the artist's own work the truth of these words is apparent.
Object labels from the exhibition