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On Ivan Albright

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It's difficult to trace the origins of the "Chicago School," but that the city spawned an imagery of its own there is no doubt. The earliest traces I can detect are in the work of Ivan Albright in the late 1920s....Albright and I were next-door neighbors at 55 and 53 East Division Street, respectively, from 1959 until 1963...when the Albrights moved to Woodstock, Vermont, and we became close friends....

Albright was certainly the leading artistic presence in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. It seems likely that his work had an influence on what the students were doing at the Museum School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he taught and most of the later generations of Chicago artists studied, among them the founders of the "Monster [Roster]" and the "Hairy Who." But evidence of Albright's influence is shadowy, for several reasons. First, as George Cohen, an important artist of the postwar generation who attended the school during Albright's tenure, recently explained, Albright's work, and his teaching, stressed a "meticulousness" that was out of step with the younger artists' commitment to art brut and informality....The Chicago artists returned from the war tired of "the emptiness of French formalism." Their interest lay in the rougher images of psychotics, the art of New Guinea, New Caledonia, New Ireland, and the Native Americans they saw at the Field Museum of Natural History....

Further, Albright was older and a "loner," and did not socialize with the other artists. Because of his wife's great fortune and lofty social status, the Albrights did not fit the image of a hungry artist's family. Also, Albright did not look or act like an artist. He resembled a short, round, florid Santa Claus without a beard, his bald head framed by white tufts, punctuated by bushy white eyebrows. He looked a bit like Mickey Rooney in old age. And Albright never talked about art.

Chicago also had a strong vanguard tradition, if not particularly in the art that was being made there between the two world wars, then in what was being collected and shown, largely at the Arts Club, by enlightened matrons like Rue Winterbotham Carpenter and "Bobsy" Goodspeed. Albright, although very advanced in his ideas, anticipating "neoexpressionists" of the 1970s like Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel, worked in none of the current European styles, was deceptively imagistic, and, worst for Chicago's vanguard Brahmins--who always looked eastward and never believed in their own--was a native son from their own social set....

In 1976, seven years before Albright died, he phoned me in New York from Woodstock and asked me to meet him for lunch at the Century the following week. At lunch that day he said, "Dick, you always told me to disperse my work. You were right. Can you do it for me now?" And he handed me what I considered a historic project. The problem was that by that time I had no public gallery to exhibit the work....

Without a gallery to show Albright's work, I went down to see Leo Castelli....It was Leo whom I had called in 1975 to represent the Joseph Cornell estate with me, and our collaboration had been a happy one. By the 1970s, the art scene had become snobbish. Certain galleries were on the menu, and Leo's was one of them. The "neoexpressionists" were coming into vogue, and I felt that if Albright's work were shown at Castelli, he might well be accepted by the younger artists as a precursor. After all his years in the shadows, I wanted instant recognition for Ivan. At 79, he did not have that much longer to wait. Leo was not receptive, despite the fact that it was rare to find a major artist who still owned almost all of his important paintings, executed over a span of half a century. Leo seemed to know the work only vaguely, and thought of it as being somewhat old-fashioned. So he demurred. About a year later, Leo phoned me. "Richard, I think you were right about Albright." Had he been talking to someone? An artist? "Let's do it." I phoned Ivan immediately in Woodstock. Just one week before, he had donated his life's work to the Art Institute. I was brokenhearted, because, knowing Chicago's patronizing attitude toward its own, I was sure this would condemn Albright to years more, perhaps an eternity, of obscurity. But the museum had promised him a permanent display of the work in a room of its own. When the institute's report for that year arrived, I was shocked to find Albright's entire benefaction, worth perhaps $15 to $20 million even in those days, listed in the category of $500,000-$1,000,000 donations. I urgently wrote the board chairman, Arthur Wood, pleading with him to contact Albright immediately, explaining the "typographical error." I heard nothing further.

Although the director, James Wood, and the curator at the time, Richard Bretell, finally, in 1981, made a trip to Woodstock to make amends, the Albright donations have never been given their promised separate space. And the 1997 Albright retrospective was a small, half-hearted effort, with only one other venue, the Metropolitan Museum....No arrangements were made for European venues, where Albright's work remains completely unknown and might be most meaningful to the current generation of artists.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chicago Sun-Times.

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