The first time I saw an Ivan Albright painting was as a sophomore art student, in an art history class at The Columbus College of Art and Design. That was 1970. The painting or rather projected image of the painting was: And Into This World Came a Soul Called Ida. It knocked me out!
Art school in 1970 had delivered quite a few between-the-eyes shots to my limited aesthetic. Before that, and with few exceptions it was Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney and Mort Drucker from Mad Magazine who told me what art was. Art supplies were primarily a Bic pen and a 100 pack of typing paper. The sum of art making was mastering drawing skill through mostly ridiculous and over the top subject matter. I drew cartoons and monsters.
But now, in the glare of an absolutely electrifying newness those previous notions were beginning to dim. Art it seemed was becoming very serious business and I needed to immediately stop fooling around.
At the time we were all reading Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood. Vito Acconci was touching his toes, following people and biting himself in New York. Decades earlier, Meret Oppenheim put nails on an iron and fur in a teacup yet I was just getting the news. On and on it went, from Duchamp to Warhol to Joseph Kosuth. I had a lot of catching up to do.
Inspired, untethered and fully engaged in my new life as an art student I was experimenting and diving into a sea of ideas headfirst. I did spray paintings blind folded, lived in a box for 3 days, made dozens of found object sculptures, encased some in ice and caught others on fire. And of course… made a couple of experimental films. I started smoking cigarettes, stopped smiling and took myself very seriously. I became a very good art student.
But, at the end of the day it was still mostly about painting, drawing and evolving through skill and craft. That’s where I really grew and where I did my best thinking and investigating. Within the geography of those two verticals and two horizontals and the constraints of the flat, static two-dimensional surface I saw limitless possibilities, and room for experimentation.
I also knew that painting and drawing was something that needed to be tended and nurtured. It was complex and the nuances didn’t abide shortcuts. Painting required my constant and full attention.
I was conflicted, and to make matters worse, powerful voices from high places were telling me that painting was dead!
Then came Ida who, like a concerned mother, sensed my anxiety and brought me back home for a while. She let me know, while sitting there in all her wonderful, strange, gothic gore, that among the urinals, soup cans, Conceptual Art, and the writ of paintings demise, that there still might be room for what brought me to art school in the first place…drawing and painting.
Some months later I found myself in Chicago and saw an opportunity to look up Ida. I headed to The Art Institute in order to find her. When I got there she was nowhere to be found. I was told she was in storage but, if I wanted, there was another room with other Albrights. This being my first visit to The Art Institute, it took me a while to find the room.
As I wound my way through the museum to this other room, I was continually halted by one great painting after another. There was Picabia’s 10 x 10 foot Edtaonisl, Magritte’s, Time Transfixed, Van Gogh’s glowing, Self Portrait, Franz Klein’s, Shovel and De Kooning’s, Excavation. To this day I believe if you can’t allow yourself to slow down and fall into Van Gogh’s, Self Portrait from 1887 then you simply have no soul.
When I finally made it to the “Albright Room” room, there, on the far wall screaming like a cage of trapped harpies was Ivan Albright’s nightmarish: The Temptation of St Anthony.
I knew the story of St. Anthony of Egypt and had seen reproductions of versions by Grunewald, Breugel, Bosch and a few others but this thing! Done in the mid, 1940s, it seemed to be smack out of 1960s drug culture. The colors were the colors of moonlight and nightmares, yet the yellows, purples and blues felt like they were straight from the tube.
It sat there noisy and flat on the picture plane. The composition came at you as if someone had just thrown a hand full of marbles in your face. It was all over the place with no focal point and no balance. Then you found yourself dead center with the whole thing spinning in a dizzying radial balance.
The theatrics of the entire mess dazzled and transfixed me. But the noise and complexity was misleading. It didn’t ask for as much as it appeared to ask. It pulled you in and simply asked that you look. That’s a good thing for a painting, to ask, to require that you simply stand in front of it and look. More paintings should be that humble and generous.
Ignorance and laziness might confuse this painting with the silliness of a Where’s Waldo quest. That would be unfortunate and a mistake. Here the terrain is different. The aesthetic is at a much higher level. We move through this painting not because we are looking for something; we move through it because we are making complex connections within the painting through image, color, shape and texture. That’s what this painting does. That’s how it keeps us there.
It would be too easy to say that I still love this painting because it brings me back to those pre-art school days where I knew nothing and just wanted to draw cartoons and monsters. There might be some of that, but the real reason is simple: It’s just a very good painting. It isn’t trying to be an important painting nor is it trying to be smarter than it is. It is just a very good painting.