Ivan Le Lorraine Albright (1897 - 1983) - An Interview & Analysis
Please credit Illinois Historical Art Project and Author: Suzanne Kaufman, MFA (1927-2014).
"There are few pictures as alarming as those
of Albright. Because what they represent to
us belong not to our accustomed world."
Barbara Rose has included Ivan Albright in her chapter "The Thirties: Reaction and Rebellion.”[i] Albright's reaction is two-fold: loneliness, a prevalent theme of the 30's and social commentary, another theme of the 30's. But Albright's style and technique are the compliments that take his subject matter into the realm of magic realism. Young Ivan along with his twin brother, Marvin Marr (known professionally as Zsissly) began his art studies at the age of eight, under the tutelage of his artist father, Adam Emory Albright. The elder Albright had studied under Thomas Eakins during his two and a half years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The strict discipline and intensive anatomy study of cadavers under Eakins, continued under the father's direction. Even when Albright went to the university, his drawing continued weekends and summers, though he had no interest in painting. Albright's fine sense of craftsmanship and detail was inherited fr.om both sides of his family: the Albrights as fine rifle craftsmen and his maternal grandfather, a physician surgeon whose interest in the intricacies of the human body was equaled by his fascination for the minutiae of word meaning and word derivation.
Albright's feeling for detailed drawing was not satisfied by architecture nor engineering but instead by his employment in the Army Hospital at Nantes doing water-color drawings of wounds. "As the grandson of a doctor and the son of a man who had dissected corpses under Eakins, he experienced nothing out of the way in working with wounded soldiers.”[ii] In this, it is possible to find more than a germ of his later preoccupation with the merciless analysis of human flesh. One feels Albright's fulfillment of the Aristotelian transitory matter, especially the corruption of flesh. Though Albright is a painter of people and things with a pinpoint vision of the corrosive, sad poetry of time, he is less a social critic than a poetic pessimist.[iii] The clue to Albright's philosophy is found in his own writing, "Are there such things as death and decay? In any part of life you find something either growing or disintegrating."
Ivan Albright is not the morose character that could be inferred from his preoccupation with human degradation, death and decay. He feels that life and death, growth and decay are all part of existence. His appeal to me lies in this philosophy. My own fascination for the transitory state of man and nature and the acceptance of death as part of life led me to study the painting Into the World There Came a Soul Named Ida, hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. As I was looking at the painting, a man who resembled a 20th Century Santa in blue blazer, sans beard, walked into the gallery and sat on the bench beside me.
Two people were standing in front of the Albright painting of The Room. When they left the man went up to the painting, inspected it closely for a few minutes, then came back to the bench. He turned to me and asked, "Which painting do you like best? I replied that my favorite was "Ida", and he answered "Oh, she's my favorite, too, I painted her." The near hour I spent chatting with Mr. Albright was a memorable experience which confirmed Frederick Sweet comment, "His tongue as well as his pen, is noted for dry humor and his elfin wit can prove unsettling to the unwary.”[iv] I was unwary, but found him completely charming rather than unsettling. Mr. Albright took me by the hand and led me over to the painting of The Door and successively to each of his works of art in the gallery. "You know, he said, "they (the Art Institute), have that door in the basement. I gave it to them, but, he chuckled, I kept the door knob." I remembered reading that the door had been exhibited along with the painting at the Albright retrospective in 1964. To me The Door (That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do) is his masterpiece, though Jean Dubuffet might choose The Room and I suspect Frederick Sweet would choose "Ida". "The Door" more; closely visualizes Albright's philosophy. It combines his transitory, life-death theme with a social commentary of poetic idiom in detail reminiscent of Van Eyck, Claez-Heda, and an expressive realism that can be compared to Grunewald.
Perhaps, the highly detailed and expressive quality of Ivan Albright's German ancestors might be related to this quality in his painting, but his unique style portrays the American Scene, as clearly as the regionalists. We moved on to the portrait of Mary Block. "Do you know who that is?" asked Mr Albright. I nodded, but he continued, "She's the wife of Leigh Block, President of Inland Steel. She kept after me to paint the portrait and she'll look like that in ten more years." The next painting was Into the World There Came a Soul Named Ida. "Ida was only 20 years old when painted that. I never used a professional model - she lived in the neighborhood - married a Russian soccer player and had a baby. She wanted to run away with me. Everybody thought the painting represented a prostitute, but she's not, so I called her a soul. The woman in the next painting called Flesh, looked so much like Ida to me that I asked Mr. Albright if he used the same model. "Oh no,” he said, "different models.” We had reached Poor Room – There Is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow Only the Forever, and Forever, and Forever Without End. "Mr. Albright, I read that you haven't finished this painting,” I queried. “What? Where did you read that?" In a text book,” I replied. “Oh, well," he paused and then quickly, “You see that charcoal," pointing to the edge, "I want that there. You know a painting is finished when the artist puts the brush down. But look at this,” pointing to the central portion, "What do you see different here?" I didn't know specifically what he was referring to so I must have looked dumbfounded. He continued, “Look!, I painted those objects backwards, forwards, and upside walked around the room and set my easel up here and there."
I was reminded of one sentence by Albright in the Barbara Rose Book. “ I will walk and amuse myself looking at this thing and at that thing through my ill-ground bifocal glasses that make an aberration next to the object I am looking at.”[v] Perhaps could infer from this that we see only what we focus upon, that the rest of life is blurred. But further the “Poor Room" makes visual Albright's statement, “Things are nothing. It's what happens to them that matters."[vi] Albright’s horror vacui is especially evident in this painting and the painting, "The Door.” But also, evident are, “The factual, everyday images of the American Scene painters turned upside down.”[vii]
We moved over to "The Fisherman," Heavy The Oar to Him Who is Tired, Heavy the Coat, Heavy the Sea. "Do you know where I painted that?" Mr. Albright asked and without waiting for an answer, Laguna Beach. My brother and I were both painting, and we had a tarp down the middle to divide the studio. He was painting a nude on his side and I was painting this Mexican. The Mexican (fisherman) wanted the window open because he was roasting in that sweater and coat and the girl in the nude kept screaming to close the window because she was freezing.
When we moved on to And God Created Man in his Own Image, Ivan Albright told me about the vanity of the man who modeled for the painting. Mr. Albright said nothing about the bronze portrait head of his wife, Josephine Medill Patterson Albright but standing next to it was the bronze portrait head of the artist's father Adam Emory Albright about which Ivan Albright said, "I only modeled half the face because why should I bother with both halves when they are the same. I got even with my father for all the time I had to model for him." His father didn't like the bronze and had once threatened to smash it with a baseball bat.
The painting on the wall above the bronze head was inspected closely by Mr. Albright and he explained that he painted it on a gessoed wooden panel and that he periodically checked it for cracks. He added that he would never bother with making his own gesso though. The painting was a portrait of his father-in-law Joseph Medill Patterson. Mr. Albright glanced back at the fisherman and told me he had been working on another fisherman for seven years in his Vermont Studio. As we left the gallery, walking toward the stairs, Mr. Albright gestured to the paintings of other artists and remarked, "ln fifteen years, these paintings won't be here. There will be others in their place. I can't keep up with these new artists." I was reminded of the forward by John Maxon in the catalogue where Albright is compared to his contemporaries with the resulting observation that he has retained his imagery and vision and he's avoided that change derived from frenetic anxiety. "That he is not part of the immediate main current of American Art (whatever that may turn out to be) is irrelevant."[viii] Ivan Albright's own words sum up his philosophy better than all the writings about him.
"A picture is like a house wherein all things are to be found, both material and immaterial; it is a place wherein, side by side, rest decay and the sublime; and children's laughter brushes the inner prayer. A painting is life and a painting is death, both making and lying in the coffin built for tomorrow's use. A picture is life, and its life will be no stronger than the days, than the minutes which contain man's desires, frustrations, passions and contemplations; this existence that throws at will, in its mind, chairs or trees, rugs and books, death and meat; a porridge-pot of nights, nightmares and stars. All these and more must go into the picture one does make. This picture will possess no more love than you possess; show no more bewilderment than you betray; be no more sincere than you are; create no more awe than is felt by you. In essence a painting is an astigmatized portrayal of you; it is your Rorschach with id and plaster cast. It can be no better than you are. It is essential that we give of the whole and not of the part, for the picture is our legacy lift by tomorrow's dead for tomorrow's living."[ix]
After my expression of gratitude to Mr. Albright for his time and his kindness, he said with a twinkle in his eye, "How would you like the artist to kiss you?" I smiled and nodded. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, "Women make life fun, but I only get to kiss girls on the cheek.”
[i] Barbara Rose, American Art Since 1900. (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1968)
[ii] Op. cit., Sweet.
[iii] Daniel M. Mendelowitz, A History of American Art. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Mc., 1970)
[iv] Op. cit., Sweet.
[v] Barbara Rose, Readings in American Art. (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1968)
[vi] Alexander Eliot, Three Hundred Years of American Painters. (New York: Random House, Mc., 1957)
[vii] Op. cit. Rose, American Art Since 1900.
[viii] Op. cit. Sweet.
[ix] John I. Baur, (ed.), New Art in America; (Greenwich, CT.: New York Graphic Society, 1957)