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Chicago and New York print maker Letterio Calapai - IMAGES AT BOTTOM


Letterio Calapai (1902-1993) produced a broad array of abstract prints between 1946 and 1964, some of which could also be termed biomorphic. This owes much to the influence of Atelier 17 in New York, and Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) who was a key figure in the Surrealist and Abstract art movements. The recent exhibit, Stanley William Hayter: From Surrealism to Abstraction, (Washington, D.C. National Gallery of Art, 2009) was remarkably direct in its connection to these two movements.


Hayter’s creation of a collective venue for printmaking began in 1927 when he founded a workshop with the assistance of Joseph Hecht (1891-1951). Just two years later Hayter was introduced to Surrealism by Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) and André Masson (1896-1987), and exhibited with the Salon des Surindependents. The studio was moved in 1933 and then named “Atelier 17” after the street number of the location in the Rue Campagne-Première. A magnet for Surrealist artists, those who worked with Hayter in the atelier included, Ernst, Giacometti, Masson, Miró, and Tanguy. Hayter’s own work explored the abstract side of Surrealism.


In 1936 Hayter and several of those working in the Atelier showed at the groundbreaking First International Exhibition of Surrealism, New Burlington Galleries, London. It was a young London based Surrealist poet David Gascoyne (1916-2001) who had ventured to Paris and came into close contact with the artists of Atelier 17. He created a strong tie between artists in London and Paris. Organized by both an “English Committee” and artists residing in France, Belgium, “Scandinavia,” and Spain, including Paris based André Breton (1896-1966), Paul Éluard (1895-1952), and Man Ray (1890-1976) the exhibit featured works by artists of fourteen nations among them Arp, Brancusi, Calder, Dali, Duchamp, Ernst, Klee, Magritte, Masson, Miró, Picasso, and Tanguy; artists so familiar today they need only a surname as means to identification. The exhibition catalog manifesto stated in part: “We say that the art of imitation (of places, scenes, exterior objects) has had its day, and that the artistic problem consists today in bringing a more and more objective precision to bear upon mental representation, by means of the voluntary exercise of the imagination and the memory.” Surrealist or Abstract art, the conceptual framework applies to both. Among the works on display were Hayter’s two paintings, eight etchings and a Surrealist object created by squeezing wet plaster between his hands entitled Handshake. New movements in Abstract art in the United States were already on the scene. In 1933 at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, Gallery G61 was devoted to “Abstract Painting” and included works by Braque, Dali, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Klee, Leger, Miró and Picasso.


In 1936 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Director of the Museum of Modern Art, mounted an exhibition entitled Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, which included work by Hayter. Earlier that spring, Barr had published in the MOMA exhibition catalog to Cubism and Abstract Art the phrase “biomorphic art.” He characterized it as “intuitional and emotional rather than intellectual...curvilinear rather than rectilinear, decorative rather than structural, and romantic rather than classical in its exaltation of the mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational.” More importantly Barr noted, “The shape of the square confronts the silhouette of the amoeba;” a comment that relates directly to the work of both Hayter and Calapai.


Hayter left the Surrealist movement in 1938 when Paul Éluard was expelled from the group by André Breton because Éluard had re-joined the Communists; he had been earlier expelled from the same French Communist party. By this time Calapai had already been living in New York for over a decade. He may have come in contact with the MOMA exhibitions and was also likely influenced by the 1939 World’s Fair, which like its predecessor in Chicago produced a riot of Modernism in both architecture and fine art. At the outbreak of War War II, Hayter moved to New York and in the Fall of 1940 began a course entitled “Atelier 17” at the New School for Social Research. Shortly after the 1944 MOMA show Hayter and Studio 17: New Directions In Gravure, Hayter opened Atelier 17 apart from the school in Greenwich Village (1945). It was a crucible of Abstract Expressionism. The Studio was conceived as a workshop where equipment and technical assistance were available for artists wishing to experiment in graphic methods. There was no interference with the direction of the artists who worked in it.


Calapai joined Atelier 17 in 1946, just two years after the landmark MOMA show, which had later traveled to other cities. It was in the Atelier where Letterio Calapai became Hayter’s personal assistant. Calapai was already forty-four years old when he began work at the Atelier and previously had been accepted in the 1943 Artists For Victory exhibition, and had work selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for Fifty Prints of the Year in 1944. In 1946 he had created an immensely successful portfolio of wood engravings based on the play by Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel. George Binet Gallery held an exhibition of these prints, resulting in purchases by the libraries of the New York Public, Boston Public, Harvard, and Princeton. Already successful he had a one-man show at the Smithsonian in 1947.


The Atelier was a focal point for the exchange of ideas between artists and offered the freedom of experimentation so strongly encouraged by Hayter. Of Hayter’s influence on the American artists, however, one critic noted everyone’s independence was clear, there was no copying, only advancement in technique: “If at first glance the Hayter pupils might appear to work under too strong a domination of their master, a closer inspection will show a great number of personal trends. Shared only are the technical methods (there are no trade secrets in this workshop) and the general tendency toward abstraction as a language which permits of maximum experiment.” That Calapai often viewed his themes as experimental and he set out to build a breadth of variations is reflected in the limited editions and in often cases no editions, unique “proofs,” he created. A highly adept printer Calapai produced works for other artists, and hence it was natural for him to trial methods and themes with his own work. His multiple and varied proofs of a given subject matter show the degree to which he experimented with abstract and biomorphic concepts. His print Aerialists has over twelve different and distinct variations.


In 1949 Calapai moved from New York City, which ended his close involvement with Atelier 17, to found and chair the graphic arts department at the Albright Art School (now SUNY Buffalo). He carried with him an intense knowledge of new art design and significant developments in technique. It was Hayter who had recommended him for the position at Albright. Hayter had referred to his assistant as a “leader in the new ways.” Calapai remained in Buffalo for six years, an important period that fostered his continued output of abstract work. As Calapai’s teaching and technique expanded he imparted this knowledge to future generations of printmakers. Hayter removed to Paris in 1950 to carry on his own exploration of design and revolutionary print technique. The International Surrealist exhibition had already resumed in Paris in 1947. Those who worked with him in the New York studio, Baziotes, Calder, Chagall, Le Corbusier, Dali, de Konning, Marsh, Masson, Miró, Motherwell, Pollock, Rothko.


Calapai returned to New York City in 1955 to teach at the New School for Social Research where Hayter had previously taught. Calapai also affiliated with the Contemporaries Graphic Art Center. In 1959 the Tiffany Foundation granted him prize funds, which he used to establish the Intaglio Workshop for Advanced Printmaking in Greenwich Village. He left New York and the New School for good in 1965 and moved to Chicago where he remained the rest of his career. By this time he had achieved acclaim and received numerous awards including in 1954 the John Taylor Arms Prize at the Society of American Artists annual. From the time he began working with Atelier 17 through the next twenty years his mid-century modern Biomorphism and abstract art flourished, expanded and pushed new boundaries. This period coincides exactly to when Post-Modernism became a forceful art movement and certainly one of the most creative periods in the history of American art. No one is certain when or if the Surrealist movement came to a close. Art historian Sarane Alexandrian in 1970 stated, “the death of André Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an organized movement."

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