A new model of modern art has emerged since MOMA’s 2004 reopening, one that is quite helpful in appreciating the long yet underknown career of Albert Kresch (born 1922). The reconfigured galleries at MOMA were hung to reflect a hard won principle: there have been “a succession of arguments and counter-arguments on the continually disputed subject of what it means to make art for the modern age.” [MOMA brochure 2004, “Painting & Sculpture, 5th Floor”] Kresch’s painting during the last 50 years has been devoted to a key facet of this disputed subject: the debate over representation and abstraction that animated painting in New York just prior to Abstract Expressionism. If Piet Mondrian and Jean Hélion are two transatlantic, European roots of this particular argument, Albert Kresch and Alex Katz – an errant member of the Ab-Ex generation coming up just behind Kresch’s – are perhaps two long-running American counter-arguments. By continuing to refine these terms over the decades, Kresch’s work implicitly argues that their relevance to painting has never gone away. Indeed, a new debate on these terms is unfolding on gallery walls today.
Based in New York since the 1930s, American-born Kresch studied figure drawing informally at the Brooklyn Museum but soon embarked on more serious training at the Hans Hofmann School. In the end, Hofmann’s “push and pull” approach was less interesting to Kresch than Mondrian’s abstraction and Arp’s biomorphism. Whereas Mondrian had moved from representation to abstraction, Kresch came to regard abstraction as an armature to support representational form.
Kresch began showing at the Jane Street Gallery in 1945. The Jane Street Gallery was one of the first artist-run cooperatives in New York, and operated from 1943 – 1949 back before Abstract Expressionism and the cold water lofts of 10th street. Its circle of figurative painters included Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, and Louis Mattisadottir as well as Kresch. In a sense, the painter that Kresch has become today, both formally and conceptually, dates from this point in his career. His friendship with the French painter Jean Hélion during the late 1940s was at the heart of Kresch’s return to representation; but other friendships, such as those with the poet Denise Levertov, and later Frank O’Hara, also reflected his belief in the world as subject matter.
Now in his 80s, Kresch paints daily in his Brooklyn studio. The structure abstraction gives him still underlies the dynamism of his landscapes. His striking ability to ride the line between abstraction and representation is achieved by highly saturated color and dry-brushed scumble at the edges of strongly contrasting hues. He strives to build tension that pulls outward from the center. As he puts it, “My artistic life has been a search for a seamless resolution, or synthesis, of the paradox in painting between structure and freedom.”
ALBERT KRESCH: Let me start with a couple of quotes. One is the definition of painting by Degas that I like. He says “painting is the ability to surround a Venetian red so that it looks like vermillion.” And the other is a Roualt quote, “subjective artists are one-eyed but objective artists are blind”. Now I don’t completely agree with that because I tend to feel that a painter could be both subjective and objective.
DEBORAH GARWOOD AND CRAIG TAYLOR: What were your beginnings as a painter?
I was born in Scranton Pennsylvania, but my family came to Manhattan when I was about nine. It was the depression [era]. I can’t remember when I wasn’t drawing or painting. From the age of six in school, someone next to me was making cartoons or something, and I said “I can do that” and I started. And a few years later I used to draw in class instead of listening to the teacher. In fact, I was short, and they sat you by your height, so I’d be in the first row. Most of the time I was turning around to draw the other kids. But in high school, the teacher liked me and he said “Al, you’re not learning anything here, you’ve got talent”. He told me to go to a WPA art class in a settlement house where you work from plaster casts – Venus di Milo, or the head of Voltaire. But you worked a month on each drawing one at a time, 18’ x 24 in charcoal. It was very tedious and I grew bored with it. So from there I went to the Brooklyn Museum – although I lived in Manhattan- five days a week. From 9-12 a.m. there were free classes in the summer, so I went. There was one instructor in a large room for hundreds of people. At the end of August the instructor said, “Al, I’m asking two or three of you if you’d like to come to my studio when this is over, on Saturdays or Sundays”. It was 35 cents to draw from the model, which I did. That was at 812 Broadway back in Manhattan. Then I went to Hofmann’s.
Could you describe studying with Hans Hofmann?
At Hofmann’s I was a monitor – that means you took care of the model, you came in on Saturday and mopped up, and I only had to pay five dollars a month. I was going to college at the time, so I couldn’t go during the day for the painting class; I went at night when you drew from 7 to 10 p.m. Hofmann? He came in on Tuesdays and Fridays to criticize. We drew from the model and Hofmann would go to each one and draw on the work to strengthen and indicate the weak points. It was a very graphic method of teaching. Construction of the structure and manipulation and understanding of space were two of the ingredients, based I think on Cubist theory. I met Nell Blaine and Judith Rothschild, Bob DeNiro [senior], and his wife Virginia Admiral at the school.
It is our understanding that what the Jane Street artists were doing predates the huge impact created by abstract expressionism. Could you say a few things about this, and maybe what your reaction to that art movement was in that time period? How did this guide your project, or did it?
I was friends with a lot of the abstract expressionists, we all were, with Franz Kline, de Kooning and the others. De Kooning wrote a letter of reference for me when I applied for a Fulbright in 1953. There was not any feeling of competition because we were going towards representational, they were coming out of representational. They were putting it on the side and creating their own idea of what the art of the future should be. We were going to go wherever we were going to go. We were here ten years before them (except for de Kooning, of course); they weren’t showing until the 1950s. We used to call the Tanager Gallery “the teenager gallery”. I had been in Mexico in 1948, and when I came back towards the beginning of June, I’d lost my place. I had sublet it to another artist, and he’d spoken to the landlord – he was going to pay him more rent – there was nothing I could do. Edwin Denby, the ballet critic, was a good friend of mine and a wonderful poet. He was going to Provincetown and he said, “Al, why don’t you use my place?” Denby lived on 21st street opposite where Nell Blaine lived between 6th and 7th Avenues. And of course, he and Rudy Burkhardt, his friend, were the first people to buy de Kooning’s paintings. At his place there must have been 12 or 13 of his paintings on the wall. One night that summer there were 8 or 9 of us and we met at my studio- there they were, the de Koonings all around us on the wall. No one said anything about them – they were accepted, but it wasn’t as if ahhh… I’m going to maybe use some of his ideas, or isn’t that great? He was just another painter who was there; there were a lot of other painters, of course, including Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner. All of us working, figuring things out.
When you first started showing were you an abstract painter? And at what point did you decide to break from abstraction? What was your reason?
My first two shows were abstract, though the second show had some paintings that were going towards figurative. Lee Bell, the others, and myself were looking for a way to get out of abstraction and we had become friendly with Jean Helion. In 1939 when the war started, he was married to an American woman and living in Virginia. I don’t know whether he was drafted or volunteered to be a soldier in the French army, but he went back to Europe. Soon he was made a prisoner of the Germans and put in a concentration camp. But he escaped and went all through Germany, and Holland, where he got a boat, came back to the US, and wrote a book called “They Shall not Have Me”. Mondrian and Helion were perhaps the most respected abstract artist in 30’s.
Helion formed, with Mondrian and others, a group called “Abstract Creation”. The group had an influence on the course of European and American abstract painting. Helion’s book said that when he was a prisoner, all he could think of was faces and figures. So when he came back to the US and started painting again in ’44, figuration became a concern emerging in his work and we saw those paintings at the Rosenberg Gallery. Helion started by doing almost abstract shapes of heads and figures, but didn’t end there – he kept getting more and more representational. For us at Jane Street Gallery, that was an impetus which made it possible to go from our abstract paintings to the figurative.
Some painters and most lay people think you begin as a figurative artist and wind up with some daring abstract structures. We did the reverse, and I think that’s what our practice is. One doesn’t go from the real to achieve reality. You begin with the abstract and then you go to the real. One needs the structure, because that’s what makes a painting solid to begin with so it isn’t flaccid and drips away. It’s like an architect starting with a blueprint or a sculptor with an armature. Hélion was important for showing us how this was possible.
It is said that Hofmann taught the idea of “push and pull” with color. A painting would emerge from a syncopated arrangement of planes. Do you feel like that’s something that you picked up there, and if so, is it something you still use in your present work?
I’m most interested in propelling the color and the space – catapulting it off the surface. I’m not so worried about that type of pull. I do like to get space by means of color. Speaking of color, I like frank, cold and warm colors. I think that the color should have weight to it, should have a pressure. It isn’t the tint or the hue that counts so much, it’s that pressure. That’s why if a painting doesn’t have a good amount of contrast, something’s wrong. It starts getting bland, boring and so on. But the two painters in my life who meant more to me than Hofmann were Arp and Mondrian. It’s all about their treatment of edge and where colors meet in their paintings, and the importance of the horizontal and the vertical. It’s the color around it, and it’s this edge around that color that does the work. That’s the color you seek while you are painting. You say, what’s this color against that? Because of value contrast, I can use practically any color in a landscape or a still life if I get the value right. If I get the tonality and the contrast right, then I can invent the color – lets say it’s green against blue. I could make one somewhat orange-ish and the other somewhat purple-ish, but I have to get the right value of purple and of orange.
Is the color something that takes form from observing the landscape, or do you find that once you are in the studio? Could you talk about your methods and how the paintings take shape?
When you’re in the landscape you’re sometimes distracted by the view. It’s necessary sometimes to pull the parts together into one complete unity. When I get to the picture later in the studio, it makes sense because you distance yourself. Bonnard talked about how he couldn’t just work straight from looking; he would turn his back to the scene from time to time. He said that Titian had the power to just look at what he does and paint what he sees at the time. I’m not that kind of painter. I believe that you sometimes need to be away from the view to get the final touches in.
I used to discuss this with my friend Bob DeNiro, who was all for just working on the painting and finishing it in nature. Bob would say to me- “Do you think Soutine would work on a landscape painting in the studio?” Well, unfortunately I didn’t get to say this to him before he passed away, but I read a memoir by Soutine’s girlfriend in which she said that he would sometimes work in the studio on these landscapes. So, I’m not alone.
Since I’ve been painting a long time, I remember a statement that Braque made: “With age, art and life come together.” When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand it, but more recently I can see what he meant. When I wake in the morning, out of the window I see the buildings, I observe the trees. At certain points in my life when I was younger, I couldn’t figure out what to do with my observations. There would be a struggle, a warfare with the painting. But more recently, when I look outside I know almost immediately the rhythms, how the colors are going to work, and what I have to do to start the painting. I think of “Hot” and “Cool” as in jazz – here meaning “Emotion” and “Formal”, where ‘formal’ is equivalent to structure. Another way to put it is “Free” and “Formal”. My artistic life has been a search for a seamless resolution, or synthesis, of the paradox in painting between structure and freedom.