Monday, September 6th, 2010

“With the figure, anything is possible”: Nicolas Carone, 1917-2010

Not too long ago, I went walking with Nick Carone outside his studio in Westbeth, on the streets of the West Village when he suddenly grabbed me by the arm with such urgency that I thought he was trying to stop me from crossing in front of a racing car. Instead he needed to show me the fresh urine stain on the sidewalk left by someone’s dog. “Look” he said, “Everything is there! I could make a painting from this, use this, it is automatic.” He drew the gesture with his hand and then continued it into the space. It was three-dimensional.

Portrait of Nicolas Carone by Christian Carone
Portrait of Nicolas Carone by Christian Carone

After that it took us 45 minutes to travel three blocks, with Nick marveling at each new encounter. That is how it was with Nick. He possessed a complete alert attentiveness to the world around him, had a great passion for art, and his enthusiasm for life was all-encompassing.  He was completely immersed in the world of art precisely because, for him, art was life, art was experience and every moment contained the very present possibility of new ideas and new inspiration.

Nick was born in 1917 and grew up in Hoboken, NJ.  He began his studies in art at the age of 11 with the Leonardo DaVinci school in downtown Manhattan, and later he studied at the National Academy and served as Leon Kroll’s apprentice and model.  His classical training allowed him to develop a sure and elegant drawing hand.  He could carve out form beautifully.

But it was during the War years, when he was traveling at night from his post out on Long Island to 8th Street to study with Hans Hoffman that he developed his understanding of plastic space. And that understanding not only opened up a whole new world for him, but also launched him on a singularly creative career as an artist.

When the War was over Nick was honored with the Prix de Rome and a Fulbright Fellowship, and those prizes enabled him to work in Italy for several years.  He met a wide range of artists, including Matta, who introduced him to the surrealists and, as a result, became a major influence on his work and life.

Back in New York Nick reconnected with friends from his time in Italy, including Conrad Marcarelli, Philip Pavia and Philip Guston, and took part in the famous 9th Street Show, helping to usher in a new era of painting in New York. He began to work with Eleanor Ward as a director of the Stable Gallery, and created the hugely successful Stable Annual Show, which was modeled on the 9th Street Show, and he brought new young artists into the Stable giving Cy Twombly, Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg their first one-man shows.  He also brought John Graham into the fold.  Nick himself had two solo shows at the Stable, and then moved to Staempfli Gallery.

He was a sought after educator, teaching at Cooper Union, Yale, Brandeis, Cornell, Columbia, S.V.A.  and the New York Studio School, where he was a founding faculty member and taught for 20 years.  Later, he founded his own art School in Umbria, Italy, the International School of Art.

And while the hundreds of students he taught through the years would easily testify that he was a dynamo in the class room, it was after he retired from teaching that his work gained an astonishing new energy and momentum.  Several recent shows at Lohin Geduld Gallery and Chelsea, and at Washburn Gallery on 57th Street, showed an artist at the absolute peak of his powers.

In 2007 Lohin Geduld Gallery showed monumental head sculptures that Nick carved from field stones that he found on the ground around his house in Umbria. The heads are haunting, shocking, emotive, and with their hypnotic gaze they demand a connection with the viewer on a real human level.  Nick claimed that the heads were already present in the stone, and that he simply liberated them into the light of  the present day. Perhaps that’s why they have all the enigmatic appeal of the ancient and archaic, while remaining, in the end, entirely modern.

When it comes to Nick’s work, it’s exciting to know that there is a lot more to explore: three small wax figures featured in that same show give just a hint at a branch of his oeuvre which hasn’t yet been shown to its best advantage.  These fragile, subtle wax sculptures are torsos – some with limbs some without – which are some of his most intimate and sensual works.  They beg to be held in the hand and turned.  I was lucky enough to visit him in the studio while he was working on these sculptures, and my small glimpse into his process is now etched on my brain.  He laid the sculptures out on his work table, some individually, some seemingly in a pile, next to a Bunsen burner, some pots of wax, and a series of strange bottles and jars filled with odd mixtures. The forms that he touched into being were tightly crafted, and they were almost translucent, literally shining in the light. I’d like to see them cast and exhibited.

New large-scale abstract paintings shown at Washburn Gallery in 2009 were bold, lyrical, and mesmerizing in black and white and muted tones.  John Yau wrote of them in the Brooklyn Rail: “Every move is purposeful, while all of it feels improvised; this is the magic that Carone has achieved in the syntax of Abstract Expressionism, particularly because he has made that language specific to his concerns. His lines are simultaneously elegant, unhurried, understated, and child-like.”

Nicolas Carone, Shadow Dance, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 119-3/4 inches, Courtesy Wasburn Gallery
Nicolas Carone, Shadow Dance, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 119-3/4 inches, Courtesy Wasburn Gallery

Nick’s painted “Psychic” portraits – that is portraits of men and women who never existed – that have been included in group shows, but have not yet been given a solo showcase.  And that’s a pity. Nick spent 50 years making these paintings, starting with his early years in Italy and continuing on to the end of his life.  You could say they are strange – because they are – and you’d have to admit that they are more than a little bit interesting. Some of them are clowns, and others are temptresses, ogres, aristocrats, sages, androgines, and modernized renaissance men. They fall somewhere between figments of the imagination and flights of fancy. Like the very best portraits, they seem to encapsulate a lifetime of experience, which is fascinating since their subjects never drew a breath outside of Nick’s imagination. They also have the strong undercurrrent of Eros that permeated all of Nick’s work – something akin to the tension and longing that occupies the moment before a first kiss – and all of those factors demand that they be treated to a truly ambitious show in the near term.

But through his career, the figure was enormously important to Nick. It was his fuel, his inspiration, his tool. The figure is the building block that shapes and drives the abstract painting: the figure is the process and the figure is the form.

Just last June Nick said to me “Don’t forget.  With the figure, anything is possible.”  I saw this idea come to life in that visit when Claude and Chris Carone, Nick’s sons, showed me his last psychic portraits, which were filled with the physical intensity, turmoil and anxiety of an artist struggling to continue his work at the end of his life, and even then, unafraid to go into the metaphysical realm.

Nick was a living legend, and that he was not out in the forefront of the art world was always hard for me to understand. But I believe that his low profile freed him enormously, and there is no question that when he re-emerged with the shows at Lohin Geduld and Washburn his work was triumphant. No question – here was an artist who was at the very height of his career, whose work was, and is – thoroughly contemporary, multidimensional and unapologetic.

Nicolas Carone with "Psychic Blackout," in progress, 84 x 108 in. 2007. Photo: Courtesy Wasburn Gallery
click to enlarge