With a reminiscence of his teaching contribution by Stephen Ellis. A memorial is planned at the New York Studio School on March 9.
Charles Cajori, who passed away December 1, personified a kind of painter that has become increasingly rare, one who was not only highly accomplished and acclaimed as an artist, but extraordinarily generous and accessible as well. His enthusiasm for painting was contagious, and seemingly limitless; he valued his time in the studio, and discussions about art, far more than the machinations of the art scene. Painting was the immediate and consuming passion of his life, one he hoped to share. At this he succeeded, as he leaves behind a remarkable body of work and numerous peers and students inspired by his way of seeing.
Cajori was among the last of a generation to remember a New York art scene that was small, personal, and idealistic. Painting was a calling rather than a vocation for the Abstract Expressionists, all of whom Cajori knew firsthand. (A sign of the openness of the era is that when he met Franz Kline in a coffee shop on 8th Street he was promptly invited to Kline’s studio.) Teaching at Berkeley in 1959-60, Cajori regularly joined Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff in figure drawing sessions. Cajori’s official accomplishments would fill a long list. They include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, a Jimmy Ernst Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and NEA and Fulbright grants. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney, the Corcoran and the Hirschhorn. One suspects, however, that he took just as much satisfaction in collaborative work with other artists, such as his co-founding of the famed Tanager Gallery, and serving as a founding faculty member of the New York Studio School.
Hearing Cajori talk, one soon realized that painting for him was an almost mystical pursuit. It demanded an almost spiritual awareness of the process of seeing, and fearlessness about adapting to its ever-changing demands. While he painted a number of landscapes in the 50s, his real focus was on the figure—more specifically, how the viewer related to the human form within an environment. In his drawings, lines charge and angle about the surface, enclosing portions of the figure in an arabesque capturing an impressively complete and spacious account of his subject. One senses not just a human form in space, with weight and illumination, but also one’s physical relationship to that person. In his paintings, colors shift within these planes of drawing, adding a new urgency of rhythm as well as a particular quality of light. For me, the results were a striking paradox: paintings with the intimate glow of Persian miniatures, but redrawn and expanded by New York School gestures.
In these works, contingency became all, context of location everything. A Sonny Rollins fan, he sought to bring the improvisational freedom of jazz to painting. He strove not to fashion a product, or even to complete a project, but to unlock the very process of visual comprehension. In a 2002 interview with art historian, writer, and curator Jennifer Samet, he elaborated:
Central to my notion of perception is the smallness of the focal area. We see barely a dime’s worth in one shot. In order to see something, our eyes move. As soon as they start moving, everything begins to become subject to that journey.
For Cajori, the possibility of seizing the truth lay in cohering these movements—the “interstices” of space.
Three years ago, Cajori submitted a statement for E. Ashley Rooney’s book, 100 Artists of New England (Schiffer Publishing, 2011) that accompanied several images of his work. Concise and eloquent, Cajori’s words could serve as the summation of a life’s philosophy, and a year later, at his suggestion, it was reprinted in the catalog for his last solo show in New York, at David Findlay, Jr. In full, the statement reads:
First is the acknowledgment of chaos: its contradictions and wayward forces. Then the struggle for coherence. Not a coherence of illusion but one of time and space—of form. The mode of attack is improvisational, multileveled, and non-rational. The resulting structures may seem complete, but they contain a hint of another stage. New attacks are called for. Structures evolve endlessly.
Cajori’s search may have been endless, but he has left a permanent legacy, in his work and the fond and grateful memories of his fellow artists.
Stephen Ellis, who studied with Cajori at the New York Studio School in the early 1970s, offers this recollection of his pedagogical approach.
The Studio School faculty in 1973 was a collection of Technicolor personalities. Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, Mercedes Matter, Leland Bell, Reuben Nakian were all charismatic figures who dominated a classroom effortlessly. But, it seemed these luminaries burned brightest in groups. Charles Cajori was different: a specialist in the individual studio visit. Perhaps this was because he excelled at one of the hardest parts of teaching– listening. Paying attention to a student’s often naive hopes and dreams requires discipline and a humility born of remembering one’s own fledgling self. Cajori’s patience and empathy made his studio visits moments of respite in what often felt like a clash of titanic egos.
As I remember him forty years ago, he was tallish and lanky, with a distinctive grace of speech and manner, not patrician, exactly, more like a courtly country doctor. Arriving in the studio, Cajori would listen patiently to the student complaint, examine the suffering canvas, and take as much time as needed to arrive at the proper diagnosis. He was a holistic healer. Rather than pick the work apart piece by piece, he sussed out its determining logic and treated that. It was implicit in his approach that each painting was a system that would never work in detail until its larger structure functioned properly. He spoke mostly of formal matters in Hofmannesque terms. The construction of pictorial space through the architecture of color planes was key. If the planes were arranged to articulate whatever idea of space governed the painting and the color harmonized to express its implicit concept of light, then it had a fighting chance of emerging from the creative process in coherent form.
This old-fashioned formal approach may sound somewhat shallow, but when applied with Cajori’s level of skill and sensitivity, it yielded results. His kind of teaching might be compared to behavioral therapy, as opposed to the psychoanalytic deconstruction practiced by some professors. His touch was light, Hippocratic in spirit–first do no harm—but it was effective, and under his guidance paintings would invariably progress. When he arrived, it seemed there might be hope for the patient after all. I was very grateful for that and I remain grateful for the diagnostic tools he taught by example how to apply for myself.