Transparency, Opalescence, Opacity: Clarence Van Duzer

By Douglas Max Utter

The best story a painter has to tell may be the one that can’t be told, the tale woven into 
the work. It usually begins in childhood with a flood of precocious drawings, continuing 
through decades of lines, brushstrokes, and evolving styles.

But the story that can be told is often well worth hearing, and like many artists Cleveland’s 
Clarence Van Duzer is a better than average raconteur. During a recent conversation I 
learned about his life growing up near the West Side Market and studying art at the then 
famous West Tech High School guided by an extraordinary pair of teachers, Paul and 
Jean Ulen. Under their tutelage the young Van Duzer made art six hours a day for three 
wonderful years (“You learned to sharpen your pencils and throw away your erasers”). At 
the end of that time he went on first to the Cleveland School of the Arts (as the Cleveland 
Institute of Art was then called), and to the Cranbrook Academy of the Arts in Michigan for 
special study. He earned his Master of Fine Arts degree at Yale in the mid 1940’s with the 
help of a Gund scholarship, later teaching drawing at the Cleveland Institute of Art from 
1957-1989.

When I first met him his shoulder-length snow-white hair, setting off an elegant arc of 
nose, would have reminded any art history buff of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous self-
portrait. At that time a retrospective show of Van Duzer’s paintings was on view at Michael 
Wolf’s gallery on East 40th Street in Cleveland. Hung salon-style, the exhibit featured work 
dating from the 1940’s on to the present. A wider local audience would recognize Van 
Duzer’s large, aerodynamic abstract steel sculpture commissioned for the Cleveland 
Hopkins Airport in the late 1970’s; yet much of his best work is on a more modest scale, 
executed in delicate layers of glowing egg tempera on panel. Especially striking at the Wolf’
s show were several semi-abstract tempera and oil depictions that revisited the central 
scenes of Christian iconography, exploring mysteries of death and rebirth. Executed in 
deep umbers and beautifully applied gold leaf these paintings from the late 1950’s 
succinctly narrow the gap between medieval and modern sensibilities as they comment on 
abiding facts of the human condition. Yet for the artist himself the focus is always on 
technique. Asking about those paintings I came away from our recent conversation with a 
working knowledge of egg tempera application and how to prepare gesso on panel by 
rubbing it with an oak block And as he told me, “The basis of my work even now is the 
fundamental value of under-painting -- of transparency, opalescence, opacity.” After that 
show Van Duzer (who is now 86) went on to create a series of bigger, wonderfully 
energetic abstract oil paintings, shown last year at gallerist Alenka Banco’s Convivium 33 
showcase at Josaphat Arts

Artistic ability very often runs in families. Clarence’s brother William was also a brilliant 
painter. But there were two other children in the family and during the Depression years 
Bill put a promising career on hold to get a job in a lithography studio. Later he ran his 
own advertising firm for almost four decades. A true artist, he kept producing portraits 
during all those years, exhibiting them in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show. 

Anyone might propose their own list of “important” Cleveland artists, and no doubt any 
such list would end in an argument. But that Clarence Van Duzer has earned his place on 
the basic short list is beyond dispute.