For some time I have suspected that forty years from now American collectors and museums will be searching for examples of Clarence Carter’s work. His canvases will be appreciated both as masterful demonstrations of the painterly art and high points of abstract surrealism.
There will always be a widespread interest in surrealism as one manner of reacting to physical phenomena. Granted, it will not constitute the major concern of art, but it will enjoy a permanent niche, if only because of the scintillating sidelight it throws upon human experience. Carter’s work, which constitutes some of the best surrealist painting done in America, compares favorably with the imaginary visions of Max Ernest, Matta, and Kay Sage. In the field of abstract surrealism, I believe that Carter stands pretty much at the head of the class. His vision is exceptionally pure, his technique is unsurpassed; such a union produces works of great visual impact and tactile delight.
He works in three styles, and his admirers seem about equally divided in their preferences. Over and Aboves for which he has been most noted, are tall canvases divided horizontally near the middle. The lower portion consists of a blank wall, resembling the side of an adobe house. Leering out from a background above the wall is some huge animal or bird, its chin often resting on top of the wall (one is a water buffalo, the other is a vulture). Some viewers find them particularly menacing, while others see them as evocative of the spirit of the animal kingdom. Effective they are: one man’s view of nature as perceived in a vision. They avoid the purely fanciful constructions of wildlife as seen in certain surrealist paintings and because of this, they might be criticized for showing a lack of imagination. Yet they are so forceful in their imagery that they command the viewer’s attention. They are very successful in conveying a sense of the mystery of animal life, and ought to be of increasing interest as we begin to grapple with the ecological problem of what man’s relationship to nature should be. In this respect they fulfill admirably one of the demands of surrealist art: by jolting our senses with a bright new vision of ordinary things, it prompts us to reconsider these things with new intellectual concepts. In this series, it is the surrealist half of abstract surrealism that dominates.
A Mandala consists of a series of superimposed, translucent egg-shapes floating in space and interlocking in both design and color. They are beautifully intricate and each comes to focus in a series of increasingly smaller shapes which end in a minute, brilliantly colored central image – out of which all the other forms seem to have expanded. Color is sovereign. First there is a huge expanse of background, usually in a subdued flat color; then the evanescent ovoid shapes in a complementary color; then the minute central core in a brilliant and contrasting hue; and finally, across the bottom, a broad band of an entirely new and vibrating color which seems to have been arbitrarily selected for its shock value. The result is a marvelous blend of harmonious movement, forward and backward oscillation of the forms, and vibrations of colors. There is something quite mysterious about these constructions. Although they represent the interaction of pure form and color, they do so in a way that captivates the imagination. In the dualism represented by the term “abstract surrealism,” these works stress the former. Their high imaginative content makes them more than mere abstractions, since they are infused with the mysteriousness that is essential to any good surrealist representation.
Transections represent the apex of Carter’s art. In unworldly landscapes, innumerable cells disappear into the far distance or move upward and outward into space without definition. In this way a non-finite universe is established. In each cell, or emerging form it, appears an egg-shaped form point down; these seem to be in upward motion, with a strong sense of having just been born. Because the visual imagery is so much more powerful than in the Mandalas, the colors can be more subdued. The total effect is quite powerful – an almost ideal bending of the abstract and the surreal.
To me, Transection #3; After Fra Angelico is one of the best paintings Carter has done. I saw it before it was titled and supposed that the coffin in the foreground had been taken from an early Renaissance painter such as Orcagna or Castagno. Then I remembered something Carter had once written – “I have always considered Giovanni di Paolo a great abstract surrealist painter” – and concluded that he had borrowed his central theme from this delightful Sienese. So I though to myself, What a felicitous borrowing. It fits the requirements perfectly. Only later did I discover that the coffin had come from a work by Fra Angelico.
If ever a painting superbly illustrated the essence of the Resurrection, it is this – with the empty coffin in the foreground, the endless crypts reaching into the distance, the marvelous scattering of graveyard slabs. The assembly of images alone would have this notable surrealist painting, but when the ascending ovoid shape is considered, the essential element of the Resurrection become one of Carter’s most memorable paintings, for it has that timeless quality which marks all great surrealist works.
More universal and less explicit, I believe, is Transection #8, 1970. The cell-like structures are very abstract, the horizon is infinite, the colors have no literary significance, and the emerging ovoid forms have a mysteriousness not evident in the preceding work. This is a tremendously satisfying painting, and the various elements coalesce in a remarkable way. The simplicity of design and execution makes it especially attractive, and it is perhaps one of Carter’s most balanced achievements in terms of striving for abstract/surrealist symbiosis.
The excellance of Carter’s work will be increasingly appreciated, I think as its consistently high quality is recognized. His paintings grow in depth without becoming more complex, and their surrealist implications seem constantly more relative. His works are never thin, either technically or emotionally, and I believe they are assured a long life. He once said, “For me no great art has ever existed without some mystery and some awe. It is that vast intangible, which can never be defined but only felt in a elusive way, that stirs the spirit.” Some of his paintings stir the spirit profoundly.
Cleveland Arts & Crafts, 1927-39 (prizes)
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1929-44
Corcoran Gallery, 1930-49
Butler (Ohio) Institute of American Art (prizes, 1937, 1940, 1943, 1946)
Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, 1939
Carnegie Institute (prizes, 1941, 1943-44; solo 1940)
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia (solo 1957)
Allentown Art Museum (solo 1959)
de Young Memorial Museum
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Whitney Museum of American Art
Art Institute of Chicago
Museum of Modern Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dallas Museum of Fine Art
Cleveland Museum of Art
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
American Artists for Victory
National Arts Club
Albright Art Gallery
Finley Gallery (solo)
Milwaukee Art Institute (solo 1934)
Suffolk Museum, Stony Brook, New York, (solo 1948)
Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Galleries, New York City
Detroit Art Institute
Toledo Museum of Art
Nebraska Art Association
W.R. Nelson Gallery of Art
Swope Gallery of Art
Cleveland Art Center, Cleveland, Ohio (solos 1929, 1948)
Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, New York (solos 1930, 1951, 1963)
Ferargil Galleries, New York (solos 1939, 1941)
Little Gallery, Cleveland College, Ohio (solo 1937)
Akron Art Institute, Akron, Ohio (solo 1940)
Canton Art Institute, Canton, Ohio (solo 1940)
Chautaugua Gallery of Art, Chautauqua, New York (solo 1943)
Findlay Galleries, Chicago, Illinois (solo 1945)
Grand Central Art Galleries, New York (solo 1947)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota (solo 1949)
Allen R. Hite Art Institute, Univ. of Louisville, Kentucky (solo 1950)
U.S. Naval Reserve Training Center, Portsmouth, Ohio (solos 1950, 1952)
Art Club, St. Petersburg, Florida (solo 1952)
Hendrik-Hobbelink-Kaastra Galleries, Palm Beach, Florida (solo 1957)
D'Arcy Galleries, New York (solo 1961)
Foreword ©1971 by James A. Michener. Reprinted by permission of the author in Clarence Holbrook Carter. Originally published in Arts Magazine, May 1971.