Life, Death and the In-Between: The Art of Clarence Holbrook Carter (1904-2000)
The extensive array of artwork by Clarence Carter now on exhibit at Wolf’s Gallery on Larchmere provides an eye-opening, if not frankly revisionist, experience of a painter we thought we knew. Wolf’s is showcasing work from all phases of the Cleveland School artist’s career, and will soon put on view a trove of more than 300 of Carter’s never-before-exhibited drawings, sketches made from life and from artwork in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection, as well as preliminary studies for paintings. The gallery has prepared a fully-illustrated catalogue of work from the estate that will be available this fall.
In Cleveland, we know Carter perhaps nearly exclusively as an American Scene painter. His work of the ’30s and ’40s, which launched his artistic star following his graduation from the Cleveland School of Art in 1927, is powerful imagery by any yardstick. His best-known canvases record women collecting coal along the railroad tracks, expressionless farmers taking bushels of potatoes to market by horse and cart, riderless carousel horses, and ordinary-looking circus performers waiting in the shadows of a tent flap for their cue. But as the Wolf’s exhibit demonstrates, there is more to Carter than his poignant Regionalist material: for example, an early symbolist painting of the Lady of Shalott (1927), and an entire mezzanine wall hanging thick with his later geometric abstractions from the 1960s and 70s. In the latter, semi-translucent egg shapes populate architectonic spaces that recall the lonely Surrealism of a De Chirico and the immutable geometry of a Piero della Francesca. The eggs behave like spirits floating and hovering, resting on surfaces, penetrating them, and disappearing behind walls and tucking inside crevices. While formally precise and reserved, the late work has an emotional resonance that mysteriously finds some correlation with the earlier efforts.
Looking across that career, it’s inevitable to ask whether any common thread unifies his output. I’ve come away thinking that regardless of the vocabulary he chose, Clarence Carter spent his career exploring the same question: What was the nexus between life and death and the transition from earth to spirit? Because throughout childhood, he had experienced so much death. He witnessed periodic floods in his home town, Portsmouth, and recalled how, on one occasion in 1913, the family had to move to the second floor to escape the rising water. Carter recalled in one interview worrying out loud to his family, “If a fire broke out we’d be doomed because they couldn’t get the fire hoses or anything [to the second floor] to put it out.” In another, Carter described the shock of losing his two infant sisters: “Lively little sisters,” he called them, “then, lying there cold and dead – it made a big impression.”
And perhaps most frightening of all, when Carter was fourteen, his father came into his bedroom one morning, fell down on top of Clarence who was still in bed, and died of a heart attack. His death was not only a huge emotional loss for Clarence, but also the event which on so many levels transformed him from a boy to a man. Clarence Carter had to go to work to support the family, even while in art school. At one point he was forced to take a sabbatical to regain his health because he had been working himself so hard.
In 1978 Carter candidly acknowledged not only his fascination with death, but his artistic evolution from real to imagined forms: “Earlier in my career I was interested in the life that I knew around me as material for my art. Along with that was a keen interest in things that were not always tangible. Death had a strong pull, the unseen was keenly felt. ..Now the real has become further removed. The unreal has taken over…the imaginative is dominant” (Don Henry, Lifelong Search for Ultimate Answers: Clarence Carter—a Phenomenon,” Easton Pennsylvania Express, May 8, 1978). Abstraction seems to have been a distancing mechanism for him.
Carter’s Lady of Shalott, painted when he was 23 years old, provides a literal interpretation of someone passing between life and death. The Lady is stretched out horizontally, wearing a bright white garment, heavy like a funeral shroud. She floats down a river under a starry sky, while all around her in the darkness incongruous morning glories twinkle like fireflies with little white stars in their throats. The Lady’s head is tilted uncomfortably so far back that her nose and chin point high in the air. This is a sharp, unusual and powerful face, decidedly more masculine than feminine. Surrounding it, however, is a brilliant and elliptical chartreuse halo that lights up the night, transcending her mortal body.
Carter’s choice to paint the Lady of Shalott’s story upon graduation underscores his awareness that choosing the life of an artist would require a tremendous amount from him. The Lady, who weaves her magic web and sings her song in a remote tower all day long, can be seen to represent the contemplative artist isolated from the bustle and activity of daily life. The moment she sets her art aside to gaze down on the real world of Camelot, a curse befalls her and she meets her tragic death, arriving in Camelot as a dead woman, unable to enjoy its beauties and pleasures for which she abandoned her art.
But where was Carter’s formal source for this type of image? Symbolic visual language of this sort is a sharp departure from anything he would have seen in the work of his teachers at the Cleveland School.
The transcript of a 1964 interview that Richard Doud conducted with Clarence Carter for the Archives of American Art provided the clue for Carter’s inspiration: “In my junior year, I … had liked the work of Anto-Carte . He was a Belgian painter and his work interested me because at that time I was interested in morbid subjects. I think many adolescents go into that phase, and his rather morbid interpretations of religious subjects of everyday Belgian life intrigued me and I did a copy of his Pieta that was in the show. Mr. Milliken, the director of the Cleveland Museum, was away at that time and he came back just as I was finishing the picture. He came to the gallery and it was so exact, and so much like the picture, that he got terribly upset and wanted to know who gave me permission to make the copy. Somebody had given permission but they failed to state that I shouldn’t do it the actual size of the picture, which I had done. So they said I couldn’t have the picture, and I was terribly upset. They sent the picture to Belgium to get the doctor’s okay that owned the painting, and also [Anto Carte’s] permission for me to have it. In several months’ time the thing came back all stamped up on the back that I could keep the picture. Well, that did one thing that was extremely good for me . . . it drew me to the attention of Dr. Milliken. He became interested in my work.”
A visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s archives last week enabled me to learn more about Carter’s connection with the work of Anto-Carte . Following his success at the 1925 Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, Anto-Carte was awarded a one-man show at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This is where Carter encountered Anto-Carte’s peculiar blend of Flemish primitivism, charged with Symbolist and Expressionist overtones. Figures were large, unhappy and reductive. His Pieta dated 1918, which Carter had too-faithfully copied, portrayed a dead soldier on his mother’s lap in the pose traditionally reserved for the Dead Christ being mourned by the Virgin. Not insignificantly for Carter, the composition features a large person whose dead weight is borne by the body of a smaller one.
Anto-Carte’s Pieta (now in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Mons) also became the source for Carter’s Lady of Shalott, but with the dead soldier/Christ figure shown in reverse. The head is tilted sharply back in the same manner; the facial features match; and the background zones are banded in a similar sequence. Carter may have known or even owned the lithograph Anto-Carte made of his Pieta image.
At the other end of his career, when Carter turned to painting abstractions with egg forms emanating from the ground such as his remarkable Fault Lines of 1971, he noted: “There is a strange correlation between my childhood and what I am painting today. As a child I would spend days digging deep holes, being careful to square up the holes and smooth down the sides. Then I would squat down in these holes … and contemplate the mystery of the cubicle shutting me off from the visible world.” It is hard to read this and not consider that Carter was, at some level, contemplating his own mortality. And finally, in an even later geometric work of 1978, a large mandorla-shaped egg rises upwards from a rectangular box, reading exactly like an open tomb. Surely this is a reductive Renaissance Resurrection. In light of this, how can Lady of Shalott not be Carter’s very first “egg”painting? The spirit of the woman glows all around her head, not in a round halo like a religious figure, but as an earth-bound one, who is still transitioning to another place, just as Carter was, as he searched for his artistic voice.
I wish to thank Peter Buettner, Archives Assistant at the Cleveland Museum of Art for his kind assistance in locating records associated with the Anto-Carte exhibition. At this writing the location of Carter’s copy of the Anto-Carte Pieta is unknown.