Sunday, November 1, 2009

Albert York, 1928 - 2009

Albert York, American Painter, 1989
(Photo: New York Times, online ed.)

Very few people knew Albert York, in any sense. He produced approximately 250 paintings during his lifetime, nearly all are in private collections, and each are not much larger than a sheet of letter-sized, 8.5" X 11" paper. For at least twenty years, those small canvasses sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He died last night, and in looking over the detritus of our culture as reported by the NYT as I usually do every morning, saw his obituary.

Two Trees And A River; oil on silk on masonite, 1962
10 X 11 inches (All Photos of York's Work Shown From The
University Of Massachusetts, Amherst's The Sienese Shredder,
April, 2009)

What makes him singular is that he seemed to be an ordinary man -- or, no more or less ordinary than anyone you might meet on the street. He spoke his own language in his artwork, and while he took art very seriously (his entire life was, in one way or another, wrapped around it and shaped by it), seemed unconcerned about the currents of 'modern' art. He went his own way.

Born the illegitimate child of an electroplater in the Detroit automotive industry in 1928 (when being a bastard child was still considered a major social stigma), York grew up in a succession of boarding schools, then studied art -- not in Chicago or New York or Boston, but at Schools Of Arts and Crafts in Ontario, Canada, and Detroit.

The Sea At East Hampton; oil on canvas on masonite, 1964
8 X 12 inches (Photo: U. Mass, Amherst Sienese Shredder)

He spent at least twenty years working as a finish carpenter, and gilder of frames for paintings, before being able to paint full-time. York's employer as a gilder saw some of his work, recommended him to a Manhattan art dealer -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

His work has been compared with another reclusive New York painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (as well as reclusive figures like J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon), and was praised for the minimalism and small dimensions in his work -- a small, clear note above the cacophony and screeching of the modern art business, which is much more about itself, about power and money, than really about art.

Wheelbarrow; oil on panel, 1974;
7 X 12 inches (Photo: U. Mass, Amherst Sienese Shredder)

In 1989, when an exhibition of his work (lent by the collectors who owned them) and two other painters was held at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, no one knew whether York came to see the show; no one knew what he looked like. He did go -- and one of the staff at his dealers' took the photo of him at the top of this post.

Bread and Wine; oil on panel, 1995
8 X 10 inches (Photo: U. Mass, Amherst Sienese Shredder)

The dominance of art by the creatures who claim to know what it is, who buy it as cheaply as they can and sell for as much profit as they can make, is nothing new. The thing about York is that he didn't participate in that scene. In the end, fate and chance helped York to realize the dream of every artist -- to make a living strictly from sale of their works.

Woman With Skeleton; oil on canvas on masonite, 1968
12 X 11 inches (Photo: U. Mass, Amherst Sienese Shredder)

My take of him is, if someone wanted to buy his pictures, that was fine; he needed the money. If his dealers wanted to create a Garbo-like mystique around his shyness and sell his works for tens or hundreds of thousands a pop, he was okay with that, too. But he never confused the merely commercial with what motivated him to produce his art. Because that's what it's all about, really, no matter what Art In America or Vanity Fair says.

It seems ironic that this body of work, 250 small but powerful paintings by a quiet man uninterested in fame or wealth, are now owned by a few museums -- but principally by the very, very rich, where they will generally go unseen by the ordinary public of which York was a part.

The Edge Of The Forest; oil on canvas on masonite, 1963
10 X 10 inches (Photo: U. Mass, Amherst Sienese Shredder)

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