Bert Carpenter: Persistence of Realism
by Sam Yates
Carpenter was transferred to Paris shortly after its liberation where he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and practiced life drawing at the Grande Chaumière. Although most of the famous European masterpieces in the museums were still inaccessible, Carpenter was able to visit the studios of Brancusi, Georges Braque, and Le Corbusier. He was also privileged to witness the reinstallation of the windows at Chartres Cathedral and the return of the Louvre's Nike of Samothrace [Winged Victory].
Like many American artists stationed in France at the end of the war, Carpenter considered remaining there. "All of the artists that I have known have felt the shadow of Paris. Though they may paint well by their own standards, they have felt that the really important painting of their day was being done in Paris. I guess the most talented men are there, but to me their talents seem to be leading them at divergence to the world, at least that will be my opinion until I change it." A decision about his future as an artist in Paris was delayed as he returned home to visit his family whom he had not seen in over three years. By this time, his parents had relocated to Salt Lake City. Upon his arrival, Carpenter began an inspired series of watercolors of the dramatic Utah landscape. He then decided not to return to Paris, but instead co-founded the Art Barn School of Art, a cooperative art school and exhibition space. There, he taught until accepting a position at the University of Hawaii in 1947. He had been recommended for this position by his friend, Tom Craig, with whom he earlier discussed teaching as a means of support for an artist. In a letter to his parents while stationed in France, Carpenter wrote, "...teaching, while providing an artist with secure income, most importantly allows him to develop his work without being pushed in this direction or that by varying individual or social taste."
During his first year in Hawaii, Carpenter produced a series of watercolors of the Oahu Surf (pp. 37-39) which were much looser than his previous work in this medium. He was soon joined at the University of Hawaii by Jean Charlot, an artist trained in the Mexican muralist tradition, who was the former assistant of Diego Rivera. Charlot was articulate in describing art's ability to convey social and philosophical issues. A growing friendship led Carpenter to assist Charlot in the production of a large scale fresco for the campus. Fresco was a technique Carpenter had already practiced on a small scale during his student days. The nature of fresco demands that the artist finish one section of wet plaster at a time, until the entire mural is realized, as opposed to the modernist theory which recommends the simultaneous development of all areas within a composition. In later years, Carpenter called upon this methodology in the painting of his flower series, in which he would finish one flower at a time before they wilted. He described this compositional process as "organic" and stated that "...work on the blank sheet or canvas began at some place with a small motif that suggested itself, then spread outward in all directions like a mold."
By 1949, Max Ernst was a visiting artist and instructor at the University of Hawaii. Surrealist ideas of automatism and spontaneously generated form were discussed heatedly by the artists on the faculty. As a result of these discussions, Carpenter's subject matter soon shifted from the observed natural landscape to idyllic settings staged with figures.
Leaving Hawaii in the Fall of 1950, Carpenter entered graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, which had already begun to replace Paris as the international art center. Being in New York fostered his interest in figure groupings, heightened by the daily commute on the subway. The subway became a rich subject, reflecting the drama of diverse urban life. It was alive with contrasting characters who, in an effort to keep their balance on a speeding train car, created an array of distorted and twisted limbs and bodies. This experience inspired his egg tempera, Subway (p. 44), with its strange juxtapositions of passengers that appear more surreal than romantic.
Early into his studies at Columbia, Carpenter decided to pursue the Ph.D. program in Art History. As an artist, he believed that the more knowledge about art history he gained, the more he could free himself from its influence. Doing research plus teaching art history classes at Columbia and at other colleges around New York consumed most of his time. However, Carpenter retained a keen interest in the current art scene with a particular focus on abstract art and contemporary criticism. This led Carpenter to organize a group of motivated students and aspiring young artists to have weekly evening discussions at his apartment. At those meetings, topics would range from discussions on Abstract Expressionism, the dominant art movement of the time, to reviews of exhibitions on view in commercial galleries and public museums throughout the city. Mimi Gross, Alan Brilliant, Robert Smithson, and Dan Flavin were frequent participants at these lively discussions on contemporary art.
In 1957, Carpenter married Editha Maria Floro, and in the following year their first child, Editha Elva, was born. Drawings of his daughter renewed Carpenter's interest in the figure as a subject for his work. From these realistic drawings of his child's head, the artist's work evolved into a series of paintings whose size and brushwork may suggest Abstract Expressionism, but rather were conceived as portraits, such as Red Edie (p. 48).
Two years later, Carpenter returned as a visiting artist to the University of Hawaii and, before the year was over, was asked to assume the position of Art Department Head. While he accepted this administrative position, he remained committed to his own studio activity and continued to further develop the visually complex paintings of Heads. These large portraits were meant to be viewed in close proximity similar to that in which Carpenter painted them in his small bedroom studio. Concerning these works, in 1969 the artist wrote, "It seems to me now that the spatial flips and the impermanent groupings of strokes had something in common with optical art of these years."
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