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Friday, November 13, 2015

Augustus Vincent Tack

Aspiration, painted by Augustus Tack in 1931, might seem to be an early forerunner to
Abstract Expressionism some twenty years later. Critics view it as not being early enough.
The line between being a famous artist and a minor historic footnote is perilously thin. Most artists (myself included) never reach that line much less contemplate crossing it. I once had a painting instructor in college who commented that had he chosen to pursue virtually any other of the fine arts, at that time, (1970) he would be a household name. He died a couple years ago at the age of eighty-eight. In searching the Internet for his work, I could find barely a mention of his name or examples of his work. He may have been exaggerating his importance a little, but somehow I don't think so. He was a fine, Postmodern landscape artist. The moral to that little discourse can be summed up by saying, it's damned hard to become even a modestly famous artist. An artist a couple generations earlier, came somewhat closer to that thin line between fame and footnote. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1870. His name was Augustus Vincent Tack.

Tack's self-portraits. He is considered to have been a good,
though not exceptional, portrait artist.
In the House of Matthew,
1909, Augustus Vincent Tack
Tack's family moved to New York in 1883 when he was thirteen. He graduated from St. Francis Xavier College in 1890 then went on to study art at Art Students League until 1895. He is thought to have also studied with the well-known studio painter, John La Farge. Around 1897, Tack moved to an artists’ colony in Deerfield, Massachusetts, where he met and married Agnes Gordon Fuller, daughter of the artist George Fuller. Tack maintained a portrait studio in New York city from 1894 until his death in 1949. He became a successful, respected, if not outstanding, portrait artist, exhibiting in various upper-level competitions all over the eastern United States. Tack's In the House of Matthew (right), from 1909, demonstrates his non-portrait work from this era. Tack also spent brief periods teaching at Yale and the Art Students League. His portraits were traditional in the European style, which we would call conservative, both now and then. In short, his paintings "paid the bills," but didn't exactly rattle any windows in the art world.

Storm, ca. 1922, Augustus Vincent Tack
About 1914 Tack's work attracted the notice of the wealthy Washington, D.C. art collector and critic, Duncan Phillips, who became Tack's close friend and chief patron. The two collaborated on the organization of the Allied War Salon of 1918. During the 1920s, and periodically over the rest of his career, while continuing to paint portraits and murals in a traditional style, Tack also painted mystical semi-abstract landscapes and other abstract works based upon spiritual themes such as Storm (above) from 1922. These subjective, poetic explorations of nature bore suggestions of timelessness and spirituality. The problem was, during the tough years of the 1930s, few people were much interested in the timeless or spiritual. His explorations into the world of abstraction were commercially unsuccessful. Time and Timelessness (below) is a 1944 example, displaying Tack's style of contrasting the abstract qualities of his work with figurative aspects, in this case clouds. The painting is considered a contemporary reworking of 19th-century heroic idealism.

Time and Timelessness, 1944, Augustus Vincent Tack.
Harry Truman, Augustus Vincent Tack
If an artist such as Tack needed a friend and patron in high places (Washington, D.C.), he couldn't have asked for more than Duncan Phillips. Phillips introduced Tack to his political friends as well as the modest art crowd during the war years. After the war, Tack painted portraits of both President Harry Truman (left) and President Dwight Eisenhower (which I could not locate). Tack's The High Command (below), likely from the late 1940s, is a group portrait not unlike The Peacemakers. painted by G.P.A. Healy of Lincoln and his closest advisors. Duncan Phillips left us a whole museum (The Phillips Collection) containing his personal favorites in art and artists. The museum owns the largest body of Tack's work in the world (some 87 pieces). Despite Phillips' appreciation of Tack's talent, they are far from the most popular pieces on display. While Tack's abstractions resemble the paintings of Clyfford Still and other better known Abstract Expressionist painters, they are largely unknown by art historians and writers. At best, Tack is considered only a minor forerunner to American Abstract Expressionism largely because he chose to "straddle" the fence as to style. Art historians have never quite known what to do with the New Yorker having a Roman name.

The High Command, Augustus Vincent Tack


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