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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Clerence Holbrook Carter

Let Us Give Thanks, 1943, Clarence Holbrook Carter. It's impossible to view this painting without considering the fateful circumstances of the moment--the psychological effect of leaving a place vacant in the foreground. The effect is to invite us into the picture so we may
participate in this moment of prayer and reflection.
Inasmuch as I'm a lifelong native of Ohio, there's every reason I should be proud of my state's contribution to the fine arts. However in searching out a list of Ohio artists I was chagrinned to note that the list was distressingly short--well under a hundred. Moreover, most of them I'd never heard of before. I was familiar with George Bellows as well as Maya Lin, Don Drumm, Robert McCall, Jenny Holzer, and Hiram Powers. In fact I'd written about some of those and a few others. I'm assuming that Ohio has contributed to the world quite a number of important historic figures, especially in science and industry. As for the fine arts...not so much. One artist not (for some unknown reason) on the list I mentioned was the Portsmouth, Ohio, artist Clarence Holbrook Carter. Although he was not such a major painting personage that I'd taken note of him before, in surveying the surprising number of his works, I've come to the conclusion that he was really quite good--just severely underrated.

It's uncertain if these identical houses are in Portsmouth or the
Cleveland area, nor is the painting titled or dated but it is typical
of much of Carter's early work.
The only Carter self-portrait I
could locate dates from 1928.
Portsmouth, Ohio, is located on the Ohio River near its southernmost point before it continues it's northwestern flow toward Cincinnati. It's a river community, though there is little evidence that the riverboat culture was much of an influence in Clarence Carter's art. In any case, Carter was born in Portsmouth in 1904. Early on, Carter was seized by the stark grandeur of landscapes where snows or the rising Ohio River in spring competed with human presences in conversation. It may well have been the memory of the river’s overwhelming its banks in 1913, when Carter was only six, that inspired his first important work, painted non-stop in one day and one night while he was still in art school. (I could not locate a photo of the painting.)

Cleveland steel mills during the 1920s and 30s' left quite
an impression on the young Clarence Carter.
Carter had come up to Cleveland in 1923 to study with painters Henry Keller and Paul Travis, making ends meet by waiting tables in the tearoom of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Flood, his first prize-winning entry in the museum’s annual juried showcase of regional artists (The May Show), earned him $25. He earned another $100 when Cleveland industrialist, Ralph Coe, purchased the painting from the show. Years later, Carter bought it back. The painting had a special place in his heart, he said, because it was the work which brought him to the attention of the museum’s director, William Milliken.

Milliken at the Century of Progress, Chicago, 1940, 
Clarence Holbrook Carter
Untitled--Country Road,
Clarence Holbrook Carter
It's not surprising that Carter should think so highly of Milliken (above). He was an ardent champion of local artists, helping to launch Carter’s career, and arranging for his young protégé to study with Hans Hoffman in Capri, Italy. The museum director also promoted the work Carter sent back for sale from Europe. This enabling him to spend a second year abroad in France, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Sicily and north Africa. When Carter returned to Cleveland, Milliken arranged for him to teach studio classes at the museum. However, the artist primarily supported himself by selling his work during the eleven years between his graduation and 1938, when he took a faculty position at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie-Mellon University).

Jane Reed and Dora Hunt, Clarence Holbrook Carter--pure Portsmouth.
Smoldering Fires,
Clarence Holbrook Carter
In many ways Clarence Carter was a fortunate man. His talent revealed itself early in life and it was nurtured by Milliken and others who recognized it as standing on a par with that of many of the most important artists of his era such as Edward Hopper, William Zorach, and John Singer Sargent. Virtually every year of his life he won prizes and accolades when he entered his work in competitions. Yet Carter also had the misfortune of beginning his professional career at a most inopportune moment in history--the entire period of the Great Depression. His hometown of in southern Ohio saw him as something of a curiosity while the big cities of northern Ohio, struggling with their own brand of economic distress, could ill afford to support an artists painting mostly country genre (top).

The Ohio that Carter knew best.
In 1935, Carter was chosen in a statewide competition to paint murals in the Ravenna, Ohio, post office by a national panel that included Eleanor Roosevelt. This was the first of a series of works to be commissioned for Ohio public buildings as part of the WPA Federal Art Project. Thus, ironically it took the Great Depression and the WPA to bring Carter’s work back to southern Ohio. It was during this time that he briefly served as regional superintendent. His other regional works included four large murals for the new post office in Portsmouth, Ohio.

I believe these two images represent the same painting, though
each came with different titles. In any case this example serves
to underline the treachery of Internet color representations.
From 1938 to 1944, while teaching painting and design at Carnegie Tech, he took a position with the Alcoa Steamship Company during which time he painted a series of twenty-one scenes from the Caribbean and South America that set new standards for national magazine advertising. He was to create other memorable series for the First National City Bank of New York and American Locomotive that appeared in Fortune and Life magazines (below).

As Carter delved into a career in advertising, his work
became more design oriented, leading, after the war, into
abstraction and symbolism. The upper painting, dating
from 1956, is titled, Bright Future for Black Diamonds.
By the early 1960s Carter’s work had become more symbolic, almost abstract, in nature. A series of huge canvases the artist referred to collectively as Over and Above (bottom) featured giant insects, birds and other animals peering over walls at the viewer. In the years that followed these somewhat humorous images led to large, luminous, structural compositions of tombs, caverns and ovals Carter called Transections. From there he delved into surreal landscapes featuring an element that had been present in his work since the early 1930s--the almost mystical egg shapes, which Carter saw as the symbol of life, or Eschatos (The Final Things).

Eggs with Reverberations, 1970, Clarence Holbrook Carter
Clarence Holbrook Carter died in 2000 at the age of ninety-four. It was only after his death that the artist's fascination with photography became apparent. This "hidden" source of inspiration came to light with the discovery of an old chest full of snapshots corresponding to some of his most famous paintings. Carter worked at a time when painting from photos was often looked down upon as a form of copying. Yet, Frank Trapp, author of the definitive book on Carter, claims to have personally watched the artist create three of these very paintings on canvas from scratch, beginning with faint pencil lines, then applying the paint, with virtually no revising or retouching. Despite such an anecdotal account, some of Carter’s best-known paintings are clearly based on photographs.

Outside the Limits (Fireworks Stand), Clarence Holbrook Carter.
A work painted from a photo? You decide.

Over and Above 14, 1964, Clarence Holbrook Carter


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