IVAN LE LORRAINE
Self Portrait in Georgia, 1967, 1967-68
Oil on panel, 20 X 16" (50.80 x 40.64 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 969-0-150
Born in 1897 outside Chicago, both Ivan Le Lorraine Albright and his twin brother Malvin Marr Albright became artists, not a surprising development given that their father was a painter who gave his children middle names of artists he revered. The senior Albright's picturesque canvases were of less lasting value than his real estate investments, which offered a safety net for his sons as well as a life that included frequent travel. Ivan Albright's marriage in his forties to a cultivated socialite, Josephine Medill Patterson Reeve, brought additional security and the experience of parenthood.
Albright's artistic preoccupations changed little from the time he graduated from The Art Institute of Chicago in 1923 to his death sixty years later. The inexorable passage of time and the mortification of the flesh were his constant themes. Albright thought of himself as an individualist unrelated to contemporary art movements. He was deeply involved with the theory and craft of painting and opposed to the new currents of both abstraction and socially- engaged art that developed around him. In the Butler Institute's self-portrait, and especially in others done at the very end of his life, he explored a highly traditional format that consciously refers to Francisco Goya, Rembrandt van Rijn, and even earlier to Raphael.
Albright had produced seven self-portraits in various media when he began Self Portrait in Georgia, 1967, several months after his seventieth birthday.' His best known works were painted in the studio from close observation of elaborate arrangements of objects and models. This self-portrait, however, was painted outdoors, with the artist standing before the weathered clapboard of a studio he had built on his wife's Georgia plantation. It is a relentless investigation of his aging face. Few artists could have as eagerly anticipated growing old as much as Albright, for seeing in himself the evidence of aging was to personally experience his lifelong fascination with the mutability and decay of matter. The self-portrait depicts a man both painfully resigned to death and staunchly proud of his life's accomplishment. 'All life is strong and powerful, even in the process of dissolution," he explained. This exploration of opposites within one work was the artist's conscious design; it creates a tension that keeps the image from becoming maudlin, a weakness Albright did not entirely avoid in his career.
Self Portrait in Georgia, 1967 oddly combines different styles of painting within a single work. In 1940, Albright had painted several impressionistic landscapes using a loose, broken brushwork. For the most part, he abandoned this approach, but it crept back into his work at various times. Here, the loosely painted grays, whites, and blacks of the shirt contrast with the precise strokes of color that comprise the head and face. These parts of the painting are quintessential Albright; the detail is almost microscopic, as seen in the tiny hairs around the upper lip and cheeks. Each eyelash is painted separately, and a single lash may go through permutations of color, depending on how it catches the light. Throughout the painting, muted colors are paired so as to be practically fluorescent, seething as if alive. Add to these factors the discordant element of the boldly-colored circles and squares behind the artist, and the result is a surface that fulfills Albright's desire to make the observer "realize that objects are at war, that between them there is constant movement, tension and conflict." The colored shapes challenge the viewer's attempt to focus on the face. Without them, Albright would I-rave had a much more harmonious-and perhaps successful painting. But harmony is not his goal. He strives to disconcert the viewer; and if the nails in the clapboard remind one of miniature daggers hurled at a target by a knife thrower in a circus, then all the better.
It is possible that the bright shapes have a purpose beyond the technical feat of disrupting the surface. They represent colorful wands that Albright had fabricated in the 1940s when he was studying the effects of complementary colors against one another in preparation for a highly publicized portrait of the fictional Dorian Gray, commissioned for a Hollywood movie. The wands thus recall a time thirty years earlier when Albright was celebrated enough to be written up in Life magazine, long before his achievement had been eclipsed by Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. In 1967, abstraction was closely identified with the avant-garde.
Albright's placement of abstract shapes in the background creates a witty parallel to Hans Hofmann's famous theory of "push and pull," but Albright asserts that pure forms and colors are mere tools for the artist, not an end in themselves. He thus offers an explicit rebuke to artists ranging from Hofmann to Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. At the center of our vision, instead of the lyrical colors of formalist abstraction, Albright Places the human visage, beleaguered but noble.
MITCHELL D. KAHAN