Nicolas Carone, “Orpheus” (1960), oil on canvas, 48 3/8 x 60 inches (courtesy of the Estate of Nicolas Carone)

In a painting from 1989, Nicolas Carone deploys airy zigzags of luminous beige. Layering flat passages of pinkish gray, he teases the literal flatness of the canvas. He builds rounded volumes from angled planes. So far, I could be describing an abstract painting, but, as it happens, it portrays the head and shoulders of a woman in a low-cut gown. Though Carone’s subject has the presence of an actual person, she is the artist’s invention. Not an archetype or even a type, she is persuasively individual, in part because of skeptical look on her face. The artist has brought the flavor of accurate observation to a portrait sitting that never took place.

That the woman’s right eye is larger than her left could be seen as a realistic detail. The imbalance is so striking that I wonder if Carone meant it to suggest the passage of time — one eye calm and the other, a moment later, startled into opening wide. Or perhaps the disparity alludes to the changes we perceive as we approach an image for a close look at a detail, then move back for a broader view. Here, as in other artworks, the artist entangles questions about the image with questions about our understanding of it, with no definitive answers. Fully intended, these ambiguities are products of Carone’s pictorial wit.

This Imaginary Portrait is one of eleven on view at the Loretta Howard Gallery through October 28. The earliest painting in the show is “The Prince,” 1970, a half-length portrait of a personage with the stillness — and the opulent outfit — of a sitter in a portrait by the 16th-century Mannerist Agnolo Bronzino. Where Bronzino favors glossy blacks, Carone fills “The Prince” with luminous, dusty pinks and ochres. And he shapes the face with taut, curved planes learned from mid-1940s portraits by Willem de Kooning, who found these elegantly linear forms in Arshile Gorky’s earlier portrait of his mother and himself as a young boy.

Nicolas Carone, “The Prince” (1970), oil on linen, 71 1/2 x 50 inches (courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery and the Estate of Nicolas Carone)

Numbering among Gorky and de Kooning’s younger colleagues, Carone belonged to the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Yet he had other allegiances as well, and his versatility has made him an elusive figure. The Loretta Howard exhibition retrieves from the early 1960s a pair of conte crayon drawings. Although spare in comparison, these images are filled with echoes of the traditional draftsmanship the artist mastered as a student at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art in New York. And there are three heads carved from fieldstone; deliberately unfinished, they have the weathered look of artifacts unearthed in Italy.

Running concurrently with Imaginary Portraits was The Thing Unseen: A Centennial Celebration of Nicolas Carone, a retrospective organized for the New York Studio School by painter and curator Ro Lohin, which closed October 15. This exhibition’s earliest work is from 1933, a beautifully rendered charcoal drawing of a quintessentially academic subject: a plaster cast of “Boy with a Goose,” an ancient Greek statue known only from a Roman copy.  Displaying a young artist’s mastery of techniques widely shared for centuries, the drawing feels anonymous.

Nicolas Carone, “The Diviner” (1973), oil on linen, 30 x 42 inches (courtesy the Estate of Nicolas Carone)

Carone’s originality flares up in “Shadow Dance,” painted in 2007, three years before the artist’s death at 93 years of age. Nearly ten feet wide, “Shadow Dance” is populated by taut, mostly vertical streaks of black acrylic on a white field. As pigments spatter and drip, a full range of tones appears and we begin to see images — or after-images — of figures intermingling in an atmosphere crackling with painterly nuance.

Nicolas Carone, “Untitled” (1982), oil on linen, 24 x 18 inches (courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery and the Estate of Nicolas Carone)

A sequence of paintings from the 1950s and early ’60s shows Carone swept into the gravitational field of de Kooning’s abstractions and then working his way free. Lohin has included two Imaginary Portraits, one of which — “Reclining Female Torso,” 1980 — looks like a realist’s rendering of forms carved from flesh-colored stone. By contrast, “Head,” 1982, coalesces from a shimmer of powdery, light-filled color. Of the multi-figure paintings in the Studio School exhibition, “Shadow Dance” (2007) is the most abstract. At the opposite pole is “The Diviner,” 1973, which shows three fully articulated figures — relatives, perhaps, of the non-existent people who sat for the Imaginary Portraits — caught up in some vaguely ceremonial occasion. Not a large exhibition, The Thing Unseen nonetheless makes a crucial point: having embraced a historical period or aesthetic possibility, Carone would abandon it — but never completely. Forever circling back on his own past, he condemned himself to an unrelenting restlessness.

The catalog accompanying the Studio School retrospective contains a detailed and perceptive essay about the artist’s life and work by David Ramm. Tracing Carone’s evolution from talented child to precocious student, Ramm follows him from the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey, to the New York art world of the 1930s and encounters with then-celebrated elders. Notable among them was Leon Kroll, an American painter living in Paris during the early years of the 20th century, and Carone’s teacher at the next school he attended, the National Academy of Design, on upper Fifth Avenue.

Nicolas Carone, “Shadow Dance” (2007), acrylic on canvas, 84 x 119 3/4 inches (courtesy the Estate of Nicolas Carone)

During World War II, Carone was stationed at Mitchell Field, on Long Island, where he drew radar maps for the Army Air Corps. Afterward, the G. I. Bill funded his study with the arch-modernist Hans Hofmann, and a three-and-a-half-year sojourn in Rome. Settled into a studio on the Via Margutta, he found himself amid a scene inhabited by Federico Fellini and his then-leading actor, Giulietta Masina, as well as a milling crowd of painters. When the Surrealist Roberto Matta appeared in Rome toward the end of the 1940s, he taught Carone the automatist method that liberated his brushwork and may well have had the more intangible effect of freeing him from the tyranny of a single style.

Returning to New York in 1951, Carone quickly found his way to the heart of the downtown scene. He became a regular at the Cedar Tavern, alongside Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, and was inducted with them, and a few dozen other artists, into the Eighth Street hangout known only as the Club. Settling into a house in Springs, at the Eastern end of Long Island, Carone became Pollock’s neighbor and one of his few real friends. Ramm notes, as well, that he played a key role in organizing the Ninth Street Show in 1951 — the first exhibition to present as a group the painters who were by then entering art history under the flag of Abstract Expressionism.

Nicolas Carone, “Untitled” (c. 1985), oil and gesso on paper (courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery and the Estate of Nicolas Carone)

One of Carone’s canvases was chosen for the show, of course, and after it closed he become an adviser to Eleanor Ward, whose Stable Gallery maintained the Ninth Street momentum with a series of annual exhibitions. Carone didn’t show his work at the Stable Gallery until 1956. His next one-person exhibition was at the Staempfli Gallery. There were two more at Staempfli, in 1959 and 1962, then a Carone blackout until 2005, when the Lohin Geduld Gallery in Chelsea mounted a selection of his drawings.

Engineered by Carone himself, this nearly total eclipse may have been a response to the sudden emergence of Pop Art and Minimalism in the early 1960s — a development abetted by Eleanor Ward, who showed Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes in 1964. Other Abstract Expressionists maintained their public careers, carrying on as if Pop and Minimalism were passing fads.  That Carone did not may be a sign that he couldn’t abide an art world increasingly indifferent to the long, painterly tradition to which he had devoted his life. A founder of the New York Studio School, he found a refuge there as a charismatic teacher of painting and drawing. As the subtitle of Lohin’s brilliantly concise retrospective attests, The Thing Unseen is the School’s celebration of one of its most influential faculty members.

In 1988, Carone left New York to found the International School of Art, in Umbria. A successful venture, it created a tightly knit Anglophone community in the heart of Italy. Meanwhile, museum shows in New York and elsewhere were slowly bringing Carone’s earlier work out of obscurity. Then, with the 2005 solo show at Lohin Geguld, he resumed the career that he had cut short over four decades earlier. More exhibitions followed, along with honors, among them the National Academy Museum’s 2007 Inglis Nelson Griswald Prize for Painting and, in the same year, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s Lee Krasner Award, recognizing a lifetime of achievement.

Nicolas Carone, “Umbrian Head in Stone, 2” (1979), Italian fieldstone (courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery and the Estate of Nicolas Carone)

The Studio School catalog is prefaced by one of Carone’s precepts: “The process is to draw the thing unseen and to match it with that which is seen with experience.” Ramm suggests that the artist’s talk of drawing invisible things shows a leaning toward “Neoplatonic mysticism,” a plausible if unprovable suggestion. It is certain, however, that Carone transformed his voracious experience of the visible world into paintings — abstract and figurative — that are crucial to a full account of American art during the past six the decades.

Nicolas Carone: Imaginary Portraits continues at Loretta Howard Gallery (521 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 28.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet, art critic, and contributing editor of Art in America. His writings on art have been published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Guggenheim Museum; the Royal Academy,...