CHICAGO — Flesh, an art critic friend told me over a splendid bowl of pho on a recent visit to New York, “is the best show in town.” My informant, who knew what he was talking about, wasn’t referring to the bodies of New Yorkers, revealed by their abbreviated summer clothing, but to the Chaim Soutine exhibition at the Jewish Museum. When I returned to Chicago, I was also told that the best show in town was called Flesh, only this time it was a group of paintings by Ivan Albright on display at the Art Institute.
The Soutine and the Albright Flesh shows may be the most compelling art events of the season in their cities. It’s easy to understand why both museums chose the same title: Soutine’s animal carcasses are resolutely images of flesh, even of meat, while Albright’s portraits give us the human body at its most grotesque — lumpy and gawky and pink, mottled with grey. Neither painter seeks to woo the viewer with conventional beauty; a casual observer may at first feel compelled to look away. Many viewers at the Art Institute took a quick, disconcerted look at the Albright show and withdrew. But the longer one spends in the presence of a Soutine or an Albright work, the more one sees that these men were not merely painters of butchered or damaged flesh. Rather, each was, quite profoundly, a painter of the soul.
Soutine’s real subject, the artist Jack Tworkov once wrote, was never really flesh, but “the inward drama of the soul.” It’s not a matter of religious iconography, of course: Soutine invokes the spirit in his facture, in his intense color palette, and in his heavily worked surfaces, which vibrate with a kind of inner energy. There is something of Van Gogh to his work — of sunflowers rendered with such fierce excess that they express with an uncanny vitality, or of fields moved by a wind that seems to suggest an inner motion, less physical than sacred, indicating an unseen powers pushing into the world. Like Van Gogh, Soutine paints the farthest thing from a transcendent spirituality. He paints the bodies of once-living things in a way that invokes the most primal of actions — killing, bleeding, eating, dying. It is the nakedness, the exposure, the vulnerability of the flesh that makes it sacred, that manifests the fragile, sacred spark of life. The soul, for Soutine, is immanent, ever coming into the world and ever departing it.
In contrast, Ivan Albright represents a deeply transcendent, even Platonic, idea of the soul, although one could be forgiven for missing it among the mercilessly unglamorous bodies of his figures — especially as the curators direct our attention elsewhere, by titling the show Flesh and prominently displaying a quote from Albright’s notebooks on the gallery wall: “Make flesh more like flesh than has ever been made before, make flesh close, close, and closer, until you feel it.”
Albright arrived at his obsession with ugliness through a series of rejections. The first of these was a turning-away from the aesthetic of his father, the minor, late impressionist Adam Emory Albright, whose favorite subjects were children, and whose palette tended toward pastels. An unkind critic would describe the elder Albright’s work as Eakins made pretty — too pretty to hold much interest, other than as décor for the front parlor of a prosperous Chicago merchant who’d once been to Paris to see the Renoirs. As a boy, Ivan Albright modeled for some of his father’s paintings featuring young lads in straw hats gazing into the shimmering water or clutching sheaves of wheat. He clearly resented it, dismissing the work as “pretty-pretty.”
Yet rejecting his father’s aesthetic did not lead him to embrace the alternative artistic paradigms in the 1920s and 1930s: when he paints workers, for example, there is nothing of the burly nobility of Socialist Realism. His 1927 painting “The Lineman” depicts a worker more slouched and tired than grotesque, but when it was printed on the cover of the trade magazine Electric Light & Power, it provoked an angry backlash from readers who, regardless of their politics, would clearly have preferred the healthy, clear-eyed proletarians painted under the direction of the Soviet cultural commissars.
In the years after “The Lineman” Albright developed his characteristic treatment of the body: the paintings “Flesh” (1928) and “And Man Created God in His Own Image” (1930-31) are rife with discolored, lumpy flesh, the texture of which — grey, whorled and ropey — almost approaches that of a cloudscape or whirling, dirty water. (Unfinished paintings included in the show, such as “Three Love Birds” (1940-41) and “The Vermonter” (1965-66) reveal the painstaking charcoal under-drawing with which Albright created this remarkable effect.) Often, this heavy flesh is set against astonishingly rough and rumpled clothing, lit by the cold light of a bare bulb seen in the background. A case could be made that this is a very Chicago aesthetic, a product of the city that gave us Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Studs Terkel’s Working (1974), or the photorealistic grit of Richard Estes. But at this point it’s still hard to see what makes it a spiritual aesthetic; even the titles point in the opposite direction.
All this changes with “I Walk To and Fro through Civilization and I Talk as I Walk (Follow Me, the Monk)” (1926-27). In this image of a cowled monk, lit from behind with an auratic glow and seeming to hover ever-so-slightly above the ground, I can feel the influence of El Greco and Zurbarán. A small plant on a windowsill looks none too healthy, and the monk’s face, gaze downcast, shows the inevitable corruption of the flesh by time, but the implication is clear: there is another, better world to which our souls yearn to return. Far in the background and obscured by shadows, a staircase spirals upward, pointing the direction from which we have fallen and to which we should aspire.
The transcendent world of the spirit is less overt in Albright’s greatest paintings, but it is most certainly there. It is indicated, for example, by the title of “Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida” (1929-30), an image of a woman seated at her vanity, a powder puff clutched to her breast and a small mirror in her hand. The lumpy, grayish brown flesh of her legs dominates the pictorial space. As she contemplates her face in the glass, her frown suggests despair at her faded beauty, at the way of all flesh. Among the objects cluttering the top of a nearby cabinet is a still-smoldering cigarette butt, laid on the edge of the surface and emitting a curl of smoke: an emblem for the waning fire of her life. The image is a close cousin to the woman in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Preludes” (1910-11), who sits on the edge of her bed, curled papers in her hair, clasping “the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands.” Like Eliot’s poem, Albright’s image implies that we are lost souls that, trapped in the flesh of dying animals, have forgotten what we are, and where we belong. This world is irrevocably fallen, a place of death and decay, and we have lost our connection with a better one.
The theme is repeated in Albright’s “Self-Portrait” of 1933, in which the painter appears as a kind of seedy would-be bon vivant, with a sickly-green signet ring on his figure, a cocktail glass in his hand, and a decanter and cigarette pack resting on the rumpled white tablecloth in front of him. The wrinkled, distressed flesh speaks clearly about the falseness of earthly pleasures; the lost expression in the eyes sits uneasily with the sad nonchalance of the pose. We have traded heaven, Albright seems to say, for a sordid gaudiness that is nothing but a handful of dust.
While “Ida” is, to my eye, the show’s most important painting, another, “Picture of Dorian Gray” (1943-44), is given pride of place. One can understand why: it is the largest, and the lurid greens, yellows, reds, and blues that accent Albright’s usual grays and browns make it stand out, as does the ornate wooden frame the artist made for it. The subject, with its themes of a misplaced love of flesh, is a natural for the artist, and the painting, made for an Oscar-winning 1945 adaptation of Wilde’s novel, is far more detailed and elaborate than it needed to be for the black and white film, which couldn’t show the striking colors he used to highlight Dorian’s physical and spiritual decay. This obsessive detailing was typical of his slow process; he worked on some paintings for so long that the models no longer matched the image he’d set out to paint.
Albright’s obsessiveness contributed to his relative obscurity as a painter: he was reluctant to let any painting go, and priced them far above the market in order to deter buyers (he married into the Medill Paterson newspaper fortune, which rested on the ownership of such papers as The Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News). Soutine, one might say, was made famous by Paris — while he was not a self-promoter, he was at ground zero of his generation of modern art, the locus where artists, critics, and patrons gathered. Albright, four years Soutine’s junior, worked at a time when even New York was still an artistic backwater; Chicago, his home for his entire professional life, was a true hinterland. Why is Soutine the more celebrated painter? Both are modern masters of color and surface. The difference, I think, isn’t just that Soutine’s immanence, his spirit in the flesh, holds more appeal for us than Albright’s neo-Platonic — or even gnostic — message that our true home is a distant spiritual otherworld. It is that Soutine made the difficult journey to the artistic capital of his day, while Albright refused to reach out beyond his provincial place of origin. It was certainly worth my while to make the journey to New York to see Soutine; it is equally worthwhile to make the journey, long or short, to Chicago to see Ivan Albright’s very different meditations on the body and the soul.
Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute of Chicago continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through August 5.