Australian-born in 1954, Lawrence Carroll grew up and went to school near Los Angeles, studying illustration. Then in 1984 he moved with his young family to New York. He had decided that he wanted to be a painter, and so in the early 1980s he spent lots of time in the galleries and museums.
That was a moment was it was still possible for an impecunious artist to have a Manhattan studio. And so, after taking care of his two young daughters during the day, Carroll painted. In 1988 he had his first solo exhibition in New York, and four years later was invited to participate in Documenta.
Quickly he found an ideal patron, Count Panza, who collected his art in surprising depth. Panza’s Memories of a Collector (2007) gives a vivid account of this encounter. How did Carroll find himself so quickly? That, to me, remains a mystery. He looked around, but what then happened? I never met anyone more optimistic about art or his place in its history. At any rate, soon he moved to Italy.
After I met Carroll in New York, I was fascinated enough to make the long trips to his studio in Venice, where he then had a teaching job; to Bologna, for his 2014 exhibition at the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, which I reviewed; and to his exhibition at the Museo Vincenzo Vela in Ligornetto (2017), where I wrote one catalogue essay.
We went together to see his permanent installation in Varese at the Villa e Collezione Panza, where Swiss television made a film about him. And I went to his show in Germany in 2018 at the Kunstmuseum Kloster in Magdeburg. Carroll had these major shows in somewhat out of the way locations, at sympathetic collections that allowed him the freedom to ponder his installations at necessary leisure.
Most artists are concerned with attentively hanging their exhibitions. And, of course, installation artists create site-specific works. What, still, was unusual about Carroll was his extreme impulse to fine-tune displays of his paintings. So far as I could see, it was hard to tell what works he had done recently, and what were the older paintings, a tendency, which, no doubt, was influenced by his reworking of earlier works over long periods of time. If he didn’t need to develop, that was because from the very start he was highly accomplished. And, this is worth adding, he thought of himself always as a painter, not a sculptor, though many of his works extend out from the wall.
Carroll was certainly interested in much contemporary; old master art as well. We once spent an instructive day driving around the very old old master sites of Etruscan art. And in Bologna his exhibition was in a gallery alongside a collection of Giorgio Morandi’s work.
But Carroll’s own work was very different from any precedents. If the Arte Povera sculptors had made paintings, maybe (I once joked) they would have done art somewhat like his. But, he immediately added, his own style was formed well before he knew much about this postwar Italian movement.
At this moment, when Americans are joined by artists from China and Europe as they come to New York to make a reputation, it’s instructive to note how much Carroll gained by focusing instead on exhibitions in places where he had more freedom to orchestrate the display. It’s hard to think of three more different European sites than Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, the Museo Vincenzo Vela, or the Kunstmuseum Kloster, the three settings he responded to.
Once a contemporary artist becomes well known, almost inevitably a large literature springs up, which a critic needs to deal with before attempting to say anything original. Because Carroll exhibited widely in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, but not (for many years) in New York, there is not, despite, his numerous exhibition catalogues, massive commentary on his art. And this meant that, if I wanted to write about him, I had to make my own way.
But not without his help. I talked with Lawrence and his wife Lucy Jones Carroll in Berlin, in Venice, and at their home in Lake Bolsena, a couple of hours north of Rome; we also talked when they visited my wife Marianne Novy and me in Pittsburgh. They answered all of my no doubt too many questions. And so I told the story of his artistic career in a book, Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (2018).
I won’t try to replicate, however briefly, the discussion underlying that book, which after many revisions met with their approval; instead, I would like to offer some notes of especial interest at this moment.
In the 1980s, I met a great many younger abstract painters struggling to define themselves. But I didn’t know Carroll at that point. All the artists I came to know well — David Reed, Sean Scully, and the late Thomas Nozkowski were the most prominent — had to wrestle with the often-beleaguered situation of painting, and most especially abstract painting in New York. Carroll didn’t, both because he moved to Europe and because that was not his style. A completely intuitive artist, he knew his art history. But he didn’t have or need any verbalized theory of his art.
In April I had dinner with Lawrence and Lucy in Manhattan, and then the next day we three went to the great Willem de Kooning show at Mnuchin. De Kooning was one of Carroll’s favorite artists, and so we talked passionately about these works. Then we hugged each other on 78th Street, and the Carrolls went on to Europe, where he hung his show of photographs at the Fondazione Rolla, in Bruzella, Switzerland, and his exhibition of paintings at Köln, at Karsten Greve, which was scheduled to open on May 24. On May 21, Carroll had a fatal heart attack. The next day, May 22, I received the catalogue of his Swiss show of photographs.
It’s been decades since I’ve met any artist who mattered so much to me, as a painter and as a friend. When, in recent years, I went to shows in Manhattan or Europe, I would often email Carroll images of challenging artworks. We then had marvelous dialogues, which I thought would go on and on. But I cannot end on this note. Rather, I want to remember Carroll at Lake Bolsena, where he loved swimming. He was an early riser, and so we, Marianne and I, would meet him and Lucy at the café, where he had two Herald Tribunes ready. We had coffee and a pastry, a perfect Italian breakfast. And I recall, also, the evenings when we sat in the wine bar above the town and looked at the sunset light on the marvelous old wall before heading out together for dinner.