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William Congdon in Cambridge

Cambridge is a very special place for American modernists. Do you remember I wrote about Richard Pousette-Dart and his friendship with the creator of Kettle’s Yard? This February the focus turns on another American artist William Congdon, the friend of the former two, as West Court Gallery, Jesus College shows the exhibition William Congdon: American Modernist Abroad. Some of the key points of Congdon’s life are listed below.

Painting like William Congdon. My spatula, pallete knife and large brush are prepared for action.

- He had a difficult relationship with his father.

William Grosvenor Congdon was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on 15 April 1912, on the night the Titanic sunk. This is the first sentence from the American abstractionist’s biography written in his foundation website. When the beginning is dark like that, you simply can’t except much of the positivity later. His parents belonged to illustrious families of protestant industrialists. High paternal aspirations, rooted in the business mentality and Protestant Puritanism, and expectations for his son pushed William away making him feel unappreciated. To escape from difficulties with his father, he immersed himself into art.

- After getting a degree in literature, he took art classes.

He began to paint while studying English and Spanish literature at Yale University. In 1934 Congdon attended a three-year painting course led by Henry Hensche. Then, he joined drawing and sculpture classes under the supervision of the sculptor George Demetrios, in Boston and Gloucester for the consecutive three years.

- He was one of the few American artists of his generation, if not the only one, to have first-hand experience of a European tragedy.

In 1942 Congdon enrolled to a voluntary health service organized during the Second World War. He as an ambulance driver served on various missions including the ones in Egypt, Italy, Germany. During the war, Congdon made drawings of the people and places he encountered and recorded his experiences in a diary and in letters to his parents.

- He was represented by Betty Parsons, the gallery owner and art dealer who helped establish Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, and other famous abstract expressionists.

After the war, he returned to America, New York to create a new life for himself. There Congdon discovered his own idiom and, at the same time, his subject matter: from the human face—observations and reminiscence of corpses in the war field—he moved to the facades of the Bowery, area where he lived, slums and then to the disfigured face of the City, disturbing urban landscapes.

Through his frame-maker, Congdon befriended Betty Parson, who was one of leading figures to promote the New York School. At that time, the action painting dominated the New York art scene: a new generation of artists, including Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Richard Pousette-Dart, with their large canvases, subconscious paintings were questioning rules of art.

Congdon’s friendship with Betty Parson led to their twenty-years collaboration starting with the first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949.

- Peggy Guggenheim became a collector of his paintings.

Congdon moved to live in Venice, and there he met Peggy Guggenheim, another active supporter of contemporary arts, an American art collector. She praised Congdon’s work declaring it as good as the old masters. Especially, she admired saying that walking in City after seeing Congdon’s works is completely new experience.

- He changed his religion.

After Congdon left Venice, his wanderings took him to Assisi, another town in Italy, where he met Don Giovanni Rossi, founder of Pro Civitate Christiana, a missionary association that attracted many artists from various countries. Few years past, while in 1959, Congdon surrendered to the Catholic Church and was baptized in the Basilica of Assisi.

- He reached the recognition and fame around 1950s, then faced critical oblivion in 1960s and regained interest in early 1980s.

Congdon’s urban landscapes, full of dark colours, vividly and powerfully responding to topography, were widely acclaimed. However, within his existential conversion, he mainly painted religious subjects, and specifically the representation of the crucifix. His decision to paint liturgical subjects brought a dramatic end to his career. The cultural circles that had previously celebrated him began to accuse him of having ‘betrayed’ art, giving himself over to the Church. Nevertheless,a retrospective exhibition of his work in Ferrara, revived public interest in Congdon’s career. His re-appearance was further helped by the creation, in 1980, of a Foundation designed to promote knowledge and study of the artist’s work.

- He was a compulsive traveller.

His family was wealthy; thus, he was introduced to travels in his early years. Since then he tended to travel a lot around Europe (some of the important trips included Venice, the Aeolian islands, Spain, Greece,and farther to North West Africa, Ethiopia, the Near and Middle East (from Turkey to the Yemen, India) and South America.

Travel was a way of extending his visual experience, of nourishing his art. Living in a city for too long, it felt like the city close itself from the artist, and he need to travel to see it again.

- He brought sculpture traditions to painting.

Trained as a sculptor, Congdon tended to work like the one on impasto paintings. Through scratched paints one can see a black board, which was the key component to his paintings, and sense the active process of creating the work, involving spontaneous scratching, inscribing, layering of oil paints using masonry tools, palette knives, awls and spatulas, as well as large brushes. As a result, the layers and texture of oil paints give a three-dimensional look to the urban landscapes. In some cases, he would blow gold or silver powder on to the wet paint. Towards the end of his life, he became less aggressive, used pure, monochrome colours.

- Kettle's Yard holds the most significant group of Congdon's work in any UK collection.

Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard, met Congdon in New York and he accompanied the artist on his return to Italy in 1950. Since then, Congdon was a close friend of Jim Ede, to whom he sold and gave both paintings and sketches, sent letters with various personal concerns and details from his trips. 14 artworks by Congdon are in the Kettle’s Yard possession, and the majority of them are displayed in the House.

The exhibition at West Court Gallery offers a chance to see works covering the entire Congdon’s career, uniting the abstraction of post-war modernism with landscape and city views.

See more:

- William Congdon's foundation website

- Video about the artist

- Collection at the Kettle's Yard

william congdon: american modernist abroad

Jesus College, West Court Gallery


19 Jan 2019 - 3 Mar 2019

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