On January 26 I enjoyed workshopping a paper on the enigmatic and provocative Chicago painter Ivan Albright (1897-1983) as part of the Newberry Library’s seminar on American Art and Visual Culture. The seminar took place at the Art Institute of Chicago, so we were able to bring some Albrights out of storage to look at them in all their gruesome glory, including And Man Created God In His Own Image (1930/31). Here’s my abstract for the paper, titled “Flesh: Ivan Albright’s Weird, Ugly Realism”:
When avant-garde French painter Jean Dubuffet visited Chicago in 1951, there was one artist he wanted to meet: Ivan Albright. By 1951, Albright had established a reputation as one of American modernism’s most inscrutable and independent artists, a “master of the macabre” best known for his painstakingly executed paintings of morbid subjects: decaying bodies, rotting doors, and funereal still lifes. “There are few pictures as alarming as those of Albright,” said Dubuffet; Albright had abolished totally “what were our canons of beauty,” and swept away “all the criteria of order.” Dubuffet, a champion of art brut (raw art), recognized in Albright a kindred spirit, an antihumanist who employed Old Master techniques in order to undermine the most cherished beliefs and values of Western civilization. Drawing on archival research and unpublished source material (including Albright’s fifty notebooks housed at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries), I argue that Albright, who seemed to have few contemporaries as a painter, is more productively understood as an antihumanist philosopher investigating the “aesthetics of ugliness” and the flat ontologies of humans and objects. Albright’s paintings offer a disturbing parody of empiricism—his obsessively detailed transcription of the visible world (it could take him up to ten years to finish a painting) result in unmooring objects from their apparent stability and opening up fissures in the ground of reality. The “horror” of Albright’s paintings, I conclude, owes less to their ostensible ugliness or morbidity than to this profoundly unsettling sense that an unfathomable reality lurks beneath the phenomenal world.