Contemporary Painting After a Century of Abstract Art
Part II. Intuition-based Abstraction
January 8 - March 12, 2010
Alfred DcCredico—Deconstructing Chaos
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the biggest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai "Ngáje Ngái," the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.1
Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Deconstructing Chaos, the second of three exhibitions in the Contemporary Painting After a Century of Abstract Art series, presents selected images from Alfred DeCredico’s lifelong body of work. The uncanny fact that Deconstructing Chaos is the last exhibition to be mounted in the artist’s lifetime is as unsettling as it is unexpected. Alfred DeCredico died on December 26, 2009, just days after seeing a video documentation of this installation. Little did we know Deconstructing Chaos would become a posthumous show. It is with an acute sadness and a sincere reverence we salute the profoundly inspired work of the artist.
Deconstructing Chaos is in part a show about a teacher’s teacher; and, it is an exhibition of a painter’s painter. With virtuoso draftsmanship that is matched by impeccable taste and an unusually eclectic range of inventive mark making, DeCredico’s work has inspired generations of students and artists because of the unique ways in which he marries content, imagery and process. DeCredico’s art is known for being rich with visual and cultural references; and, as a well-known collector of ethnographic artifacts, rugs and various antiquities, the artist often physically incorporates such materials into his work. Moreover, the artist’s work blurs the distinctions between painting and drawing. Traditionally, drawings are executed as preparatory sketches for paintings and much less for their own character. Deconstructing Chaos endeavors to examine a mere fraction of the body of work created between 1985 and 2008, during which time the artist worked to elevate drawings to the status of fine art objects as much as he worked to emancipate painting from the confines of predetermination by incorporating a spontaneous drawing ethic and blending that with reflective processes. A key example, Deconstructing Chaos is proud to exhibit one of DeCredico’s preeminent paintings, La Mensa: Abacus, which showcases such qualities. By setting free the traditional boundaries, that for many still separate drawings from paintings, DeCredico’s work hauntingly claims aspects of the creative process rarely achieved during the last century of art production.
Whereas Namesake, the first exhibition in our series, focused on observation-based abstraction and ways in which artists edit, reduce and stylize the visible world, this second look at our theme takes its cues from more internal, no less observant, intuition-based practices such as those associated with Action Painting, Abstract Expressionism and the conveyance of ideas and emotions through gestural mark making, in which artists often work without direct reference to subject matter. While DeCredico's densely constructed drawings, paintings, and three-dimensional works acknowledge the origins of Abstract Expressionism, they are not easily categorized. His work weaves Eastern and Western perspectival space and is complex with imagery often constructed through his signature use of non-traditional subtractive methods. DeCredico’s works are rich in unexpected combinations of haunting surrealistic elements, mysterious figuration, Pop brashness, poetic allusions, musical references, cryptic text and personal imagery, which clearly address contemporary human issues, amongst classical and mythic themes to name only a few. Though the artist’s work is abundant with nameable objects and subjects, the terms naturalism and realism do not make logical sense any more than the categories which Pollock and de Kooning carved out for themselves in the post World War II New York School. The works of Deconstructing Chaos show us how even when deporting the conventions of depicted spaces and semblances the resulting disembodied relationships abound with connections. Thus, there is no real art historical movement that can be called upon to accurately categorize DeCredico’s work. Perhaps DeCredico came closest when he described his work as “hypertexts.” Until a new category is defined, DeCredico’s works in general can be thought of as the expressions of a definitive spokesman for adventure in art making where trusting intuitive impulses connects to worldliness in surprising and important ways.
Every image ever made is abstract.2
Though DeCredico could depict objects in spaces with extraordinary ease and grace, his conviction to push beyond and truly see the world was for him a reliance on a radical rethinking of conventional wisdom. It is rare in today’s computer driven culture that a “Google” search comes back without any “hits.” Since the inception of the Internet, it seems most of what we humans have put into print appears either as a “scan” or as an eBook these days. DeCredico rightly believes that despite these advances, physical and visual texts cannot be replaced by them. At the time these very words were written, a search for the above quote by the artist “did not match any document’s”—a fitting tribute to the visionary power of DeCredico’s convictions. Is it possible no one has ever put that idea in print before now?
DeCredico’s work shares common characteristics with prominent Modern and Postmodern works of art, which often prompt a leap of the imagination. But for him, the reason for journeying to unknown territory was not fueled by a Postmodernism skepticism and was instead always one of compassion and optimism; a need to find a sense of self in the process of risking real ground. Moreover, what was discovered, DeCredico believed, had great implications for his audience and the greater community.
DeCredico’s career is punctuated by such jumps, from one body of work to another. Deconstructing Chaos was specifically inspired by a particularly significant leap, which occurred around the time of the earliest work in this exhibition. Just as his highly successful collages and assemblages of the 1980’s (e.g., Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) achieved greater societal appeal and commercial value, DeCredico left that behind to create the initial body of work which would inspire the most important transition of his career, and two of these predecessor drawings are exhibited here: Cannon and Critter. These works offer insight to the extraordinary outpouring of creativity that would follow.
Similar to the great Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston’s infamous transition into his mature work, and similar to any number of shifts between Picasso’s projects, DeCredico reinvented himself by championing the power of drawing for what would turn out to be the rest of his life’s work. This is not to say that drawing is not prominent in his work prior to 1985; on the contrary, drawing and his attitudes about this artistic staple infiltrates everything DeCredico ever made. The distinction here is that drawing took an unprecedented primary role the day he literally drew open Pandora’s box and allowed a little demon to candidly appear—Critter. By allowing his “demons” to take shape on paper, DeCredico found not only an honest way of “making sense of the world,” he found a place where all things are possible, and this actualization activated one of his most profound canons. If every image is abstract, then all things can commingle in the field of drawing and the creative act becomes about editing and plucking out the salient bits and finding meaningful connections between seemingly unrelated things. Acute skills of perception, along with a deep appreciation for intuitive leaps of imagination would be needed to create in such a chaotic world abundant with possibilities. Thus, drawing became the artist’s perfect laboratory. And importantly, this intuitive and informative approach to drawing completely redefines abstraction as not being connected to semblances at all, but to its truest of senses: referencing everything.
DeCredico relished the opportunity to keep his virtuosity in check by continuously altering his developing work. For him, no artwork was ever complete without an exerted effort to risk the image in the process of making it. Thus, over and over again, DeCredico covers or pulls away from what he makes. He layers and then often sands through the layers to unearth and paradoxically form his imagery—seemingly opposing processes collide and merge, but are nevertheless integral aspects of his process.
A basic understanding of adventure usually locates a body traversing through uncharted territory, but for DeCredico, drawing is the adventure of Deconstructing Chaos, and the potential of discovering connective ideas. That this occurs in open, non-linear, non-sequential and non-representational—in the conventional sense—visual spaces of his drawings and paintings only serves to establish a ground for others to enter this realm on their own; there is always the sense in DeCredico’s work of something to latch onto: land or air or water or space. It is important to realize however, that not all risks are fruitful and some are indeed perilous journeys into new territory. Such is the price for seeking higher altitudes and alternative vistas. Indeed, a risk taken easily results in the loss of a work of art, or the artist himself succumbs to exhaustion and casts his work to the wayside.
All artists have their nemesis and for DeCredico it was fear, for, as he titled it in one painting not exhibited here, The Prospect of an Obscure Life. This fear, far from being crippling did not stop the artist and he worked producing drawings and writings, as well as teaching despite his failing health, almost up to the last months of his life. Alfred DeCredico’s passing was peaceful and humble, but he left behind a formidable mountain of ever unfolding paintings, drawings, sculptures, mixed media works and writings that will speak volumes for decades to come, if not centuries, for those who venture to experience and study the work. Despite the many varied peaks of achievement, there is a discerning thread that connects all the work together as it challenges assumptions about the creative act, the boundaries of abstraction and the representation of the human condition.
Deconstructing Chaos offers just a glimpse of Alfred DeCredico’s work, and it is said, by those who knew him well, he was one of the great artists of the twentieth century. Atop his painting here on display, close to the western summit of La Mensa: Abacus, there is a flattened and affixed portion of a leopard skin. Viewers, critics and historians are wise to wonder why the artist sought to reference such a thing.
Todd Bartel, Curator
1. DeCredico frequently gave this quote to his students to ponder, which represented for him the importance of taking creative chances—even the risk of going too far and loosing the work at hand.
2. The first known time DeCredico uttered this battle cry for adventure and risk-taking in occurred in his two-dimensional design class at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1982. The phrase was spoken by the artist in mixed company, and his students and children utter the phrase on many an occasion. However, this may be the first time the quote appears in printed form.
— • — •— • —
— • — •— • —A Personal Introduction to Deconstructing Chaos
Looking past feelings of personal loss in the midst of installing this exhibition has been challenging. Everything changed just after the show was mounted a week and a half before Alfred’s passing. The present tense became the past and all of a sudden the show turned into a remembrance. Everything had to be seen from a new vantage point. There were no goodbyes.
Alfred was the important teacher during my years at RISD. We both started in 1981; I arrived the exact year he officially joined the ranks of faculty. Alfred was one of my oldest friends. I cannot possibly recount the gifts I have amassed from him; they continue to surround me. But perhaps there is some palpable measure of my passion for his work and his pedagogy present in the exhibition I mounted in his honor. I hope you can find it and I hope it is infectious. The work of Alfred DeCredico has always been for me the artist of choice to hold things up against. Deconstructing Chaos is a particular joy for me to share; Alfred gave me free reign to pull together “whatever” I wanted. His approval of the show came to me through his family; I wish I could have heard his voice tell me himself, hear his intonation and the critique that would no doubt have followed.
Alfred and I mused these many years about doing a show that would pair four generations of teachers’ work with their students’ work. We never did that project. Alfred taught thousands and of that group there are hundreds of individuals who actively promote his idealism and philosophy. The New York School had a handful of initial practitioners. There are at least as many of Alfred’s students who actively teach, create and live by his principles. It is fair then to now refer to this group as the DeCredico School, or perhaps the Hypertext School, or simply unfoldingobject as I have come to call it and us.
Alfred offered me my first teaching job at Harvard in 1986, during his three-year appointment there, by asking me to be his teaching assistant in a class with more than one hundred students. And, during my first semester teaching with him I was hired by Joan Gitlow, the then chair of CSW’s Art Department. Just a few short months later I fell in love with teaching right here on this campus.
While I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was a sophomore in high school, it was Alfred who set that in motion for me—earlier than I had imagined it would ever happen. I was young. I was broke. His assistance changed my life.
Unusual for its pedagogical lineage, Deconstructing Chaos is in part a show about a teacher’s teacher; and, it is an exhibition of a painter’s painter. And so from one teacher to another who continues to explore the legacies and interests experienced as a pupil within his present classroom, I now move ever forward. And for the first time, my students can now witness for themselves what has influenced generations.
It’s not a remembrance; it’s an invitation.
Todd Bartel, Curator