I’m not quite sure how I became aware of the work of Ivan Albright. I may have seen an article about him in a back issue of Art in America, I could have discovered him through Katherine Kuh’s The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern Artists,1 or it’s possible the monograph by Michael Croydon caught my eye at the library and I picked it up.2 In any case, it was the large format, vivid reproductions and abundance of details of the paintings in the latter book which compelled me, starting in the late 1980s, to check it out two or three times a year until the mid-’90s, when I was finally able to purchase a copy.
Albright had artistic forebears in Expressionism – although his figures’ forms are much different than those of Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Max Oppenheimer, they exhibit a similar physical and psychic vulnerability. Albright, however, achieved these results through radically different means than those artists, as well as from anyone else. His meticulous technique, with which he often completed less than one and a half square inches of work per day, produced dense compositions of aged flesh, decrepit environments, and claustrophobic atmospheres. Albright’s work creates a feeling of passing time and revolving space – the surfaces crawl and undulate, and the objects float, rotate, and fall. The figures have preternaturally old, microscopically detailed skin under which one can feel every sensitive nerve. These aspects imbue the work with mystery, and, while disorienting, ultimately foster compassion for the subject.
There have been at least two Albright museum shows since I’ve been familiar with his work – the eponymous 1997 general survey, a major exhibition for which there is a lavish catalogue;3 and the more focused and tantalizingly-titled Flesh in 2018. Both were organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, which has the largest collection of Albright works in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about either until after each show closed.4
During the late ’90s, a good friend of mine was in the Bachelor’s program in studio art at UC Davis. One of her fellow students was living with or married to a young man who happened to be Ivan Albright’s grandson. My friend, knowing what a fan I was of Albright’s work, was thoughtful enough to wrangle an invitation to their home for me, and the four of us spent a lovely evening together. They prepared a nice meal, we talked about art, we listened to the Abba Gold compilation. After dinner, I was shown a portfolio of Albright’s lithographs and a bronze portrait sculpture.5 I believe all the prints I saw were based on images he’d previously used for paintings. Since Albright’s singular vision draws its strength not only from his imagery and technique, but also his use of saturated color, the black and white lithographs lack the idiosyncratic power of the canvases. However, his draftsmanship is impressive, and even in monochrome, his subject matter continues to be striking. My favorite of the pieces I was shown, a 1947 self-portrait, was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the most heavily detailed and varied in texture; in it, Albright sits in a painstakingly carved wooden chair before a lace-covered table set with a still life. Of the prints I saw, it came closest to capturing the oppressive feel of the paintings.
I subsequently did not spend any more time with the couple, but am still, all these years later, grateful for the hospitality they showed me. My friend has moved several times since then, to several different cities. I haven’t seen her for quite a few years now, although we do exchange the occasional letter, card, or email. That evening remains the single time I’ve seen actual work by Ivan Albright, who passed away in 1983 at age eighty-six, before I had ever heard of him.
1 Harper & Row (1962).
2 Although Ivan Albright; Abbeville Press (1978) is eye-catching – it measures 15 1/2” x 12” x 1 1/2”, it isn’t so easy to pick up – it weighs in at over 7 pounds, 2 ounces.
3 Ivan Albright; AIC/Hudson Hills Press (1997).
4 I’m often on the frontage road of the information superhighway.
5 I also saw a painting which I recognized as being the work of Ivan’s father, Adam Emory Albright.