Talking About Painting as an Expression of Gratitude
Merit or personal ambition are not necessarily related to the opportunities we are offered. So it was that the artist, Albert Alcalay, thrilled me me with an invitation to his remote summer studio in Massachusetts. My surname was familiar to him by way of both United Nations Ambassador Indyk and the painter’s childhood friend, Joska Indig. The very idea of kinship, relationship and connection also seemed to be at work in my response to Professor Alcalay’s paintings. The sensation that I had seen aspects of his landscapes in my own paintings stayed with me. Like the vast majority of visual artists, I think with my eyes and maybe find the words later.
Rudolph Arnheim, Ph.D., psychologist and author of many classics in the field of visual perception maintains that the brain participates but language begins with the eyes; the senses. And so it was that after leaving Alcalay’s studio, I recalled his intense water- based colors and felt compelled to pick up my own medium of choice. Away from my studio in NYC, oil and wax crayon are my favorite way to make marks on paper. This medium is direct and produces immediate results. That is what I wanted. I drew thorny black lines into highly saturated planes of color. While I worked it felt as if another person, or an unfamiliar part of myself, was guiding my hand. I suppose that’s how we learn; we sort of rub off on one another.
After looking with pleasure at what I had produced, I wondered if I had intuited in the hues and shapes of Alcalay’s watercolors, the residue of those years of his life that were shattered by the insanity of Nazism. At the age of twenty-four and a student of architecture, his life was changed forever. I asked myself how much and in what way did the trauma of the ten years he spent running and hiding from the death camps reflect in his work. I infer that Alcalay, through his unique creative process, channeled his passions, fears and hopes into a vast body of work. Perhaps, it is his conviction that, and I paraphrase:
… the most important thing to an image is a form and organization. Never mind the content… I don’t go anywhere without my pads (sketchbooks)… In my studio I put on Bach; he goes on forever… Ten days later I go back to the sketches … If one sticks, I enlarge it… I use the sketches to charge me. Inventiveness of the organization is the most important thing; not narrative … Chagall in making his own reality imposes on his viewers the possibility of a lamppost crossing the street… In my work I tend to the inventive parts … my tendency (goals) is sincerity and authenticity … I commented that his “Tisbury Tide” painted in colored inks had the viscosity, the melt and flow usually associated with encaustics (hot wax technique). By way of answering my question concerning how he conceived and executed such vibrant colors, he said and I paraphrase:
Color is like the circulation of my blood; it is my pulse…
His work is rooted in reality which has been wonderfully transformed by artistic invention. At his recent show at The Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, Mass., the artist at eighty-one years of age remarked that his paintings represent his way of honoring life.
A major retrospective of Alcalay’s work presented at The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard, some years ago, clearly articulates the connection between the man, the work, the life. Rudolph Arnheim, Ph.D., Psychology of Art, describes his friend and colleague’s dynamic understanding of these elements and how he orchestrated them into a cohesive visual statement such that the man, Alcalay, can look at his work and say: “Yes, these are my children; they are I.” This wonderfully simple summation of such a complex experience underlines for me what I cannot yet say in a few words: our perceptual response to the world cannot mature and develop without transcending the particular. Arnheim, I believe, correctly and astutely observes, that although the residue of memories of the unspeakable destruction that swept across Europe is not directly discernible in the artist’s paintings and drawings, it is there; even in its abscene it is there. For those with such memories, perhaps in observing his work, this is also true.
Art is often connected or used for its healing and generative power. Arnheim in his book, Visual Thinking, asserts that… “the arts are the most powerful means of strengthening the perceptual component without which productive thinking is impossible in any field of endeavor.” Alcalay says that he finds himself reflected in his work in much the same way that parents recognize themselves in their children.
His description of the Kandinsky work which he had seen during the fifties in Rome is indelibly imprinted in my mind,.. “It fit my Anxieties!” The direct communication of energy, movement, light, color and a great musicality emanate from Alcalay’s work. Looking at an Alcalay, I see his uniqueness and am glad. With a wonderful smile and unmistakable generosity and warmth he seemed to confide in me that,
I have so many paintings because I am alive. I paint as a way of expressing gratitude.
Art League of Long Island News, Winter 2000