R. Callner
  Artist and Mythmaker  

by Tammis K. Groft

To spend an afternoon, a day, or a lifetime with Richard Callner is to savor his intellect, his passion for art, and his wonderful sense of self and humor. Callner's journey through life has taken from from the gritty streets of Chicago, to the sunny hillsides of southern France, the interiors of Japanese temples, the fields of Yugoslavia, the olive groves of Spain, and the mountains and waterways of New York's Hudson Valley. Callner's visual world features a pletora of monsters, mythological figures, magical interior rooms with changing perspectives, sensuous still lifes, mysterious portraits, vivid landscapes – both real and fanciful – and, more recently, after a lifetime of study, masterful abstractions of ideas. While the narrative quality of his artwork is always present, more often than not it is shrounded in luxurious colors woven together with intricate lines and patterns.

A 50-year retrospective is a momentous achievement for any artist. The Albany Institute of History & Art is very proud to present this exhibition highlighting the life and work of Richard Callner, an artist and mythmaker. The exhibition includes 54 major works from 1957 to the present, with over half the works dating from the past 10 years. Callner's mature work begins with a series of dark monster figures, which emerged from his experiences during the Depression. With the discovery of the Goddess "Lilith" in the early 1960s Callner embarked on a 10-year journey into the mythological world. By the early 1980s, the mythological figures receded as Callner turned his attention to creating interior and exterior views, still lifes, landscapes, and abstractions using his mastery of color, line, and pattern. Also included in the exhibition, but not in the catalogue, is a selection of over 50 prints, drawings, and color studies that provide insight into his artistic ideas and working methods.

In 1988 a 30-year retrospective exhibition, curated by Marijo Dougherty, was held at the University Art Museum at the State University of New York at Albany. This exhibition established Callner as the preeminent painter in the region according to Albany critic Timothy Cahill. In that same year, clearly a high point in his artistic career, Callner was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. When queried in 1996 by Times Union reporter Frances Ingraham about whether he ever felt sorry for himself, his reply was characteristically short and to the point. "Feeling sorry for myself would be a waste of time, when I could be painting." Although the disease has undoubtedly affected his life, it has not interfered with his passion for painting and life. In a New York Times review of his 2001 exhibition at the Monique Goldstrom Gallery in New York City, art critic Grace Glueck writes "Freedom reigns. At 75, his possibilities seem wide open."

Callner was born on May 18, 1927. Both sets of his grandparents immigrated to the United States from the same small village in Lithuania and settled in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century. When Callner was four years old his parents moved to Chicago, where he spent his early childhood during the Depression living in a working class neighborhood with his brother, Jerry, who became a filmmaker. Big for his age and shy as a child, Callner avoided the street gangs in his neighborhood, and preferred to stay inside and draw. Callner attributes his early visits to the Field Museum of Natural History as having a strong influence on his early monster paintings. Another favorite museum was the Art Institute of Chicago, where Callner later took drawing classes.

At age 17, Callner dropped out of school and joined the Navy during World War II. His strongest memory from this period is sitting on a ship in the middle of the ocean observing the formation of clouds, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and most of all the changing weather, an experience that provided ideas for later landscape paintings. After leaving the Navy in 1946, his first formal study of art began in 1946-48 through the G.I. Bill at the University of Wisconsin, Madison under the direction and guidance of printmaker Warrington Colescott, who remains a close friend. Callner, who was making abstract sculpture at the time, also studied painting, printmaking, drawing, ceramics and jewelry-making.

From Wisconsin Callner moved to Paris and he studied art at the Academic Julian, also through the G.I. Bill. Callner returned to Wisconsin for a year before moving to New York City to study at the Art Student's League. In 1952 he was awarded a M.F.A. degree from Columbia University. A John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Callner to travel in England and France from 1959-1960 with his family including his wife Carolyn, and two young children. (Today, Carolyn, is Deputy Commissioner of Public Health in Schenectady. Son David, a writer, translator, and English teacher, lives in a rural village in Japan with his wife and two children. Daughter Joanna is an attorney living in Olympia, Washington.) Although he received a rigorous and formal art education, his life and work have been greatly influenced by his family and cadre of friends including Raymond Benson and David Castillejo along with a whole host of poets, intellectuals, musicians, and artists Ted Halkin of Chicago and Byron Browne of New York. Other opportunities included a Fulbright professorship in Yugoslavia and residencies in Finland, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia. In 1952 Callner began his long and distinguished teaching career at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana where he remained until 1959. He taught at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan from 1960-1964. In 1964-1965 Callner taught at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. A year later he moved to Italy for five years and served as the founding director of the Tyler School of Art in Rome. In 1975 Callner came to Albany to head the art department for the State University of New York at Albany, a position he held until 1981. Callner played a pivotal role in the establishment of the university's M.F.A. program in 1977. Callner continued to teach graduate level courses until he retired in 1991.

After retirement, Callner built a spacious, light-filled studio and devoted his energies to creating art full time. His studio space, 30 feet long by 20 feet wide and 16 feet high, is connected to his home. For about 10 years the only light in the studio came from eight 4-foot by 8-foot clerestory windows, high pitched to take advantage of the northern light, and two sets of French-style glass doors over-looking Shaker Creek. Later, Callner added some additional track lighting for dark days and night work. Upon entering his studio one is immediately transported to Callner's world. Drawings and color sketches are pinned on the stark white walls in an orderly fashion, palettes rest on shelves, and there are at least three paintings standing on easels in various stages of completion. But the most striking display is the 200 or so paint brushes standing upright like flower stems with soft petals in specially designed wood block holders made by close friend and sculptor Hugh Townley.

Callner has an impressive roster of one person and group exhibitions in this country and around the world to his credit. In fact, friends muse that Callner is better known abroad than in the United States. His works are in many prestigious private and public collections including the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; Museum of Painting and Sculpture, Istanbul; the Gallery of Modern Art, Pristina, Yugoslavia; the Albany Institute of History & Art, the Art Institute of Chicago; The Detroit Institute of Arts; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the New York Public Library; Yale University Art Gallery; Cincinnati Art Museum; Worcester Art Museum; and the University Art Museum, State University of New York at Albany.

Although Callner began his career as an abstractionist, the earliest mature work included in this retrospective exhibition dates from 1957-1963. His paintings from this period are often described as being on the "edge of the Chicago Monster School" in part because of the imagery of grotesque men, women, and animals. The Chicago Monster School traces its roots to artists such as Leon Golub and Ted Halkin who were working in Chicago in the early 1950s. Like Callner, these artists often cite the collections of ethnographic artifacts in the Field Museum of Natural History as having a strong influence on their art along with classic European Surrealism. Yet Callner's work, with its distinctive palette of muted browns, greens, and gold and richly textured surfaces, is not derived from the same set of regional sensibilities. Instead Callner's subject matter and painting style are drawn from within and derived from his personal life experiences and ideas.

Callner often refers to these early works as his "Dark Paintings." He describes the figures as "fat adults with weak hands and feet, showing a power that was somehow incomplete." In Meal (1957), Callner characterizes the people as being brutish and unable to sustain strong relationships. They are all ominous figures, nonetheless. They were significant paintings for Callner because the images were "a form of absolute truth. They told me I could execute an idea and that the image belonged only to me." In retrospect, Callner now says that these paintings are related to his feelings about the horrors of war, post-war depression, and frustration with people in power.

Early titles for some of these paintings provide direct narrative links to the Bible. For example, Fat Man (1957) was once entitled Adam, while Seated Woman (1957) was first called Eve; and Meal (1957) was formerly known as The Last Supper. According to Callner, "the changes in titles years later does not reflect a change of heart, but are simply more descriptive, the fat man is still Adam."

For Callner these grotesque figures also reveal the greedy side of human nature, a theme Callner expands on in Tysons Auction (1963). "At Olivet, the banker Tyson was dying upstairs in his home while they were auctioning his possessions on the ground floor. I found this horrendous, and did an etching and a painting showing the auctioneer as a monster and the purchasers as demons." The central image in the painting is a large open mouth with a menacing toothy grin. It is not clear whether it is a man or woman. Above the mouth are two bright eyes surrounded by a poignant tapestry of collage images related to Mr. Tyson's life. A picture of a clock symbolizes that time has run out. Images of a shoe, a fork, and a sewing machine speak to aspects of every day life. A print of a woman with curls along with a photograph of a dresser top filled with framed family photographs show evidence of a life filled with memories.

Callner almost always begins a painting by making a series of preliminary drawings and watercolor sketches before creating a larger preliminary sketch and — if it works - a final painting. This method of working remained fairly constant throughout his career as evidenced by the thousands of drawings he keeps in his studio. To create the richly textured surfaces of the early paintings Callner began with a sheet of untempered masonite and painted at least six layers of underpainting white and sanded the surfaces in between. Callner added fine sand or marble dust to give more body to his paint. The textures and dark, rich colors were created by adding a series of glazes to the surface of the painting.

After 10 years of creating dark, somber paintings filled with anger and rage, Callner embraced a new mythological figure he called Lilith, which gave birth to a body of imagery that focused on freedom, humor, and independence and an entirely new color palette. Callner concludes that the new palette was a direct result of his stay in France during his Guggenheim Fellowship. "The light in southern France shattered my vision of color, which until then had been dark and gray and it took me some time to embrace my new vision of color." Also important to the new direction of his imagery and palette was his stay in England where he spent time studying the repetitive patterns, and decorative qualities of illuminated medieval manuscripts. "With the Lilith paintings, Callner's style shifted to one of refinement and elegance of form. He began to include highly detailed surfaces, clearly outlined shapes, and brighter colors, features that are still characteristic of his work today," writes art historian Roberta Bernstein.

According to Callner, the Lilith image began appearing in his work before he realized who the mythological creature was. "Lilith was an amazing creature: beautiful, intelligent, strong, and open to change and adventure." For Callner she was feminine, independent, and irreverent. She also had the ability to invoke and control evil and was a master of transformation. Of Lilith Callner writes: "She was the angel that brought Adam to paradise, was Adam's first wife, Satan's wife, a medieval destroyer of children, and is said to have created an alternative line of children in opposition to the begotten of Adam and Eve". In the Hebrew myth, (there are many variations) Lilith was created from the same dust as Adam and she demanded to be treated equally. After Lilith left the Garden of Eden, God created Eve who was subservient to Adam. It is important to note that Callner's Lilith is not the Lilith of the Jewish tradition or the Lilith of the feminist movement, but instead Callner, as mythmaker, created his own version of the story of the goddess Lilith for his paintings and combined her with other mythological figures.

In the painting, Lilith as Artemis of Ephesus Creating the Garden of Eden (1966), Lilith appears as her sister Artemis, and is depicted with multiple breasts and wings. A small egg tempera painting on a medieval music score in the music library of the Cathedral of Siena inspired this image of Lilith. Here she is portrayed as sitting on the moon and giving birth to a tree bearing fruit. Adam, depicted here as a bird, is attracted to them both. Callner considers this to be "one of the most passionate paintings I have done." It is an important picture because it represents a "technical break away from heavy impasto oil to thin direct painting with some glazes. From this point on my paintings were executed with very thin glazes of semi-opaque and translucent glazes of color over a thinly prepared ground of lead white. When dry they present a rich luminous surface that is technically very safe." This complexity will become more and more prominent over the years. In Lilith Metamorphosis (1973) or Lilith Leaving Eden, Lilith, though still in the Garden of Eden, is getting ready to leave as she grows wings laden with jewels.

According to the myth, she is also becoming more beautiful and sensual as she prepares to leave and marry Satan. In this painting Lilith is surrounded by screaming birds, which represent angels, telling her not to go. In Marriage of Lilith (1973), Lilith has grown a full set of bejeweled wings with multiple strings of pearls, and is shown marrying the devil. The devil's head is shown in profile on either side of Lilith's head and her outer wings appear to take the form of the devil's hands. Here Lilith stands on a globe representing the earth and the devil's legs appear on either side of a shield-like circle, which protects the devil standing on the moon. In Three Birds Searching for Lilith (1980) Lilith has transformed herself into the interior architecture and the birds sent by God to find her cannot see her.

In a polyptych, called, Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, and Two Limbos (1967), the top main panel includes a double figure suspended below a bird with two heads. On either side are pairs of flying figures draped over two bulls, representations of Europa, standing on blue striped clouds. The middle panel features the soul of Lilith in the center with Lilith as Argos having multiple eyes on the left and Lilith as provocateur in blue on the right. The bottom panel shows Lilith battling Adam. One limbo scene shows suburbia the other shows food. According to Callner, these can be hung in any order. The one at the bottom will always be Hell, the one at the top - Heaven, and purgatory and the two limbos in between. Parade to Heaven or Hell: Depending on Which Way You Are Going (1973), includes the people and creatures of the world such as birds, demons and centaurs, some carry banners and flags while others ride bulls or scooters, all moving counter-clockwise. Perhaps Callner's favorite figure is the art historian who carries a flag in the center, because she is propelled by a stream of yellow gas. The center of the painting is Hell, and the lower half is Lilith's garden where Lilith's face is hidden in the lower left.

During the 1980s Callner's subject matter shifted to include landscapes, interior and exterior views, still lifes, and portraits. These striking new works featured strong colors and extravagant lines and patterns, which created penetrating, and often-distorted perspectives. Until this time, Callner's preferred medium was oil on canvas, but with these new pictures he enthusiastically embraced new materials including a unique overlay of watercolor and gouache on paper which helped him to achieve stunning color combinations that appear to vibrate across the surface of the paintings. Although Callner has a traditional approach to using watercolors, quality paper, brushes, and colors, he also advises one to "break as many rules as suits your imagery." Callner favored this new medium because it enabled him to work faster and produce more work.

Callner's distinctive interior rooms are chock full of complex and contradictory perspectives. What may appear at first to be a window overlooking a landscape may also be a painting hanging on the wall or a mirror reflecting another wall. Many of these rooms contain distinctive vases, a selection of fruit or flowers on tabletops covered with patterned cloths, and curtains with tiebacks framing windows. The walls are covered with decorative wallpapers, the floors and ceilings are covered with painted patterns, and multiple tapestries and carpets drape the floors and walls. It is interesting to note the absence of chairs and figures in these rooms. Callner likes to infer that someone has either just left or is about to enter the space. He achieves this by creating movement or action in the carpets. Who are these mysterious people? Are they inhabitants or voyeurs or both?

For example, in Separate Views/Spain (1987), the blue carpet in the foreground appears to have just been walked on. According to Callner, "It is impossible to see both sides of the room at the same time. So you are dealing with two separate realities at the same time." Still Life with Four Tables (1983), include a large array of overlapping carpets, some inspired by Turkish prayer rugs. Callner's Interior with Six Vases (1985), features rather sensual vases. For Callner these vases are female vessels that provide a counter point to his suggestive tables. This painting also depicts the distinctive flowers that resemble the erect brushes populating his studio. Another recurring element from this period are the opulent and curvaceous curtains resembling a woman's body tied at the waist with a large ribbon as seen in Red Mountain with Two Vases (1987). Many of these interiors still have images of Lilith, such as Altar (1980). In this painting, inspired by the architecture of Buddhist temples in Japan, Callner has created three separate rooms. The room farthest away includes an image of Lilith as a beautiful bird woven in a tapestry.

Callner's landscape paintings are clearly influenced by time spent in Yugoslavia, Spain, Russia, Japan, Turkey and the Hudson Valley. The ordered fields of Yugoslavia between Novisad and Belgrade stimulated the first landscapes series. The brightly colored stylized lollipop trees marching from hillside to hillside are certainly reminiscent of the enchanting Yugoslavian folk art paintings from this period. Landscapes featuring the distinctive olive orchards near Granada, the hills surrounding Madrid, and the distinctive red Spanish Mountains soon followed suit. Another series includes the bright yellow fields of rape in England. At some point, Callner admits, he began to combine elements from all of these landscapes in his paintings.

Callner attributes his carpet-like landscape as a visual gift from Van Gogh. Adding that he was absorbed with Van Gogh's ability to manipulate productive fields based on one point perspective, as a brilliant device, which gave meaning and an easily understood solution for a problem of penetrating space. The brilliant colors and one point perspective in Red Fields, East of Madrid (1988) is an excellent example of how Callner has mastered the problem of penetrating space.

After years of painting the landscapes of Europe, Callner turned to the waterways and mountains of the Hudson Valley and Adirondacks. "It hadn't occurred to me before, but shortly after that we went out in a boat on the Hudson and I did some drawings and that started it all, I found that the landscape had a tremendous range of lush imagery and very subtle color and a particular abstract pattern between the trapped water and, the fields and mountains. I hadn't seen the attitude that water had here in Europe; here it has a sense of its own energy." In Hudson River North of Catskill (1987), Callner depicts the river in a familiar manner, much like the body of a woman with a mountain in the background.

Another interesting body of work is Callner's series of red moon paintings. Pinned to his studio walls are two striking posters showing the different phases of the moon over a year's time. While white moons are too mundane for Callner, blue moons and red moons appear frequently in his paintings. He uses these moons to light his landscapes. In Red Moon (1993), the red moons refer to a cycle and were inspired by the German artist, Lucas Cranach's (1472-1553) series of paintings depicting women surrounded by moons. This painting has a wonderful rich surface texture giving it a soft painterly quality.

Callner's fascination with water began in the 1990s and brought forth a new and dramatic subject, images of waves, and falling water. Water flows up, down, over, and around in these pictures which employ Callner's characteristic and luxurious accumulation of white upon white dashes and dots and spots to create the illusion of splash and spray of water. In Oriental Window/Wave (1997) the water leaps from one side of the painting to the other stopped only by the curtain on the left and the patterned border surrounding the outside of the painting.

More recently, with his Parkinson's disease progressing steadily, Callner has again, embarked in another direction. His new paintings are as innovative and exciting as anything that has come before. Admittedly, his brush stokes are broader, his color fields are larger, and his subject matter more abstract, but his paintings continue to surprise and delight. According to Callner, his new work has a "wild and noisy attitude." Although these paintings may appear to be more simplistic, the complexity of the imagery, and the use of vibrant color and line are all Callner. Parkinson's disease has not slowed his work, nor his output or genius for painting.

For Callner, his paintings from the past 10 years are a sign of maturity. "To make mature art there has to be an element of freedom and sometimes these things can take 70 years to work out. I see the new work as being completely uninhibited. I am attacking an idea and I am trying to invent something about this idea."

Callner likes to present himself with an idea and then conquer or master the idea in his painting. For example, to conquer the color yellow, he worked with five shades of yellow in one painting. While Callner's preferred colors are earth tones, over the years he has successfully mastered the full range of color and color combinations. Recently, it would appear that Callner wanted to the master the color pink as there are a variety of paintings from the last several years with shades of pink as the predominate idea. One good example is Pink Sky with Blue Clouds (1998), a painting which was inspired by Matisse. In another painting, Pink Sky (1995), Callner's single idea was to explore flowered fields. Inspired by a French impressionistic landscape, he painted fast and loose to get a particular flamboyant brush stroke. As Callner's work moved even closer to pure abstraction, he was still conquering ideas. In the case of the painting Cadmium Red Medium (1998), the idea was trees. Over the years Callner has developed a variety of signature trees and in this rather aggressive painting he was determined not to make a Christmas tree.

Callner considers Premiere (1999), to be one of his most important works because "it represents total freedom with color, imagery, and idea. It happened very fast. I did not make a preliminary study. For the first time I did not start with a series of drawings, a combination of images or a logical sequence of forms." In Twelve Shades of Blue (2001), Callner's primary idea is abstract structures, particularly stairways. Whereas, freedom certainly reigns in paintings like Dangerous Green (2002).

More recently Callner has begun to reintroduce some realistic imagery back into his paintings. In 2001 Callner did a series of paintings that at first seemed like rather large animal-like creatures. In Fantasy (2001), these figures look more like otherworld creatures or monsters marching through the painting. Another example is Five Bands of Color (2002), with its distinctive green border and dark shapes or figures looking out over an eerie landscape. Callner comments that, "demons and monsters live more comfortably with green." In, Flag Forms I (2002) and Flag Forms II (2002), Callner used rich and dreamy colors bordered by black lines. "They are very impulsive, and include sensuous imagery influenced by images from Eastern Europe and Spain."

M. S. II (2002) is a significant work according Callner because "With this painting I finally did something I thought I would never do! I wanted to paint something very strong, totally abstract and with no suggestion of narrative. These are the goals I set for myself." Another important painting from the time is Pink Seal (2002) that Callner describes as being "very calm, feminine, not aggressive and well-conceived in abstract thought, and it only took two days to paint."

In his current work Callner continues to explore ideas related to abstraction. These more painterly abstractions are labor intensive for him, but satisfy in content and idea. In Yellow Circles (2003), and Yellow on the Left (2003), Callner continues his explorations in color, particularly yellow, and relies on his sensuous lines and patterns applied now with broader brush strokes. When asked, "What's next?" Callner replies, "Recently I have been limiting my color, now I want to start adding color again."

For Richard Callner, artist and mythmaker, there is always tomorrow, another painting to begin, another idea to explore, and more color to add to the canvas. Callner's world is an exciting place to live in, and it is our good fortune to have the opportunity to savor his art, his intellect, and to enjoy the experience.


Table for Four

watercolor/gouache on rag paper
30 x 23 inches
Collection: Carolyn Callner


Copyright 2008- Carolyn Callner. All Rights Reserved.