Sunday, October 5, 2008

Clyde Singer at the Butler

I've heard Dr. Zona speak highly of Clyde Singer before during a few art history classes I took at YSU but I never knew much about him. Today in the Cleveland Plain Dealer I came across this great little article about them and and his work. I love the parts about his wife and the secret santa presents. Can you imagine being the lucky dawg who got his $1.98 painting!?

Born in 1908 in Malvern, 15 miles southeast of Canton, the undersung artist came of age as an American Scene realist in the middle years of the Depression.

His timing wasn't great. The rise of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and a dozen other movements after World War II soon marked Singer as behind the curve. He's been viewed for many years as competent, if sweetly nostalgic and irrelevant.

The Canton Museum of Art and the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown want to correct that impression. The museums have collaborated on a big, vibrant Singer retrospective, now shared between the venues. It's a major event and well worth making the drive to get the full effect.

"Clyde Singer's America" surveys the full sweep of Singer's achievement, from raucous scenes of small-town life, to climatic moments in baseball and football games and glimpses of fashionable women on the sidewalks of New York.

The revelation is that Singer's best paintings deserve comparison with those of American Scene realists such as John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton and Kenneth Hayes Miller, under whom Singer studied at the Art Students League in New York in the 1930s.

The biggest surprise is the sheer, unflagging, roiling energy of Singer's enormous output. For 55 years, he worked as assistant director of the Butler Institute, a day job that had him doing everything from leading tours and curating exhibitions to filing documents and building an archive. For five decades, he also filed a weekly art column for the Youngstown Vindicator.

Singer nevertheless found time to turn out more than 3,000 paintings, most of them created in the basement studio of the modest house in Boardman where he lived with his wife, Bernice. The two never had children, which may explain in part how Singer was able to pour so much energy into his art.

Singer tried abstraction several times but never took to it. The more things changed, the more he remained loyal to the street-smart artistic reportage, rooted in life drawing, that he learned on scholarship at the Art Students League. His images of Depression-era barn dances and adolescent boys swarming around a rural swimming hole burst with acuity of observation and characterization.

The two parts of the exhibition, in Canton and Youngstown, are organized in loose chronological and thematic fashion. Both explore Singer's favorite topics, such as sporting events, rural landscapes and small-town street scenes. Both also feature self-portraits made by Singer throughout his life, which depict him as a man of modest stature with a calm, enigmatic expression and hooded eyes that missed nothing.

Drafted into the Army in 1942, Singer served as a technical corporal in a tank unit, in New Guinea and later in the Philippines, where he saw action in Luzon, according to the show's catalog.

In one catch-in-the-throat letter to his wife, Singer describes himself as "war weary, army weary & sick of everything" but cheered himself up by sketching images of himself and his wife eating peanuts and caramel corn at a baseball game. He signed it, "See how much I loves yuh!!!!!!"

The same sweet, endearing charm comes across in Singer's paintings. He brimmed with affection for his subjects, be they barflies at McSorley's Old Ale House in New York's East Village or politicos at small-town political rallies. He had a keen sense of the highs and lows of American life and a frank acceptance of human nature.

Singer painted parishioners praying in church and a topless dancer in a hula skirt. He painted a crowded sidewalk in Times Square, with a prostitute in a miniskirt and high boots standing near a man in a grubby overcoat who rummages through a trash bin.

Singer's longevity was amazing. He did solid work into the 1980s, when he was in his 70s. His desire to paint was as consistent as the subtle randiness that runs throughout his work.

"Brownstone," a remarkable painting from 1980, depicts two attractive women striding a Manhattan street. It repeats a favorite motif he had used for decades - that of a gust of wind lifting a woman's skirt to reveal a flash of thigh.

It's rare to have virtually the entire career of an important, but little known artist laid at one's feet. It's also a risky curatorial proposition. It's possible to love an artist too much and to put so much work on view that it highlights weaknesses rather than strengths.

The Singer show does, in fact, expose ups and downs. In the late 1940s and '50s, Singer's palette went chalky. He relied too heavily on white for highlights, giving his paintings a bleached, snowy look.

At times, the stock characters in his paintings become cloying, as if Singer had seen too many Frank Capra movies. His tendency to portray people with doll-like features, pneumatic bodies and button eyes can wear thin.

Despite such lapses, the impression conveyed by the Singer show is that he deserves far more attention than he's received. In some ways, Singer was the painterly equivalent of Viktor Schreckengost, the brilliant, Cleveland-based industrial designer who worked quietly in Ohio rather than seek fame by moving to New York.

Like Schreckengost, Singer remained essentially modest throughout his career, a quality that only heightens the appeal of his work.

Louis Zona, director of the Butler, wrote in the exhibition's catalog that Singer always contributed a painting to the annual employee Christmas gift exchange at the museum, even though the ceiling on gifts was $2. Singer got around the rule by putting a tag for $1.98 on the works he contributed.

"Naturally, we all hoped that Clyde had pulled our name from Santa's hat," Zona wrote.

How do you get a fair hearing for an overlooked artist like Singer? The Canton-Youngstown show is a start. Despite the occasionally murky reproductions in the catalog, both are important contributions to art history in Ohio and the industrial Midwest. Both deserve attention outside the region. For now, though, it's enough to know that Singer is getting his due on his home turf. The tribute organized by the two museums is magnificent.

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