visual arts NOTABLE BOOK
This eminently readable, vivid account of the American artist, Clay Edgar Spohn (1898-1977) provides numerous revelations about modern art, isms, and art institutions. It is a chronicle that skillfully interweaves the artistic developments of an individual with the movements and attitudes in society as a whole. Spohn's early years reflected the classical biographical scenario of conflict between the pursuit of material stability encouraged by his father and the pursuit of a "calling" as encouraged by his artist-mother. Clay's parents attempted to contain his spirit and natural bent through stints with the Augusta Military Academy in Virginia and enrollment in economics at the University of California in Berkeley. They finally yielded and agreed to finance his studies at the New York Art Students League, where he arrived from San Francisco in 1922. Rigorous training based on academic European tradition, from visionary teachers such as Kimon Nicolaides, George Luks and others, assured Spohn a means of livelihood through art commissions like illustrations, murals, and commercial advertising. While there, Spohn also met fellow student Alexander Calder whom he befriended later during his Parisian stay. Ever the magnet for artists, Paris proved a crucial and far reaching experience for Spohn. He immersed himself fully in the cultural milieu of Paris in the '20s, and expressed his own ideas and interpretations in a variety of forms and media, well exemplified in the black and white images throughout the text. The significance of Calder and Spohn's friendship and dialogue is emphasized and brings to mind other associations, such as Braque and Picasso, Van Gogh and Gaugin or Seurat and Signac, whether amicable or not, because of their own development bearing on historic events. When he returned to San Francisco in 1927, he submitted works to annual art shows, designed and executed murals for Federal Art Projects (1935-42) and never ceased to experiment in forms of abstraction in sculpture, painting, banners and satirical "constructions-inventions", which succeeded in upsetting the "staidness" of most San Francisco society. However, this quest of freedom of expression for the artist was not lost on Douglas MacAgy, Director of the California School of Fine Arts. At his invitation, the 46-year-old Clay Spohn found himself teaching there, alongside Mark Rothko and Clifford Still to "lead students away from Social Realism and the old way of thinking.'' By 1948 the gap between East (N.Y.) and West (Calif.) was closing as Abstract Expressionism became a recognized "School" and Marcel Duchamp's anti-art was being transcended by Spohn's Assemblage-art, Pop Art and "Found Objects." These works culminated in his "Museum of the Unknown and Little Known Objects" (pp. 66-67), an exhibit for which he was assisted by his colleagues Richard Diebenkorn and Hassel Smith. In five years' time the team of Still, Rothko, Spohn, David Park, Diebenkorn and others made The California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco world-renowned, but with the return of a more conservative board, all but Park and Diebenkorn returned to New York. "The most obvious difference that set Spohn apart from other abstractionists was his constant revolution whereby, as he perfected one mode of painting, he overturned it with another mode," observes Beasley. Whereas Still and Rothko (as well as others) had found their style or a "blind alley" as Spohn noted, he remained true to "his pursuit of pure personal expression" regardless of where it might lead him. This philosophy was reflected in his paintings of the Taos N.M. period and especially in the "pure paintings" from New York City, 1961-1965, such as "Dark Painting with Red and Yellow" (p. 10), "Blue Abstract" (p. 12) and "In the Bright Light of the Living Moment" (p. 16). By the early 1970s, however, he was obliged to request funding from the Rothko Foundation. Despite occasional sales and the "promise" of serious acknowledgement through exhibits and retrospectives, he remained largely misunderstood by the public and the art establishment. And he was now in failing health. In a final twist of irony, the New York Times did not find him worthy of inclusion in their obituary section. And yet, four days after his death, a notice was delivered announcing the approval of a grant awarded him by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Beasley concludes: "The frustration of the artist who tries and fails to communicate and educate cannot be fully appreciated by the rest of us." This sensitive portrait of Clay E. Spohn mirrors again the fate of artists such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Camille Claudell, and Canadian Emily Carr, who "follow their own direction" without compromise to the establishment of the day or the market, and present a challenge to contemporary society.
Reviewed by Maria Maryniak - The Downtowner, St Catharines, ON