Gerome Kamrowski 1914-2004
In the mid-40s, Gerome Kamrowski and a handful of his colleagues studied European Surrealism, seeking in its theories and practice a new, distinctly personal, American style of painting. In doing so, they laid the foundations for Abstract Expressionism.
The Surrealists believed that an artist was clairvoyant, an inspired figure meant to bring the poetic products of his vision to society, and possibly human development, rather than working for commercial ends.
Kamrowski was born in Warren, Minnesota, on January 19, 1914. He grew up in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, in a family of nine children. In 1932 he enrolled in the Saint Paul School of Art, where he studied with Leroy Turner, and Cameron Booth who had been a student of Hans Hofmann. They initiated him in an expressive Cubist style, and his early painting depicted recognizable subjects n a Modernist mode. In 1933 Kamrowski won a scholarship to the Art Students League, and he went to New York anxious to study with Hofmann, who was set to begin teaching there. However, when Kamrowski arrived, he found that immigration problems had prevented Hofmann from taking his post, so he stayed for just a few weeks, attending classes taught by George Grosz. Returning to St. Paul, the young artist soon found a position in the mural painting division of the Minnesota FAP/WPA. In 1936 he executed frescoes in the Northrup Auditorium of the University of Minnesota.
In 1937, Kamrowski went to Chicago to attend the New Bauhaus. He studied with Laszlo Mololy-Nagy, and was influenced by the school's characteristic painting style of geometric abstraction. He made friends with sculptor Tony Smith, who shared his interest in the mathematical construction of pictorial composition. Kamrowski joined the American Abstract Artists group, and showed paintings in their group exhibitions in New York. Thus, his work attracted the attention of Baroness Hilla Rebay, the Director of the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Painting. She arranged for a fellowship that enabled the artist to return to Manhattan in the fall of 1938. First, Kamrowski went to Provincetown for the summer, finally to study with Hoffman. This charismatic theorist encouraged his students to confront their models and the canvas without preparatory sketches or premeditation. It was a radical idea for Kamrowski, who had learned to plan and execute his work methodically in explicit gestures. Kamrowski's painting style began to loosen and become more expressive.
Soon after his arrival in New York, Kamrowski met William Baziotes. A friendship quickly grew between the two young artists who were both searching for their own artistic voices. They joined a circle of artists who were sometimes gathered at the loft of literary critic of Francis Lee. Many were interested in Surrealism, and the work of the artists from Paris--including Andre Breton, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Roberto Matta, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Stanley William Hayter--who had come to New York to escape the threat of the German invasion. Kamrowski had long know of Surrealism, having read magazines "Minotaure" and "Transiton" back in Minnesota, and having seen the Museum of Modern Art's traveling exhibition "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism". Now he was drawn to the freedom he saw in the paintings of the French Surrealists, and their optimism that contrasted dramatically with the despair of the Depression-era American Social Realism. Kamrowski and Baziotes read extensively about Surrealism, and followed the activities of the Parisians in the press, often attending their New York exhibitions. Soon Kamrowski abandoned geometric abstraction to concentrate on biomorphic imagery and automatism suggested by the work of Miro, and the overlapping transparent veils of color seen in Matta'a work. In the early 1940s a group of young Americans--including Kamrowski and Baziotes, as well as Jackson Pollock, Peter Busa, and Robert Motherwell--occasionally gathered at Matta's studio to discuss Surrealism and share their own ideas The young Americans were particularly inspired by the concept of psychic automatism, and its unique source of inspiration in the artist's own psyche. They aimed for effortless communication with the view, hoping that their images would resonate for the viewer on an unconscious level, beneath learned barriers of resistance.
Kamrowski explored imagery that combined biological forms with natural science for inspiration. He and his colleagues visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to study the models and drawings of plant and animal forms. They also studied books like Darcy Thompson's "On Growth and Form". In his drawing, watercolors and oil painting, Kamrowski developed a distinctive imagery in which organic figures, derived from microbiological and plant forms, seem to float in layered spaces, made complex by overlapping veils of mist and burst of color and light. These images suggest movement and change, growth, decay and even biological transformation over time. These images evoke a sense of cosmic rhythm that binds all life together, a chain of evolution connecting ancient organisms to himself and his own psyche. The artist sought fresh imagery in experiments with technique; he tried to allow the painting media to suggest imagery, and tried Surrealist methods like collage, fumage, and coulage. In about 1941 Kamrowski collaborated with Baziotes and Pollock on an experimental painting created by the drip technique.
Kamrowski's work began to attract attention. His work was included in the landmark international exhibition of collage at the "Art of This Century" show in 1942, and he continued to show his works in group exhibitions through the decade. The following year, two of his drawings appeared in the March issue of the art magazine "VVV", accompanying the publication of Breton's "Situation du surrealisme entre les duex guerres", which had been delivered as a lecture at Yale the year before. That spring his work was included in the group exhibition "Adventure of the Inner Eye", organized by Jimmy Ernst for the Norlyst Gallery. At this time Kamrowski began to increase the scale of his painting on paper, and he was among the first to make large-scale canvases,
Kamrowki's first solo exhibition was organized by Betty Parsons, and appeared at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery in New York in 1946. It featured about forty oils and gouaches representing biological imagery, including the "Seasons", a series of canvases painted on both sides, and hung from the ceiling in the middle of the gallery. Soon afterward Kamrowski took a teaching position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He continued to show his work in New York in regular solo exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery through the 1940s, and in prestigious group shows like "Bloodflames" at the Hugo Gallery, and "Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A solo exhibition of Kamrowski's work at the Galerie Crueze in Paris in 1950 was accompanied by a brochure written by Andre Breton. "Kamrowski's ambitious enterprise is to establish a cosmography of man's inner worlds", Breton wrote, "which can only be undertaken of course, by having constant recourse to the observation of the movement of the stars. This approach, in the field of art, is at present the only one which is in harmony with that of modern biologists...(the artist) has entirely been concerned with the functions of absorption and liberation of energy which largely determine bodily structures. And, unlike those who limit themselves to presenting the rind of these structures, Kamrowski allows us to be present at their formation". The artist continued to find inspiration in language and literature, and in this regard he remained more connected to the Surrealist tradition than his contemporaries in New York. His solo show at the Hugo Gallery in New York in 1950 featured a series of mixed-media paintings inspired by Francis Thompson's poem "City of Dreadful Night". The exhibition also revealed the beginning of Kamrowski's experiments with unusual supports and formats, and the show included large panel paintings with incised surfaces, as well as little cutout drawing mounted in boxes.
During the 1950s, Kamrowski showed his work regularly in the Whitney Museum Annual exhibitions in New York, and in many group shows in New York, Paris, and throughout Michigan. In 1957, the artist used his sabbatical leave from the university to travel in Europe and see contemporary painting there. When he returned to Michigan, his teaching duties included a university evening extension course that met at the Jewish Center in Detroit, and required an unconventional approach. The class mixed well-educated artist-hobbyists with professional engineers and draftsmen who worked in industry. They were capable of employing versatile technical skills to give form to sophisticated metaphysical themes. Kamrowski encouraged them to use their skills, and the unusual industrial materials they knew so well, in works that provoke contemplation of the relationships between the substance of materials and their chemical, physical, and even metaphysical constitution. Their goals were described in the concept of Hylozoism, the doctrine that all matter is animate, parts of global and cosmic ecosystems, and that physical materiality is inseparable from life itself. The artists' results of these experiments were diverse in form, featuring thick impasto layers of paint, and a wide range of added materials that gave depth and texture to their surfaces. The Hylozoist Group exhibited their work together in a show at the Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis in 1963, and at the Riverside Museum in New York. At that time Kamrowski was continuing his experiments with varied supports for his own work, with thick impasto paint layers, and adding sand and other texturizing materials to the paint.
Around 1959, the artist met R. Buckminster Fuller, who periodically taught in Ann Arbor, and was then at work on designs for portable cardboard huts for the Marine Corps, based on his geodesic dome. Kamrowski was impressed by Fuller's ability to find spiritual, poetic values in science and mathematics, and to apply these to everyday life. The artist executed painting on triangular and hexagonal panels that fit together in a dome and meant to be viewed from below. He also became interested in dimensional architectural decoration, in historical cathedral domes and palace ceilings, which provided a unique visual experience that is absent from our modern lifestyle. Using abstract imagery, Kamrowski sought to recreate these experiences. His solo exhibition at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in New York in 1959 featured one of these domes, inspired by Edward Young's poem "Night Thoughts".
In the 1960s Kamrowski's experiments with shaped supports became more sculptural, as he turned to shaped plywood forms, painted all over in bright enamel, and meant to be viewed in the round. He also began to ornament their surfaces with colored beads, and rows of nails with studded heads. They assumed the form of fantastic creatures . . . gridded patterns that mimic the superimposed patterns of beads and buttons, and also evoke reptilian scales, and abstracted and confused their form. Next, Kamrowski mounted these animals so that the blowing wind would move them, and cause the colors and surfaces to appear to flicker. One way the artist achieved this effect was to paint through readymade sheets of metal or plastic, cut in ornamental patterns for grillwork, using them as stencils. The resulting patterns were overpainted and interwoven in complex layered imagery. Over the years, these "beaded beasts" multiplied into a plethora of forms, including mobiles, weathervanes, whirligigs and other kinetic sculptures a series he called the "Wind Menagerie".
A University of Michigan Faculty Research Fellowship in 1968 helped Kamrowski to develop these works, and a Horace D. Rackham Grant three years later enabled him to explore wind-motivated outdoor sculpture. During the 1970s and the 1980s the artist employed his vocabulary of brightly colored patterns, beads and mosaic tiles for several public commissions. Noteworthy among them is his mosaic mural at the Ann Arbor City Hall, and an aerial sculpture at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor. The artist also designed a large multipaneled mosaic entitled "Constellations" for the People Mover subway station adjacent to the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
In 1983 a major retrospective exhibition of his work was mounted at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. At that time, the artist returned to the printmaking studio, when he produced an extensive suite of lithographs, conceived to illustrate the exhibition catalog.
Kamrowski retired from teaching in 1984 and continued to work in a variety of media, on pieces for exhibition and for public commissions. In 1988, his paintings were featured in the exhibition, "Convulsive Beauty: The Impact of Surrealism on American Art" at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s a series of solo exhibitions of the artist's work were presented at the Washburn Gallery in New York. Kamrowski remained active until his death in 2004.
His final years were spent producing sculpture and paneled murals, ornamented with mosaic tiles and opalescent and colored glass. More than 40 two- and three-dimensional works were featured in "Patterns of Revelation: Kamrowski's Visual Imperative" at the University of Michigan's Jean Paul Slusser Gallery in 1997, at 87 years of age.
"A master of his craft, the artist Kamrowski plays upon the rich connotational substance of mosaic with metaphoric abandon...," said Vince Castagnacci, a U-M professor of art and a colleague of Kamrowski's. "Kamrowski's career has inspired the believers and silenced the skeptics."