"It should be one of the hopes of art to make man increasingly aware of his emotions so that through the senses as well as the intelligence he may be more nearly what he wants to be and begin to control his human destiny."
-Albert Gleizes, quoted by Gerome Kamrowski in a letter to his students.1
Writers, teachers, and curators of the visual arts usually face the drawback of never having had the opportunity of meeting let alone knowing, the artists we admire and study. We must rely on the historical record of their artwork, their statements, and the observations for others to get some notion of the artist's physical, emotional, and intellectual persona. Therefore it is a great and rare privilege to have that opportunity and use it well, for yourself, for the artist, and for others.
When I came to Ann Arbor in the summer of 1981 to be Director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art and Professor in the Department of Art History and the School of Art, the person I looked forward to meeting most was Gerome Kamrowski. Kamrowski had been Professor of Fine Arts at the university since 1946. As an art history graduate student I had made a special study of Surrealism, and Kamrowski had been one of its most famous American proponents. During the early 1970s I had the honor of conducting extended interviews with some of the prime Surrealist artists and poets such as Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Wifredo Lam, and Michel Leiris. These conversations not only gave me the chance to speak with them directly about their work, but also the experience of being in their presence and gaining a sense of them as individuals. Kamrowski had always been considered one of the leading talents associated with the development of Surrealism in America beginning in the late 1930s and continuing through the war years, when many of the European Surrealists, including Masson and Ernst, as well as others such as Andre Breton, had sought refuge in New York City from Vichy France. Kamrowski, who lived in New York at that time, met many of them through friends like the painter William Baziotes, perhaps the most experienced artist in the American Surrealist group.
I was excited by the possibility of working with Kamrowski because not only did I greatly admire his art, but he was a vital element of historical continuity that linked the Surrealists' work, which had begun in Paris in the 1920s, to the present. Kamrowski was an extraordinary man who authentically expressed his gifts as a working artist engaged in an ongoing project, never becoming trapped in past historical experience. My first major project at the museum was to talk with Gerry Kamrowski about mounting a retrospective of his long and exciting career. The result was a large exhibition and catalogue reviewing his distinguished body of work presented in 1983 to a broad, enthusiastic audience. Fortunately for me it was also the beginning of a long and treasured friendship.
As an artist and as a man Kamrowski always had a strong sense of purpose and an unflinching and honest dedication to his personal philosophy, which was built over many years of study and dedicated work. He believed in the value of working on a daily basis and was constantly engaged in the creative process. For this man the making of a work of art was an integral aspect of the act of living. When I would visit his home he was always in his studio - a post and beam structure with a loft, built by hand with beams reclaimed from turn-of-the-century barns in the Michigan farmlands near Ann Arbor. If he was not there, then he had certainly come from there or was about to go back there to work again. The studio building was crammed with his paintings, mosaics, and sculptures. A large worktable was near the door surrounded by tools and a variety of collage materials, multi-colored beads, pieces of glass, and other treasures he culled from garage sales and dumpsters. As you visited, Gerry would sit on his tall stool considering what element to use next in his effort to make these works come alive. He was serious, but always had a twinkle in his eye. His sense of humor was playful but was often ironic too, sometimes even "wicked" in a mischievous way. He had a solid build, short blond hair, and blue eyes that animated his face and matched his sly smile, making you understand how serious he really was. Like many artists, Gerry had some of his favorite quotes tacked to the walls of the studio, iconic statements that resonated with his own way of being and working. After Gerry died, his wife, Mary Jane, and her daughter Cynthia, understanding the quotes' significance, carefully saved them as part of his voluminous personal archive. A few of these, cut out of magazines or written in Gerry's strong, legible handwriting, are particularly relevant to our understanding of his sense of an artist's work.
"Work is a release from the longings of our dreams which often only blind us and flatter us to death." - Franz Kafka
"Never have I thought that I was the happy possessor of a 'talent'; my sole concern has been to save myself by work and faith." - From The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre
"Despite working in an aura of nostalgia for the last thirty years, the past seems to have slipped away from Benny Goodman. He functions most effectively now in the present, which, for a creative artist, is always the best place to be."
Gerome Kamrowski was born in January 1914 and grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the youngest of eleven children of Felix and Mary Kamrowski, who owned the Sunshine Bakery there. Driven by his early passion to express himself as an artist, he attended the St. Paul School of Art when he was eighteen years old. He had the good fortune to study with two fine painters and teachers, Cameron Booth and Leroy Turner, who themselves had studied with the well-known artist Hans Hofmann. Like Hofmann, they worked in a style that Kamrowski characterized as a "kind of expressionist cubism." Kamrowski's paintings and murals of this period were very much in this mode. In 1937 Kamrowski continued his art studies at the Chicago New Bauhaus, where he worked with the emigre artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Archipenko. In 1938 Kamrowski's career expanded when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to attend a summer studio program in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was directed by Hofmann, who would be very influential on Kamrowski's growth as an artist and also in his role as a teacher.
From 1938 through 1946 Kamrowski lived and worked in New York City, which was quickly becoming the international center of contemporary art due in large measure to the cultural displacements of the Second World War. The Depression years of the 1930s had become economically difficult times for everyone, including artists. In order to survive many artists sought employment with the arts division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Because of his prior experience in Minnesota, Kamrowski was placed in the Federal Art Project's mural division. This gave him funds for basic living expenses and an opportunity to devote time to this own career. The Federal Art Project also brought him the opportunity to meet other young artists who shared the exciting world of contemporary art in New York. Here he first met the painters William Baziotes and Jackson Pollock, as well as many others who became his colleagues and friends. About this potent time Kamrowski recalled:
I moved into a building that also housed Fritz Bultman and Tennessee Williams on West 11th Street, then Carmine Street where Tony Smith and Quentin Fiore had a place and finally at 145 Bleeker Street. There was a bar (the famous Cedar Bar) at Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street that seemed to be a gathering place for some of the people on the WPA Art Project. Pollock, Baziotes, Wheeler, Krasner, Browne, and many others . . . Most of the younger artists had one thing in common; they were either bored or not interested in the prevalent style of painting -- the American scene, which dominated the exhibitions at the Whitney Museum on Eighth Street. Very few of these younger artists were exhibiting in art galleries. It seemed that when they did they moved out of the Village . . . It was quite easy to meet artists of similar interests in non-objective and abstract art. There were also the Surrealists' energies that were beginning to be communicated . . . It was all the contacts with each other and the larger discussions that led to later developments. 2
Clearly these younger artists within New York's contemporary art scene were generating their own high level creative energy that fueled their passions and drives to persevere and follow the calling of their muse.
Undaunted by the difficulties of exhibiting his work, Kamrowski won the patronage of the Baroness Hilla Rebay, the director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which was generously supported by Solomon Guggenheim and showcased his collection. Kamrowski was given a grant and encouraged to seek public venues for his work. In 1938 he had his New York debut as one of the artists included in the Municipal Art Gallery's American Abstract Artists exhibition, which soon led to more opportunities in galleries and museums.
The late 1930s and early 1940s were a critical period in Kamrowski's career as he was faced with the choice of continuing his work in the Non-Objective Cubist style that he had developed from his teachers in St. Paul, Chicago, and Provincetown, or embrace the exciting freedom of expression championed by Baziotes and Surrealism. In Kamrowski's words, "perhaps Baziotes and myself took the excitement of these European refugees' personalities more seriously than the ideas they proposed, and this excitement led us shopping for new mediums... Besides the personalities involved there were publications and exhibitions that had provided for Surrealist or automatic approaches to painting. The Museum of Modern Art had an excellent exhibition of Surrealism in the 1930s so that Matta or Seligmann were not the first missionaries of automatism."3
Surrealist artists such as Kurt Seligmann, Masson, and Ernst had shown that new and exciting visual and emotional effects could be generated by chance opportunities offered by these new painting processes which Kamrowski cited as "fumage, decalcomania, frottage, flottage, diffusion, stains, pouring, dripping. "Kamrowski understood the immediate implications of these techniques, "They were a far cry from the Hofmann dictum, 'always work from nature,' that is, from an outer subject."4 Specifically Kamrowski recognized that these new approaches would allow a way of "working from one's own inner nature completely." Kamrowski credited his friend Baziotes as a driving force in his use of these Surrealist techniques and the mysteriously expressive pictorial results that could be achieved through them. As the artist recalled, "Baziotes then had an intensity to find himself pictorially in a poetic manner."5
The early 1940s was a time of great international anxiety as the World War raged throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia. It was also the period in which Kamrowski developed his own Surrealist style that attracted increased national attention in museums and galleries from New York to California. This growing success was challenged by an unforeseen personal tragedy that would test his values as both and artist and a man. Kamrowski married Marianna Fargione in 1943 and they had their son, Felix, the following year. In 1944 the couple moved to an artists' community in St. Mary's Georgia, before moving back to New York City later that year. Soon after their return Marianna died of Cancer. Kamrowski, distraught, was faced with the responsibilities and realities of being a single parent in New York as well as an emerging, internationally know artist. He made the decision to accept a teaching position at the University of Michigan. As he explained, "After my wife died, I still had a very small child. My parents were in Minnesota and they were going to take care of him. Ann Arbor is halfway between their home and New York, so I could kind of combine both worlds. And teaching was the only way to keep things going."6
Although Kamrowski no longer had the ever-present hyper-stimulation of the New York art scene, he was able to maintain his creative momentum by pushing the edges of his talent with his own energies and commitment to his life as an artist. In his new milieu Kamrowski became even more recognized as one of America's foremost practitioners of Surrealism. His work was singled out by Andre Breton, the autocratic leader of the international Surrealist movement, who wrote an essay on Kamrowski in 1950 and republished it in his important book Surrealism and Painting of 1965. He wrote, "Of all the young painters whose evolution I have been able to follow in New York during the war, Gerome Kamrowski is the one who has impressed me the most by reason of the quality and sustained character of his research. Among all the newcomers there, he was the only one I found tunneling in a new direction, with a praiseworthy disdain for the 'gallery' whether it should appertain to painting or a mine . . . Kamrowski's ambitious enterprise is to establish the cosmography of man's inner worlds . . . "7
Kamrowski continued to build on the possibilities of the expanded visual effects derived from using new paining techniques and materials that he had been exposed to in New York. He was constantly experimenting with these processes to produce planes of visual ambiguity and create mystery through the multiple identities of his abstracted biomorphic forms. These techniques allowed him a visual freedom he exercised for the rest of his career. From the 1940s on, he devoted his art to the creation of a marvelous world to evoke his, and the viewer's, inner sensibilities. Key to this world was his deeply held belief in the interconnectedness of the shared energies of the world. In a page from his lecture notes he explained it in these terms:
A work of art reflects the subtle processes that underlie the natural world. This reflection of the Universe as one of the processes is the function of art . . . the dialogue of simultaneous space in its tranquility and expansion . . . Examine more closely a part that does not fall within a shadow -- seem to take shape and peer out from behind the more obvious designs which were perceptual at a glance. the longer and closer one studies these singular surfaces the more evident the inner design becomes, until it usurps the field of vision entirely. It may be bewildering . . . a chimeric and chaotic image.8
A close visual examination of Kamrowski's work can empower the observer to enter the artist's strange and compelling world. In this way the viewer can make the vital transition from "looking" to a more meaningful and psychologically intense state of "seeing." Kamrowski was enthralled by this process of becoming a "Seer," to tap the power of the unconscious and move beyond the obvious to a new and profound experience of one's inner vision.
Kamrowski's work expresses this power of the "Seer" in many contexts, form the elemental forces of the universe t the equally powerful unity of nature. He achieved a sense of this cosmic vision in his painting Space Dilates of 1962 . . . a powerful yellow-orange plasma energy pushes itself toward the edges of the pictorial field compressing the areas of finely textured red as it expands with a powerful force.
Elemental terrestrial forces animate another painting, Cloud Surf, 1980, with similar techniques of texture, color, and patterning brought together through an earthly energy. His techniques and their hallucinatory effects allow us multiple interpretations of what we are seeing. If we identify the rich blue background as clouds, then the strongly textures black forms below them could be read as mountains. However, if we take the upper half of the painting to represent crashing waves of white foamed surf, then the lower portion could be read as a rocky shoreline rounded by powerful breakers. Our perceptions of paintings like these can suddenly change with each encounter. This is the continuing power of Kamrowski's works of art that engage us in an ongoing dialogue of vision and intuition.
Kamrowski was always exploring new ways of achieving this goal of giving visual and intuitive power to his work. One of this most important tools to create this senses of inner energy was his use of transparency as a means of expressing the possibility of multiple fields and abstract forms was a technique he used throughout his career, as you can see when you compare a painting such as Untitled 3043 of 1959 with Aqua and Rust Figures of 1980. In the earlier work the patterns of short parallel lines are subtly expressed, whereas in his work of the 1980s the patterns have become much bolder. They contain strong black grids made using various metal screens like those that cover home radiators. They emphasize the two dimensional surface of the painting in order to create a strong visual reference point, a strategy he learned from Cubism and collage.
During the 1980s, Kamrowski added mosaics and sculpture to his artistic repertoire, bringing his acute sense of space and the imagination to these media. The mosaics and the painted, patterned, and beaded animal sculptures he created until the end of his life can be seen either as abstract or alternately as representing fantastic creatures of his imagination. "I work like the Ford Motor Company, I have lots of parts. I have the body and I assemble things along the line. I'm working with the old Surrealist principle of blind chance. I want adventure out of it too."9 While he was referring to his wooden, beaded animal sculptures, this description of his work process could also be applied to his mosaics as well.
One of Gerome Kamrowski's lifelong traits as an artist was his ability to maintain a sense of creative excitement and energy. His career never slowed down but continued to develop, and his position as an internationally recognized artist became even stronger. Over the decades he still regularly exhibited his work in important gallery and museum exhibitions in New York City and elsewhere in the United States. With the support of Breton, his work was also shown in Paris and other European cities, where it was very well received.
For Kamrowski, though, the true measure of success as an artist was the constant feeding of an inward faith. He did this throughout his lifetime, and as a mentor to young artists through his teaching position, he advised the same:
It is the cruel lesson of history that not every artist's creations, no matter how psychologically authentic of excellently crafted, as socially useful and/or economically viable. What young artists ought to realize is that they are their own best patrons and that they will survive not on the basis of public relations schemes, government bestowals, or public service jobs, but by "making it" -- namely art. And other "making it" will flow out of their self-confidence and faith in the art they create. Success may never come -- and may not be needed. But if they do not learn how to subsidize their own inner muse, no one else is likely to do it for them.10
In a 1990 interview, on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of his work, he summed up the decades of his life and work with a simple yet powerful statement: "The whole point is being an artist."11 Gerome Kamrowski clearly never lost sight of this goal, and the art he created bears testament to the soulful, engaged artist he was.
1. Artist's notes, unpublished.
2. Conversation with the artist, June 1, 1996
4. Artist's statement in miscellaneous notes, unpublished.
6. Conversation with the artist, June 1, 1996.
7. Andre Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (New York: Harper and Row, 1972, p. 226
8. Kamrowski's lecture notes, unpublished.
9. "Interview with Gerome Kamrowski," Detroit Free Press, 1990
10. Artist's notes, unpublished
11. John Barron, "The Lion in Winter," Detroit Monthly, Feb. 1990