Although Gerome Kamrowski grew up in the midwest in the 1920s and, after a decade in New York, returned to live in Michigan from the late 1940s until his death in 2004, his artistic horizons were international. His first exposure to modern art while still in his native Minnesota was through Cameron Booth who had studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman and was one of the few Americans who belonged to the Paris-based Abstraction/Creation group in the early 1930s. Hoping to study directly with Hofmann, Kamrowski went to New York to enroll at the Art Students League, where Hofmann had been invited to teach in 1934 only to find that the German artist's contract had been cancelled. After his return to Minnesota, he joined the WPA and painted abstract murals for public buildings, including the Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. His commitment to geometric abstraction wavered as he began to be aware of Surrealism through copies of Minotaure in a local bookstore as well as through Fantastic Art Dada and Surrealism, a large exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art that traveled to Minneapolis.
During his WPA years Kamrowski managed to make occasional sorties to New York museums and galleries by signing on to work on overnight poultry trains. He remembered a visit during one such trip to Arshile Gorky's studio where he saw the latter working on his Newark Airport murals with a reproduction of Marcel Duchamr's Bride tacked to the wall. In 1937 he moved to Chicago to study at Moholy Nagy's New Bauhaus where he could listen to Moholy's Bauhaus anecdotes, see Duchamp's Roto Reliefs, and meet like-minded young artists, including Tony Smith. He soon joined American Abstract Artists. The following year, with the help of a Guggenheim fellowship, he was finally able to catch up with Hofmann at this summer school in Provincetown. In the fall of 1938 he moved to New York where he joined the New York Federal Art Project, landing in the same mural division as Jackson Pollock. He soon met William Baziotes who, according to Kamrowski, "had started to fool around with some of the Surrealist ideas and techniques. We started talking and fell very easily into doing some of these things."
A sense of what "some of these things" were communicated to the author by Kamrowski as he leafed through boxes of early works or pulled old canvases out of storage racks in this Ann Arbor studio: "This is what you could get with blind chance with carbon: it was carbon from holding paper over a candle, like Paalen's fumage technique, then you would spray it with a diffuser. Jimmy Ernst used to get different patterns by blowing on the wet paint through a straw. Here are effects produced with decalcomania. This could be a transfer or you applied the paint and then blotted it with another piece of paper. These are "flottages," made by floating oil paint on top of water and dipping the canvas or paper into it, the same principle as marbleized paper. [Gabriel Peterdi reported seeing Max Ernst use this technique in Paris in the 1930s.] There was a high risk factor in working this way. You would lose things . . .and then everything wouldn't be marvelous. Some things would get overly labored and sometimes you'd just be reinventing the wheel. It was a period of adventure and you were not particularly interested in turning out a commodity unless it was something to please the Baroness."1
"The Baroness" referred to Hilla Rebay, director of the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which was financed by Solomon Guggenheim and would later bear his name. Formerly a disciple of Kandinsky, Rebay doled out stipends and part-time jobs to needy artists whose work met her non-objective criteria. Over nearly a decade Kamrowski was a recipient of her largess, but when he exhibited work that showed surrealist tendencies at the Norlyst Gallery in 1943 he had to do so under an assumed name, lest he lose favor with the Baroness who regarded the surrealists as intellectual criminals. He enjoyed telling of practicing automatism in the basement storeroom using a dark lacquer made from dissolving alcohol the worn out phonograph records that provided a background of classical music in the museum. One of the artists employed in the storeroom had devised this as a means of marking crates, and other artists on the staff liked its instant drying properties when they dipped in a stick and swirled it over a piece of paper. An interest in the effects obtained by dripping quick-drying paint led William Baziotes to buy jars of recently developed lacquer paint at an art supply store and to suggest to Jackson Pollock and Kamrowski that they experiment with this new medium in the latter's studio; the one that was saved has come to be regarded over the years as an embryonic symbol of the soon to emerge Abstract Expressionism and a forerunner of the free-wheeling dripped paintings Pollock was to do in the later 1940s.
Both Baziotes and Kamrowski were friendly with photographer Francis Lee who had a loft on 12th street large enough to accommodate impromptu gatherings of young artists. It was at Lee's loft that they met Jimmy Ernst, Matta and others of the recently arrived refugee artists who had belonged to the Surrealist group in Paris before the war. The years between 1941 and 1944 saw a flurry of Surrealist activities in New York including gallery exhibitions, publications, a series of public lectures by British surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford, and, in the autumn of 1942, First Papers of Surrealism, and exhibition famous for being enmeshed in five miles of string by Marcel Duchamp. The latter show was followed a week later by the opening of Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery where surrealist works were showcased in a gallery with curving walls and biomorphic furnishings. In other words New York was experiencing a highly visible and well-publicized incursion of Europe's last pre-war avant-garde. Kamrowski, having been through a phase of geometric abstraction, as well as exposure to other aspects of European modernism through Moholy Nagy, Hans Hofmann, and MoMA's Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition, proved to be especially prepared to absorb what could be learned from the emigres. He did not attend Onslow Ford's New School lectures but saw the accompanying exhibitions and listened to Baziotes's account of the lectures which concluded with an exhortation to young American artists to join forces with the emigres.
Several of the younger New York artists did indeed join forces with at least one of the emigres, Roberto Matta, when he attempted to create a splinter group that would take Surrealism in a new direction away from the dictation of Andre Breton. He enlisted Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes to find recruits, with the result that those two artists, together with Jackson Pollock, Peter Busa, and Gerome Kamrowski, gathered in Matta's studio for a series of sessions during which they practiced automatism under Matta's direction. These meetings, Kamrowski recollected, "were fairly structured. We would bring our work, discuss it, and analyze the images. Matta was trying to project certain ideas, to get people to visualize time, to develop some sort of symbol, and, as you drew automatically, to see what would be a common connector." Matta was not concerned with earlier Freudian-influenced Surrealism rather he was attempting to find the visual means to express his conviction that reality could only be represented in a state of perpetual transformation. His ideas coincided with Kamrowski's interest in morphology, an interest that started at the Chicago Bauhaus when he discovered Darcy Thompson's On Growth and Form. Photographs of microorganisms, x-rays of plants, crystallography, diffusion patterns, and displays at the Museum of Science and Industry were, according to Kamrowski, "cultural commodities of the time" that were absorbed into his artistic frame of reference. He described the early 1940s as a time of free experimentation. "No one was concerned with turning out an identity commodity. You were subject o many influences and pursued many different things -- you didn't work in a consistent line. It was a matter of trying to get some self-actualization and looking for an integration." Two paintings from 1943 and 1944, demonstrate the range he was exploring: Cohesion Figures, painted in enamel on canvas, is thickly painted all-over abstraction based on broad, swirling, gestural handling of the paint. In contrast Revolve and Devolve is thinly painted in transparent layers with delicate linear over painting that established forms in motion reminiscent of those in Duchamp's Large Glass that Katherine Dreier had loaned to the Museum of Modern Art. It is the second of those directions that Kamrowski was to find most fruitful as he went on to paint works such as Sensations and Strange Sky. These are canvases that fall into a new category, "Abstract Surrealism", a term that was beginning to be used in describing non geometric abstraction that was usually suggestive of a kind of dream imagery in a highly personal, non-formulaic style. The participants in the Matta studio sessions came under this designation, as did Rothko, Gottleieb, Jimmy Ernst, and Arshile Gorky, all of who were included in the Surrealist section of Sidney Janis's 1944 book Abstract and Surrealist Painting in America.
Kamrowski's paintings of the 1940s are among the most fully realized works in this new hybrid style, thanks to his years of prior training and experience and his willingness to experiment. Although he used the term "blind chance" in speaking of some of his automatist effects, he actually used these techniques with a considerable amount of control, so that the resulting paintings are a blend of deliberate intentions and spontaneity. He surpassed his contemporaries, even the technically skilled Jimmy Ernst, in his ability to achieve effects of transparency as he layered showers of spatters and fine brush-drawn lines over translucent washes of color. Within the layers are embedded suggestions of organic processes: sprouting seeds, amoebas expanding and dividing, fine-lined tendrils, blossoms unfolding, or deep sea plants swaying. Like the Surrealist emigre`, Andre` Masson, Kamrowski used dark grounds which gave added translucency to his brilliant colors and established the sense of an indeterminate, non-specific space, with the entire surface becoming a field of action. In fact he paid tribute to the French artist, saying: "He was the freest and most liquid and closer to what we were doing. Everyone was aware of Masson."
Reviewers during the 1940s referred to Kamrowski as a Surrealist and Robert Motherwell described him as "the most surrealist of us all."2 While in retrospect it appears that he was actually taking painting beyond Surrealism, Kamrowski did involve himself with some of the emigres' projects, contributing drawings to their publication, VVV and illustrating on a six foot high canvas (large for the time) the new myth of "the great invisibles" proposed by Andre Breton in the first issue of VVV. Expanding on the importance of mythic activity fo a society's existence, Breton suggested that hovering above man there could exist beings who escape our sensory frame of reference through a form of camouflage.3 One of the several paintings Kamrowski did based on Breton's "myth" has as its full title, Part I: The Great Invisibles, Script for an Impossible Documentary. Although he later referred to it as "a myth that didn't fly," the artist appears to have truly grappled with a means of rendering Breton's beings plausible by suggesting skeletal forms made up of lines of force tentatively cohering in space. Cycloptic eyed, weightless, not responding to gravitational pull, yet roughly suggestive of figures, these formless phantoms benefit from Kamrowski's previous experiments with transparency as they simultaneously materialize and dissolve in a boundless space. Coincidentally at this time (1945) Matta had begun to introduce to his formerly unpopulated canvases mechanical-looking tubular humanoids while another former Surrealist, Wolfgang Paalen, began to paint supra-human beings he called Cosmogons that were made up of small dashes or disconnected rectangular units like those used in some atomic diagrams.
For the second issue of VVV, published in 1943, Kamrowski made two full-page drawings, each in its way depicting a surrealist process. In Panoramagraph he used a thin meandering line to connect fragmentary images borrowed from Picasso, Miro and the native New Zealand Maori, interspersed with quotations from Breton and Miro and graphs of the human skull. It illustrates his interpretation of the random process through which memory feeds into artistic creation. The second drawing, The Story of Man, was laid out in a format like that of the shadow boxes he had created the previous year. These were made by cutting out amoeboid openings in the cover of a black box, through which could be seen small vignettes of drawn or collaged images; in VVV drawing he used engraved textbook illustrations to suggest fragments of human history as they might spontaneously flash onto a mental screen.
In 1946 Kamrowski had his first solo exhibition at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery where his work had previously been seen in the Sidney Janis Abstract and Surrealist Art in America exhibition. It was also the first year he was selected for inclusion in a Whitney Annual, a show in which he was included each year through 1953. However, changes in Kamrowski's life began to separate him from the New York milieu. After his first wife, Marianna Fargione died in 1945, leaving hiim with a young son, Felix, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was to remain until his death in 2004. He continued for the next few years to exhibit in New York with one-person shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1948 and the Hugo Gallery in 1949. In 1951 the Museum of Modern Art belatedly recognized the existence of a modern movement in the United States with an exhibition titled Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America. Among the one hundred and eight works exhibited was Kamrowski's The Urgent Hour, 1949, which the curator, Andrew Ritchie, placed in the section called "Expressionist Biomorphic," along with works by Baziotes, Gorky, de Kooning, Rothko and Pollock. The Urgent Hour is one of the most complex of his "abstract surrealist" paintings; imbedded in its overlapping transparent layers are twisting, shifting forms that suggest all manner of organisms, from figures to foliage to aquatic life. The precise, delicate, yet free-flowing execution and the allusions to natural forms set Kamrowski's work apart from much of what was shortly to be christened Abstract Expressionism which treated the ever larger canvases as "fields" for all-over gestural painting.
Although some of the Surrealist emigres returned to Europe in 1945 at the end of the war, they left behind a few colleagues and a nucleus of American artists who for a time were perceived as American Surrealists. In 1947 the Surrealist poet Nicholas Calas organized the Bloodflames exhibition with an installation designed by Frederick Kiesler. Included were Kamrowski, Gorky, David Hare, Wifredo Lam, Matta, Noguchi, Jeanne Reynal and sculptor Helen Phillips, each of whom, according to Calas's catalogue introduction, emphasized "open forms, polycentric constructions, unexpected attractions and disengagements" in order to produce "that alchemy of form and colors which transform an artificial object into an eye-emanating light." Kamrowski, along with most of the other Bloodflames exhibitors, was regarded as a recruit by Andre Breton and invited to show in the Second International Exhibition of Surrealism, held in postwar Paris at the Galerie Maeght in 1947. Breton also helped to arrange a solo Paris exhibition for Kamrowski at the Galerie Creuze in 1950 and wrote a forward for the catalogue: "Kamrowski's ambitious enterprise is to establish the cosmography of man's inner worlds . . . . he has been entirely concerned with the functions of absorption and liberation of energy which largely determine bodily structures. And, unlike those who limit themselves to presenting us with the rind of those structures, Kamrowski allows us to be present at their formation."
In later years Kamrowski acknowledged that his faculty position at the University of Michigan had given him more freedom that he might have had in New York. "The painters in New York are so intimidated--they always have been--by the gallery situation . . . I'm not trapped into stripes. I'm not trapped into throwing paint I'm not trapped into anything."4 Yet he never forgot that his first real experience of artistic freedom came during the World War II years in New York when he and other young Americans felt the contagion of a new open-ended exploration of art's possibilities. He carefully stored away those automatist drawings in his Ann Arbor studio and loved nothing more in later years than to head for New York and dine at Roccos on Thompson Street where he would reminisce about the gatherings forty years earlier.
The development of his work during the Ann Arbor years followed the trajectory that had started with Abstract Surrealism as he continued to develop experimental and intricate modes of paint application and to exploit the lyric possibilities of color. In the canvases of the 1960s and 1970s specific forms were dissolved in all-over touches of color, but one still has the impression that an underlying organic process is the motivating subject. Then his art took an unexpected turn as he began to make cutout animal images in polychromed and beaded wood that he set on stakes so that they revolved with the wind. Motion, which he had always tried to achieve in his paintings, became literally possible, and the light, refracted from the bright-colored surfaces, softened the hard-edged shapes. Surprising as these weathervane-like creations were, they seemed to fit with Kamrowski's over-all goals of rendering process palpable and expanding his art through on-going experimentation. He never lost that vision of the "marvelous" that Surealism had opened for him in those exciting New York years.
Martica Sawin, 2005
Martica Sawin is a widely published art historian and critic. She was a faculty member at the Parsons School of Design for nearly three decades, author of Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, MIT Press, 1995, was the book editor for Art Journal, and has served as an independent curator for major art exhibitions.
1 Taped conversation with the author, November 20, 1986
2 Conversation with the author, November 1987
3 Andre Breton, "Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism-or else," VVV, no. 1 (Spring 1942)
4 Interview with Evan Maurer and Jennifer Bayles, February 1983, published in Gerome Kamrowski:
A Retrospective Exhibition, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1983, page 4