David Carbone
Alfred Russell by David Carbone (published in Modern Painters Volume 4 Number 2 Autumn 1991, p.43-45.) [Unfortunately, this format doesn't allow the use of French punctuation.] Originally written for the catalogue of Russell’s 1991 Retrospective at the Civitico/Berg Gallery in Charleston, SC during the Spoletto USA Festival.

Leaning against the wall atop a bookshelf in my studio is an unframed 1952 drawing which I have been taking in by glances for several weeks. this drawing gives an immediate impression of an explosion of graphic forces, scattering across the surface into a vast free-floating space. As I look at it from a few feet away, I am aware of the drawing as a field filled with a profusion of automatically inscribed signs—turning, twisting, floating, pulsing, in zig-zag formation. graphic particles of movement are dissipating or gathering in clusters. Toward the picture's center a strong current of horizontal forces is weakly intersected by a vertical counterforce. Nearby. streams of line radiate from the centre, forming equilateral triangular shapes. Other triangular planes begin to emerge and whirl about, first as positive, then as negative shapes. As I follow the shifting and sliding spatial implications of these forms, a number of smaller points and intervals begin to emerge; they draw me simultaneously inward and outward, toward a collapsing constellation of oscillating geometrical forms. As I move closer, I notice that farther out in the drawing lines vibrate and condense into bars and squares. The ink itself is of differing densities of black; lighter tones bleed across the lines and have been rubbed for further modification. Here and there pen marks cut into the paper. With another glance over the whole drawing, the large configuration seems to withdraw, as if to hide itself amidst the dispersion of smaller events. after several weeks of looking, I have not come to the end of this drawing. It is the work of a little-known American master, Alfred Russell.

Russell, who is seventy-one years old, has for decades had an underground reputation in the New York art world. Over the past 45 years, he has moved back and forth between abstraction and figuration, between a painterly geometric abstraction and a neoclassical expressionism and their synthesis. This 'Janus-faced' position (as Deborah Rosenthal once called it) dates back to the early '50's, when most theories of modern art held that representation must move into abstraction. Russell also rejected the then conventional assumption that one artist should have one image and one style. He chose to treat abstraction and representation in the same way painters used to treat landscape and portraiture—as different expressive modes. He is a sophisticated and naturally combative maverick who has always insisted on going his own way.

In taking his position, Russell echoed Picasso's decision not to work in just one style. the 1950's art world, however, looked askance at Picasso's post-cubist development—at his determination to remain figurative but simultaneously produce works in different styles, for example a neoclassic figure and a cubist still life. Determined to resist the abstract bandwagon, Russell followed his creative impulses into a variety of styles. In addition, Russell, like his friend Ad Reinhardt, often used his sharp wit to lampoon the presumption of fellow artists and critics. Both painters despised what they saw as the lowering of standards by artists who were joining up with the avant-guarde around 1950-53. They regarded the new arrivals as careerists, out to make a product with a useful message, an all too easy poetry. In 1953, Russell wrote:

   ' Paradoxically, the cult of originality has produced a crude, raw assembly-line product for the needs of mass culture, and imagined differences in it are defended or attacked with chauvinistic ferocity...'

Russell's exhibition career began in 1943 at the Detroit Art Institute. In 1947 he was included in the Art Institute of Chicago's major show, 'Abstract and Surrealist Painting in America'. When Russell went to Paris in 1948, he almost immediately became involved in avant-guarde circles. Camille Bryen and Georges Mathieu included him in 'Blanc and Noir' at the Galerie des Deux Iles; he also exhibited in the Salon des Realites Nouvelles. In 1949, he showed at Galerie Pierre. back in New York, he had a second show at Peridot Gallery and was included in the Whitney Annual. This was followed by Russell's third show at Peridot, in 1950. He appeared at the Kootz Gallery in the famous' New Talent' show, selected by Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg. At that year's Whitney Annual his painting was purchased for the permanent collection. At MOMA he was in 'Calligraphic and Geometric'.

In 1951 Russell had his fourth show at the Peridot Gallery, appeared for the third time at the Whitney Annual, was included in the Art Institute of Chicago's 'American Painting', and the biggest show of that period, MOMA's 'Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America'. Most of 1951 was spent in Paris working for a show at Galerie Colette Allendy. He was already well-known in Paris and the show was a huge success. Michael Tapie included Russell in the controversial exhibition, 'Vehhemences Confrontees' at Galerie Nina Dausset. Here again American painters were shown alongside Europeans. the other two Americans were Pollack and de Kooning. The next year Russell appeared in Tapie's 'L' Art Autre'. In 1952 Leo Castelli organized an exhibition called 'American Vanguard', shown first at the Sidney Janis Gallery and then at the Galerie de France. In October, after more than five years of exhibiting in New York and Paris as an abstractionist, Russell held another show at Peridot—but this time of expressionist classical figures. In November of 1953, Russell announced his abandonment of abstraction, and made a ringing denunciation of the art world in a symposium on the human figure published in 'The Magazine of Art". In doing so he walked out of the history of post-war abstraction and into oblivion. His appearance in 1955 at the Whitney's 'New Decade' show was a swan song.

Russell's paintings represent an important lost episode in the history of post-war art. In place of the lingering Renaissance models of perspective and projective geometry (that confirm our sensory experience of solid forms in stabile space) Russell substituted the discoveries of space-time physics, of being and nothingness, of the non-Euclidean cosmology, of wave-particles that determine spatial structures through the nature and velocity of their movements. In fact, this new reality is perceptually inconceivable except through visual analogy. In presenting signs and schemata in place of the thing itself, Russell followed artists like Klee, Kandinsky, Masson, Miro, and his teacher at Atelier 17 in New York, Stanley William Hayter. in 1947, Russell introduced the new physics into a series entitled 'Tentative Signs'.  Here a whole range of experimental processes— the running and bleeding of color fields, lines scratched into wet paint surfaces, flickers of thickly applied calligraphic tracery, impastoed slashes of saturated color—opened up new expressive possibilities. Out of some of these varied efforts emerged what became an insistent motif, a strong concentrated horizontal or vertical stream of forces flowing through the centre of the pictorial field. Out of and into this cortex of line-point correspondence radiate trajectories, trigonometric growth spirals, graphs from analytic geometry, Brownian movement, effects of the electron microscope and the cloud chamber. These were among the works Russell took with him on his first trip to Paris in June of 1948, where he continued to work on them. Eventually, he called some of them his 'Street' series.

Kandinsky's book, 'Point and Line to Plane' (published in English in 1947) provides a key to Russell's preoccupations. In his opening paragraph, Kandinsky suggests the image of the street as a metaphor for the activities of life and the vitality of art, seen alternately in objective and subjective terms: as an outer reality in which 'we become an active part', and as an inner world, 'set apart, existing and pulsating as if "beyond".' Another key to the "Street' series can be found in a favorite novel of Russell's at the time, Celine's 'Journey to the End of the Night'. Here Celine slyly and romantically declares that our life is an imaginary voyage, ‘Everything else is a snare and a delusion'. He writes of the streets of Paris and New York:

'There is no point in struggling; waiting is enough, since everything in the end will have to turn out into the street. It's the street which counts in the long run. There is no escape'.

Russell gave some of his new abstractions the names of real streets in Paris: 'La Rue de Never', a cul de sac, the shortest, narrowest dead end in Paris; 'La Rue St, Denis', the long and infamous street of pimps and streetwalkers. Here then, in Russell's own words, was 'a poetry of the anti-poetic'.

There are several distinct approaches to Russell's handling of the "Street' motif. The first "Street' paintings focus on a cross motif or axial form. Pale yellow and neon-blue calligraphy courses over grey-purple fields, interrupted here and there by crimson lozenges or patches. these works have a spectral force of a tree by Giacometti. in later 'Street' paintings the calligraphy opens up into varied networks of black lines, laid on top of areas of stained and rubbed colour. In a 'Street' painting called 'Wave-Corpuscular-Movement' (1951, retouched in 1956) the surface is heavily worked and space is defined by a fugue-like structure that builds into a climax that is the axis itself. In other works, like 'The Doppler Effect' of 1949, strips of broken colour weave in near tapestry form, a space of popping colour oppositions. Everything seems close to the surface—and at the same time the whole canvas feels like an abyss. Everywhere, spots of colour are flaring up and fading. A tremulous motion emerges out of innumerable soft touches. In 'The Ocean of Dirac', also of 1949, reworked in 1956, Russell creates a projective field of geometric orthogonals. Out of this vast space, a multitude of lattice openings, holes, seem to whirl about as if positive structures gathering into an erupting sphere. these open fields are being filled by the artist's gathering 'horror vacui'.

Russell’s pursuit of the absolute through abstraction did not end in 1952; it has continued episodically into the present. The few works I have described suggest the nature of a much larger enterprise that has taken many more turns than those presented here. Russell's abstractions fuse a fierce explosive sensibility with a scintillating crystalline imagination to produce a geometric expressionism.

If Russell's early career in abstraction has been forgotten, lost, his development as a figurative painter has been a legend among New York's figurative underground. When Russell taught in the Master of Fine Arts programme at Brooklyn College during the 1960's and early 1970's, he attracted many young figurative artists who were interested in something other than a return to nineteenth century paradigms.

In 1952, fleeing from what he felt was the 'bureaucratization of the avant-garde', Russell sought refuge in tradition. The following year he claimed to have dropped abstraction due to his experiences while traveling in Europe, which revived his interest in the classical tradition. Russell became obsessed with the achievements of the past; but at the same time, he wanted to relate the achievements of the past to his generation. In Europe, Russell had encountered the work of Derain, Giacometti, Balthus, de Chirico, Sironi, and Fausto Pirandello. Russell had never really given up figuration. figurative elements can be found dispersed amongst his 'Tentative Signs' series. In some of the "Street' series figure fragments emerge out of automatic calligraphy, and the central axis becomes an abstract figure. The 'Pink Nude' of 1949 is a "Street' painting become classical figure; this figure is a ghost made up of black lines and patches of impastoed colour. Later figures in this series take on less classical proportions; bits of painterly geometry coalesce into a three-quarter length torso, as in 'Woman' of 1950. This is a work in dialogue with Giacometti and Pirandello.

 From February to October of 1952, Russell worked on a series of calligraphic, expressionist figure compositions that were shown at the Peridot Gallery. Major works (some with life-size figures) include 'Striding Amazon', 'Venus Anadyomme', and The Finding of Queen Zenobia'. The colour ranges from a muted gray-purple-to yellow-green palette (like that of Kokoschka) to hot pinks, brilliant ambers, and Mars violets (like those of Monet).  In 'Venus Anadyomne', a painting crackling with electricity, the crouching figure fills the canvas; a hint of landscape opens out the upper right corner. here the figure is delineated with black lines that emerge and then disappear amidst the polychromed ground. This helps to establish the presence of the figural form in tension with the pneumatic flow of colours. This Venus was shown alongside a de Kooning 'Woman' in a show at the Stable Gallery the next year and again at the University of Illinois's annual exhibition, 'Contemporary American Painting'.  For the catalogue of the show Russell submitted a statement in which he suggests that the 'new reality' of modern physics has revived the pre-Socratic conception of the universe— the idea that everything is in flux.

    'Somebody got there before us... Now is the time to paint the wrong picture in the wrong century and the wrong place, paint Diana of the Ephesus.'

In posing his credo, Russell had reconceived the classical world in post-Nietzschean terms, in truly modern terms.

In a statement published in 1977, Russell expanded on his late romantic position, pointing specifically to the 'metaphysical' aspect of his work:

   ' I have always believed that the reality of art is unique and beyond all other realities, or, in another sense, that art is the reality underlying the unreality of the everyday world'.

 Russell believes that to use classical elements alone, as some contemporary  figurative artists do, thinking that they are 'doing the Greek and Roman thing', is to miss entirely the classic conception. Russell wants to free figuration from mere imitation. He employs line to transform an imitation of reality into an abstraction of man.

Many of the paintings of the late'50's and early '60's recall the style of Delvaux's paintings, but with a much stronger feeling for a lost classical world. In 'Venus Surrounded by the Poetry of Doric Geometry', begun in 1957 and completed in 1960, we are confronted with a full-length figure filling the vertical axis of the canvas.  Her arms—strangely foreshortened—are raised up in the gesture of a sacred offering. She stands on a ground plane made up of a sequence of coloured tiles. Venus is surrounded by Doric columns and the suggestion of a temple; at her feet a cube has collapsed into a pentagonal dodecahedron. There is no effect of light, no cast shadows, only light and dark planes, no atmosphere at all. Everything is crisply defined— but this is not a rational world. Follow the ground plane to the base of the Doric columns where it ends. As we pass beyond, the coloured planes float up and play against the figure. We notice how the wide column on the left, set back into space, pointedly joins the curve of Venus's hip on the picture's surface, an event elaborated in floating diagrams incorporeally inscribed over other forms. This effect collapses the space, against the expectations set forth by the ground plane. As we look again to this Venus, we may begin to see that she is not intended to be a vision of graceful flesh but a self-conscious reflection of artistic invention. If this Venus could speak, she would repeat Heraclitus: 'The unseen design of things is more harmonious than the seen.'

Russell's figures are not free to gesture in any and all directions. Rather, they exist in a kind of flattened relief plane; the forms of the bodies are rotated, twisted out of joint into a new configuration, now rhythmical, now disjunctive, in a tension with the surface of the picture. This deliberately disregards 'correct and accurate form', as in the falsely foreshortened arms of the Venus mentioned above. This is the result of a careful study of anatomy rather than its avoidance. As anatomy teaches us the old forms and proportions, it also teaches us the old meanings. These new configurations have precedents in the poses of sixteenth century mannerist art, but in the context of Russell's work they take on a particularly twentieth century aspect as the figure is bent by the forces of physics and non-Euclidean geometry.

 In 'Falling Figures', of 1970, a multi-figured constellation evokes Russell's Heraclitan nightmare— no earth, no gravity, just female figures and horses drifting, twisting, flying, in a great protracted fall. There is no didactic story (as in traditional neoclassicism), just improvisation given a poetic focus by the occasional use of an inscription in ancient Greek: 'As  the autumn leaves turn, twist and fall, so does humanity; after the age of Apollo, Chaos comes singing'.

 The 'Falling Figures' series represents a reformulation of Russell's crystalline manner into an opened-up, painterly shorthand that relates to his methods of the late 1940's. here, within the semblance of classical figuration, Russell begins like Masson, Matta, and Wols, drawing over a stained, splattered colour field. As always, Russell begins by establishing large surface relations which develop into a projective structure. what will later become a breast, an elbow, a knee, an eye, begins as a point on a line, an intersection of planes, elaborated into configurations of mathematical forms.  Russell has studied these forms in the spirit one studies anatomy, to develop a form-sense and to understand its expressive possibilities. Looking carefully over the gesturing bodies, we discover figures first identified as far back, fused with or overlapping figures in the mid-distance and foreground. The figures develop in complexity as they come forward. With their black and white tracery crackling about them, these bodies glow with a cold whiteness that shifts to blue, crimson or pink-green flesh.

There is another form Russell's work has taken, a fusion of his figurative and abstract modes. The synthesis occurs from time to time— in 1946-7, in 1963, and in 1972-73, when Russell completed an elaborate series known to me almost entirely in drawings. Each drawing is a landscape-like netherworld, broken into disjunctive areas or zones, as if each zone were a world unto itself. Classical figures appear, transparent, like the constellations the Greeks saw in the night sky. They levitate, hover, fall, swim and fly.

In one untitled ink drawing, dated June 1973, a large female torso dominates. This multi-breasted figure is made out of spherical and ellipsoid forms. Its prone position and Arp-like configuration suggest a symbol of fertility, or perhaps Rhea, the Great Mother. Much of the imagery in the drawings suggests ideas of birth and generation: a levitating female figure receives an egg; an enormous black hole draws in or spews out a small figure; a figure holding a torch, symbol of life-giving energy, could be the virgin goddess Hestia, daughter of Rhea. Close to us in fictive space is the largest of the full-length female figures. She swims or flies with a determined purpose. She could be another version of the goddess who receives the egg. Such a goddess was known as a "Lion unto Women', and as Eileithyia, who comes to the aid of women in childbirth. So, this must be Artemis, giver of fertility, navigating this graphic expression of a cosmogonic theme: 'Artemis in the Realm of the Great Mother'. Yet it is significant that this drawing is untitled. My interpretation is wilful, a projection; but it is derived from observation of the metaphors that Russell has developed over the years. Russell works in series with a 'very definite ideal and set of criteria'.  Yet he is moved to point to the mystery of geometry, the inchoate cosmos, the consciousness of history. He dislikes an art that gives itself up to the viewer too easily.

Russell's work can serve as a paradigm for artists who feel, as so many do today, compelled to look inward and outward, to the past and the future. Russell does not want to be either a 'figurative' or an 'abstract' artist in the usual sense. He believes that spatial apprehension is the special province of the artist. For him especially, 'Geometry is the probity of art', the vehicle through which 'art can dramatize what is thought to be real'. Geometry suggests an ideal world that we cannot fully know— that points beyond the limits of human understanding. Russell sees art as a struggle to bring a mythic universe into the picture plane— and into the present.