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Ivan Le Lorraine Albright
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ivan Albright, known for his necrotic art, is not generally considered a realist in the traditional sense. His work, with strong emphasis on surface detail and use of warped perspective and multiple angles of light, has sometimes been called hyper-realistic. It can be linked with 'magic realism', but a rather funereal and macabre kind of 'magic', a vision of haunting psychological intensity imbued with a morbid sense of the corruption of matter and the decay of age.
Born on February 20, 1897, in North Harvey, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago, Ivan was the son of Adam Emory and Clara Emilia (Wilson) Albright. His father, a genre painter, was the descendant of a long line of gunsmiths. He named Ivan Le Lorraine after the 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain. Ivan's identical twin brother, Malvin, was given the middle name Marr, after Carl von Marr, under whom Adam had studied art in Germany. An older brother was named Lisle Murillo, after the Spanish artist of that name, and he became a businessman.
Ivan and Malvin were taught to draw when they were eight years old. They also often posed as ragged barefoot urchins for their father's sentimental rustic scenes. Partly as a reaction against their father's type of art, the twin brothers took up architecture, which Ivan studied from 1915 to 1916 at Northwestern University and the next year at the University of Illinois.
He first showed his work in 1918 at the Chicago Art Institute's annual watercolor exhibition. At the very end of World War I, Ivan served as a private in the American Expeditionary Force and was stationed at a base hospital in Nantes, France. His unusual assignment was to paint watercolors of wounds, which he executed with an accuracy that impressed the medical corps. This experience undoubtedly affected his later work, which often seems grotesque in its meticulous examination of flesh. While at the hospital, he also became fascinated by X-ray images, which he said had provided "the best art training I ever had."
After the war, Albright studied briefly at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, before returning to the United States. Immediately he began work as an illustrator of brain operations for a surgeon in Oak Park, Illinois, whom he had met in France. In the fall of 1919 he had not yet decided to become a painter and was torn between architecture and chemical engineering. He tried his hand at advertising illustration, but abandoned it as being too commercial.
In January, 1920, he won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago which was later renewed three times. The scholarship convinced him that he should at least continue his art training. In 1923, he graduated with honors in life and portrait painting. Albright then spent one semester at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (where his father had once studied with Thomas Eakins), and the spring term of 1924 at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Despite this extensive education, which honed his impressive technical skill, he was little influenced by any of his teachers, and even as a student his individuality was apparent. After receiving an honorable mention in 1926 at the Art Institute's Annual American Exhibition for his painting Paper Flowers, he was finally convinced that he should pursue an artistic career.
In 1927, Ivan, Malvin, and their father set up studios in an abandoned Methodist church in Warrenville, Illinois, a small town near Chicago. Malvin, like Ivan, had given up architecture for art. About this time Ivan's unique style began to emerge. The Lineman (1927) and The Blacksmith anticipate his later figures, although they show less preoccupation with detail and virtually no background setting. Soon Albright began to add environments, but despite the increase in detail and their garish colors his pictures still had an air of desolation, as well as long, literary titles. Heavy the Oar to Him Who Is Tired, Heavy the Coat, Heavy the Sea (1928-29) is considered his outstanding work of the period.
His style, exemplified by Woman (1928), was described by Daniel Catton Rich as "terrifying in its realism." Albright's 1930 painting Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida created a furor when it was first exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, but nonetheless won him an honorable mention. It showed a flabby, primping prostitute painted in repellent greens and purples with sickly yellowish shadows. Also in 1930 he had his first solo exhibition, at the Walden Book Shop in Chicago. In 1931, Albright had his first solo museum show, at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Later in 1931 he began work on one of his most celebrated paintings, That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do, also known as The Door. In this eight-foot-high canvas, a female hand holding a lace handkerchief rests on the carved molding of a mortuary door. The painting was not completed until 1941, and the following year it won him the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy, perhaps awarded to him more for his technical mastery rather than for the appeal of his subject. Later in 1942 the same painting won a prize as the best picture in the Artists for Victory exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The Art Institute of Chicago now owns it.
Another painting, The Window, Albright began in 1941, and worked on intermittently over a 21-year period. Its full title is Poor Room There Is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever, and Forever Without End. In this work, which involved Albright's most elaborate studio construction, a broken window of a decrepit brick building becomes a horrifying vortex of objects. By the ingenious manipulation of black window shades, and by shifting the larger items around his studio on wheels, he was able to give each object the kind of light he wanted. Michael Brenson, in Albright's obituary in The New York Times, called The Window "a concentration of many of [the artist's] ideas", and noted that every object in the work is "so encrusted with realistic detail that the stone and wood seem swollen and almost physical".
Albright won wide public recognition in 1943, after he and his twin brother went to Hollywood to paint a series of portraits depicting the moral and physical degeneration of the title character in the MGM version of Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. The horrendous final portrait, with its incredibly detailed corruption, often brought forth shrieks from the audience. It was rumored that Albright was paid $75,000 for the series, which remained in his possession.
On August 27, 1946, Albright married Josephine Medill Patterson Reeve, daughter of the founder of the New York Daily News. They had two children, Adam Medill and Blandina Van Etten. Albright was by this time highly successful, and living in Chicago's fashionable North Side. Summers spent at the Three Spear Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming, inspired a series of Western still-lifes, including The Wild Bunch (Hole in Wall Gang) of 1950-51.
With the advent of the new American painting of the 1950s, Albright came to be regarded as a traditionalist, if an odd one. From 1955 to 1957 he painted Portrait of Mary Block, now in the Art Institute of Chicago. Jan van der Marck in Art in America (November/December 1977) compared the face in this portrait with its "impassioned paleness" and "eyes brimful of ominous intent" with faces in the work of the 16th-century German painter Hans Balding Grien. Van der Marck wrote that the Mary Block portrait is "so chillingly rendered and so surreal in its obsessive portrayal of detail that it makes Dali's Face of Mae West Seen as an Interior, also at the Art Institute, look playful and contrived".
Pop art's revival of figuration after a decade of abstract expressionism may have been partly responsible for a renewed interest in Albright's work. In any event, his 1964 retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago was a major success. The following year Albright decided to leave Chicago, and moved his family and studio to Woodstock, Vermont, where they bought two houses, one for children, grandchildren, and guests. In the late 1960s he began work on a figure painting called The Vermonter for which Kenneth Harper Atwood was the model. He followed his usual practice of devoting many months exclusively to a single picture.
The work of Ivan Albright is outside the mainstream of American painting, and with the possible exception of Leon Golub's so-called Chicago Monster School, has had little or no influence on other painters. However, one of his most outspoken admirers has been the French painter Jean Dubuffet, who declared, "Never before has an assault of such force been given to the rationalistic order". Dubuffet describes Albright's world, with still-life compositions like The Window in mind, as "a howling tumult, polycentric of many forms--a Gehenna of forms entirely delivered to delirium." His self-portraits are known for their morbidity, and the night before his death in 1983 he was working on a portrait of his eyes in order, his daughter Alice claimed, "to see what death looked like".
In contrast to his art, Ivan Albright himself was himself was known to be a brisk and cheerful man, short, rotund, and balding. Jan van der Marck wrote of him: "Interviewing Ivan Albright is as futile as collecting light from shooting stars. Mock arrogance alternates with tongue-in-cheek humility in a rambling monologue running the gamut from self-deprecating humor to sly assertiveness."
For all Albright's love of paradox, especially the paradoxical circularity of life and death, there was a philosophical basis for his work. He stated, "I hope to control the observer, . . .to make him feel tossed around in every direction, to make him realize that objects are at war Everything in the canvas is fighting. I want to give a feeling of frustration." Despite his meticulous technique, he aimed far beyond straight representation and trompe l'oeil effects. "Whenever possible," he said, "I like to create a feeling of the unknown".
Writings about his art include: "Ivan Albright" (cat.), Art Institute of Chicago, 1964; Current Biography, 1969; Rose, B. American Art Since 1900, 2d ed. 1975. Periodicals: American Artist January 1966; American Art Journal May 1976; Art in America November/December 1977; Art News November 1964; Magazine of Art February 1943; Newsweek November 24, 1943; New York Times November 19, 1983; Time July 6, 1942.
David Michael Zellman, Three Hundred Years of American Art
Doris Dawdy, Artists of the American West
Peter Falk (Editor), Who Was Who in American Art