Art Thoughts, Week 15 -- Kaldis & Equality

(NOTE: My apologies for the lateness [again] of this Art Thoughts...I will also again do my best this week to catch up, since several other paintings have caught my eye and mind...)

Absorbing Art, Aristodemos Kaldis, (American, 1899—1979), 1941, oil on canvas, BF 988.

It is sometimes said that we are most attracted to that which we are like. We might be attracted to a companion, for example, based on a commonality in appearance. However, the opposite can be true; we are attracted by (often without realizing the connection) someone who has something that we ourselves are lacking. Only upon later reflection do we realize that, in a way, we truly needed that person. In fact, the best spouses are exactly that; needed in a very deep way, to "finish" us. Though crass, the "better half" quip has its verity.
And some may contest, but I would say that to live up to its definition as such, art too needs a viewer. Moreover, art needs a viewer who is willing to suspend disbelief – and occasionally belief as well – in order to be changed by the aesthetic experience. Art which is good at this interface creates a commonality through aesthetics through which equality may be encouraged, if not reached.

In Absorbing Art, there is a curious technique used by the artist, Aristodemos Kaldis, to encourage this interface towards change and equality. The main presence in the painting is a large, wide-shouldered African-American man, stalwart on a bench in a gallery, gazing absorbedly into an artwork – and here’s the curious part – which is actually us, the viewers. He is, to our estimation, looking at us, and it would be a bit unsettling except for that his gaze is completely calm and interested in what he’s looking at: his mouth is even cracked in wonderment. He clearly is there for the long haul, since he has resolutely placed his hands on his thighs, and planted his charming wingtips firmly on the raucously painted emerald rug. He is determined to make something of what he’s looking at.

In this picture, the viewer has become the viewed – the “art”. The thing viewed (the man) has become the viewer. Because of this, there is a friendly impasse; a staged, or suggested equality; a checkmate of sorts between us and the gallery visitor. The experience mentioned before, that of being confronted by a piece of art to change or otherwise face the world anew, is set up here in a very human way. Instead of being faced with a metaphor; an icon; a simile or motif, we are confronted with ourselves, essentially: another human being. The medium happens to be painting in this case. It’s also significant that this painting, bought circa 1950 by a white collector and hung in a gallery filled with continental African sculpture, would have confronted its contemporary viewer in an even more powerful way. This man, this viewer of viewers, has become or even should be your equal, whether you like it or not. If this is what Kaldis, a sometime-member of the New York School of mid-century painters, had in mind, we can’t be sure, but it was not for nothing this gallery-goer is African-American, in what was a tumultuous time for race relations and consciousness.

Again, having made this connection very literally, we can imagine that, like us real time viewers who will soon exit the gallery after contemplating this painting, and having hopefully absorbed the lesson and change that we encountered, this man will also turn and exit down the long hall behind him; past the gallery attendant, and through the paned door, having made an equal change in his own thought and practice, because of an encounter with a powerful and convincing piece of art. And that art? It was us.

Dayton  – (Sunday, 11 May, 2008)  

Tim, these are really great... Don't beat yourself up over lateness!! But keep it going!

GUY  – (Thursday, 20 November, 2008)  

Hale Woodruff may well have been the model for this painting as he was an African-American artist who had returned from Paris as the Nazis invaded. Hale had a studio in the same building as Kaldis on 94 5th Avenue.
Barnes purchased the painting from my father , Aristodimos Kaldis, in 1941 out of his first exhibition, the first living American to be so honored. The staff at the Barnes still treasure this painting as it is in their art school brochure.
violet DeFazio compared Kaldis' use of color to create 3 dimensional space while commenting that Matisse used color in a flat plane. Your comments also echo my uncle, Guy Eglinton, in Reaching for Art, who said that one should be quiet in front of a work of art and allow it to speak to you. I am happy that this painting speaks to you.

gierschickwork  – (Thursday, 20 November, 2008)  

Thanks so much, GUY for your comments and the wonderful details about your father and the possible sitter for this painting. It enrichens my experience with the painting, certainly.

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