|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following is from Wendy Jeffers, curator of the 1990 Whitney Museum exhibition of this artist's work:|
Niles Spencer, painter, was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island,
the son of Henry Lewin Spencer and Margaret Allen. The Spencer
family had extensive business interests in Pawtucket including banking
and manufacturing. Niles Spencer graduated from the Rhode Island
School of Design in nearby Providence in 1915. He studied several
summers in Ogunquit, Maine with Charles Woodbury and subsequently, with
the avant- garde group surrounding Hamilton Easter Field.
1916, Spencer moved to New York to continue his studies. The lively
intellectual milieu of Greenwich Village was in its heyday, and Spencer
was exposed to many of the radical theoreticians and personalities of
the time, who encouraged him to begin working in new directions.
Deeply influenced by Cézanne's faceted explorations of landscape and
still life, Spencer's paintings began to focus on the geometry of
architectural shapes and how they related to their landscape.
work is often associated with a group of American classicist painters
called the Precisionists, a loosely knit group including Charles
Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Louis Lozowick, George Ault, Elsie Driggs and
Ralston Crawford. The Precisionists reduced the American
industrial landscape to a spare dynamic, architectonic composition
characterized by an unmodulated surface and simplified images.
Searching for a singular modern American subject, they venerated the
machine and industry as an exaltation of the dynamism of the future.
the 1920s, Spencer produced a series of paintings using the
architectural landscape of Provincetown, Massachusetts, as his
focus. In a typical painting, the distinctive vernacular
architecture of New England is silhouetted in an atmospheric light-gray
wash, characteristic of an overcast day at the water's edge.
the 1930s, he turned from the light-filled landscapes of Provincetown
to studies of New York City and of industry. A mural commissioned
by the US Treasury Department in 1937 for a post office in Aliquippa,
Pennsylvania, resulted in many drawings and oil studies and a new
vocabulary of forms for Spencer. When he returned to
Provincetown, his leitmotif was the railroad, construction equipment,
ice plants, and other industrial subjects.
method was painstakingly slow. He revised and reworked his
compositions until he arrived at something that satisfied him.
The surfaces of his paintings are loosely brushed layers of subtle,
tonal changes of color. The palimpsest of each painting--the
artist's process of distillation and decision-making -- is visible
through the many layers and changes of shape. His paintings are
unique among the Precisionists for precisely this process and for the
sophisticated tonalities of color which evoke an emotional and moody
Spencer's career can be divided into several distinct stylistic periods:
The early Ogunquit paintings (1913-1922) showing the early
influence of Cezanne; the Provincetown paintings (1923-1930); the
paintings of industry and New York (1931-1942) and the late geometric
work (1943-1952), showing Spencer's turn toward abstraction.
During this last period, shapes became more two-dimensional and
stylized, and the subject less identifiable. Still-life paintings
made throughout his life reflected these different stylistic concerns.
output was relatively small, a result of his slow methodical working
methods and his early death of a heart attack in Dingman's Ferry,
Pennsylvania. During his lifetime he had only two one-person
exhibitions, one at the Charles Daniel Gallery in 1925 and another,
twenty-two years later, at the Downtown Gallery in 1947. He
exhibited often in group exhibitions at the Whitney Studio Club, the
Downtown Gallery, the Carnegie Institute, the Corcoran Gallery of Art
[now Museum] in Washington, D.C.; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine
Arts, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Holland; California Legion of Honor,
San Francisco; the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art
and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Venice
His awards included a national mural
competition for a commission in Aliquippa Pennsylvania sponsored by the
Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C.; an honorable mention at
the Carnegie International in 1930; and a purchase prize from the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942. A memorial exhibition of his
work was organized and circulated by the Museum of Modern Art in 1954,
and another circulating exhibition of his work was organized by the
University of Kentucky in 1965.
In 1990, The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a retrospective of his work.
married twice; his first marriage in 1917 to Betty Lockett ended in
divorce in 1942, and in 1947 he married Catherine Brett. He had
no children by either marriage. Although widely known and respected by
artists and museum curators, he was often described as reticent and
introspective. Unwilling or unable to promote his work in an
increasingly commercial environment, Spencer was often missing from the
large survey shows of the period. The tireless work of his dealer
at the Downtown Gallery, Edith Halpert, helped to ensure that Spencer's
modest but important contribution to American art was not forgotten.
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