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 Rex Jesse Ashlock  (1918 - 1999)

About: Rex Jesse Ashlock
 

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Lived/Active: California/New York      Known for: abstract, figurative expressionist painting sculpture

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BIOGRAPHY for Rex Ashlock
Facts/Data
Birth
1918 (Spokane, Washington)
 
Death
1999 (San Francisco, California)

Lived/Active
California/New York


Self portrait - Interior Abstract with Self-Portrait


Often Known For
abstract, figurative expressionist painting sculpture

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"One Small Grain of Sand, Unstained"
- The Life and Art of Rex Ashlock by Peter Hastings Falk


For art historians, nothing is more intriguing and challenging than discovering a body of artwork and suddenly realizing that it represents an important but missing glimpse into the history of American art. Yet these opportunities are uncommon. After all, generations of art historians, curators and dealers have already separated most of the brilliant wheat from the derivative chaff. This is why excitement
surrounds the discovery of a previously unacknowledged artist highly deserving of critical recognition.

Rex Ashlock is one of these. A Chinese calligrapher once gave him his Chinese name, "I chen bunán," - "One small grain of sand, unstained." Here is an artist who may well have felt like a grain of sand left behind in that curious and continuous sifting between art history and art promotion while never losing his dignity in the struggle to render a vision of art, unstained.

In 1937 Ashlock entered the freshman class at the University of Washington in Seattle with every good intention of following a traditional education. But after his sophomore year he quit, compelled to pursue his passion for painting. His mother was supportive, but his father's hostility to what he perceived as an insecure and unmanly calling never diminished. Ashlock moved to San Francisco and spent two years at the California School of Fine Arts.

Walking long distances to find his sites, and carrying his paints and brushes around in a shoebox -- he would battle financial stringencies all his life. Ashlock's earliest works are largely of scenes around the Bay Area, painted in watercolor en plein air in the style of the Regionalists. He often spent early mornings at the racetrack, drawing the horses as they exercised, but the trainers, afraid of flapping papers, demanded he maintain a Buddha-like composure as he drew, which perhaps contributed to the apparent simplicity in his lifelong working-habits.

The instructor who would have the most impact on Ashlock over the course of the next two years was his near-contemporary, David Park [1911-1960]. "David Park instilled, or inspired, in me the feeling of how really to look at the subject you are painting. I recall an incident in his class that was funny but also left a lasting impression on me. We were painting a female nude model directly in oil. David Park came to my easel, his eyes darting back and forth between the model and my painting. Then he exclaimed to me, "See those breasts! You've captured them just right! They're coming right at ya!'"

Park's energy and enthusiasm directly fueled Ashlock's interest in expressive painting. However, un-helped by - and unable to come to terms with - the complex emotional circumstances of his life, he would spend the next twenty years trying to find his own unique style and mode of expression. In 1940 he married a woman more sympathetic to her dreams of mysticism and social status than the down-to-earth struggles of the artist-at-work. A daughter, Margaret, was born in 1944. Family finances demanded that he take odd jobs just to make ends meet. Finally, in 1947, shortly before his son Peter was born (1948), he secured a teaching-position at the California School for Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Among his colleagues on the faculty was Richard Diebenkorn.

That year he also won the watercolor prize at the annual exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association. By 1951 he was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley's Extension Division and at the Berkeley Evening Adult School. In 1955, he returned to the California School of Fine Arts as a teacher.

Though Ashlock exhibited his works from time to time, he did so more out of what he perceived to be a social obligation -- as a faculty member -- and never actively promoted his work. He never hustled the galleries and museums but remained a classic example of the independent artist, quite wishing someone would notice but never exerting himself to bring that notice about. And perhaps because of that absence of professional fulfillment, and the unhappiness of a personal relationship in which he and his wife shared such different goals, Ashlock began to feel trapped, tormented, and prone to fits of anger. He was nearly forty, but a mature, consistent style of painting had not yet emerged. He described himself as an irascible character, at odds with the world. In 1957 he took advantage of an offer to ride East, packed his paintings onto the car-rack, and left his wife and two children to move to New York City.

His first years in Manhattan found Ashlock settled into tiny apartments, first in Chelsea, later in Greenwich Village. He complained about the lack of space. "Kline was painting his big black-and-whites, but it wasn't easy for me to paint [large] . . . there was furniture, paint pots on the floor, no space, and no sense of comfort or convenience." Nor, despite his dreams, did his personal relationships ever finally provide sustained emotional support. He could paint women; the female form was an endless source of inspiration for him, but as for living with the flesh-and-blood creature herself . . . gradually, he began to derive his comfort from whisky, cigarettes, cats, and the "New York Times".

He also became friendly with many of the abstract artists of the first generation of the New York School, drinking at the Cedar Tavern with Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning [1904-1997], and Kostas the Greek, who had a photographic memory of where "every painting was to be found in every European museum." (Kostas loved to mythologize; when he told a story, it changed with every telling, as if he were constantly experimenting with new brushwork.) They were all mourning the death of Cedar-regular Jackson Pollock, who had died in 1956. Ashlock had learned of Pollock's death on his first day in New York when the headline leapt out at him on the day he arrived in New York for a summer-visit.

Ashlock's early New York works, marked by broad fields of single colors with subtle tonal changes, some characterized by moon-like shapes, others by calligraphic emblems, show the influence of leading abstract expressionists Adolph Gottlieb [1903-1974], Ad Reinhardt [1913-1967] and Mark Rothko [1903-1970]. "I never had a class in color. I studied it on my own. I bought a book by Hilaire Hiler, a San Francisco painter of small precise abstractions. He was interested in the abstract idea of color. For me it was a means to an end. I met Hiler in New York and visited with him. . . Finally, I evolved an attitude trusting my eyes."

Ashlock was not to find his freedom and expressiveness in pure abstraction or color field painting. He was very much aware of the abstract movements, "but I wasn't thinking of it for myself at all . . . the paintings which are totally abstract are something like a skeleton with no flesh on it." In fact, despite his experimentation in field painting, he always felt that those paintings lacked structure whereas he had "an impulse to design, to compose."

In 1963 Ashlock was finally able to move into a much larger apartment on St. Mark's Place. "The scale of the space in which I lived and worked -- high ceilings and openness -- was very encouraging. I could step back from a large painting very comfortably." His new studio was in part a catalyst for a breakthrough in figurative expressionism that would come in the early 1970's.

Notably, in Ashlock's series of nude female bicycle riders he skillfully distorts the bodies, endowing them with large powerfully driving legs. This not only enhances the sense of the circular rhythmic pedaling, but nearly breaks out of the picture plane itself. This dramatic movement generates a feeling of urgency, and the image pulses with sexuality.

Ashlock's description of one of his nude paintings from this time underscores the new dynamic tension he discovered. "[It is] the contrast between three-dimensional form and diagrammatic thinking. The two are straining to get together -- or to stay apart -- I don't know which, like a square peg in a round hole. It emerged from the field paintings and anticipated my sculpture."

In sculpture it was not surprising that Ashlock focused on the female form. Inspired by some of the polychrome wood-sculptures of Elie Nadelman [1885-1946], he began a series of female nudes in painted plaster. Years later, one of Ashlock's students, Nathan Oliveira -- who also became a colleague and fellow teacher -- began a similar series of painted nudes for which he is now well-known.

It is these mature works, rooted in figurative expressionism, which bear his unique stamp. Like Cedar-tavern acquaintance, Willem de Kooning, Ashlock was fascinated by the female figure and never abandoned it as his primary source of inspiration. "I was influenced by de Kooning and Oskar Kokoschka and German Expressionism, but I didn't want to go abstract. I wanted to represent something."

Ashlock pointed to Mondrian as one who was more interested in spiritualism than appearance, so that his paintings conveyed an underlying force. "Mondrian may not be so concerned with the look of things as with spatial relationships, patterns and relations between lines and color. I find it hard to be totally non-representational. The look of things is important to me." He was also impressed by the leading English figurative painters, Francis Bacon [1909-1992] and Lucian Freud [b.1922]. He lamented, "We haven't produced anyone here in this country like Freud or Bacon."

In Ashlock's large seascapes of this same period one also feels a powerful sense of the dramatic. At first glance the viewer is faced with what appears to be a minimalist seascape of vast ocean and high horizon line. However, the eye naturally following the water suddenly plunges off the edge of the earth. We are alarmed to discover that the earth is flat! We are thrust back to the 12th century. Here is a time warp. The nexus of two worlds and two horizons are fighting for supremacy while twisting both perspective and spatial depth. This is an extraordinary series that finally reconciles pure abstraction, color field painting, calligraphic brush strokes of heavy impasto, and a recognizable subject -- all into one picture plane. In fact, this series puts painting on its ear. Ashlock commented wryly that it was a matter of assuming "the perspective of several seagulls."

For Ashlock, painting was above all about process: a process in which emotional, intellectual and physical depth was at play. In the two series discussed above, the nudes and the seascapes, it is clearly Ashlock's desire to create the sense of motion, reinforced by color, that connects the two subjects. "At what point do you see the connections? . . . the image you want? The temptation is to continue the process, continue playing. The sense, however, is that it is important to keep putting on paint, that with the accretion of layers there is physically and emotionally greater depth."

Ashlock remained invisible during his nearly twenty-five years in New York, living what he called "a lifestyle of extreme independence to" its fullest. Then, in 1980, he returned to the West Coast. He spent a few years in Spokane, Washington, where he continued the occasional portraits he had worked on over the years. Previously, he had painted from magazine photos - T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, P.G. Wodehouse, W.H. Auden, who also lived on St. Mark's Place, and whose lined face would sometimes appear in the Second Avenue tobacco shop they both frequented. He also painted Beckett, whose integrity he deeply respected. "I admired him the most," Ashlock said, "because he turned down the Nobel Prize and then gave a speech to the press about how he felt that it was inappropriate to give prizes to works of art." In Spokane, however, the portraits turned into a series of "imaginary friends." Interestingly, some of the faces had more than a hint of self-portrait about them, as if he was beginning to think of himself more benignly.

After Spokane, Ashlock reestablished himself in San Francisco, where he studied Chinese for several years, finally pursuing more fully his lifelong interest in the 'visual word'. By this time, however, his former abuse of alcohol and cigarettes had begun to take its toll. His health deteriorated. Gradually, the artist found himself dependent upon others for his survival. During the 1990's he was hospitalized for a variety of problems, ranging from heart ailments to an aneurysm. Eventually, he became bound to a wheelchair, exhausted by a kidney dialysis procedure that was required three times a week. Finally, in 1999, Rex Ashlock's body gave in to its on-going struggle.

This is the story of a love affair with art. From his earliest years, fascinated by the tiny black-and-white reproduction of Rosa Bonheur's "The Horse Traders," which he found in a school-book -- "I looked at it and looked at it . . . I just loved it," Ashlock believed that the image was a gateway. What was he really seeing? And how, in all the folds of imagination, could he make perception visible? That quest -- not the failed relationships; not the pain -- was what was interesting. Painting the layers. Achieving cohesion. And without doubt, Ashlock's capacity to realize his vision matured over the years in New York. He left us a series of powerful paintings, showing that whatever the personal toll, he never lost the excitement of the pursuit -- these paintings tug at our senses for what "honest" paintings should be. Paintings that reveal an artist who never lost the excitement of the pursuit even though he never cared to promote his accomplishments.

In the process of rediscovering Ashlock's painting and sculpture, we can draw a better understanding -- and a fresh perspective -- of the art and culture of the last half of the twentieth century. Here is art as honest as it gets. One small grain of sand, unstained.

Peter Hastings Falk

EXHIBITION RECORD
1945 Raymond & Raymond Gallery, San Francisco (solo)
1947 San Francisco AA (at San Fran. Museum Art. Walter watercolor prize)
1948 City of Paris Gallery, San Francisco (solo)
1949 Centennials Gallery, Berkeley (solo)
1950 Larry Blake Gallery, Berkeley (solo)
1950 San Francisco AA (at San Fran. Museum Art. Drawings prize)
1953 Contemporary Gallery, Berkeley (solo)
1953-54 de Young Museum, San Francisco
1954 L. Labaudt Gallery, San Francisco (solo)
1954 Valley Art Association, Sayre, Penn. (solo)
1954 G. Paul Bishop Gallery, Berkeley (solo)
1956-57 Duveen-Abraham Gallery, New York
1957 L'Envoi Gallery, San Francisco (solo)
1957 Phoenix Gallery, New York
1958 Bleeker Gallery, New York
1960 Brata Gallery, New York
1963 Brata Gallery, New York (solo)
1962 Bodley Gallery, New York (solo)
1962 Allan Stone Gallery, New York
1967 Avnet Gallery, Great Neck, New York
1969 Staten Island Art Association
1972-73 Princeton Art Association, New Jersey
1973 Caravan House, New York
1974 Painters & Sculptors Society of New Jersey (Honorable Mention, sculpture)
1977 Bond St. Gallery, New York
1979 Painters & Sculptors Society of New Jersey (National Arts Club, New York)
1981 Mushroom Gallery, Spokane, Wash.,
1981 Touchstone Gallery, Spokane, Wash. 1981
1983 Westside Gallery, Spokane, Wash.
1984 Spokane Civic Center

Other Exhibitions: Membership:
San Francisco Art Commission San Francisco Art Association (Artist's Council, 1957)
Calif. Watercolor Assn, Los Angeles Staten Island Art Association, 1969 (juror)
Oakland Museum
Richmond Art Association, Calif. Work:
Calif. State Fair, Sacramento. International House, Berkeley, Calif. (18-ft. mural)
Humboldt College Swedish Embassy, New York
Napa College Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC (10 drawings)
Pacific Art Festival

Teaching
1947-48 Calif. Sch. Arts & Crafts, Oakland
1947-56 Berkeley Evening School
1951-56 Univ. of California, Berkeley
1955-57 California School of Fine Arts
1964-65 Roslyn (NY) Adult School
1963-70 MoMA Art Center, New York
1970-73 Princeton Art Association (NJ)
1970-77 The Artists' Workshop, New York


These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
Born in Spokane, WA on Aug. 23, 1918. Ashlock moved to San Francisco in 1937 and was a copy boy for Associated Press while studying at the CSFA and UC Berkeley. During 1957-80 he lived in NYC and then returned to San Francisco where he remained until his demise on Dec. 23, 1999. Exh: Calif. WC Society, 1944; SFAA.
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Interview with the artist or his/her family.
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.

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