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 John Carlis, Jr.  (1917 - )

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Lived/Active: New York/California/Illinois      Known for: painting, commercial art, book design, sculpture

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Polar Landscape
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is text and general information from a 1968 interview by Henri Grant with John Carlis for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

Born and raised in Chicago, and then establishing a studio in New York City, John Carlis Jr. as a youngster took Saturday classes at the Art Institute, and then when he was in high school qualified through testing for a scholarship to the American Academy of Art.  However, he was denied admission there  'when they discovered I was a Negro."  Then upon graduation he took an examination and at age 17 in 1934, won a scholarship to the Art Institute for a year, the only student of the Chicago school system to qualify.  He remained at the Institute for seven years, both as a student and then as assistant instructor. 

Remaining for a period in Chicago, he did painting, and free lance work including book design, and he taught art at the Southside Community Art Center.  In his early 30s, he went to San Francisco, and took a job in the shipyard and painted in his spare time. With another artist, he had a collaborative business for nine years, developing a line of greeting cards. Also he did sketches and paintings of San Francisco scenes.

This period was followed by timel in Europe, in the Canary Islands where he rented a cottage and then a four months stay in Kenya where, for ritual dancing, he got involved in copying old masks in a light-weight plastic material.

During these travels, "he painted with gouache and did impressionist scenes--- big loose representations with bright color and gardens and landscape scenes modified out of things that I saw, could see out of the window where I was surrounded by the views of the sea or the banana plantations and things like that."

Then he settled in New York City and developed as a professional artist. Of his artwork, he said:

"Well, I've had several styles. And the things I think I'm doing at the moment are not like any of them. I showed you a record album cover a moment ago which was a kind of . . . it was the way I painted in the thirties -- of Negroes in a rather romanticized north African backgrounds and lots of drapery, I mean , clothing that was draped. I think that today there is so much to look at. To begin with, the television screen which most families look at numberless hours each week. And there's a great deal of drama in news photographs in all the magazines. I seem to feel that the things I'd want to paint would have a . . . I'd like to use paint as an area for social protest. I'd like to paint, I'd like to use the news photographs of the recent disturbances, of the rioting in Chicago, for example, in a stylized way. I'd like to do that. I'd also like to do a series showing, well, a popular theme for white American artists seems to be the family around the model and the model is black. And in the artist's studio I'd like to do a shift on that, you know, a black bourgeois family, a bourgeois artist, and a white model. And a popular theme for white artists, a least in the twenties and thirties and they'd say 'Afternoon Idle' and show the Negro nursemaid or the colored girl with their little children and the white people sitting on the steps. And I'd like to reverse that and have a white nursemaid and a black family. I'd like to do that kind of thing for shock value, for whatever it's worth."

HENRI GRANT: "This prompts me to ask you if you are interested in breaking or bending conventions as it were?"

JOHN CARLIS: "Yeah, both. Breaking and bending."

HENRI GRANT: John, I know that you paint and you've talked a good deal about that, but you've also sculpted. Let's talk about your sculpture. I saw some things that were done, I believe, in wire.

JOHN CARLIS: Yeah. Well, years ago in Chicago I worked in terra cotta and I studied mold making at the Art Institute and I made animal things in those days. I think I gave a photograph of a horse around here. I used to make casts of that and sell it to friends, but not so many years ago, in New York -- I've forgotten how it started -- I started working with iron wire and I got terribly excited about it and I made some sculpture in iron wire instead of soldered and had them gold-plated. Peter Fink, the photographer, liked them very much and bought one. And another friend, Gertrude Carlin, who's a jeweler here in town liked one very much. And Elvi Elder, the set designer, has one. Let's see, Rught Aaronson, who is with the firm in the Empire State Building, has another. I think I have a photograph of it here. I exhibited them at the Far Gallery, and Bertha Schaefer had them. These were all small things, none taller than ten inches. And Lee Nordeness showed some in an exhibition which had a theme of athletes. And he said, well I happened to meet Lee on a plane trip to Detroit, the day people went to visit the Archives of American Art. And we talked and he said, you know, if you want I'd like you in a show. And I like these things. If you want to make some things that were athletic. So I made some polo players and other things. But that's really the extent of my work as a sculptor, although I'm at present time making some maquettes of things for Mrs. Allan Learned who has a little gallery called The Sculpture Gallery a few doors from the Museum of Modern Art. And they are showing some photographs and some maquettes right now up in Albany for things hoping to place, to show things that would be developed for university campuses. And I talked to her about the possibility of things being enlarged by professional caste and boiler makers and people like that. That interests me. I don't think it's at all necessary for an artist to himself work with big forms, I mean, no more than it is for an architect to build a house that he designs. I think that I have a sense of form and can make maquettes of things which can be placed in front of a photograph of a building and give some sense of it. And then go ahead and have a builder make it."

JOHN CARLIS: "I think Frank Lloyd Wright was a decided early hero. I knew about him first in high school and I read his autobiography and was quite impressed. And then in the Chicago area there are so many examples of his work that are easily seen. The Robey House was not far from where we lived and I knew that. And then during his school days we made field trips to various houses. And I remember in art school days I used to work often at night in the museum print shop and then at nine o'clock I'd cross the street and spray table mats in a sweat shop run by one of the teachers. she sold plastic table mats that were lacquer sprayed and I'd work there until two o'clock in the morning. And then get on the Congress Street elevated to go home, and I'd look up at the tower of the auditorium which Wright writes about and of his days there working with Adler and Sullivan. And I'd think of his being young and starting out life and how he had to fight for his position and for the chance to be head of that drafting room. And I'd think, well, if he can make it I can. And it's two a.m. I'll be all right and I'll be back in the morning."

JOHN CARLIS: "In New York, I was art director of Opera News Magazine for a couple of seasons. Mosell did a cover for us which you may have seen. It's a big cover."

HENRI GRANT: "In summing up, John, would you just tell me in your own words where you think art is going or headed in this country, either as a black artists or just as an artist. What are your sentiments about the direction art is taking in this country?"

JOHN CARLIS: "Well, we hear a great deal about the population explosion and I think that without a doubt the larger cities or the de-centralized cities or whatever they are, the superclocks, are going to demand another kind of art. Something that is quite new. I think that the vogue for large paintings and for larger-scaled sculptures is going to become a, very much a reality that the superblocks and the new spaces will demand another kind of thing. I remember in art school days, a teacher talking about painting and saying that very soon we'd be flying on much more frequent flights all over the globe and looking down at the earth. And she said for centuries men have been painting things close at hand, but as we look down at the earth we'll be painting other patterns. And she said we'll see the rivers and we'll see the cities from up on high and that will be an entirely new kind of vision. And in recent years when I've made quite a few jet flights I feel, you know, how right she was. That there is a new kind of vision and probably from new buildings and new ways of travel we're going to have a painted, sculptural kind of aesthetic that will be seen from a new angle. You might say, you know, is the era of painting over? I don't think so. I think there will always be a place for a small picture. I think portraiture will continue as long as there are people that the image of people we love we will want to have near. But I feel that naturalistic painting will move away and that there will be more and more knowledge of plastic means. And I think the television screen static shows patterns that are interesting many times and certainly the new titles for films show what can happen with all kinds of new images. The washes of color and the textures and I think that there's going to be more and more of an appreciation for the essential elements of painting rather than of literal representations of objects and things.

HENRI GRANT: Thank you very much, John Carlis.

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