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 Robert Remsen Vickrey  (1926 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Florida/New York      Known for: magic realist painting, figure

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Robert Vickrey, Magic-Realist Painter, Dies at 84
Published: April 20, 2011, The New York Times

Robert Vickrey, a painter whose often unnerving depictions of shadow-streaked streets populated by nuns, clowns or children at play made him a leading figure of the magic realism school, died on Sunday at his home in Naples, Fla.  He was 84.

The death was confirmed by his son, Scott.

Mr. Vickrey, who mastered the Renaissance technique of egg tempera painting as a student at Yale, used his consummate skill to create, in his early work, hyper-real scenes suffused by an atmosphere of dread or impending disaster. He was an avant-garde filmmaker on the side, with a deep knowledge of expressionism and film noir, whose shadows, angles and distortions he introduced into his paintings.

In the 1950s and ’60s Mr. Vickrey was a highly visible artist.  He was included in no fewer than nine of the Whitney Museum’s annual exhibitions showcasing contemporary art. He was also commissioned to paint dozens of portraits for the cover of Time, notably a portrait from life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the magazine’s Man of the Year issue in 1964.
As his style of painting fell out of favor, Mr. Vickrey was relegated to the margins of the art world. Critics did not always respond kindly to the more upbeat tone of his later painting, moreover, which seemed closer to Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell than his chilling early work.

In the 1980s, a reassessment of magic realism, and of overlooked artists like Paul Cadmus, Jared French and George Tooker (who died on March 27), led to renewed interest in Mr. Vickery’s work. He was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Art, Science and Industry in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1982, and of a biography by Philip Eliasoph, “Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism” (Hudson Hills, 2008).

Robert Remsen Vickrey was born on Aug. 26, 1926, in Manhattan.  He studied art at the Pomfret School in Pomfret, Conn., before enlisting in the Navy’s V-12 officers’ training program, which sent him to study at Wesleyan University and Yale.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Yale in 1947, he spent a year in New York studying with Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League before returning to Yale, where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1950.

A turning point in his development came when he took a required course with Lewis E. York on egg tempera technique, about which he later wrote two books: New Techniques in Egg Tempera (1973), with Diane Cochrane, and Robert Vickrey: Artist at Work (1979).

Painting on primed masonite panels, Mr. Vickrey began fusing realism and surrealism in city scenes that showed children making chalk marks on the sidewalk, nuns walking down labyrinthine streets or adolescents caught in a web of luminous halos and shadows cast by bicycle spokes.

Lincoln Kirstein, a devotee of Cadmus, French and Tooker, saw his work on a visit to Yale and included a painting in his 1950 exhibition, “Symbolic Realism,” presented in New York and London.

Critics wrote admiringly of Mr. Vickrey’s paint handling, less so of his tendency to overload the work with symbolism and his overreliance on technique. In Comma, a 1960 picture of a boy seated on a wooden crate, he painstakingly painted more than 4,000 individual bricks in the wall in the background.

There was an undeniable spell cast by paintings like “Street Scene,” a close-up view of a curved railing with round stone bollards strung along it like beads, with an eerily empty city street visible in the background. The painting, exhibited in 1962, seemed to anticipate the photorealist style that would make waves a decade later.

Mr. Vickery’s first wife, Marjorie, died in 1997.  In addition to his son, Scott, of Los Angeles, he is survived by his second wife, Beverly Bowen Rumage; a half-brother, Caleb Whitbeck of Petaluma, Calif.; two daughters, Elizabeth Nicole McMartin of Saratoga, N.Y., and Wendy Caroline Vickrey of Wilton, Conn; and five grandchildren.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A painter of modernist portraits, Robert Vickrey has created many paintings that appeared on the cover of "Time" magazine and has written extensively on his methods of using tempera. He has frequently been called an American Surrealist or Magic Realist and uses symbolism extensively. Sometimes over their hearts, his portrait figures have targets, symbolizing the horrors and violence of war.

He was born in New York City, attended Wesleyan University and, in the 1940s, the Yale School of Fine Arts where he received his B.A. in 1947 and later a B.F.A. He also studied at the Art Students League of New York with Victoria Huntley, Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller.

He learned the technique of tempera painting from Lewis York, a protege of Daniel Thompson, Jr. who wrote the textbook for the tempera class at the Yale School of Fine Art. In 1950, Vickrey worked with Josef Albers at Yale.

Between 1952 and 1963, Vickrey was in nine annual exhibitions of the Whitney Museum and from 1957 to 1968, had 78 works published on "Time" magazine covers.

His work is in numerous museums including the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian, the National Academy of Design, the Brooklyn Museum, the Butler Institute of American Art, the Chrysler Museum, and the Corcoran Collection.

International Artist, 8/2002
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

Biography from Tree's Place Gallery:
Robert Remsen Vickrey N.A., born 1926, in New York City. Vickrey was educated at Yale (B.A., B. F.A.,) and at the Art Students League of New York, where he trained under Kenneth Hayes Miller and Reginald Marsh. In a career that spans more than half of a decade, he has continuously challenged conventions, developing a unique iconography that joins psychological narratives with spellbinding imagery. Vickrey’s singular artistic vision has allowed him to make an indelible mark on the development of American realism for this century.

Vickrey is attracted to the abstract shapes of the nuns’ hats, and the way light and shadow manifest themselves in around their angles. He also suggests that they are a symbol of something too fragile to exist in this world. The notion of fragile beauty amidst life’s myriad mysteries and dangers is a theme which Vickrey has continued to explore, in this and other symbology, throughout his career.

In images that have an immediate aesthetic appeal, Vickrey applies ambiguous narrative connotations for his viewers to interpret, if they choose. Butterflies, bubbles, balloons, angels and children personify innocence, lightness and wonder. Mazes, brick walls and shadows provide a darker, antithetical context

Using external symbols, Vickrey illustrates a many-faceted interior world. He possesses a profound sensitivity to man’s quiet struggles and continues to create vivid and dynamic portraits of some of life’s most perplexing intellectual questions.

Vickrey has held more than one hundred solo shows at museums and galleries throughout the U.S. He has participated in 142 group exhibitions and has 125 of his paintings represented in the permanent collections of approximately seventy public museums and institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery and the National Academy of Design.

He has won fifty-four major national prizes, has been elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design and the American Watercolor Society, and has been designated a Dolphin Fellow by the latter group. He created seventy eight cover paintings for Time magazine between the years 1957 and 1968. Forty eight of these covers are part of the permanent collection in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Gallery. Vickrey has been the subject of three books, including Creatures of the Spirit, by Donald Miller, and Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism, by Dr. Philip Eliasoph. He has been featured in numerous major publications including American Artist and American Art Collector magazines, and was the subject of a PBS television program. Vickrey has also authored four books, The Artist at Work, New Techniques in Egg Tempera, The Affable Curmudgeon and A Con Man’s Carnival.

Biography from Abby M Taylor Fine Art:
Robert Vickrey created a name for himself in the mid to late 20th century with his realist paintings produced in one of the most difficult mediums in art, egg tempera.

During the 1950's and 1960's, when the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York primarily exhibited works by Abstract Expressionists, Vickrey was one of the only realists invited to exhibit in the museum's Annuals. In fact, John Canaday of the "New York Times" described Vickery as "The world's most proficient craftsman in egg tempera painting."

Vickrey's paintings are often imbued with psychological overtones, and although considered a realist, he creates paintings that are expressive and the compositions have a feeling of the surreal. His favorite subject was that of nuns, which he depicted more than anything else. In explaining the subject, Vickery stated that he felt "that the particular order I depict is the perfect fusion of a beautiful abstract shape and a spiritual anachronism."

Vickrey also had a fascination with recreating textures in his surroundings, as seen in "Gull Rock", and alongside his paintings of nuns it was a theme he successfully approached throughout his career. Vickery achieved the texture in the rocks by applying layers of pigment with a sponge and then splattering the panel with thin, almost transparent mixtures of all the colors on his palette. As with his paintings of nuns, "Gull Rock" is dramatic in its expressiveness and mood.

Robert Vickrey was first introduced to the media of egg tempera when he was studying at Yale University. He also studied briefly at the Art Students League in New York under Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller. As well as having a successful career as a painter, Vickrey was a filmmaker, winning awards at the New York Golden Reel Festival, and illustrated over seventy-five cover portraits for Time magazine beginning in 1957.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Robert Remsen Vickrey received his bachelor’s degrees from Yale University and the Yale School of Fine Arts, where he studied with Louis York and Dean Kellar.  He also attended the Art Students League and studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Reginald Marsh.

In 1952, he was invited to exhibit his paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and he began experimenting with filmmaking.  Between 1957 and 1968 Time magazine commissioned him to produce more than seventy-five cover images.  His family, including his four children, often became models for his paintings.

There is disquiet in much of Vickrey’s work, which some have linked to surrealism, though the artist himself does not acknowledge this association.  In a reference to dream imagery, he wrote, “Most of my ideas come with an element of surprise. I never had a dream that gave me an idea for a painting, but I have painted pictures that influenced my dreams. I have seen, in some form, most of the things I have painted, although I have changed or heightened them to make them more visual.”(1)

Vickrey’s mastery of tempera sets him apart from other artists of his time.  He first learned tempera painting as a student, although he initially hesitated to attend a course in the medium.  Tempera allowed a kind of substance and detail that heightened the electric effect and emotional content of his work.

William Steadman wrote, “His best tempera has an inner illumination, a textural excitement and a sureness of stroke which can only appear in tempera.”(2)

Of his own work the artist commented, “I have been told that my work has strong psychological overtones, and I guess it’s true. Of course, I feel that daily life has strong psychological overtones, which I simply try to portray. I feel that I exaggerate about ten percent, which is enough to cause my work to be considered occasionally bizarre.”(3)

Sources include:
1. Robert Vickrey, Robert Vickrey: Artist at Work (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1979), 29.
2. William E. Steadman, Robert Vickrey (Tucson, Ariz.: Walker Lithocraft Print, 1973), foreword, n.p.
3. Ibid.

Submitted by the Staff, Columbus Museum

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