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 Albert Edward York  (1926 - 2009)

About: Albert Edward York
 

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Lived/Active: New York/Michigan      Known for: small-scale landscape and floral still life painting

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Ad Code: 4
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"Albert York, Reclusive Landscape Painter, Dies at 80"

By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: October 31, 2009, The New York Times, P. 34

Albert York, a painter of small, mysterious landscapes who shunned the art world yet had a fervent following within it, died Tuesday in Southampton, N.Y. He was 80 and lived in Water Mill, N.Y.

The cause was cancer, said Cecily Langdale of Davis & Langdale, the gallery that, first as Davis Galleries and later as Davis & Long Company, has represented him since 1963.

In a 1995 New Yorker magazine profile of Mr. York, Calvin Tomkins said he was perhaps “the most highly admired unknown artist in America.”  He described a shy man who avoided anyone connected to the art world, who worked slowly and who was perpetually dissatisfied with his work, prone to scraping down his wood panels and starting over.

Ms. Langdale said Mr. York usually wrapped his paintings in brown paper and mailed them to the gallery.  She said that when one arrived, unannounced and “practically still wet,” she often felt that Mr. York “had to get it out of the house in order not to destroy it.”

Rarely measuring more than 12 inches on a side, Mr. York’s paintings evoke a world in which time and art seem to stand still or even move backward through history.  His trees had the symmetry of those in Renaissance paintings.  His images of a single cow or dog evoked the manner of Dutch or English painters.  His occasional figures might be robed or turbaned as in earlier times, or accompanied by a skeleton signaling life’s brevity.  He frequently zeroed in on small vases of flowers, recalling late Manet, and even went so far as to do his own rendition of Manet’s Olympia.

But his paintings’ geometric simplicity, flatness of form and workmanlike brushwork exuded a quiet modernity, as did their wholeness of composition and feeling.  In the catalog to a 1975 York exhibition at Davis & Long, the critic and painter Fairfield Porter wrote, “Certainly part of the strong emotional appeal of these paintings” is that Mr. York “is not clever, and in no sense superior to the nature of his medium or the nature of the subject, but that he is at one with both.”

Albert Edward York was born in Detroit in 1928.  His parents were not married, and he was raised by his father but lived mostly in boarding schools and foster homes while his father worked as an electroplater in the automobile industry.  In his teens he lived with an aunt and uncle in Belleville, Ontario.  He studied at the Ontario College of Art and then at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit; after serving in the Army during the Korean War, he moved to New York in 1952.

He studied briefly with Raphael Soyer until Mr. York’s life was taken over by odd jobs and he stopped painting altogether.  Things eased in 1957, when he found a steady job as a gilder with Robert Kulicke, the innovative frame maker who died in 2007 and was also a still life painter.

Mr. York returned to painting in earnest in 1960, after four months spent in France with Virginia Mann Caldwell, whom he had met at a loft party in 1959, and her two children.  They married later that year.  He is survived by his wife; two stepchildren, Jonathan Caldwell of Santa Fe, N.M., and Kristin Caldwell of Carlisle, Pa.; and four step-grandchildren.

In 1962 he reluctantly showed his paintings to Mr. Kulicke, who enthusiastically recommended them to Roy Davis, Mr. Kulicke’s art school friend and business partner, whose small gallery began as a showroom for Kulicke Frames.  Mr. York had his first exhibition at the Davis Galleries in 1963 and his last (at Davis & Langdale) in 2007, for a total of 16 exhibitions there.  Because Mr. York worked so slowly, some paintings were exhibited repeatedly, but that seemed to fit Mr. York’s sense of time.

He painted only about 200 to 250 works in his lifetime.  Most are in private collections and museums.  A rare auction of his work took place after the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who owned six of his paintings.

Mr. York and his family moved to the East End of Long Island in the early 1960s, and he earned money painting houses and doing rough carpentry; financial need was an important incentive to make paintings.  When his mother, who he had been told was dead, reappeared in his life in the early 1970s and set up a trust fund for him, he worked even more slowly.

Mr. York had a small solo show at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., in 1993, and his paintings appeared in numerous group exhibitions, about which Mr. Davis kept him uninformed for fear he might refuse to participate.  In 1989, when the critic and curator Klaus Kertess organized an exhibition of landscape paintings by Jane Freilicher, April Gornik and Mr. York at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, he did so without meeting Mr. York and was never sure if he even saw the show, since no one knew what he looked like.

Ms. Langdale said Mr. York did go to the show with her and Mr. Davis; she took a rare photograph of him on the occasion. In his New Yorker article, Mr. Tomkins wrote that after seeing his work at the Parrish, Mr. York said he was “pretty upset about what I’d been doing for these last years.”

Robert Kulicke offered an explanation in the New Yorker piece: “What Al doesn’t understand is that in art you never hit what you’re aiming at, but the difference may not be downward.”


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