The Late Paintings of Nicolas CaroneReview
Around 2007 Nicolas Carone, then 90 years old and legally blind, underwent an extraordinary creative reawakening that lasted until his death in 2010.
The paintings Carone produced during these final three years of his long and very active artistic career are instantly recognizable as a group, but remarkably individuated as specific pieces. They combine the expressionistic brushwork, muted colors, and sometimes heroic proportions of his mid-century abstractions with the analytic rigor and stripped-down figuration characteristic of his mature drawing. What sets them apart from the earlier work—as the small, choicely curated show “Nicolas Carone: What Matters—The Late Paintings” at the Loretta Howard Gallery drove home—is the refined intensity of the design and the depth of the imagery spilling over his surfaces.
At their best, as with the 10-foot-wide canvas of Lost Tribe (2007), Carone’s late paintings manage to convey something akin to the varied spaces, dense imagery, and austere fanaticism of Italian fresco without ever departing from the vocabulary of abstract expressionism. Black, white, and grey predominate in the work of Carone’s last years as it sometimes did in his canvases between the mid-1940s and late 1950s, but the long, charcoal-like lines of black and the broad, thin washes of white that give Carone’s late paintings their structure appeared only occasionally during that time. And while Carone certainly let a few brushstrokes drip here and there as a younger artist, none of his earlier canvases are as saturated with drips as Lost Tribe, each bit of gray and black seeming to burst from the darker lines and lighter patches of white, as if the painting were decomposing and recomposing on the canvas—a quasi-literal manifestation of the churning imagery characteristic of Carone’s drawing.
An untitled 1958 oil on linen painting included in the Loretta Howard show uses a similar set of ingredients as the final work—pure whites painted on black, abstract shapes serving their own plastic ends while also suggesting figures and landscapes—but loses focus in an impasto of biomorphic curves that create weight and movement but not light or direction. It’s an intelligent, tasteful, deeply rhythmic piece, offering further evidence of how thoroughly Carone had absorbed certain lessons of postwar Italian painting, but its dutiful, impersonal air undermines its expressionistic aims.
The painting of Carone’s final years manages to bridge the gap between his analytic side and his personal imagery. His trapeziums become mountains that become the broadside of a horse. His triangles split to form the legs of two people and then next to them are two more, all of them locked together in what could be battle, sex, or simply the coincidence of sharing the same moment of judgement.
The surfeit of imagery in these paintings brings to mind the “overabundance of material” that the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, in Late Style in Beethoven, identified with the work of older artists. Adorno linked that overabundance to the use of “conventions that are no longer penetrated and mastered by subjectivity, but simply left to stand,” and argued that “[w]ith the breaking free of subjectivity, [these conventions] splinter off. And as splinters, fallen away and abandoned, they themselves finally revert to expression; no longer, at this point, an expression of the solitary I, but of the mythical nature of the created being and its fall, whose steps the late works strike symbolically as if in the momentary pauses of their descent.”
As a description of the particular quality of Beethoven’s late work (or Goethe’s, the proximate subject of that particular passage), this seems fairly abstract. But as a description of Carone’s late paintings—their surfaces splintered by lines and strewn with symbols and references to myths—Adorno’s comments seem almost literal, particularly the image of an artist creating works during brief pauses in the fall that, implicitly, ends only with death.
At the center of What Matters (2008), one of many pieces Carone painted in his last years on tarpaulin rather than canvas, is an image of a neighing horse with a rider that may be dismounting or, more likely, tumbling off in a reimagining of Michelangelo’s drawings of the fall of Phaeton, an image Carone had already alluded to in a major painting from the 1970s. Another work on tarpaulin from the same year, High Spirit, has a similarly striking central figure, in this case a man in a wide-brimmed hat and a second, less well-defined figure lurking behind him, a combination suggestive of the shepherds at the left of Giotto’s Dream of Joachim, their eyes fixed on the descent of an angel.
For Carone, stories like these communicated meaning in a way analogous to the esoteric visual experiences he thought were created by a plastic approach to line, color, and the picture plane. Some of this spiritualizing can be tied to Carone’s most important teacher, the artist Hans Hofmann, who catalyzed Carone’s transition from academic painting to abstraction as he did with many other artists in midcentury New York. Other bits are simply the off the rack Jungianism common to postwar American intellectual and artistic circles. But in his late paintings, Carone manages to replace the largely rhetorical existentialism he came of age with in the 1950s with a narrower and deeper statement about the way art grows and changes inside of us—and even right in front of us.
Works of and about personal discovery, Carone’s late paintings encapsulate his still underappreciated gifts, showing him at a time of great personal vulnerability, when he seems to have put aside his somewhat externalizing self-consciousness about being an artist in favor of being a person who, having shaken off Adorno’s “solitary I,” pauses in his descent to share visions from our collective, inevitable fall.
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