Visual Arts

Imperfections by Chance: Paul Feeley Retrospective at the Albright-Knox

by / Jan. 7, 2015 12am EST

Paul Feeley (1910-1966) had his first solo exhibit in the Palo Alto Public Library in 1927, when he was 17 years old; the show was drawings of his brothers. He was in a few other group shows in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until after he returned from World War II that he became the important and influential artist and teacher whose work is presented in this splendid exhibit. 

He had his first post-war solo exhibition at the New School for Social Research in 1948. That was followed by a lot of solo and group exhibitions in the 1950s continuing into the early part of this century. (A comprehensive list through 2002 is on 

This is the major exhibit for his work thus far in this century. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery describes this show as “The artist’s first retrospective in more than fifty years.” There have been other Feeley retrospectives, but all have been of narrower focus. This exhibition includes “the full spectrum of his creative output: early Abstract Expressionist-inspired paintings from the mid-1950s, organic figure-ground compositions from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the idiosyncratic, diagrammatical compositions that preoccupied him from 1962 until his untimely death in 1966, which share a conceptual affinity with Minimalism and Op Art. The exhibition [also includes] a selection of the painter’s fluid works on paper, as well as several painted sculptures, some of the last works he made.”

The exhibition comprises 40 paintings, 15 works on paper, and three sculptures. It was initiated by Peggy Pierce Elfvin and Director Janne Sirén, and organized by Albright-Knox Chief Curator Emeritus Douglas Dreishpoon and Tyler Cann, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Columbus Museum of Art. It balances a parallel exhibit on the north side of the Gallery’s main building, also initiated by Sirén and curated by Dreishpoon: Giving Up One’s Mark: Helen Frankenthaler in the 1960s and 1970s. 

The parallel exhibit is not accidental: Feeley was head of Bennington’s spectacular art department from 1939 to 1966 (save for the years he was serving in World War II) and Frankenthaler was one of his students. This is, to my knowledge, the first time any American modern art gallery has mounted parallel exhibits of a major artist who was also a teacher, and another major artist who was that teacher’s student.

The Feeley exhibit is divided into three time periods 1954-59, 1960-62, and 1963-65. They show his astonishing experiments with and development in form, color, rhythm, and structure.

The earlier phase of the exhibit has several images that seem based on polyps: Tiberius (1961) has six of them attached to a vertical core, all cut off at the edges, blue against a dark yellow field. Homer (1962) has four of them, two facing up and down, two facing left, all attached to a fatter bigger one facing right, red against (or in) a field of yellow. 

My favorite is Kilroy (1957), not unlike the nose of the famous World War II graffito often accompanied by the text “Kilroy was Here.” It’s a cinnabar node or polyp, spreading to the canvas edges at the top, surrounded by a field of yellow. (Or is it a bowl of yellow surrounding a field of cinnebar? That’s what color-field is about. Like that figure that in one glance is a lamp and another glance is two faces: It’s either, or both.)

But there’s more to Kilroy than that. The cinnabar figure hanging down suggests an udder, a breast, whatever comes to mind. Doug Dreishspoon said to me, “It’s both peaceful and it’s anguished…It’s abstract, but we well know that abstraction has meaning,”

On closer look, the cinnabar of Kilroy isn’t at all perfect. The cinnabar leaks into the yellow much like photographs of sunspots leak into the world. That wasn’t accidental: Feeley could easily have cleaned that up. He chose not to, as if to show us that this was something being made. It’s a painting, one that implies time and process. And the cinnabar itself isn’t the least bit monochromatic: It is a constantly shifting field of shade, saturation, and intensity. Dreishpoon said about this picture, “He’s not afraid to show imperfection and strokes.” It’s even more than that: Feeley wants us to see the imperfection and strokes. Art is not just product; it is also process. And that is what Feeley’s work is about.

They’re all like that. Even though at first glance each of the rooms feels like a room of similar things, they are similar only in the most gross of ways, ways that very soon after serious looking evaporate.

When I walked around the exhibit with Dreishspoon I mentioned that even though the images are non-referential, I couldn’t keep a variety of other images and forms from coming to mind. “That’s what art does,” he said. At one point I said that I couldn’t keep from going anthropomorphic.” “I think that’s fair,” he said. “They’re catalysts for dreams. That’s part of their quality.”

Some of the drawings provide a clue to the larger paintings in the larger galleries. They have thin lines bisecting the page horizontally and vertically, and diagonals going from top left to lower right and top right to lower left. Perfectly geometrical. But then a drawing is made in those quartered fields, sometimes symmetrical, but not quite. The lines are perfectly formal, the drawings or watercolors only sometimes are. Order is there only as a starting point. 

The earlier paintings show leaking edges, as if to let us in to the process of making; the later paintings, clearer in line and form, sometimes have thin, light spaces between the fields, providing, Dreishspoon says, space for the color to “breathe.” The spaces are small; you won’t notice them unless you’re looking for them, but you’ll feel them. And that’s all art is about anyway: feeling. If there’s no feeling, it’s just technique.

Feeley prepared a document for the Bennington Art Department in October 1959, “Bennington Art Policy.” It is 20 brief paragraphs that are as much a manifesto of making art as teaching it. If I were head of a university art department or ran a gallery, I’d make it into a huge poster, because it says so much about what making art and understanding art is all about. Here are some of my favorites of those 20 paragraphs:

3: A valiant attempt to define the 20th century so that we may know what we are working with.

4. The encouragement to do the most elementary and primitive things in art, if necessary, in order not to operate in a hollow, pretentious manner. 

5. A willingness at all times to return to first principles to get back to simple things in order not to get lost in complex uncertainties.

6. Increased understanding of past and present culture.

9. To be challenged by the opportunity of finding life relationships in the rare arena where form is confronted by the word, and not to answer that challenge by an art school formula.

13. To give specific though to what it means to study art in our time. Clearly we are responding to world conditions that have never been quite this way before.

18. To encourage contemplation and reflection as sources of human action; however, not to deny the creative power of impulsiveness and spontaneity.

Here are some thing to keep in mind when you look at Feeley’s lovely formal paintings and his polyps with their complex manifestations of color and space. He grew up in art, he taught art in the late 1930s and then in the 1950s and thereafter. But in between he was in World War II and at the end of his service he was one of the first US GIs in Nagasaki. He was a Marine. In those years, you couldn’t be drafted into the Marines; you had to enlist for it. He was an artist who made that very specific choice. He knew the best we had come up with and he’d seen the worst we might do.

When he writes, in that 1959 manifesto, about the importance of art being related to real life, he was not the least bit abstract. His paintings are abstract, but what they reach for is your very real gut. Those polyps are also mushroom clouds.

Through February 15 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The Feeley exhibit travels next to Columbus Museum of Art, October 16, 2015 to January 10, 2016.