Whenever anyone’s life is cut short, our thoughts go immediately to what might have been. Often our perceptions of a person’s promise are hastily stitched together by whatever shreds of evidence seem handy—little Jimmy’s love of airplanes suggested a future as a pilot; Suzie’s fondness for animals certainly could have been the first step toward a satisfying career as a veterinarian.
But when painter Rex Slinkard at the age of 31 during the influenza epidemic of 1918, he left behind an actual body of work for our examination. That the former rancher was an artist has never been the issue. The question was, and still is, would he have become a great one?
The Legend of Rex Slinkard, through February 26, 2012, at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, does not definitively answer that question, despite the 60 paintings and works on paper on view. Culled from Stanford’s trove of 268 pieces by Slinkard, the show is accompanied by a comprehensive catalog, with excellent essays by Charles C. Eldredge, who is a scholar of Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mardsen Hartley, and Geneva Gano, whose research on Slinkard was a catalyst for Legend.
By all accounts, Slinkard did not hit his stride as an artist until 1914. Because he entered the Army in 1917, Slinkard’s “mature” period spans barely four years. As the Great War raged in Europe, Slinkard indulged his infatuation with self-portraiture, as well as his symbolist urgings, creating allegorical works that appear lifted from the exteriors of Greek amphora and urns. Numerous paintings here containing sections, anyway, that are quite handsome and polished, but if this is the best of what remains of Slinkard’s legend, as Mardsen Hartley coined the phrase, one is forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.
Indeed, after Slinkard died, his father thought so little of his son’s output that he used Slinkard’s early, life-size portraits to fence in his chickens. I wouldn’t have done that with the stiff self-portrait from 1910 that’s on view, but you can imagine how hard-working dad might have been impatient with the career choice of his son. In that painting, Slinkard faces himself, standing posed and formal in a white shirt and dark vest, wearing a bow tie that’s as prominent as his bushy eyebrows. To his father, Slinkard’s paintings must have been uncomfortable reminders that young Rex was a city-slicker intellectual.
Or, in papa Slinkard’s estimation, worse. As devoted as Slinkard may have been to his art, he also liked to have a good time, drinking and carousing during his days in New York, where he studied under Ashcan artist Robert Henri and shared a studio with George Bellows, who put Slinkard in the lower foreground of one of his most famous fight paintings, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909). Some years later, in 1915, Slinkard’s own depiction of boxers, Ring Idols, was even more obviously homoerotic than Stag, which may be one reason why Rex’s father thought his son’s art was literally for the birds, or why young Slinkard’s engagement to Gladys Williams never consummated in marriage.
By 1914, Slinkard’s facial features (he was a cross between James Dean and Leonardo DiCaprio) and wardrobe are disappearing from his canvases, as if even he’s not sure what to make of his primary subject. Rex (1914-1915) is all shades of brown and ochre, a ghost-like phantom staring through narrow eyes, which create a horizon line on which the tangerine-colored flower blooms faintly in the artist’s forehead. Acolyte-Self-Portrait, (1914-1916), is brighter for the white shirt and red collar against a brownish background, but is that a rose or a beating heart in the artist’s apparently clasped hands? Is it anything at all? For self-portraits, these pictures are stubbornly obtuse.
Nor are we on firmer ground when Slinkard leaves his studio to paint landscapes, which are peopled with young men and boys in embrace, lean Elie Nadelman-like horses, and allegorical scenes of floods and fountains that borrow heavily from Arthur Davies but suggest the sensibility of William Blake. This is the Slinkard that Eldredge describes as a “latter-day Transcendentalist with a brush.” It’s a good line, but whether it’s a compliment or acknowledgement of Slinkard’s ultimate failure as an artist is difficult to say.
In the catalog, poet Marianne Moore is quoted, saying that Slinkard’s work was “so good and so hampered,” but by what, precisely? Though he apparently valued imagination over mere technique or convention, I think it was actually a lack of imagination that was Slinkard’s Achilles heel. After his death, his supportive mom, who saw to it that her son’s fiancée got the bulk of his work (Gladys died just a few years after Slinkard, leaving the legacy to her sister Florence, who then left it to her alma mater), tried to keep her son’s complicated legend simple. “He was fond of horses and dogs,” she said. In fact, Slinkard painted a lot of horses during his short career, but if his horse paintings had been consigned to the family chicken coop, would his mother’s words have caused us to bemoan the loss of a promising young large-animal vet? Perhaps. But the real question that remains unanswered by the evidence is whether Slinkard would have achieved greatness had his life not ended too soon.
“The Legend of Rex Slinkard” @ the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, through February 26, 2012.
About the Author:
Ben Marks is the senior editor of CollectorsWeekly.com and a contributor to KQED.org.