The first impression one forms of Irving Marcus is that he is a fauvist/post-impressionist hailing from some tropical clime. His palette speaks of sweet air and warm light, which is the exact opposite of what his paintings and drawings actually communicate. For the past 35 or so years, Marcus, 84, has painted dark allegories populated by demons, geishas, beasts and innocents interacting uneasily. “Someone once said my work is somewhere between Chagall and Anselm Kiefer, that you’re always being whipped back and forth” between levity and “anguish,” Marcus told me. That sort of viewer response has been more or less consistent since the mid-70s when the artist began painting violent, unsettling events from news photos.
The floating, hallucinatory visages we see in his pictures arise organically out of a process that begins with oil pastel drawings on paper which are then replicated in oil on canvas. “I look for photos that have some sort of power as a visual object,” he explains. “Then I look at them in terms of color. I’m looking at the demands of a particular atmosphere that I’m projecting onto a bit of a photo. If the atmosphere of what I’m looking at is dark, then I have to use dark colors,” and out of that process “images start to appear.”
Satire isn’t Marcus’ only vehicle; nor is autobiographical revelation, even though the apparent surfeit of it is what gives his work real bite. What really facilitates it is the artist’s virtuoso paint handling – visible in the textures he achieves through erasure, daubing, crosshatching and juxtapositions of distant and close-value colors that define (and confuse) pictorial space. Hidden Hiding, where the bodies of two lovers seamlessly intertwine, is a particularly strong example. So is Hen Courage, where colliding geometric shapes create the illusion of a girl on a pedestal surrounded by skyscrapers. In typical Marcus fashion, the girl’s beatific grin is belied by a threatening flock of birds a la Hitchcock.