by Tirza True Latimer
Odds are that you have never heard of Charles Howard (1899-1978). A retrospective at BAMPFA begs the question: “Why not?” Howard participated in many of the 20th century’s milestone group exhibitions, including: Surréalisme at Julian Levy Gallery, New York (1933); the International Surrealist Exhibition, Burlington Galleries, London (1936); The Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1942); Peggy Guggenheim’s inaugural exhibition at the gallery Art of This Century, (1942); and Sidney Janis’s Abstract and Surrealist Art in America (1944). He also showed his work at most of America’s first-tier museums. In addition to MoMA, that list included the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Art and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Solo exhibitions abroad — at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, for instance — underwrote his international reputation.
Here, I’ll confess I had no knowledge of Charles Howard until this summer, despite the fact that marginalized artists the early 20th century have been the focus of my research for the last 20 years. At the threshold of the gallery, I gasped. The artworks displayed literally took my breath away. These include 27 of the artist’s major paintings along with approximately 45 works on paper. This historical survey, organized by Apsara DiQuinzio, curator of modern and contemporary art, lays out Howard’s career more or less chronologically.
Text panels bearing such headings as “surrealism” and “abstraction” provide conceptual points of reference; they also serve to slow the pace of viewing by interrupting the chronological narrative. Slowing makes the experience memorable. Studies indicate that museum visitors devote an average of seven seconds a work of art. Those I observed at BAMPFA paused significantly longer — minutes, not seconds — to appreciate Howard’s paintings and drawings. The works, collectively and individually, exert a peculiar magnetism in situ, and stay in one’s mind long after leaving.
This exhibition is well suited to the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum. Howard grew up in Berkeley, graduated from Berkeley High School, and attended UC Berkeley. His father, the architect John Galen Howard, designed the Berkeley campus and served as the school’s first dean of architecture. His mother was an accomplished watercolorist with ties to the artists’ colony forming down the coast, in and around Carmel-by-the-Sea. Charles Howard’s sister, one of the few women of her generation to pursue a university degree in architecture, never exercised this vocation professionally even though she had the example and encouragement of Bay-Area icon Julia Morgan. (Morgan, as it happened, began her extraordinary career in John Galen Howard’s studio.) Charles Howard’s brothers — an architect, a painter and a sculptor—contributed to the clan’s reputation as the “first family of Bay Area Modernism.”
The exhibition catalogue–containing deeply researched essays by DiQuinzio and UC Berkeley Art Historian Lauren Kroiz (in addition to a contribution by the artist Robert Gober, an example of Howard’s own writings, and an excellent chronology by Valerie Moon) is the first scholarly monograph devoted to Berkeley’s nearly forgotten native son. The plates document five decades of artistic enterprise (from the 1920s to the 1960s) and permit contemporary audiences beyond the Bay Area to discover this body of work after a 60-year exhibition hiatus in the United States.
Unfortunately, the exhibition won’t be travelling. Howard travelled widely. His career was even more peripatetic than most. He crisscrossed the U.S. (San Francisco to Boston and New York), Europe (France, Italy, England), back to San Francisco, and wound up in London. Perhaps he did not remain in Manhattan long enough to make a lasting mark on New-York-centric American modernism. Nor did he remain in the Bay Area long enough to catch the mid-century tide of West Coast Surrealism and expressive abstraction. This restlessness no doubt contributed to the artist’s historical obscurity.
“Derivative,” a word that appears occasionally in period critical writings on Howard’s work, also may explain his eclipse. In an art world that prizes originality above all, this is the ultimate insult. Howard, though, never accepted the premise. “I don’t believe in pure originality,” he wrote.” He riffed deftly on other artists, generating unusual formal conversations.
Take The Dove (1939). There is something decidedly Fernand Léger about the composition’s central figure (the dove) with its bands of solid color. The linear elements traversing it the pull the composition together with a draftsman’s precision. The fanciful forms, perched to the left and right, bring Alexander Calder to mind, while the Leonardo-esque sfumato summons certain constructivists –Lyubov Popova, perhaps, or even the early Kazimir Malevich. Howard openly “welcomed the influence of other painters.” His work willfully resists classification — juxtaposing, blending, synthesizing and hybridizing formal conventions as discrepant as biomorphism and Bauhaus. This has made it exceptionally difficult for art historians and critics to situate him.
In Howard’s day, reviews of his exhibitions were mixed. While certain critics found his stylistic elusiveness awkward, or even damning, others viewed his artistic restlessness as evidence of virtuosity. The dealer Julian Levy, for one, was not put off by Howard’s eclecticism. Levy, as noted above, invited Howard to contribute to Surréalisme, and featured his work in a solo exhibition a year later. In hindsight, Levy saw Howard as “only passingly surrealistic” and did
not include the artist in his most influential book, Surrealism (1936). Not being a surrealist was never a deal-breaker for Levy, though. In addition to Howard, he championed quite a few uncategorizable artists, many working on the fringes of, or beyond, surrealism. Indeed, for Levy, misfits were something of a specialty. He “discovered” Joseph Cornell and promoted the neo-romantics –a now largely forgotten group that included Kristians Tonny, Christian Bérard, Eugène Berman, Leonid Berman, and Pavel Tchelitchew.
Howard, too, found the label “surrealist” unsuitable, despite the apparent affinities. Yet, there is really no other word that so aptly describes many of his paintings and drawings. The exhibition introduces a series of quintessentially surreal drawings produced by Howard for a tubercular friend, the curator Douglas MacAgy. Howard made one sketch per day for each of the 54 days MacAgy spent in a sanitarium. These intimate works on paper are whimsically abject (depicting a free-standing nose dripping with snot, a hand holding out a soiled handkerchief for contemplation), and they are rendered from weird points of view (from inside the artist’s head, in a few cases). As his career advanced, Howard adopted the label “abstractionist.” Looking at his work, however, it is hard to imagine that he considered abstraction and surrealism mutually exclusive. Levy’s equivocal formulation “passingly surrealistic” is perhaps the closest anyone has come to capturing the spirit of his oeuvre.
From the beginning of his artistic career to the end, Howard tore through modern Western artistic developments and artistic capitals to build an impressive formal repertoire and accrue the attendant technical skills. He put these to use in unique and often counterintuitive ways, striking a precarious balance on the edge of formal and conceptual “chaos.” His paintings vibrate with the tension keeping so many art historical and formal references in play. Both Howard’s oeuvre and its decades of dormancy shed light on the narrowing spectrum of practices accommodated by canonical modernism after the 1950s, when the critical writings of Clement Greenberg and his proponents persuaded curators and collectors that formal “purity” was the logical endgame of modern art.
Charles Howard: A Margin of Chaos restores a measure of fullness to that spectrum. Giving new exposure to Howard’s work serves to rearticulate modernism’s promise to liberate, to estrange conventions, to make us see familiar things in a different light.
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“Charles Howard: A Margin of Chaos” @ Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive through October 1, 2017.
About the Author:
Tirza True Latimer is Associate Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program in Visual & Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Her published work reflects on modern and contemporary visual culture from feminist and queer perspectives. She is co-editor, with Whitney Chadwick, of the anthology The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris between the Wars (Rutgers University Press, 2003) and the author of Women Together / Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris (Rutgers University Press, 2005). She co-organized, with the art historian Wanda Corn, the 2011-2012 exhibition, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, hosted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; and co-authored a book, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories (University of California Press, 2011), which accompanied the exhibition. Her book, Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences In The History Of American Art, was released by UC Press in 2016.