Ivan Albright exhibit holds magnifying mirror to our wrinkled, decaying ‘Flesh’

SHARE Ivan Albright exhibit holds magnifying mirror to our wrinkled, decaying ‘Flesh’

The Ivan Albright painting “Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, 1929-30,” at the Art Institute of Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

Can you be the fan of an artist because of the title he gave to one of his paintings?

Ivan Albright is Chicago’s most famous painter. Born in North Harvey, he studied at the School of the Art Institute. The Art Institute of Chicago holds more of his paintings than any other museum, though typically just three canvases are on display at any time.

One, his portrait of an aging woman sorrowfully contemplating her ravaged face in a mirror, “Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida.” Furrows of cellulite under harsh white light, the polar opposite of every romantic portrait ever painted. Albright is staking out his turf: decay and age, not in soft Rembrandt glow, but as nightmare, a realm that 70 years ago he had to himself — predicting all the graphic shock art that came later.


He is certainly contemporary in how he leapt to other media. The second painting often on display is his most famous: “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a life-sized portrait of Oscar Wilde’s debauchee, commissioned by MGM and featured in lurid Technicolor in the otherwise black-and-white 1945 film.

And third, the painting that makes Albright special in my eyes. An enormous still-life of door, weathered and warped into its frame, a painting he titled: “That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do. (The Door.)”

Why? Maybe the sentence echoes in my regret-based interior ecology; it sent me by the Art Institute to see the new Albright show, which opened earlier this month: “Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute of Chicago.”

The door isn’t actually in the exhibit — it’s a few galleries over. Maybe it doesn’t fit into the “Flesh” theme.

It’s a modest show, one room, but well worth a visit. I knew a bit about Albright — that he’s the father-in-law of former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for instance. But I did not realize that his father, Adam Albright, was a painter of sugary, idealized children. His son’s entire career, all the burst veins and dead fish flesh, could be considered an elaborate revenge upon the old man.

“Ivan was revolted by this ‘pretty-pretty’ kind of art,” reads the placard next to his half-finished, melting plaster bust of Adam Albright. “He hated his father’s work.”

It shows.

“I got even with my father for all the times I had to model for him,” the artist once confessed.

That put Ivan in a new light. To be honest, that one title notwithstanding, I didn’t really admire his work. He seemed something of a one-trick pony. That lady’s hand intruding upon “The Door,” the horror movie hysteria of “Dorian Gray.” It quavers toward kitsch. A triviality redeemed only by his prolix titles. The 1929 fisherman in yellow waterproof could be a schizophrenic twist of Winslow Homer, but then Albright weighs in with the title — “Heavy the Oar to Him Who is Tired, Heavy the Coat, Heavy the Sea” — and it is infused with an almost Biblical grace.

Albright was a medical draftsman during World War I, and some of his surgical drawings are on display. “It was the best art training I ever had,” he wrote. An early, 1927 portrait of an electrical linesman shows the road not taken — it has an almost Grant Wood quality.

The show also includes 20 small, square self-portraits that Albright executed at the end of his life, and those paintings stand apart and seal the deal for me. Albright kept his vision to the end, gazing with a clear eye at his own startled, decrepit face. You have to admire the artist who remained lashed to the helm as his ship sank, as his physical body gave way entirely to the mortification that so fascinated him. Particularly those last three sketchy, post-stroke paintings from 1983. Portraits of a man vanishing.

On the same floor is a darkened gallery, with an announcement of the John Singer Sargent show, opening July 1. Another sharp-eyed artist, one who used his precision to perfectly render the folds in the silk gowns of the gorgeous society ladies he made deathless. “Flesh” runs until Aug. 5 and I’m going to have to go back and juxtapose the two. A better contrast I can’t imagine, the destitute ravaged cheek in one room, the rich youthful blush in the other, our own lives huddling somewhere in between.

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