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Ivan Albright’s Eyes

“Somewhere in here I was born… and here I died and it was only a moment for you… you took no notice…”

– Kim Novak in Vertigo

The Victorian ‘science’ of optography claimed that it could preserve the last image in a dead person’s eyes by extracting the retina where it remained, imprinted like a leaf in a book. Persistence of vision, the afterimage of an object’s light rays after it has vanished from sight, was once thought to be the reason of motion perception itself. Somewhere between these two tricks of the eye, lies Ivan Albright’s, which saw both furious motion and static forms in ceaseless decay. A new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, called simply ‘Flesh’, somewhat fearfully devotes a single room to his paintings. Albright’s paintings themselves have much better titles: Poor Room – There is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever and Forever Without End (The Window), for example.

Usually written off as an eccentric throwback whose greatest hit was a delirious monstrosity commissioned for Hollywood, Albright seemed utterly indifferent to that vigorous CIA-art market collusion called Abstract Expressionism and no one ever cried tears of cathartic pity over one of his great decompositions. Painting putrefaction, rot, and mildew with an obsessive detail that made Van Eyck look like a slob in comparison, Albright was a solid workman who did portrait commissions (like Rembrandt before him) and mostly kept to himself. It looked like he owed more to EC’s Tales from the Crypt than to the bourgeois nihilism of the day but his real game was exhuming Grünewald’s coffin, maybe because he felt there was a crucial nail missing. What he added, the rusty nail pried from a bloody boot, was love not for the image of the Savior but for His human wounds. Not even for the Savior’s wounds, but for earthly wounds personified in a green Savior under the glare of calendar time (inhospitable light making every gape and pockmark clear as the moon; masses of wounds in the Peasant Wars meeting the Savior’s, as painted by Matthias). Untrained Ivan Albright said he learned everything from his Army job illustrating Great War medical manuals; by autopsy, the act of seeing with one’s own eyes (“Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids/ Watch my dreams still – ”, said Wilfred Owen’s sentry). On his own deathbed Albright wrote, with admirable Taoist precision: The amount of life I can put through my eye is the amount of life I can see.

Albright notoriously freaked out Jean Dubuffet, who visited his studio in 1964. Hanging over a ha-ha, imported brick by brick across the country, was an immense spyglass out of one of Fu Manchu’s torture chambers. Albright used this powerful magnifier to render the web of moss and cracks from the bricks, sometimes using a brush with a single fiber. Dubuffet, who was prone to hanging around mental asylums, said he was never more terrified in his life as when he stood before this contraption. The same infernal detail is found in Albright’s beloved folded garments, usually moth-eaten and frayed almost to nothing, every stitch and seam impossibly in focus, as if they were remaindered from the Quattrocento. Aby Warburg thought that the depiction of garments of that period gave motion to the immobility of the figures they adorned, a motion left over from a pagan age which implied in turn preservation in the face of oblivion. Albright’s cloth decays apace with his cadaverous figures, which is an absurdist way to say that fashion is also under the law of the withered and the maggoty.

There is no place for the Angel of Death in Albright’s dank rooms or in his gin-pressed faces. Death, shaped like a gambler’s spinning coin, rises up to meet Holbein’s Ambassadors in his great painting of 1533 and reminds the viewer that the geometry of death is sliver-thin but vaster than the sky. Even to kings he comes, as the old Arab poet said, but these nobles and statesmen of the Renaissance memento morischool still seem to have many pampered years left. The image of death takes the place of death; the absence of the image of death means that time has run out of tricks. This is where Albright’s modernist cartooning comes in: time is caught between the absolute velocity and the infinite specialization of decay. Detail upon detail, an endless tunneling inward into an increasingly-rarified fabric which attempts to lose Death in the commodity in order to entertain infinite decay. People are buried in their best suits, with a lapel carnation playing labyrinth to the worm.

Albright had almost no interest in perspective games. His paintings are strangely flat, glistening only in the grease on a butcher’s oilcloth or the shiny viscera on Dorian Gray’s fingers. There is little contrast of depth, which seems to show that he might have also thought along Mughal or Japanese lines. The angles of his rooms are more than slightly off, like the dream-rooms of your familiar apartment which now have something unaccountably sinister in the points of the walls. The cheap relief on the wreathed door of That Which I Should Have Done, I Did Not Do buckles like broken teeth in a gushy maw, a cigar-box version of the Padmanabhaswamy portal – not battered by people trying to get in, but bowed by its own water. From the granite Victorian furnishings to a ratty comb on the edge of a table, every object in Albright’s miserable quarters is lilted, on the edge of imbalance, bucktoothed and gummy. A bedknob is an ulcerous candy cane, nets cover Mesozoic wood, and wallpaper gleams like a bowl of rotted fish.

For a man who had some money and then married wealthy, he often chose fishermen, labor leaders, ex-cons and linemen for his models. It seems he got along very well with them; he certainly thought they had better faces, which for him probably meant they were better people. His women had to put up with their every pore being transformed into a meteor crater, oceans of cellulite grafted onto their thighs and bellies, and relentless commas of bags injected under their eyes. But few artists did true sensuality and flesh-love as well as this chivalrous ghoul (Balthus, who showed flesh from the other end of the spectrum, is the only modern contender). Decay is life when life is at the peak of its struggle against dissolution, which is paradoxically all the time. The model for Into the World Came a Soul Named Ida was a ‘very pretty’ 17-year old girl. In the painting, she is a decayed tart staring very strangely into a mirror, sitting in what looks like a spent SRO. However, the background is utterly black which makes the place resemble rather a stage set or some kind of metaphysical hell showing off its window dressing (the same is true of Albright’s 1934 self-portrait, one of his loopiest paintings). Her expression has neither nostalgia nor self-pity about it; if you see melancholy there, you have been fooled by her rag of a slip and the rickety table with an old john’s folded bills. Her look is without even resignation because there is nothing to resign – you need a position from which to resign and Ida is sitting in nowhere. It is intimately related to the expression on Albright’s own face in those great last small self-portraits also on display, a non-expression of being which had earlier found its most plaintive expression in the Noh mask.

In engineering, Prognostics attempts to anticipate when a component or system will no longer be able to perform its function. This predictive idea originated in ancient medicine, which monitored subtle deterioration in order to pinpoint when the body would irrevocably break down. Pliny describes a series of paintings so life-like that they reproduced faces not as they were but as they would become, allowing the physician to detect danger years in advance. The idea of the work-like function of images which he learned in his Army medical studies (there is an excellent electronic replica of these on display at the show), images that exist solely to ease the banal and practical and thus outside of aesthetics or blasphemy, never left him. It is precisely this way of doing – truly autobiographical because it displays only what is common to everyone – that does not permit either sentimentality or cruelty in his paintings. Their excess, which is considerable and often very funny, disguises vertiginous detail and the prison of ratiocination. Madness in detail is a madness of mirrors (Ida is barely distracted by hers), a trap that envisions a background plane extending endlessly: the small window in a far castle reflects a small window opposite, which reflects the city, castle and window which…

Eluard wrote: She is standing on my eyelids / And her hair is in my hair/ She has the color of my eye/ She has the body of my hand… Repetition produces similitude but in a different degree than in the initial appearance; a thingthat is generally identical but never exactly the same. Imperfections in the retina do look beautiful when enlarged, revealing constellation upon constellation – but the alien beauty of an off-kilter stare needs another eye to meet it, purely by chance. Folds of flesh resemble inflated pastries, bloated tires on a riverbank, or the Hindenburg, but that is not what a hand sees when it touches the beloved. A mass of wrinkles is impenetrable and buries the eyes, but the eye never strikes as piercingly as when it stares out from shadows. Scars and creases disrupt the sheen of porcelain flesh, but there are few mysteries in the body comparable to them. Modern developments in vision technology remain uninspiring and deeply suspicious. There is still no cure for blindness. Iris recognition shows how haunted by vision we have become, and how miniscule by it. It relies on biometrics, a system of fingerprinting we are told underlies the animate and the inanimate. It determines identity yet remains invisible to the eye. Behind the cyclops-orb of safety and surveillance, there is an increasingly-paranoid series of reflecting eyes, scores of sneaks in a chain whose purpose has been to transform the act of seeing. Nothing sells like suspicion, or makes life more boring.

Any good show can be gauged by the reaction of children and the revulsion of middle-aged frauds. I saw a bourgeois couple shake their heads in disgust at Albrights’ cheerful mortuary, while a few feet away a group of children stood transfixed before Dorian Gray. A pretty young girl took cellphone shots and repeated: “That is so cool!” smiling at the hideous grimace and the intestine-strung hands. She got Albright’s affirmation in dissolution, which is the reason one comes away feeling giddy from this little room of horrors. Her wide eyes mirrored Albright’s in his late self-portraits, wild with the simple act of seeing which wards off death a while. Maybe this is what Lao Tze’s relativity of opposites or Khayyam’s quatrains are all about. It is certainly the truth of that most profound of toasts:  L’Chaim. At any rate, if an artist can impress a child then the cycles of life and death are indeed present. Only children and the dying know how extraordinary the most common things look when seen from a certain impassible point, especially the objects of the green world.Watching an ant crawling along a window inspires true wisdom in those near death and a child will stare for hours at the formation of a weed, without any need of communication and outside of memory – first and finally, at an end of the eye. And did not Ivan Albright call one of his paintings Still Life with Potatoes in Motion?

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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