It’s an anchored iridescent fish with spiky dragon fins. Or is it a scaly dinosaur in fatigues on a stick? Nearby, an enormous abstract canvas of burnt ochre and persimmon sizzles with life-affirming energy. Upon closer inspection, the drip painting reveals a buildup of sand, rope, and rocks. Pivot again and you’re confronted with a haunting black-and-white constellation of cells and antennae connected by spectral wavy lines.
Don’t panic. You’re still in Chelsea, but you’ve just entered an alternate artistic universe, one that adroitly bridges surrealism and abstract expressionism to arrive at a beguiling visual language all its own.
The gifted creator of this cosmos, Gerome Kamrowski, died at his home in Ann Arbor this past March at age ninety. Sixty years earlier, he was one of the most talented painters in the New York avant-garde, along with William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock.
But in 1946 Kamrowski effectively aborted his fast-track career to accept a teaching job at the U-M. Because of this self-imposed exile from the center of the modern art world, Kamrowski’s work never gained the wider attention and acclaim it deserved.
Unfortunately, Kamrowski’s legacy will soon become less visible in these parts too. Since his death, Kamrowski’s widow has moved to northern California, where the remainder of his work now resides. So Chelsea’s River Gallery, one of Kamrowski’s longtime Michigan dealers, has thoughtfully organized a sort of last hurrah — a major retrospective spanning the artist’s diverse career. It runs through Sunday, December 5. Outsize biomorphic paintings, abstract works on paper, multifaceted and weighty mosaics, and a colorful menagerie of Kamrowski’s animal sculptures are on view in this seminal tribute show at the gallery’s gorgeous new two-story space in downtown Chelsea.
Born in northwestern Minnesota, Kamrowski arrived in New York in 1938 and became a fixture in the downtown art crowd. It was a heady time, when artists explored and exchanged new ideas and techniques. “No one was concerned with turning out an identity commodity,” Kamrowski later recalled.
In 1941, in what is now art-world legend, Baziotes brought some quick-drying lacquer to Kamrowski’s studio, and the two of them and Pollock dripped it onto several canvases. In one wintry evening, abstract expressionism was born. In 1990 Kamrowski reminisced, “We were commanding the scene. . . . People were paying attention.”
But in 1945 his young wife of two years died of cancer. A year later Kamrowski moved to Ann Arbor, where he would be somewhat closer to his young son, whom he’d placed with family members in Minnesota. Kamrowski never publicly admitted regret; indeed, he often said, “If I’d stayed in New York I’d either be very rich or I’d be dead” — an obvious allusion to the abbreviated lives of Pollock and Baziotes.
Teaching became a second passion. According to Cecily Donnelly, a former Kamrowski student at the U-M and cofounder of the River Gallery, Kamrowski was a gifted and generous mentor. Funny and irreverent, with a solid build and an orange brush cut, Kamrowski made an impression, often bringing in discarded remnants from his own studio. Most of his students had no idea their professor had been in the vanguard of modern art’s New York school.
Over the years, Kamrowski’s energy and drive never faltered, and his style continued to evolve dynamically from the abstract intellectual exercises of the past to colorful 3-D pieces often made of glass, cement, and random found objects. He worked every day and exhibited steadily in Michigan and elsewhere.
Select Kamrowski pieces are represented in such blue-chip collections as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. But living in the Midwest with a healthy skepticism toward the celebrity art market — combined with his refusal to be categorized — never made for a high-profile career.
According to Kamrowski, that wasn’t the point: the freedom to experiment was. As he said in a 1993 interview, “Fame, and even money — these things don’t have much relevance in art. The goal of art should be an adventure and not merely a tired mechanical production.”