PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Among the Abstract Expressionists who reinvented American painting in the 1940s and '50s were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and, almost forgotten, William G. Congdon (1912-1998).
The rebellious scion of a wealthy Yankee family, Congdon moved into a cold-water flat in the Bowery and, in just four years, became a star in the "New York School" of painters. Eight years later, Congdon withdrew, moved to Assisi, Italy, and converted to Roman Catholicism. Some saw his conversion as artistic death, and many forgot him.
But Congdon kept painting, rendering the Old World with a new American idiom born of "action painting." Never using a brush, he aggressively dripped and layered pigment with a spatula or palette knife, then incised it to form images and textures.
Congdon's first American retrospective in 30 years is on view at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art through Jan. 27. The exhibit in Providence, where Congdon was born, brings together 40 paintings that span his 50-year career, including his early energetic cityscapes as well as his later, more subtle color-field paintings. Many of his late works are being viewed in the United States for the first time.
The retrospective invites fresh evaluation of Congdon's place in art history.
"There is tremendous interest in paintings of the mid-century," says Maureen O'Brien, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture. "The work of strong players is being scrutinized, and here is where William Congdon deserves to be assessed."
Born on the night the Titanic sank, Congdon was the second of five sons in a Providence family. After graduating from Yale with an English major in 1934, he studied sculpture and soon received commissions for his figurative works. Then World War II intervened.
He volunteered as an ambulance driver from 1942 to 1945 and tended survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the war, he helped rebuild villages in Italy, and then returned to the US to revive his artistic career.
Transformed by the war, Congdon moved from sculpture to painting. In the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, he and his New York School contemporaries sought a new visual language to confront - and transcend - the unspeakable. An inheritance freed Congdon, a lifelong bachelor, to wander in Europe, the Far East, and Africa in pursuit of his artistic and spiritual identity.
"The fathers of my painting are Braque, Klee, Pollock, Rothko," he wrote in a 1982 diary. Congdon might have added Georges Rouault, who, like him, reveled in the lusciousness of pigment.
Like Pollock, Congdon handled paint with the spontaneous muscularity that characterized action painting. He preferred hard surfaces and wrote in a 1955 notebook, "Draw with your whole body.... This is a more physical approach and sensual, than the more delicate dickering with a brush on a loose canvas...."
Working from emotional memory rather than on the scene, Congdon rendered the timeless mystery and tragedy of his subjects, from fragile cities and ancient monuments to the Crucifixion. Along the way, Italy's golden light seeped into his raw, intensely pigmented images, which convey a churning passion, whether they are city scenes and landscapes of dizzy intensity or his later color field abstractions that evoke the spare countryside of Lombardy, his final home.
The exhibition draws from private collections and major museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of Art. The paintings retain their charge as light strikes incised surfaces. Sculpting with paint, Congdon mingled pigment with ash or gold dust to build compositions.
Congdon didn't care for "pretty pictures," said Betty Parsons in a 1981 interview. Her groundbreaking gallery presented nine solo shows of Congdon's work from 1949 to 1967. "He wanted to capture the feeling," she said.
In his paintings, buildings become ephemeral. The focus of his massive "The Church of the Redeemer, Venice" (1952) is not the solid Palladian structure but its waterborne reflection.
His fevered New York images, such as "New York City (Explosion)" (1948), with their violently scratched surfaces, contrast with early Italian scenes. In the tiny "Venice, Palazzo Dario" (1948), he etches jewel-like windows and gothic filigree into thick confetti-colored paint. "Naples Afternoon" (1949) captures the city's exuberant, chaotic grace: The buildings are masses of light and shadow rather than stone.
Sated after three years in Venice, Congdon in 1953 headed east to seek inspiration in "the source of Venice": Athens, Istanbul, and beyond. But a growing sense of despair shadowed him, and he turned to Catholicism in 1959. For a few years, explicit New Testament motifs dominated Congdon's painting.
In 1979, he became an artist-in-residence at a Benedictine monastery southwest of Milan. He spent his last seven years living over the monastery's tractor barn. In the country, he told an interviewer in 1982, his subject became "the hard fog ... the vibrations of light it gives off." The seasonal drama of planting, harvest, and regeneration inspired a distilled language of color, form, light, and texture. He created color-field images with a spare geometry. Ribbed surfaces trace motions of wind on wheat rather than the tremor of a tormented psyche.