Art less traveled by
Driving along highways is such a common yet vivid experience in the lives of many people, that it is surprising how little interest artists have shown in it. However, the American painter Allan D'Arcangelo was certainly one notable exception.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
His engagement with roads as subject matter grew, by his own account, out of wanting to escape from making paintings that were self-consciously "art." Instead, he began to make paintings of experiences he "knew in the most direct and rudimentary way" - such as highways. But he didn't just start painting views of roads. His "source of imagery" became "memories and particularly childhood memories." He further emphasized that this wasn't nostalgia, but "the simple fact of memory." And the way he reduced his images to flat, crisp, precise shapes, flatly painted even when they also streaked like arrows to a perspective vanishing point, obviates any hint of sentimentality.
In some paintings, signs are featured as if suspended in space - the tail end of the Sunoco gas station sign or the ubiquitous shield with "US 1" on it. In one four-part painting, the circular "GULF" sign rises in stages above a screen of roadside foliage as if it were the full moon. Such items were quickly recognized in the 1960s as characteristic of Pop Art, though D'Arcangelo was to develop independently of that label, and his painting sometimes became virtually abstract.
He was, however, part of the general movement in the '60s away from abstract expressionism. He disliked a tendency in abstract expressionism (by then no longer radical) to concentrate on "beautiful passages" and "texture," rather than the whole of a painting. So he made his entire pictures textureless - whether sky, earth, greenery, road surface, or signs. His paintings, in essence, took on the very directness and instant readability of road signs, and identified their space with the graphic perspective of the painted lines in the center of the road. This resulted in paintings that seemed intensely modern, combining realism, abstraction, and expression without self-contradiction.