New York

Gerome Kamrowski

Joan T. Washburn Gallery

Gerome Kamrowski was born in Warren, Minnesota, in 1914. After studying art at the Art Students League in New York and the New Bauhaus in Chicago, he received a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1938 to study with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown. Shortly afterward, he became friends with William Baziotes and learned firsthand of Surrealist techniques, such as collage and frottage. Kamrowski lived in New York from 1938 until ’46, when he moved to Michigan to teach. In addition to Baziotes, his circle of friends in New York included Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Peter Busa, Jackson Pollock, and Roberto Matta. It was from Matta that these artists, who were incredibly receptive and even hungry for new ideas, learned about automatism. Kamrowski’s restlessness and curiosity paralleled Gorky’s. Like him, he understood Surrealism to be a way of getting beyond what he knew how to do—i.e., make a formally resolved, modern painting—and of achieving unexpected meanings in his art.

This exhibition reintroduced us to the work of an important artist who has been unjustly slighted by recent exhibitions that included the work of his peers. It featured paintings and shadow boxes that Kamrowski made in the ’30s and ’40s, black-and-white works based on principles of transparency and simultaneity that he had also learned from Matta. The motifs in these works are derived from nature and from the modes of perception integral to biology, astronomy, primitive art, and the occult. During the ’40s, Kamrowski was attempting to develop figural embodiments or equivalents for the unconscious, using linear white arabesques to pull the transparent layers toward the picture plane.

Some of the paintings parallel the work that Gorky and Matta were doing in the ’40s (Kamrowski even called one of his paintings Script for an Impossible Documentary: The Great Invisibles, 1945, a reference to Matta’s The Great Transparent Ones, 1942); and others show a certain affinity with Pollock’s work from that period, particularly in their impastoed surfaces and expressionistic brushwork. Kamrowski’s collages in shadow boxes, however, are unlike anything else that was being done at that time. Although the components of these works are similar to those of the paintings—layered compositions of a variety of elements connected by organically curvilinear white lines against a dark ground—the elements here seem like discrete “sea organisms” that float against and within the ground, as if they were suspended in virtually infinite space.

Kamrowski was very active in the New York scene during the ’30s and ’40s and continues to paint today. Clearly, he was in the forefront of the abstract artists who were interested in Surrealism and the unconscious. That we know so little of his work suggests that a reexamination is in order.

John Yau