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Shannon DeCelle

A Happy Medium
For Richard Callner, 50 years of painting have brought fulfillment, recognition, and an endless supply of inspiration to keep him doing what he loves best
By Jaclyn Acker

‘I’ve never been able to catch up with ideas,” says Richard Callner. “I’ll do one painting and it will suggest a dozen others. I’ll never get to all of them.”

Not that Callner has had much difficulty producing art; his attitude is that he’ll paint anything, no matter how far-out it is. With a career spanning a half-century (and still going strong), he estimates that he has made a thousand paintings—54 of which are on display through June 1 at Albany Institute of History & Art. Richard Callner: Fifty Year Retrospective is the first one-person exhibition of contemporary art to be featured in the institute’s newly renovated galleries.

Fifty years ago, Richard Callner couldn’t have pictured himself where he is today. But making a living teaching art and being recognized for his talent is a dream come true. “Probably 50 years ago I would have liked to see myself as some kind of a significant contributor [to the art world],” he says with a chuckle.

Entering Richard Callner’s Latham studio is like entering a world of abstract landscapes, or interiors with contradictory perspectives. These ideas of potential paintings are neatly tacked to the wall, acting as sneak previews into the mysterious mind that is Callner’s. Large windows allow ambient light into the spacious and airy studio, and among the half-finished paintings and the palettes resting on the shelves are a group of paintbrushes standing upright in wood block holders, resembling a plain of trees similar to the ones that make up many of his landscape paintings.

One on one, Callner has no problem showing off his collection of paintings to a visitor, even if it means pulling every single one out and then shoving it back into its storage slot with some force. With so many paintings, it appears that Callner is running out of room to store all of them.

Callner’s paintings are colorful and busy with what he calls a “wild and noisy attitude.” “I start out with a shape or a color or one particular ingredient, and I build on that by contradiction, so that it’s a nice visual painting,” he says. He hopes to bring viewers a little optimism and some positive thoughts on the process of invention.

Typically, Callner will make a smaller preliminary study before painting the final product. However, this was not the case for Premiere (1999). Despite admitting a few mistakes with mixing media (resulting in the collaging of two images), Callner considers Premiere to be one of his most important works because of its freedom with color, imagery and ideas. This was the first time he had accomplished this, and he has been using this method more and more. “I’ll redo something I’ve done before if it’s necessary,” he says. “I usually don’t throw them away. I keep them to figure out how to make them into something.”

Callner was only 4 when he began his lifelong love affair with art. Growing up in Chicago during the Depression, Callner frequently accompanied his mother to such renowned museums as the Art Institute of Chicago, where he took drawing classes, and the Field Museum of Natural History. “My mother convinced me it was a treat to see the paintings, which I had no idea,” he recalls. “I thought it was great. These people just painted all the time. What a life! This turned out to be a pretty good one. I’m very lucky.”

At age 17, Callner joined the Navy during World War II, and after leaving the service in 1946, he received his BFA at the University of Wisconsin and studied further at the Académie Julian in Paris. He then moved to New York, where he earned his MFA at Columbia University. Callner taught at Purdue University, Olivet College in Michigan and Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and was the founding director of the Tyler School of Art in Rome, at which he took part in selecting the students and the faculty. It was truly a highlight in Callner’s life. “Everybody knew it was a good time if they played the game right and worked hard, and they did,” he says about his experience in Rome. “The exchange rate was good, the food was marvelous, and the Italians are fun, so you couldn’t go wrong.”

From 1975 to 1991, Callner was a member of the University at Albany’s faculty, serving as the head of the art department and teaching graduate-level courses. During his time there, he was a fundamental figure in establishing the university’s MFA program. “You can’t study with Dick and not come away a better artist,” says Marijo Dougherty, a friend of Callner.

Having traveled to Japan and all of Eastern and Western Europe, Callner has a lifetime of ideas that he explores in his artwork, ranging from oil paintings to lithographs, humorous to erotic, and monsters and mythological figures to still lifes and landscapes. Though he likes each medium aesthetically, Callner says he’s not wild about working with sculpture or lithography. It’s no wonder that these lengthy processes can bore someone who is constantly thinking up new ideas faster than he can execute them. “If it’s too slow, it bothers me,” he says. “I’ve got the patience, but I just want to see what it looks like!”

Contrary to the colorful, optimistic and whimsical nature of his later work, Callner describes his earlier work as harsh and brutal. His images of grotesque figures and monsters were his way of rebelling against World War II, social callousness and his frustration with people in power. “They’re not nice, not about nice people at all,” he says. “They’re about the crude side of life.”

In his work titled Tyson’s Auction (1969), Callner depicts a scene at Olivet in which the banker Tyson’s possessions were being auctioned off while he was upstairs in his home dying. In the collage of images, the auctioneer is portrayed in the center of the work as a demonic face and is surrounded with images of symbolic objects. The clock symbolizes that time has run out. The fork, shoe, and sewing machine represent everyday aspects of life. A portrait of a woman and a photograph of a dresser top filled with family photographs embody a life of memories. Among these images are the messages “$1” and “sold.” Callner let his young son, David, help in putting together the image.

A recurring figure in his work during the early ’60s to the mid ’70s is the Hebrew mythological goddess Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who deserted him when he would not treat her as an equal. Callner studied her for years and admires her because of her beauty, intelligence, strength and independence. “She’s everything you want in a friend, and more,” Callner says. “I’d love to meet her. I think I have, but I’m not sure.” Through his paintings, Callner becomes a mythmaker and creates his own story of Lilith. Though he hasn’t consciously painted her in years, Callner says that if there is a beautiful woman in his paintings, it’s almost always Lilith.

In the ’80s, Callner began to turn his attention to other subjects, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits. Several of his landscapes portray the countrysides of the many places he has traveled, as well as the Hudson Valley. Both his landscapes and his still lifes tend to include an element of femininity in them. In Red Mountain With Two Vases (1987), the curtains resemble what he describes as his mother wearing a bathrobe.

More recently, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous disorder, Callner’s work has shifted in another direction. His paintings have become more and more abstract, with broader brush strokes and larger color fields. And he refuses to let his ailment overcome his passion for inventing. “I know other artists that have Parkinson’s, and it bothers me that they’re almost not working at all,” he says. “I think they’d be better off if they did.” Instead of working eight hours a day like he used to, he works four. And motivation is hardly a problem. To Callner, painting is a luxury. “I just like [painting] more than doing almost anything else,” he says. “It’s fun to invent, or thinking you’re inventing.”

With 76 years of experiences in life and art behind him, what advice would he give aspiring artists who want to be like him?

“Don’t,” he states emphatically. “Be like themselves.”

From art student to celebrated artist, Callner himself has set an example, always following his own heart—and learning not to worry that some of the ideas in his head might not always work out on paper. “If it’s bad, it doesn’t matter,” he says, “I’m not afraid to do a bad painting.”

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