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
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
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.”
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!”
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
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.”