'Resurrection' by William Congdon via Flickr

Return To America

50 years ago, Life magazine hailed him as one of the US's most talented painters. Then he disappeared from the art world for over 30 years. 3 years after his death, William Congdon returns to his fatherland with a retrospective in Providence.

Rodolfo Balzarotti

After more than thirty years, William Congdon is returning to his fatherland and, to be precise, to the city of his birth, Providence, Rhode Island. The prestigious museum of the Rhode Island School of Design will host an exhibition of about forty of the artist’s works from November 16, 2001, to January 27, 2002. After many years of absence and oblivion, what does an event like this mean to the American public? An immediate answer is that it can provide the occasion for revisiting a classic and at the same time for discovering someone totally new.

Congdon is a classic first of all for chronological reasons: born in 1912, he belongs to the generation that came to maturity toward the end of the 1940s, a time that has by now fully taken its place in history. He emerged as a painter in New York, showing at the Betty Parsons Gallery, side by side with the protagonists of Action Painting, the first great American artistic movement to reach international renown.

Even though he lived most of his life in Europe, Congdon always painted for the American public. In the course of his brief but intense season as a successful artist (which essentially spans the 1950s), he showed exclusively in America, participating in the most important exhibitions of American art of that time. Nonetheless, certain circumstances determined his eclipse and disappearance from the canonical group of Action Painters.

Eclipse from a World
The reasons for this phenomenon can be briefly summarized as follows:
- the fact that he was born into the Anglo-Saxon upper middle class establishment, a social and cultural position which contrasted with the modest, and for the most part immigrant, origins of the other Action Painters;

- his choice to live abroad, which removed him from the American scene right when the United States was becoming the center of world art, but without establishing meaningful ties with the European artistic environment;

- his economic independence which, beginning in the 1960s, freed him from the necessity to sell his work and drew him even farther away from the world of galleries and collectors;

- his religious conversion that, also in the early 1960s, further estranged him from American and international art circles and that, at least at first, seemed to coincide with a sort of involution of his creative powers.

At this point, the question arises: can the artist whose work will hang in the gallery of the RISD museum in coming months still be called an “American painter”? Did his long residence in Europe, for the most part in Italy, change substantially the shape of his idiom and his underlying ideals? Congdon lived in Italy for almost fifty years (first in Venice, then in Assisi, and finally in Gudo Gambaredo, where he died in 1998), and he traveled on almost all the world’s continents, and that he did not set foot in the United States after 1969. Apparently, he refused his country, its mentality, culture, and way of life. His artistic itinerary led him to break away from the American landscape, just as his conversion to the Catholic faith seems to have uprooted him from his Protestant origins as a descendant (which in fact he was) of the Pilgrim Fathers.

A Real Flight?
But this is a superficial vision of things. Even in the years of his “flight” from America, Congdon never ceased to proclaim his “Americanness,” his belonging, for good or ill, to the culture and ethos of the country of his birth. “I will never be free of the complex of artist born Puritan in an industrial society, wherever I go. … Soil-less at home, I ground the root abroad, and a plant grows in Italy, in Greece, in India–wherever. America is all of these, and so am I.” He reiterated this much more recently, comparing his work to that of his “brothers” in Action Painting, painters like Pollock or Rothko. “I was born a painter in that same tremor, or thrill, of self-abandonment to the things simultaneously seen and captured as the medium of painting itself, in which every appearance was already transfigured in the unpredictable miraculous birth of the image… the image, in the last analysis, of myself… There was a coincidence of rage, of having to erase a world in order to rip out of one’s own innards, as though giving birth, the image of a new life.” We recall the mixture of rage and revolt that permeates not only Action Painting but also the literature of the Beat generation in the 1950s and 1960s, which constitutes the dominant trait of American culture after World War II. It is a trait that Congdon claims completely as his own, even though denouncing the ultimate sterility of this rebellion, vitiated, in his opinion, by “moralism.” “And at the same time I know that objectification has freed me from febrile individualism, i.e., from rage–individualism and rage that, by its claim, is always, and no less, moralistic than the claim laid on my life by my family environment. If not objectified–or restructured–that initial rage against ends up becoming a rage for whatever it is you were rebelling against. Rage had to become Love, which is always at the base of every truth and, therefore, of every beauty.”

Son of New England
Equally, despite his youthful intolerance, Congdon always remained a son of New England. It was, if anything, his faithfulness to his roots that set him out on the roads of the world and led him to his conversion, as the American scholar Fred Licht noted after his first meeting with the artist in 1988: “I don’t believe that you entered the Church because you were desperate but because you were pre-ordained to do so from the outset. Nor did you turn your back or betray your past by entering the Church. On the contrary. You affirmed them in a binding and definitive manner. … Anyone who really takes the ideals and the values of Providence seriously, anyone who understands these values as something to which one’s life must be dedicated in the worthiest manner possible, well, anyone with this conviction must sooner or later turn to the Church.” Certainly, a lively sense of evil and sin, and equally a lively consciousness of personal responsibility, that is to say, of always being personally interrogated by the events of life, marked Congdon’s personality from his very childhood. Here lies the reason for his commitment to art, which for him was the way of sharing the often tragic destiny of the men of his time.

In conclusion, after a phase of crisis and bewilderment in the early 1960s, which seems to have alienated him completely from the world that had been his until then, Congdon began working intensely, accompanying his painting with a stringent reflection on what he was doing. His isolation, far from constituting a closing off, enabled him to let his language as an Action Painter evolve independently of what was happening on the public art scene in the 1970s and 1980s, increasingly conditioned by the phenomena of the market, fashion, and the ephemeral. Will American culture of the new millennium want to take back this piece–largely a new piece, as we have seen–of its history in the century that has just drawn to a close?

One last note, and a fairly unsettling one, is suggested by the recent tragic events that struck the United States: among the works present in the Providence exhibition are two paintings of New York, dated 1948 and 1949, entitled, respectively, New York City Explosion and Destroyed City. Perhaps this is one further proof of the profound, unbreakable tie, made up of love and pietas, that Bill Congdon continued to maintain with his home country.