CULTURE

An exhibition for recognition

Talent does not always suffice to make an artist famous. Thomas Chimes, an 84-year-old Greek-American artist who lives in Philadelphia, is a contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg and Theodoros Stamos, yet his distinctive work is not known to the general American or Greek public and has not been included in recent large exhibitions on the work of expatriate Greek artists. This will likely change after the retrospective exhibition on his work opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the beginning of 2007 and travels to the Benaki Museum next spring. The exhibition’s curator, Michael Taylor, who visited Athens a few months ago in search of a Greek institution to host the exhibition, told Kathimerini English Edition that one of the intentions of the Chimes retrospective is to bring more scholarly attention to the work of this unusual artist. Taylor himself came across Chimes’s work by chance. Fifteen years ago, Taylor’s doctoral research on Marcel Duchamp brought him to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which holds the richest collection of works by this great French dadaist artist. The museum’s Duchamp collection had also drawn Chimes to his hometown in the early 1950s, when he returned after a stint in New York City studying philosophy at Columbia University and fine art at the Arts Students League. Duchamp was a major inspiration for Chimes and so was the work of the late 19th century American Thomas Eakins, who is also heavily represented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Taylor, who saw the works of Chimes in the museum’s collection of 20th century American art, was immediately impressed by the impact of the art, by the fact that it combines an esoteric quality with humor, and by its references to the history of art and ideas, literature and poetry, and especially the work of Alfred Jarry and his anarchic play «Ubu Roi» (or «King Ubu»). A «neo-symbolist» or «neo-surrealist,» according to the critic and art historian Donald Kuspit, Chimes is an artist-intellectual. «Chimes immediately struck me as one of the most intelligent people I have ever met,» Taylor said. «A conversation with him can move from James Joyce, to [Ludwig] Wittgenstein to Jarry, to Homer. He has one of those really incredibly elastic imaginations. I think that a great quote to describe his paintings is Duchamp’s ‘Painting must be at the service of the mind.’» Following the series of «metal-boxes» (mixed media constructions incorporating small symbolic drawings and paintings into crafted metal boxes) that Chimes made in the late 1960s, the artist began painting his series of small-scale portraits on wood that featured his favorite writers and poets: the French symbolist poets and other leading figures from the history of art and ideas, such as Edgar Allan Poe, the philosopher Wittgenstein, Antonin Artaud and, above all, Alfred Jarry, whose work most decisively impacted Chimes’s art. Painted between 1973-78, these works combine the aesthetics of an old master painting with the playfulness of a Duchamp work, an old-time quality – the sepia tones reference an Eakins painting – with the modern. According to Taylor, the portraits are remarkable for capturing the intellect of the sitter. «The panel portraits are about the survival of ideas, so rather than portraits of people they are portraits of people as represented by their ideas,» Taylor said. «When Chimes is painting a portrait he is immersed in the writings of the person he depicts. It is wonderful to see how their ideas come out in the painting. I think his creative act is to take a book, read it, understand it, muse on it, sublimate it and surprise himself with what comes out in his depiction of it.» Chimes painted 48 portraits over a five-year stretch, which comes out to less than 10 works a year. These numbers show the degree of focus and immersion that went into each work. Strangely, even though his portraits were very successful, Chimes stopped making them. «I think that any other artist would have kept making them because they were very successful,» Taylor said. «Chimes moved on to the ‘white paintings.’ He believes that to repeat is to diminish your creativity.» The ethereal-like «white paintings,» which date from the 1980s and 1990s, depict figures and phrases taken out of poems or literary texts. Barely discernible, the subjects of his paintings appear to be veiled in a mist. The style of the «white paintings» continues in the artist’s recent works which are small compositions (8×8 centimeters) depicting symbols, most of them inspired by Jarry’s Pataphysics. «There are certain artists whose work you feel you know after looking at it for a long time,» Taylor said. «With Chimes there is always something to surprise you.» Still, one can pick out certain traits that mark his style, such as «the tendency toward hermetic meaning and arcane language or symbols,» Taylor said. «That has not really changed – and neither has the use of equations and numerology. All the time however – and this is what is great about him – he is questioning what he is doing. This has led to changes.» It has also placed Chimes’s work outside the prevailing trends. Back in his youth, he questioned the hegemony of abstract expressionism and, several years later when the austere style of minimalism became the fashion, he produced his playful metal-boxes. It is possible that his sense of independence was at the expense of a broader recognition. «Chimes has not yet received the recognition that we feel is due to him and part of the reason is that he has never put himself out there and said, ‘I am a great artist,’» Taylor said. «I consider him to be the wealthiest person in Philadelphia because he had this incredible life and has dedicated his life to art in a very pure way. I think that after the exhibition, Thomas Chimes will be recognized as one of the most original painters of his time.» Greek motifs in the artist’s work «The work of Thomas Chimes is emblematic of the generation that followed the abstract expressionists,» says exhibition curator Michael Taylor. «He is the same generation of people like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who through Duchamp questioned the hegemony of abstract expressionism and tried to rethink painting after that.» Chimes was born in 1921 in Philadelphia to Greek parents. His father emigrated to the United States to work in the restaurant business. Taylor said the artist has reminisced about his Greek upbringing in conversations with him. Greek-inspired motifs also run through his work. The figure of the cross, for example, appears in the artist’s early works. Chimes visited Greece in the early 1990s with his son Dimitris, a restaurant owner. «I think that as Chimes is growing older he is feeling more nostalgic for the past,» Taylor said. www.philamuseum.org asdfasasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdf