1 Aristodimos Kaldis: Discarding the Unessentials
The history of art is an untidy affair. Instead of the orderly series of neatly defined movements chronicled by survey courses, it is probably better described as a shapeless constellation of sometimes recalcitrant individuals. That some of them, at a given time, share assumptions about what a work of art could (or should) be, gives rise to those survey course categories and more importantly to the idea of a zeitgeist or at least, a mainstream. Yet there are always artists who bypass or are bypassed by such collective aspirations, who choose to pursue, often in isolation, directions that have nothing to do with dominant ideas of what is possible or desirable. More remarkable are artists who are at once "insiders" and "independents" painters or sculptors who are part of the mainstream circle yet remain stubbornly apart from the mainstream aesthetic. Fairfield Porter, a fixture in the social and intellectual life of the Abstract Expressionists who determinedly painted naturalistic images of his domestic landscape and his family, belongs to this select order of unclassifiable individuals. So does Aristodimos Kaldis. Kaldis was a legendary figure in the postwar New York artists' vanguard, a multilingual polymath famous for his mane of unruly hair, his impressive eyebrows, and his flamboyant, trailing scarves. He was famous, too, for his voluble discourses on art and on much else, besides. He was described as "able to speak on the grand design of the universe" and once delivered a lecture at one of the celebrated gatherings known as The Artists Club on "The American Artist as Magician, Healer, Outcast, Redeemer, and Savior." A relentlessly gregarious participant in the downtown art world, Kaldis seems to have known everybody. He counted Gorky, Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning as friends; Elaine de Kooning painted his portrait. And more. Yet for all his notoriety as an outsize personality, Kaldis was not simply an art world curiousity, but a serious painter, albeit a selftaught one who began to paint only after having done many other things. His original, expressionist images were admired by his artist friends and his exhibitions were well received by critics and discriminating viewers. The famously exacting Albert Barnes bought one of Kaldis's figure
2 paintings out of his first oneman show in New York for his Merion, Pennsylvania collection. In a letter confirming the sale, Barnes rather pompously informed the artist that he found the painting, Negro Looking at Art, 1941, represented "a personal expression of definite aesthetic merit." Twenty years later, a traveling show of Kaldis's work was held during the innovative Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, and still later, in 1975 and 1977, he was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships. Still, Kaldis remained something of a cult figure, an oddball "painter's painter" whose work was not only unlike that of his artist friends, but seemed to defy conventional categories altogether. During his lifetime, his best known pictures were an ongoing series of fragmented, luminous evocations of an Aegean world remembered from his early years in Greece: a paradisiacal, sundrenched coastal landscape of steep hills and deep valleys dotted with geometric buildings. That these freewheeling images are based on memory, rather than observation, is part of their considerable charm. "Nostalgia," Kaldis told an interviewer, "enables the artist to imbue his work with fantasy." These pictures were generally greeted enthusiastically, but interpreted in sometimes contradictory ways. Those who knew of Kaldis's varied history, before he started to paint, were sometimes deceived by the playful simplicity of his pictures into thinking he was a naif. Those who knew of his close connections with the New York School sometimes discussed him as a kind of notsoabstract expressionist. Those who looked harder realized that his paintings' glowing touches of brilliant color and their shorthand references to buildings, trees, and animals owed something to Kandinsky, perhaps even something to Klee. There's some truth in all of these notons, of course, yet the unstable, pulsating space and shifting scale of Kaldis's pictures, like their radiant light, are his own. Space seems to expand and contract, almost at the artist's (or the viewer's) will, demanding to be explored in the way that the complexities of classical Chinese landscape paintings must be explored; the viewer wanders through the vast panorama, mentally descending narrow paths and climbing up craggy mountains, stopping to contemplate a whitedomed church, a ladder, a farmyard. Light is evoked by expanses of white punctuated by small nodes of intense
3 primary hues, a combination that at once suggests infinite space and a natural world bleached by the dazzle of ferocious sunlight. While these appealing landscapes remain among Kaldis's best known works, they in fact represent only part of his efforts. Especially in first decade or so of his career, he painted, in addition to his rather schematic remembered images of Greece and the occasional religious painting, ambitious interiors, still lifes, portraits, and figures such as the one acquired by Barnes all apparently rooted in recent experience. Like his later, more fluid landscapes, Kaldis's varied paintings of the 1940s and early 1950s are notable for their clear, intense, unpredictable color and for their intuitive, engaging structure. The color is so rowdy, the structure so quirky, in fact, that at first acquaintance, it seems easy to understand why Kaldis was labeled a naif. But it soon becomes apparent that there is nothing unwilled or uninformed about these pictures. Kaldis simplifies his drawing and pares down his shapes not out of lack of ability, but out of a desire to "discard the unessentials," as he put it. He focuses not on what can be seen, but on what imprints itself on the memory: the curved armchair back or the arcing radio cord that play such important roles in Red Cross Worker, 1945, along with such delights as a mounted animal head, a cherished portrait, and a couple of playing cards. The picture is startling for its apparent "artlessness", but the longer we spend with Red Cross Worker, the more we realize that Kaldis's "childlike" drawing is anything but and that its "haphazard" composition is, in fact, rock solid; everything is held in a tense, dynamic balance, as though caught in a forcefield between the centralized figure, collapsed in the engagingly angled chair, and the edges of the canvas. The wrenchings and distortions of recollection? Yes, but also the uninhibited improvisation licensed by modernist precedents. Matisse's disarmingly simple Vence interiors of the early 1940s are part of the ancestry of Red Cross Worker, just as his Fauvist still lifes and economical figures are part of the ancestry of all of Kaldis's early efforts; witness pictures such as Tunisian Still Life, 1939, or any of the portraits of the following decade. The example of Milton Avery who also learned a great deal from Matisse and was exhibiting regularly in New York from the late 1930s throughout the 1940s was probably helpful, as well. Kaldis's
4 "naive" paintings soon reveal themselves as the work of sophisticated artist, an avid museum goer and a keen studio visitor, someone thoroughly familiar with modernist innovations and fully in command of his materials, who is striving to make images as intense as his feelings. Which is not to discount the sheer willfulness of these early works, the combination of exuberance and insistence that, by all accounts, was characteristic of the man himself. It's worth remembering that about the time that the largerthanlife individual with the flowing scarves and the ungovernable mane was painting these raffish, engaging images, he was also presenting a series of illustrated lectures twelve of them between 1944 and 1950 entitled the Key to Modern Art. Kaldis described the talks as tracing "the origin and development of modern art" and "the political, economic, and philosophic conceptions that contributed and so often determined each plastic period...from prehistoric times up to our epoch." It's worth remembering, too, that the lantern slide projector used during these discourses was operated by Kaldis's friend Bill de Kooning. Naiveté has nothing to do with it.
Karen Wilkin New York, October 2001