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Clarence Holbrook Carter: Metamorphosis of an American Surrealist

It has been a long time coming and the challenge considerable, but finally WOLFS is pleased to present “The Metamorphosis of an American Surrealist”, works from the Estate of Clarence Holbrook Carter.

Carter Carter Carter what a brilliant character; a moving target, hurdling and sidestepping the fleeting realities that define the 20th century. Most artists choose a style, or prefer a certain subject matter, composition and design, but not Clarence Carter. Carter is an artist as hard to define as the times in which he worked.

Carter’s journey begins in bucolic southern Ohio where his boyhood was marked by tragic loss in a humble world of circus merry-go-rounds and tough temperamental rivers. The abundantly talented boy of modest means eagerly embraces his artistic opportunities and soon joins the army of striving and struggling young American artists.

With the perspective of the late, famed, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer James A. Michner, the incredible work of our staff and the piercing insight of art historian Marianne Berardi, the following catalog records this remarkable artist’s odyssey from buggy whips to Stanley Kubrick. (visit www.wolfsgallery.com to view the full exhibition catalog)


“For by all means this artist’s expression in paint is irradiated with strongly personal traits. Yet it is as happily free from evidence of a defiant, febrile, surface-grounded effort just to be ‘different.’ Carter has said: ‘I paint as I please, and always shall.’ I suppose it could be argued that all artists, save those committed to follow out the strict specifications of a patron, might feel justified in saying as much. Yet many artists are not in reality as unfettered as all that. In Carter’s case, at any rate, this terse pronouncement amounts to a great deal more than words.”

-Edward Alden Jewell (Art Critic of The New York Times), American Artist, November 1946

Oil on canvas Signed and dated lower right 37.25 x 53.25 inches


“My credo is simple and changeable. I may not change radically but if I wish to I have no preconceived theories to hold me back. I feel that theories tend to make an artist academic no matter how advanced and radical these theories may appear to be at the present time. My paintings at various times have been termed cubist, surrealist, realist, neoromanticist, and even Oriental, but at no time did I ever follow any school. I have painted my world as I have seen and felt it.”

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, American Artist, November 1946

THE FLOOD 1981 (original painting, 1937) 
Lithograph Signed and dated lower right Multiple from a series of 200 22 x 27.5 inches
1937 Graphite and white heightening on paper Signed and dated lower right 6 x 9.5 inches


“Earlier in my career I was interested in the life that I knew around me as material for my art. Along with that was a keen interest in things that were not always tangible. Death had a strong pull, the unseen was keenly felt. In other words, there were metaphysical aspects to reality, real yet unreal.

Now the real has become further removed. The unreal has taken over but yet it is still all very real but no longer tangible. The imaginative is dominant.”

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, 1977, Mead Art Gallery, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts

Oil on canvas Signed and dated upper right, titled verso 32 x 22 inches


“During the war years, so called ‘fine art’ was going in only one limited direction which I was not sympathetic to. I found that the creative things that I did for advertising developed my desire to experiment and become more inventive. This might seem strange to many, but during my commercial art period I become more abstract and more daring than I had been before.”

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, “Clarence Carter: The Portsmouth Collection,” The Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, 1984

1953 Acrylic on paper 9.5 x 11 inches
Signed and dated lower left 11.5 x 8.5 inches,  Reproduction of full-color page advertisement in 1953, first reproduced in Fortune


“It is the mysterious and magical elements in life which have always captivated me, things suggested but only partyly seen. One element in this strange world of partial knowledge is the world of other creatures. We look at them in fascination and wonder. From this strange world of fact and fancy star back images, both real and unreal, of what perhaps we might be to others, but never to ourselves - the Somebody Else.

The barrier creates a tension that heightens the mystery of the subject and isolates it from us. It is across this barrier that we perceive the silence and pervading mystery which transport the subject to the realm of conjecture.”

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, Solo Exhibition at Pardee Hall Gallery, Lafayette College, October 1966

 Oil on canvas 69 x 53.5 inches


“When I left my home town of Portsmouth, Ohio in 1922 to enter the Cleveland School of Art, I had no idea what I would be doing...To make copies from objects was a new experience. First came the plaster casts of classic figures which prepared me for the actual nude figure of the life class several years later. Anatomy the next year and learning how it all fitted together and worked. I was fortunate to have good sympathetic teachers in these fields which gave me a knowledgeable foundation...

When it came to working with the nude model I felt very inferior as most of the class were very facile and made beautiful drawings. Mine were clumsy and awkward by comparison. I felt that I would never be a draftsman. But one day all of that was turned around.

I had taken a portfolio of Daumier’s work to my room. I also had just acquired my first box of litho crayons. The freedom and power of the Daumiers inspired me to try a quick composition with the crayons of a young man diving into the surf swirling around his ankles. The next morning I put my drawing in the Daumier portfolio and took them to school. On the way in I showed the portfolio and my drawing to my friend Elizabeth Bart. After we entered life class and started drawing, Henry G. Keller, my teacher, came to criticize my drawing. As was his practice, he picked up the portfolio and started discussing the Daumiers and what a great draftsman he was in a matter of fact manner until he came to my drawing of the night before. Then his voice began to rise and with much excitement he said ‘look at this.’ At that time Elizabeth broke in to say ‘Mr. Keller, Clarence did that.’ He rubbed his beak-like nose with the back of his hand and looked up at me from where he was sitting and said, in his usual salutation, ‘Mr. Man, keep that up and you will be a great draftsman.’

That was my turning point and I gained the needed confidence and went on to what is shown here.”

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, December 1992, “Aspects of the Figure,” Harmon-Meek Gallery

Watercolor and ink on paper Signed and dated upper left 22 x 15 inches


“Experimentation by no means makes an artist, but it helps keep him out of the same old rut. Experimentation in itself is creative; trying new materials and media keeps an artist alert and protects him from using short cuts and superficial repetition that become monotonous.”

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, American Artist, December 1958

IT’S TIME 1974
Collage Signed and dated upper right 10.5 x 8.25 inches


“There is more in Clarence Carter’s art than is wont to appear at first glance, or on the surface –how much more, only those who have delved or are responsive to overtone, can hope to know.”

-Edward Alden Jewell (Art Critic of The New York Times), American Artist, November 1946

1963 Graphite on paper Signed and dated lower right 7.5 x 10 inches


“You arrive at the pure core of existence where the spark of life is conceived. From the beginning of life, an ever-expanding wave or vibration develops and expands to reach the infinite, the egg of life interweaving with the never-ending circle of the universe to form a pulsating interplay. Through the hypnotic Oriental mandala, symbol of the universe, you can achieve communion with a super-real awareness.

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, Art News, May 1971

Acrylic on canvas Signed and dated lower right 50.25 x 36.25 inches


“Beyond reality I felt there must be another realm to explore. I needed some symbol broader and more encompassing than human figures within actual environments. I experimented with symbols that grew naturally into the ovoid. Pure abstraction never satisfied me completely. I needed a contact with all that was and is. The ovoid has been an understandable symbol and a living part of life and cultures. It not only symbolizes life but also death and rebirth. I can use it in any context and it works emotionally, visually and abstractly. As a design element it can give meaning to an otherwise lifeless composition.”

-Clarence Holbrook Carter, Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Ltd., New York, 1982

Acrylic and collage on paper Signed and dated 30 x 22 inches


Transection is a theological term meaning to cross, and specifically to cross between life and death. Carter’s Transections are composed of ovoids/eggs that rise from precisely rendered spaces and recall the artist’s own childhood behavior, as he stated in a letter to a colleague, “There is a strange correlation between my childhood and what I am painting today. As a child I would spend days digging deep holes being careful to square up the holes and smooth down the sides. Then I would sit down in these holes I had so carefully dug and contemplate the mystery of this cubicle shutting me off from the visible world. It was such a satisfying state to be enveloped in the rich brown earth . . . and look up at the blue rectangle of sky and try to relate these two elements, the confinement of the earth with the spaciousness of the universe outside the hole I had dug for myself.” With the Transections there is a sense that while Carter has always been curious about death, he is perhaps more intently contemplating his own mortality, and has found yet another way to visually express these inner thoughts. Carter had long admired the work of Piero della Francesca and Piero’s Resurrection of 1463 was part of the inspiration for these works.

Oil on canvas Signed and dated lower right 78 x 60 inches


He refused to limit his efforts to a small world of exhibitions and art criticisms, nor would he surrender to the tinselled mechanical world of commercial necessity. Although variously labelled, he has followed none of the contemporary mannerisms in either the fine or the commercial arts. Nevertheless his work has consistently withstood both the sharp scrutiny of the art critics and the popular reaction of the public to national advertising programs sponsoring him. It is Carter’s belief that the artist should serve the millions as well as the few, but he can do so only if he preserves that personal integrity which will permit him to produce only his best.

-Laurence Schmeckebier (Director, Cleveland School of Art), Clarence H. Carter in Review, November 1948

Acrylic on paper Signed and dated lower left 30 x 22 inches


The Eschatos series is the last stylistic evolution in the work of Clarence Carter. Eschatos is a Greek term meaning the study of what is last. Again Carter makes a very conscious decision in regards to his subject matter and the feelings and thoughts he chooses to transmit to the world through his art. His continuing exploration of the subject of death and the mytseries surrounding the transition from earth to spirit is made apparent both by his use of the term eschatos itself and by the placement of the Egg/Ovoid in a series of mysterious and unfamiliar backgrounds that can be seen as moonscapes, spacescapes or mountainscapes. There is a feeling in these works that the artist may now be feeling his own mortality at the age of 75 and beyond in a very real way. A key development in the Eschatos works is that the Egg/Ovoid now appears to be moving through these mysterious terrains, as opposed to the earlier Transections series works where the Egg/ Ovoid is floating and hovering, yet mostly still among sharply rendered architectural forms. The addition of this feeling of movement in the Eshatos works signifies a journey for the artist himslef into the unknown and the mysterious, to the place that is beyond all understanding.

Oil on canvas Signed and dated lower left 42 x 60 inches


“I later came to know [Carter] personally while studying under him one summer at the then Cleveland School of Art in 1948. On one occasion we travelled together to the Toledo Museum of Art to examine the paintings of his which had long been in the museum collection. He was able to describe them to me in exacting detail before we ever arrived there. It became clear to me then and many times subsequently that Carter did not complete a painting and walk away from it, but rather the painting stayed with him, lived in his mind through a seemingly photographic memory.”

-Joseph McCullough (President, Cleveland Institute of Art), Clarence Holbrook Carter: Detwiller Artist/Lecturer, April 1980

Acrylic on scintilla Signed and dated upper left 36 x 24 inches
Acrylic on scintilla Signed and dated upper left 36 x 24 inches


Hundreds of fine drawings and studies for larger works make up an important part of the Carter collection. It is very fortunate and a tribute to Carter’s well organized methodology that so many fine works on paper were preserved and well ordered throughout his career. The abundance of very fine drawings serves not only as a testament to his technical brilliance, but also as a window into his mysteriously creative mind.

Graphite on paper 9.25 x 12.75 inches


“In 1969 the Cleveland Institute of Art honored Clarence Carter as its Distinguished Alumnus of the Year with a one-man exhibition of his work... At that time I wrote of Carter:

Precision without dryness Analysis without boredom Simplicity without obviousness Impeccable craftsmanship always...

The passing of another decade has changed none of those characteristics, either in the works or the artist himself.”

-Joseph McCullough (President, Cleveland Institute of Art), Clarence Holbrook Carter: Detwiller Artist/Lecturer, April 1980

THE CLOWNS MAKING UP 1979 (original painting, 1934) 
Lithograph Signed and dated lower right Multiple from a series of 30 22 x 28.5 inches