Monday, September 11, 2017

Veteran Painter Frank Holmes Discusses His Prix de Rome and Life as an Artist

"Out Front" Oil on canvas. 68"x61" 1979 (click to enlarge)
"I think the idea that art is everywhere isn't true. Art is made. Beauty is everywhere." 
 --Frank Holmes    

I met Frank Holmes when I was an art student at Ohio University. He'd gotten his Bachelor's at Pratt Institute and just finished seven years of teaching when he came to Athens to work on his Masters degree. I remember the stir it created because somehow the word got around that he was an incredible painter and I made it an aim to get into one of his classes. At some point we saw his work, either in a show there in Siegfried Hall, or perhaps a visit to his home, and I was pretty much floored. His paintings of interiors were so intricate and detailed, and showed a complete mastery of the medium. They were also totally at odds stylistically with the abstract expressionism that was so in vogue.

During his time there while getting his degree he won the Prix de Rome, an elite prize in which only a few hand-picked artists receive the opportunity to spend an all-expenses-paid stint making art in Italy, studio space included, at The American Academy in Rome.

"Out Front" (detail, upper left corner)
The American Academy in Rome is a 120 year-old operation modeled after the French Academy. It was at one time independently funded with a three-year free ride. Now it's more all-inclusive for fewer years. Holmes had a friend at Pratt who won the grant in 1962 when it was still for three years. When Holmes won, it was down to two—still a fabulous grant, two years with no obligation other than to do your work.

Upon returning from Europe Holmes went to New York where he had lived before his years at Ohio U. I had a couple artist friends who were Ohio U. grads and one of them told me he had seen Frank while in New York. I asked for a report on how he was doing and I was told he was painting a piano, that he had a loft and had spent a whole year doing studies on this grand object. That was the last I heard.

Out of the blue this memory was recently triggered and I began wondering whatever became of this incredibly talented painter who had won a Prix de Rome and sought to make his mark in the Big Apple. A few minutes on Google directed me to a gallery that represented him and I made inquiry. I got lucky. Here are some notes from our first dialogue.

EN: Can you briefly summarize your career since I last saw you, when you won the Prix de Rome?

"Books with Tang Horse" 22"x 30" Oil on Canvas (1999)
Frank Holmes: That's a big order, Ed, almost 45 years have passed! What I can say is that life has been, more or less, very good. I've been blessed to be able to do what I wanted, which was, and is, to paint. Winning the Rome Prize was a high point, for sure, and I cherish my many memories of it, including the day I got word I'd won--March 19, 1973. I was ecstatic. I had long had the Prix de Rome on my mind and finally felt my work had a chance. It all seems like a dream when I think of it now. I was teaching as a one-year guest member of the faculty at O.U. and had applied to the Academy with very high hopes. When I won, I was especially happy to be heading to Rome with my Masters, rather than job-hunting with it.

My career has changed a lot in the last 25 years. I work on a commission basis pretty much only now. I had different galleries through the years and have sold most everything I showed. I didn't, however, save any money. My last gallery, a high-end Japanese gallery in New York, was forced to close in the early nineties when the Japanese economy collapsed. I had a contract with them. They paid me a stipend, which kept me alive and was great, but they owned outright everything I painted. When my last show with them closed, I had no paintings and, basically, no money. Lucky for me there were still people who wanted my work. They found me, I'm happy to say, and even though I had to tell them I didn't have anything available, I explained that I would do something specially for them if they wanted--enter commissions. It was an approach that worked. The interested party and I would discuss what of my work they'd been attracted to and I would propose to do a sort of "relative" of whatever it was for them--something similar but different. I'd make a sketch for their approval, we'd discuss size and cost and other particulars, sign an agreement, and I was off and running.

There were variations to this theme, of course, but it worked. This is how I've functioned for years--and I'm grateful. The problem is, as before, when the painting is gone, the money is gone. This means I can't cover the time it would take to produce enough work for another show. If there are commissions, all is well. If not, i don't know. That's where I am now. I'm just finishing a commission of a highly decorated Egyptian sarcophagus. The client is very happy with it, which I'm glad of, but I've always had a commission waiting in the wings. For the first time I don't.

EN: What were some of the emotions you felt as a painter in Italy?

FH: Italy was overwhelming, for sure. There's fabulous art and architecture and history everywhere you look. I'd been there once a couple years before, and been introduced to the highlights--Florence, Venice, Rome, Naples, etc., so I had some idea. The American Academy was a world unto itself. Being there with the many other prize winners--composers, architects, classicists, art historians, etc. made it a completely unique experience—some of them remain my dearest friends. The Academy building is a wonderful place—it was a big, beautiful dormitory. We were all taken care of and, for the most part, all of us flourished. Some wanted to integrate with Italian culture and some just wanted to do their work--I was one of those. I integrated well enough to fall in love with Italy, that's for sure--it was a pleasure from beginning to end.

When I arrived at the Academy, my studio was being painted and refurbished so I had to wait a couple weeks before I could get to work. This down time allowed me to take an in-depth look at Rome, which I did--on foot mainly. It was a great introduction to the many, many marvels that are everywhere. I soaked them in. If I'd been able to get right into my studio I would have missed this wonderful experience. The extra time also allowed me to focus on what my goals were and what I hoped to accomplish during my time at the Academy.

"Dusk Call" The enhanced immediacy of 3-point perspective. 
I brought a painting I'd begun in Ohio with me to Rome--rolled up in a tube. It was a large realist interior--it's the painting that ended up being titled "Dusk Call." By the time I got settled into my new studio I was ready to concentrate on it and work hard, which I did for the next couple of months. By Christmas, I slowed down and enjoyed the holidays. I was glad to relax a bit and in January took an inspirational trip to Paris—the Louvre and anything else I could cram in. When I got back I was increasingly aware of the freedom I had. knew I didn't have any obligations, but it was more than that and slowly it became an enormous cathartic force. It caused—or maybe allowed—me to do all sorts of things I never would have otherwise.

Amazingly, I felt compelled to change how I was painting and to stop work on the big interior I'd brought with me. I sought out parts of my creative self that I had put aside to do the work that had won me the Prix de Rome. It was bizarre. I wanted to see these parts of myself again. They weren't things buried deep inside, they were right near the surface. I became a different artist. Not a different person, but definitely a different artist.

I did abstract paintings--big and small, abstract paintings, abstract figurative collages, sculpture, wood cuts--all sorts of things that were way off my Prix de Rome path. Still, they all seemed totally right and natural to me--I didn't feel I was cheating or going astray. Even the director of the Academy loved my new work, which was very heartening. This "off road" wandering that I indulged in for the better part of my two years is really what made my Rome experience especially meaningful.

EN: So what came next? How were you changed?

"The Bath" Oil and acrylic on canvas. 46.5"x72.5" 1970-72 (click to enlarge)
FH: When it came time to plan for my return to the U.S. I started thinking about what I'd done and what a major departure it was. It had been right, certainly, but it definitely off the track I'd intended to follow when I arrived. I had come to Rome with the idea I would work hard for two years, produce good paintings (I hoped) related to what had got me there, and go home to New York and get a good gallery to represent me. I decided this was still possible. I felt if I finished the painting I'd stored away, which was related to the work that had won me the prize, I'd have a chance. I geared up for a push. It was like coming back through the looking glass. I put the big painting back on my easel and soon was into it again. It was an odd reversal of what had happened a year before.

"Rudy" Acrylic on canvas. 67"x 58" 1979 (click to enlarge)
My pre-Rome work, the paintings that could be said to have won me the grant, had taken several years to produce. Almost all of them showed single figures, sometimes two, in carefully delineated interiors. The figures were pretty much inactive, but somehow mysterious and compelling. One was a man soaking in a bath, his head back and his eyes closed; another was of a man draped on his back across a bed, pouring over the edge, arms outstretched above his head. It isn't angst exactly, but those figures, without my even intending it, are—at least seem to me to be—thinking about life and wondering what the hell to do about it. I didn't realize it at the time, but now I think that's really what was going on. They simply represent my questions about life's meaning. These two paintings, however, were about 3-point perspective as much as they were about any question.

When I had my first show in New York in 1979 at Monique Knowlton Gallery, a few 3-point perspective paintings (including those two) were in it. They were pretty dramatic and made the walls vibrate. Most everything sold and the show got very good reviews, many of which cited the unusual perspective. The New York Times' John Russell called it "space that seems to bend like a penknife." The non-3-point paintings were lauded, too, but the real hook, and unique aspect of the show definitely was 3-point perspective.

As soon as that show was over I started thinking, and worrying, about the next. Even though two years between exhibitions was the norm, I decided to wait only one. I wanted to capitalize on my success as soon as possible, and knew I couldn't repeat the 3-point "extravaganza" if I took two years, or even three. Fitting the pieces together all these years later is a little difficult and I can't quite get to the reason waiting only one year seemed best, but it did. I suppose wanting to keep the ball rolling was a big part of it. I knew I'd have to quit my teaching job to do it, and paint every waking minute. Without that income I'd have to borrow to make it through. My gallery lent me money against sales to come.

"Prone" 51"x 84" Oil on canvas, 1977  
I was confident I could make good paintings that weren't in 3-point perspective, and I wasn't all that driven to do another 3-point painting—not right then at least. What I was driven to do was to follow up on a painting that had been in the first show that was hardly any perspective at all. It was one of the more recently completed pieces and was distinctly different from everything else. It was titled "Prone," and showed a female nude lying on her stomach on a black velvet sofa. The view was low and straight into the sofa's front—I call it a "perpendicular view."

I'd had the idea of doing more paintings along these lines and this seemed the perfect time to do it. I felt I could do enough of them in ten months for a show which, amazingly, I did. There was less acclaim, though some. John Russell again wrote a nice review in which he referred to me as a "practiced enigmatist," which I've always been proud of.

TO BE CONTINUED

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