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Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

The Naive Mask of Aristodimos Kaldis

Aristodimos Kaldis, Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York City, November 27, 2001-January 12, 2002.

The Greek painter and downtown New York personality Aristodimos Kaldis was born in 1899 in the port town of Atarneus, Turkey, near Troy, on the shore of the Aegean. He spent his childhood in Greece. Immigrating to Boston in 1917, he moved in 1930 to New York City, where, as a writer and administrator for the Mural Division of the Federal Art Project, he came to know such painters as Diego Rivera, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning. Kaldis became well known in art circles as an eccentric who nonetheless was extremely knowledgeable of the history of art – his lectures were often attended by accomplished artists, including de Kooning. Known for his brilliant hues and Matisse-like black line, Kaldis was mostly able to escape the rubrics, “primitive” and “naive.” For many critics and painters, his powerful, often compositionally complicated, paintings struck a note of high Greek exuberance without sacrificing sophistication or structure. Indeed, this show of early work from 1939 to 1951 at Lori Bookstein Fine Art offered evidence of just how accomplished the artist was in his paintings, which can reference the Fauves and Kandinsky, while maintaining their own sense of style.

Kaldis first exhibited in New York in 1941 at the Artist’s Gallery. That year also saw the purchase by the noted collector Albert C. Barnes of one of the paintings in the show – Absorbing Art (1941). In a December 1941 letter to Kaldis, Barnes wrote: “We think it [the painting] will be valuable to show to the scores of young painters who attend our classes as an example of what we consider good work.” Kaldis linked his creative energy to establishing “explosive space,” a term he explained in an interview with art critic Lawrence Campbell in 1959: “An explosive space in a work of art is joined harmoniously. That is, instead of bursting forth, drowning with its shouts the other part of the painting, it integrates them [sic] into a harmonious whole. The miracle occurs when the explosive bursts are prevented from causing a rupture, a fracture or a hernia. How this miracle occurs, I cannot honestly explain.” In this brief quotation, the reader gets the sense of Kaldis’s intuitive force, his sense of struggle between the given and the understood. He attacks art as if it were myth; the painting records the painter’s struggle to combine forms and planes and lines and hues with the energy of a new eye and hand. Emphasis is placed on the juxtaposition of gestural energies, which means that despite Kaldis’s fierce independence as an artist, he nonetheless was, at the very least, cognizant of the art world around him.

In Kaldis’s case, the art is more achieved than it at first seems. The rhetoric of his early style stems from a visionary treatment of experience in Greece; in Aegean Landscape (1941), the white rectangular houses sit against orange and brown hills, while a small horse draws a load down a road leading to a deep-blue sea. The planes defining the composition save the painting from being described as “naive” – each plane abuts against and cuts into the other, so that there is a sense of simultaneous activity and intelligent use of space. The rather simple color scheme is marked by a spirited disregard for convention: hue does what it has always been best at doing – communicating energy and joy. Only apparently simple, Aegean Landscape juxtaposes the spirit of nature with the activity of people; art is meant to pay homage to the complex, intuited rhythms of what is seen. While Kaldis’s personality was larger than life, his sense of form is highly considered – one might even say controlled. Joyousness pours in through color, but the planes are pieced together like a puzzle, and the images command through their connection to other elements in the painting.

The Matissean motif is full blown in the 1945 painting, Red Cross Volunteer, in which a woman sits in a large, curved red armchair. Wearing a Red Cross patch and a blue jacket over a brown dress, the figure is a focal center, while the rest of the room comes into notice in off-angle planes. On the left of the painting, there is a table with two playing cards, a cup, and a serving dish. The viewer can see, behind the armchair, a portrait of a Zouave on a yellow wall, above a side chest with a jug and small painting resting on top. Also in the back, to the left, is a window with a painting resting against it. A deep red rug takes up nearly the bottom half of the painting, and one feels as though the painting is a musical exercise in color – reds and yellows and dark greens are in abundance. In another portrait, Anna Bruenn (1944), the female figure dominates the center of the painting. Her features are painted simply; she has a flip of brown hair, and wears a dark-blue jacket and a white skirt with red and blue stripes at the bottom. In the foreground, there is a small gray dog and an armchair, while on the right wall a stuffed deer with antlers sticks out. On the back wall, one can see a dimly painted portrait of a person standing. The entire painting seems to hover, as if floating gently in a space rather like, but not exactly similar to, our own. In this way, there is a similarity to the floating figures of Chagall.

Kaldis was a painter for whom expression was primary. The charge of naiveté in his case is not germane. He was an intuitive painter who taught himself a style that was intrinsically powerful, consisting as it did of fractured planes and intense areas of color. The rough figuration existing in his paintings demonstrates an acute knowledge of compositional structure, whose sophistication is readily apparent. His influences do not overwhelm his sense of himself. In the beautiful painting, Still Life (1946), in which a vase with red flowers and a bowl and what looks like a lemon float on top of a green table, Kandinsky’s ecstatic patches of color are investigated. Yet the bits of green and reddish brown and mustard yellow maintain their independence, both within the painting and as part of the artist’s own, original vision. One might say that it is the artist’s personality, in all its quirky energy, that ties the works together. That would not do justice, however, to the genuine achievement of an artist whose ingenuousness masked a higher, and more ambitious, purpose than what might appear at first glance.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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