The art essay

Eucarestia 1 (1960) by William Congdon (1912–1998)

Heaven and earth, choirs of angels and men, gouged in the paint with buoyant velocity, unanimously orchestrate their praises around a soft, golden disc, slightly elevated above a bloodstained altar, radiating in all directions. Eucarestia was painted by the American “action painter” William Congdon in 1960, just one year after his baptism into the Catholic Faith. It is the visual Magnificat of a man who reached the end of a long, tiresome pilgrimage. It is as free and restless as a jazz performance can be, and yet as reverent and still as a Holy Hour. In Eucarestia, Miles Davis meets van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb!

If you have never heard the name William Congdon before, it is both sad and forgivable. Sad, because he counts among the greatest painters of the second half of the 20th century, and there was a time when he was recognized as such; forgivable, because his restlessness (one might say, his quest for the true center of his existence) drove him away, very early on, from the center of the “art world,” beyond the short-range radar of critics and curators.

Born on April 15, 1912 (the day the Titanic sank, which may have been prophetic of his career, but certainly not of his art), William Congdon grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, in a Puritan family from which he inherited, besides a financial security that never failed him, a sense of hard work and restraint. The outbreak of World War II and the horror he witnessed as a volunteer ambulance driver (he was among the very first to enter the Nazi death camp of Bergen-Belsen) shattered the seemingly crystal clear morality of his upbringing. Then Congdon set out on a lifelong quest for beauty in the midst of chaos. On this journey, painting would be his instrument—his visual diary—to clarify for himself, and to communicate to others, what he was looking at.

The longing remains

Congdon’s artistic and contemplative journey took off in New York City in 1948, when he joined the Betty Parsons Gallery. For a while, he was regarded as a full-blooded member of the “New York School.” His works hung alongside those of Newman, Pollock, and Rothko—with whom he built a close relationship—and were reviewed by the likes of Clement Greenberg. It was also in the late 40s that the disc appeared as a recurring, almost obsessive, motif in his paintings. In an iconic 1948 canvas prophetically titled New York City (Explosion), the disc took center stage, like a black hole threatening to absorb the city and its lights.

By 1951, William Congdon was a successful painter, his work attracted the attention of major museums and curators, and Life Magazine ran a profile of him. And yet his work during this period speaks of a deeply unsettled and tormented soul. He set off on a journey to find redeeming beauty when, there he was, acclaimed by the world for holding up a mirror to its chaos and hopelessness. He did not belong there. At the height of his worldly recognition, William Congdon left everything behind and moved to Europe. Many regarded it as, artistically speaking, a suicide. It may well have been his salvation.

The 50s was the defining decade for William Congdon. Establishing his headquarters in Venice, he periodically left the city for extended trips, mostly by himself, from France to India, and from Algeria to Guatemala. However, most paintings he made during this decade reflect his inner sense of isolation and nostalgia more than the sublime majesty of his subjects: in his paintings, Saint Mark’s ordinarily buzzy square is empty and still, the Taj Mahal is oddly unsecure, and the Colosseum looks like the open mouth of a dormant volcano. Painted in 1957, his Dying Vulture has the poignant pathos of an Agony in the Garden. It is—or so it seems—the swan song of a crucified artist, desperately looking for beauty.

From nostalgia to ecstasy

In 1959, William Congdon was baptized into the Catholic Faith in Assisi. The inner workings of his conversion are mostly hidden in the privacy of his heart and God’s. Encounters with the founder of Pro Civitate Christiana, Father Giovanni Rossi, and later with Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton, certainly played an important role in his decision. And so did Assisi. It was there that, for the first time, he found himself able to see in a landscape more than just the reflection of his inner landscape. “Venice was mine, while Assisi never belonged to anyone, because it was Saint Francis’…. Assisi converted me.” A place that did not belong to him. A place to which he belonged.

Painted one year later, Eucarestia reflects the inner transformation of the artist and a kind of post-conversion euphoria. The dark orb that haunted his early works is now transfigured into a radiant halo, elevated high above the altar like a risen Christ from the tomb. The restraint of his Puritan heritage—the horizontality of his landscapes; their earthy, subdued colors; their sublime but desolate subjects—is now lifted up along a vertical axis, lines and colors bursting into an ecstatic hymn of praise.

Eucarestia was painted with febrile velocity, gushing out, as it were, from the artist’s depths. A few aerial lines are enough to give life to a choir of angels dominating the scene and to a crowd of standing worshipers, stretched like arrows in the direction of the altar. The “action painting” of Jackson Pollock was a jump into the void, a high-speed, desperate ride to nowhere. William Congdon brought action painting home, allowing action to find its destination and repose in the Christ, the “still point of the turning world,” as T.S. Eliot would have it, the center of our existence and of our fast evolving world.

Father Paul Anel

A priest in Brooklyn, N.Y.

 

Eucarestia 1 (1960), William Congdon (1912–1998), The William G. Congdon Foundation, Milan, Italy.

© The William G. Congdon Foundation, Milan-Washington. www.congdonfoundation.com.