The Art of Carmen Cicero at Kobalt Gallery
by Steve Desroches
A small airplane flying above a creek through a beautiful forest. A yellow car driving across an alien planet. An oversized Pierrot clown ascending a Venetian staircase. In the exhibition The Art of Carmen Cicero at the Kobalt Gallery, through multiple decades of work, the images present the bold ideas and vibrant voice developed by the artist on the cusp of turning 90. The inclination may be to dive into the perceived narrative of each work, but Cicero is quick to point out that if there is a story, it’s told by color, lines, composition, and the myriad of other techniques used to create the work. That’s where the ideas lay. The inspiration comes from the visual, and the creation of the art creates the reality, or at least the view of reality as it travels from the brain to the canvas.
“Reality is very complex,” says Cicero. “But the way I view art in this particular period in my life is not consistent. When I look at something I find enigmatic, I find it compelling and intriguing visually. Or I like to create something that is enigmatic.”
For the past 60 years Cicero has pursued his career in art with courage, combining genres and mediums as well as styles that both delight and amaze with their sense of freedom and infinity of ideas. Cicero’s work can also be delightfully playful and sly, injecting a bit of humor and the same impish daring of a character in a Shakespearean comedy. And the show at Kobalt Gallery stops short of being a retrospective; rather, it’s a journey through the dreamlike creations that grasp the concepts of an artist still very much in action.
“Many people call it surrealism,” says Cicero. “Technically it began back in the early 1900s at the Cabaret Voltaire….I could go on and on about it. But I like to call it visionary. At this point in my life I view reality and art reality as two different things.”
Born in Newark, New Jersey Cicero’s talents did not go unnoticed for very long. In fact the very first painting he ever sold was to the Newark Museum, which still has the piece in their collection. A student of Robert Motherwell in the early 1950s, Cicero quickly received invitations to participate in group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum, and then to the Inaugural Selections show at the Guggenheim to celebrate the opening of the new Frank Lloyd Wright building in 1959. To date he’s had 51 solo shows and over 200 group exhibitions, participated in six Whitney annuals, and has his work in 26 permanent museum collections including the previously mentioned institutions as well as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Museum of American Art, Musei Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.
Cicero became associated with the Provincetown art colony in the 1970s when he was one of the founding members of the legendary Long Point Gallery with Motherwell, and artists Varujan Boghosian, Fritz Bultman, Sideo Fromboluti, Edward Giobbi, Budd Hopkins, Rick Klauber, Leo Manso, Robert Motherwell, Paul Resika, Judith Rothschild, Sidney Simon, Nora Speyer, and Tony Vevers. A good-natured man who is as prodigious a musician as he is an artist smiles even wider at the mention of the Long Point Gallery, reminiscing of curatorial meetings full of laughs and cheap champagne inevitably followed by intense discussion that resulted in remarkable shows. The gallery was so influential and important the associated papers and materials about it are in the collection of the Smithsonian Institutions’ Archives of American Art. Cicero’s face softens and then straightens as he remembers his mentor and then colleague Robert Motherwell.
“I could get more from him in a few sentences than I could from a semester from a mediocre college professor,” says Cicero. “He was an extraordinarily intelligent man. I kind of miss him. I would love to be able to talk to him again.”
For all of Cicero’s intensity and dedication to craft he exudes a warmth and a natural, easy wit. That good nature and humor can often find its way into his art, though not without a lengthy review and his explicit permission. Humor in art he addresses with a laugh, both hands on his knees and a head shaking from side to side. He talks about humor and art like they are two nations with an uneasy peace treaty. It takes lots and lots of negotiation to make it work. And then for how long? It must be lasting. He cites as examples Abbott and Costello or those “Road to…” movies featuring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour, which he once found hilarious, but are now “corny as hell.” Untamed humor can reduce art to a narrative that eclipses all the technique, a “suspicion” he agrees with, but has nevertheless managed to master over this career.
“Trying to deal with humor in art; you are on a very steep cliff,” says Cicero. “So I deal with humor and horror or humor and terror and uneasiness. I pretty much avoid it and then let it creep up. It appears in the color or the lines. The central part of the art is the visual.”
The Art of Carmen Cicero is on exhibition at the Kobalt Gallery, 366 Commercial St., Provincetown, September 18 – 29. An opening reception will be held on Friday, September 18 from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information call 508.487.1132 or visit kobaltgallery.com.