Interview with Professor Curtis Carter on Milwaukee painter Karl Priebe

Nov. 6, 2013
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This post marks the maiden voyage of Express Milwaukee’s new MKEart blog. As tradition dictates, be sure to break a bottle of champagne over the bow of your computer.

A few words about what to expect are in order. As presently conceived, MKEart is to be the more loquacious sibling of the weekly Art Happenings column in the Shepherd Express. Whereas the Art Haps merely skims the surface with previews of upcoming local art events, MKEart will dig in with interviews, profiles, and other such reportage.

It is also the hope that this blog becomes a forum for comments and discussions. Grace the space with your voice. And let us defy so much of the Internet by eschewing ad hominems and ignoring ‘trolls’ (easily recognizable by their frequent reference to and immoderate opinions about Justin Bieber).

Finally, make it known what you wish this space to be. What would you like to see? From whom would you like to hear? What local venues and artists are being unjustly overlooked?

And now, without further ado… an interview with Dr. Curtis L. Carter – professor of philosophy at Marquette University, specializing in aesthetics and philosophy of art – on painter Karl Priebe. The Charles Allis Art Museum is now exhibiting “Wisconsin Masters: Karl Priebe” until January 19, 2014...

Tyler Friedman: Let’s begin from the beginning: who was Karl Priebe?

Curtis Carter: Karl Priebe was a Milwaukee artist who was very popular with the community. He was well connected with number of people in the African American community – novelists, important visual artists, musicians, and so forth. And he exhibited work both in New York and I think a little bit internationally. When I visited Philadelphia I found a work of his – to my surprise – in the Barnes collection, which is one of the premier collections of American and international art.

TF: So he is one of the most respected and best known of Milwaukee artists?

CC: Yes. Certainly locally. He never sought a national image. Although, as I said, he had some national exhibitions. And Billie Holiday was a friend, Dizzy Gillespie was a friend. People in show business and so forth. But he never really sought publicity. He just was who he was: a very interesting and competent artist. Certainly in his time, one of the highlights of Milwaukee and Wisconsin artists.

TF: And his time was 1914-1976… his lifespan at any rate.

CC: Yes.

TF: You are qualified to speak about Karl Priebe not just as a scholar and philosopher of art, but you also knew him personally. I’m interested in how you first became aware of Priebe and how you first met him.

CC: Well I was aware of him in the community as being an artist of note. And in, I think it was 1975, we decided to make him the featured artist in what was then called ‘the President’s Exhibition’ at Marquette. That was an exhibition that was held every two years. And so I went to visit him in his home and that was the beginning of what became a friendship. I then curated this exhibition, which was his largest and perhaps last major exhibition.

TF: People don’t seem to be entirely sure how to classify his art to or categorize him. Some refer to him as a Surrealist. Others as a member of the “fantasist school of painting.” Most interesting to me was Priebe describing his art as “realism filtered through the imagination.”

CC: That’s a pretty good characterization. He’s not a Surrealist by any means. He wasn’t interested in that kind of thing. He studied at the Layton Art School. But he was a very individual artist. I don’t think he really fits any of the hard, established categories. Maybe fantasy or something like that, but I think what he said was good enough.

TF: Was he iconoclastic in his inclinations? Did he seek to distance himself from these movements?

CC: I don’t think he had any interest in aligning or distancing himself. I think he was comfortable with who he was and he had his own ideas about what he would do and how he would present it. Although I never had any issues, I know from his other friends that he could be a bit demanding in his expectations at times. When I did the exhibition with him, we met, talked about the works, and agreed about the works we would like to get. Most of the works were in the collections of prominent Milwaukee families. Museums never took too heavily to his work. Maybe it didn’t fit any of their obvious categories of pretension or otherwise relevancy.

TF: I wonder whether his unwillingness to kowtow to trends and passing fads is part of the reason why he never caught on nationally and became a bigger name.

CC: Possibly. He was not at all pretentious. He was very down to earth, straightforward. Some of his friends tried to put him on a pedestal and imagine things that he would demand or expect. But it was they and not he. There were some amusing incidents during the planning of this show. One of his close friends agreed to help organize a reception and she had very elaborate demands about just what Karl Priebe would expect, for example, in terms of what flowers should be displayed. He said, “Look, I couldn’t care less about any of that. Let’s just do the exhibit.”

TF: There’s a quote that came to mind about Eric Dolphy, the great jazz multi-instrumentalist. Described by someone as “Too ‘in’ to be ‘out,’ but too ‘out’ to be ‘in’.” In other words, existing in a sort of middle state between avant-garde and middle-of-the-road acceptableness. There is absolutely a fantastic or quasi-surreal quality to his work. But on the other hand, they are still representational and accessible paintings.

CC: You could say that among those who knew him in the art world, outside the visual arts, he was highly respected. For years he exchanged almost daily post cards with the famous photographer, Carl Van Vechten. About half of that collection is here at Marquette. The other half is in Yale’s archives with Van Vechten’s papers. And Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and other major artists of the period were his friends. But in terms of the visual arts, he didn’t bother with the same sorts of connections. John Wilde, who was another major Wisconsin artist, did get more national recognition and was Priebe’s friend. I just don’t think he cared about that. I think he cared about doing what he did on his own terms. And being with his friends. Every Friday afternoon, when I knew him, there would be a little salon at his house. Anyone might show up. A corporate president. Another artist. Particularly he was interested in African American artists and culture. So you would always see some of the local African American artists there and welcomed with respect and appreciation. There would be drinking – not excessive – a little bit of food and very stimulating conversation. It was the closest thing to a real art salon, in the Parisian sense, that Milwaukee ever had. Literally there were no social barriers. Everyone was welcome of any social standing or race or ethnic background. So it was fun to go to.

TF: You mentioned the post cards with Van Vechten. I was struck in viewing not just the Allis exhibition, but also the pieces currently on view at the Haggerty Museum of Art, by the fact that much of the art is on post cards. There are birthday cards, postcards with painted birds, holiday cards with individualized artwork. That being said, another theme that runs throughout Priebe’s work – that I’ve seen at any rate – are African American women. I know that he had a long-standing friendship with Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie; some of the papers from their correspondence are in Marquette’s special collections. Could you say some more about his fascination or identification with African American culture? Especially going back to a time in the 1930s and 1940s when that sort of cultural crossover was novel.

CC: I think the subject matter of his art is the strongest statement of his interest. You’ll find many images of African American people in the work. It’s nothing that he verbalized. He just did it. In other words, he wasn’t a social activist. He was just open and receptive to people of all cultures. In part because the African American community was around where he lived and partially because African American artists sought him out and he was supportive of their interests and he helped make their work available to a larger community.

TF: So he was something of a patron, or a mentor?

CC: I would say a mentor. I don’t think he had a lot of money. He had a lot of friends who had money, but I don’t think he worried too much about that.

TF: We’ve touched on the use of African American motifs and themes in the paintings. It seems to me that the other theme that Priebe meditates on over the course of his career is birds. I’ve wondered whether this may be connected to Priebe’s work on the anthropology staff at the Milwaukee Public Museum in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

CC: Interesting question. I’m not sure that there was a connection. I never discussed with him his interest in birds, but of course that was one of his signature items. I don’t know whether he had a philosophical or anthropological interest.

TF: I’d like to ask a more general question about artists who become known for a particular subject matter. Is there generally, in your experience, some kind of important symbolism there? Or does one just become fixated on birds, for example?

CC: I think, again, he just did what he wanted to do. And the images that pleased him are what he chose to work on. I don’t think there is any social message, necessarily, although that’s implied. The danger, of course, when you focus on a particular subject matter is that it can become a little bit stereotypical. It can generate a static view of your work from those looking at it from outside. Especially if they’re looking at it critically. It can be a kind of signature, but it can also be a limiting force. Although I don’t think he cared about that. I do think that his reputation in wider circles may have been affected, and not positively, by the fact that he tended to focus on these two themes. And some might argue, without much advancement in how these themes were dealt with. But we’d have to go back to the work to see if that holds up.

TF: Was Priebe an intellectual person? Did he enjoy discussing art theory or what went on in his head? Or was he the type of person that just felt compelled to pick up a brush and paint?

CC: I don’t think he cared one hoot about art theory. Or even knew much about it. His interest was in being an artist and making art and connecting with people.

TF: Especially appropriate is that Barnett Newman quote in which he says, “Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds.”

CC: He was open to discussing many issues and he was a good conversationalist, though he was on the quiet side. But people really liked him. He was like a magnet, he drew people to him. It wasn’t because of any intellectual prowess; it was just being a quiet, charismatic person who was open, receptive, and friendly.

TF: I’m interested in hearing more about the role of the imagination. If Priebe’s art is “realism filtered through the imagination,” why does the imagination come into play? Why choose representational subjects and then situate them in these peculiar placeless places?

CC: For most artists, imagination is the grounding. It’s not rational ideas or intellectual ideas. I would say that it was the imagination working through his other talents that drove him to do what he did.

TF: What is distinctive about Priebe’s work?

CC: Well, in addition to the subject matter, there’s the style. If you were to put his art in a line up at the police station you won’t find anyone else who works quite that way.

TF: Do you think there’s a higher truth in imaginative realism than, say, photographic realism? That you’re able to get at something by painting a bird that you would not get in photographing the bird?

CC: You can use the camera to give different readings of the bird just as well as you can with the painting. In other words there, both the brush and the camera are vehicles by which you can interpret the bird in many ways. I don’t think one is more artistically significant than the other. But I suppose the advantage of the painter is that the brush may be more immediately in touch with the bird than the camera.

TF: To return once again to the “realism filtered through the imagination” quotation. Thinking about that in relation to some of the other descriptions of Priebe’s art, especially the claim that he belongs to the fantasist school of painting: the word “fantasy” is derived from the ancient Greek word “phantasia,” which can be translated as ‘imagination.’ And there was an aesthetic theory based on “phantasia” in Hellenistic art. There’s a quotation from Cicero’s about Phidias, the ancient Greek artist, in which he says “when he created his Zeus or Athena, he did not contemplate any persons from whom he drew a likeness, but rather a sort of extraordinary beauty resided in his mind, and, concentrating on it and intuiting its nature, he directed his art and his hand towards reproducing it.”

CC: That would be a way of putting it. With many Chinese painters, for example, they don’t simply copy realistic models. They create their idea of the subject, which is essentially what Cicero was saying. I think that’s true of Priebe. Basically he is creating out of his imagination images that are not direct representations of real birds or real people. It is his hand and his eye and his mind and his imagination that is shaping the work, not the external model.

TF: Any final words, thoughts, reminiscences?

CC: It would be worth thinking about his incredible popularity. Everybody loved him.

TF: Not just people who knew him, but people who only knew him through his art?

CC: Yes, but it was especially those who personally knew him. Even those who only bought his art were very devoted to him. He had the ability to communicate with the public. Not all artists have it. Dali had it as well. There’s a parallel here. The critics never thought much of Dali’s work. Many didn’t think particularly much of Priebe either. But, put Dali on the street and you’ll draw the largest crowds of any artist still. I’ve travelled to Dali exhibitions all over the world, and there’s something – whether it is shown in a Japanese department store or a museum in Montreal – that compels people to come. To me, that says there is some form of communication taking place that can’t be reduced to mere curiosity. There’s something else. And Priebe had that something else as well. I don’t know what it is. Never mind the dismissive critics, the people come.

TF: Well hopefully they’ll come to the Charles Allis to see the Priebe exhibition.


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