Clarence Carter, Painter, 1904–2000


Clarence Holbrook Carter, the winner of the 1972 Cleveland Arts Prize for the Visual Arts, may have been the most successful artist ever to come out of Cleveland. A 1927 graduate of the Cleveland School of Art, he was barely 30 when he became the first resident Clevelander, indeed the first resident of Ohio, ever to have a painting bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Creepers, 1936). By 1948, Carter’s oils and watercolors had been collected by 27 important American museums, including the Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, and he had become one of a handful of living American artists to have two paintings owned by the Met.

The hard, clean lines and intense focus of Carter’s paintings, along with his uncanny ability to recreate the textures of different surfaces—from weathered boards to metal oil storage tanks glistening in the sun—astonished both critics and the public. His 1930 canvas, Poor Mans Pullman, painted only three years out of art school, gave birth to the term superrealist. The light radiating from Carter’s Richard Davenport, which pictured an old man sitting alone by a lamp, was so realistic it prompted gallery-goers to look around for the spotlight they assumed was shining on the canvas, Carter’s friend composer Richard Hundley remembered.

The subject of Richard Davenport was typical of Carter’s pre-1960s work: a simple, unpretentious scene, usually of people caught in some habitual activity: a man with a horse and wagon hauling several bushels of potatoes down a deserted country road . . . a farmer’s family bowing their heads in grace before their supper . . . two women in long skirts and bonnets, their backs to the viewer, walking down a railroad track, picking up bits of coal. These scenes are never mawkish or sentimental; they are cool and detached, crisply rendered, yet something about them tugs at us powerfully, as it seems to have drawn Carter.



In Poor Mans Pullman, we see only the back of a woman’s head as she gazes out the window of a train, while the man sitting across from her, a basket of flowers and fruit on the seat beside him, looks in our direction. Carter was fascinated by silence. The silence of his people-less landscapes is intensified by the presence of buildings or other human structures, as in the bleak watercolor Subzero, Cleveland, a view from the backyards of Cedar Avenue, in which icicles hang from gutters and a wisp of smoke curls above a chimney, all in wordless anticipation of something.

Born in 1904 in the southern Ohio river town of Portsmouth, Clarence Holbrook Carter was seized early by the stark grandeur of landscapes where snows or the rising Ohio River in spring competed with human presences trudging purposefully, as often deep in thought, one imagines, as in conversation. It may well have been the memory of the river’s overwhelming its banks in1913, when he was six, that inspired his first important work, painted non-stop in one day and one night while he was still in art school. Carter had come up to Cleveland in 1923 to study with painters Henry Keller and Paul Travis, making ends meet by waiting tables in the tearoom of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Flood, his first prize-winning entry in the museum’s annual juried showcase of regional artists, The May Show, put $25 in the young student’s pocket; Cleveland industrialist Ralph Coe purchased it for $100 from the show. Years later, Carter bought it back. The painting had a special place in his heart, he said, because it was the work that had brought him to the attention of the museum’s director, William Milliken.

Milliken, an ardent champion of local artists, helped launch Carter’s career, arranging for his young protégé to study with Hans Hoffman in Capri, Italy. The museum director promoted the work Carter sent back for sale from Europe, enabling him to spend a second year abroad in France, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Sicily and northern Africa. When Carter returned to Cleveland, Milliken arranged for him to teach studio classes at the museum. However, the artist primarily supported himself by selling his work during the 11 years between his graduation and 1938, when he took a faculty position at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie-Mellon University).

Demand was not hurt by the fact that he took 26 prizes at The May Show during that time, including 13 firsts, or by the fact that 10 of Carter’s watercolors were accepted by the Brooklyn Museum of Art for its 1928 International Watercolor Exhibition. Though he was surrounded there by such successful artists as Edward Hopper, William Zorach and John Singer Sargent, critics pronounced the 22-year-old the hero of the show. (Carter’s Sommer Bros. Stoves and Hardware was promptly snapped up by the Brooklyn for its permanent collection.)

In May 1935, Carter was chosen from a statewide competition to paint murals in the Ravenna, Ohio, post office by a national panel that included Eleanor Roosevelt. This was the first of a series of works to be commissioned for Ohio public buildings as part of the WPA Federal Art Project. Carter’s work for the Works Progress Administration, for which he also served briefly as regional superintendent (1937–1938), included four large murals for the new post office in Portsmouth, Ohio. (Contrary to what is stated in Federal Art in Cleveland 1933–1943, Richard Hundley believes Carter did not paint the mural in John Hay High School.)

From 1938 to 1944, Carter taught painting and design at Carnegie Tech; Carter would in time be a professor, visiting lecturer or artist-in-residence at seven universities. He then took a position with the Alcoa Steamship Company and painted a series of 21 scenes from the Caribbean and South America that set new standards for national magazine advertising. He was to create other memorable series for the First National City Bank of New York and American Locomotive that appeared in Fortune and Life magazines.

By the early 1960s Carter’s work had become more symbolic, almost abstract, in character. A series of huge canvases the artist referred to collectively as Over and Above featured giant insects, birds and other animals peering over walls at the viewer. These startling images gave way to what Hundley characterized as “large luminous structural compositions of tombs, caverns and ovals called ‘Transections,’ ” then to surreal landscapes (though that element had been present in his work since the early 1930s) featuring almost mystical egg shapes, the symbol of life, that the artist called Eschatos (The Final Things). The silence, which Carter equated with death, is palpable.

William H. Robinson, curator of modern European art at the Cleveland Museum of Art and author of the illuminating catalog essay for Clarence Carter: The Unknown Snapshot Studies, believes it was the death of the artist’s father and two younger sisters while Carter was still in his teens that imbued his work with a sense of “the precariousness of life.” “I draw my inspiration from things close at hand,” Carter wrote in 1943, “which are sometimes suffused with memories of the past.” Years later, in a letter, he recalled squatting as a youth in deep holes he’d dug with his own hands to “contemplate the mystery of this cubicle of earth shutting me off from the world.” He had found it “satisfying to be enveloped in the rich brown earth and look up at the rectangle of blue sky and to try to relate the confinement of the earth with the spaciousness of the universe outside the hole.”

Carter’s fascination with photography—a source of inspiration that came to light only after his death, with the discovery of an old chest full of snapshots corresponding to some of his most famous paintings—may have had something to do with the eerie way in which photographs can capture a fleeting moment of time, yet seem, in their primal stillness, to prefigure the cessation of movement and change that awaits all life. As demonstrated in Clarence Carter: The Unknown Snapshot Studies, the 2004 show mounted by the Southern Ohio Museum and brought to the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, Ohio, by the Cleveland Artists Foundation, some of Carter’s best-known paintings are clearly based on photographs. Yet, Frank Trapp, author of the definitive book on Carter, claimed he had personally watched the artist create three of these very paintings on canvas from scratch, beginning with faint pencil lines, then applying the paint, with virtually no revising or retouching.

Recognition of Carter’s place in American art spiked in the 1970s, when he was mentioned or discussed at some length in 11 books and peaked in the 1980s with his mention in18 books. By the centenary of his birth in 2004, citations of his work totaled 61. Clarence Carter died in 2000 at the age of 96.

—Dennis Dooley

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