Vincent Capraro

90-year-old artist wows and enchants two collectors

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The Importance of Being Creative


"Sandy Frank, Vincent Capraro and Brenda Brazell

Sandy Frank, Vincent Capraro and Brenda Brazell in front of center panels of large Capraro painting at Mr. Frank's New York apartment

By Carter B. Horsley

Sometimes parts of our past come back to haunt us with many regrets, but sometimes those regrets - about not following up on friendships and being more curious - have a denouement and a happy surprise ending.

I bought the first IBM personal computer for about $6,000 when it came out in 1981 and soon discovered its many inadequacies: it was very short on memory and its monitor only displayed two colors, black and green.

IBM soon thereafter opened up a retail store for its computers on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street and I dashed in to get a memory card that had just been advertised. There were many well-dressed salesmen, but none of them had ever heard of the memory card, which was, in fact, an IBM product. None of them also had any idea about using the computer for color graphics.

Amazingly, IBM quickly dominated the personal computer industry because of its famous name and because of the phenomenal American entrepreneurial spirit that fostered a fantastic "third-party" industry to fill in IBM's missing gaps.

By reading many of the emerging thick personal computing magazines I learned that Tecmar manufactured an expansion card that could display more than 4,000 colors on some monitors and several companies began memory cards. I then bought a Sony Profeel monitor that could be switched between a television and a computer color display. The quite small unit cost me about $660, but I used it for more than 15 years. I knew I had absolutely no talent as a draftsman but the computer enabled me to put a colored dot at a precise location and "undo" it if I wanted.

Soon thereafter The New York Times Federal Credit Union announced it would hold an employees' art show in several different categories. I created four small computer drawings in color of the "four seasons" of Times Square and mounted them together in one frame and entered it. I believe it won second prize in computer graphics.

The following year I upgraded my printer and discovered the glories of glossy paper and created a larger work inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" with four Giacomettiesque figures dancing at the foot of a mountain. It won first prize in computer graphics. We had been advised to put prices on our works which were exhibited in the WQXR auditorium.

I was astounded when I discovered that it had been bought by one of my colleagues, Agis Francis Saturnis Salpulkas, who had won first prize in the painting category. Agis had started at The Times two years after I had but in fact was one year older than I. (He took swimming seriously, however, so he was in much better shape than I.) I told him he shouldn't buy it and that I would give it to him as I was so delighted that anyone liked it. He insisted, however, that artists need to sell their work and I agreed. It was my first sale and it encouraged me greatly.

Agis and I would often talk about art and he told me he had been taking lessons at the Art Students League and I told him that my mother had known many of the teachers there over the years.

At the time, Times Square was a mess and other than Sardi's there were not too many places to eat and many of us in the newsroom would go across 43rd Street to the back room at Gough's for dinner after the first edition was "put to bed" around 9 PM. I would usually go with Sheldon Binn, the night city editor, George Barrett, the top rewriteman, and Bill Hollander, a copy editor and we would have a silver pitcher full of not too dry martinis and Gough's delightfully greasy bacon cheeseburger specials.

The front room at Gough's was a narrow and deep and long bar with a few booths along the side. The bar was always packed with dirty men with hats made of folded newsprint. They were pressmen at The Times and their ink-stained faces and hands guaranteed that passersby would not venture in to disturb our deadline harmony.

Agis and I had different career paths at The Times and for a while he was the Detroit correspondent before returning to the city and joining the Business News department where for many years he was a prominent reporter. Although the Business News department was on the same floor as the main news room, it was a very large floor and surprisingly our paths did not cross very much, but when it did I would ask how his painting was coming along.

Several years later after I had left The Times and became the architectural critic and real estate editor of The New York Post, I ran into Agis at a coffee shop on Broadway at 55th Street. He was grabbing a bite before heading over to the Art Students League nearby on 57th Street. He told me he was restoring a very large oil painting of John L. Sullivan, the boxer, that for many years had hung darkened in the front room of Gough's.

I did not see Agis again and was utterly shocked when I read his obituary by Douglas Martin in the January 4, 2000 edition of The Times. The Times gave him a nice, rather lengthy obit noting that "He began to paint during a 12-week newspaper strike in 1978 after his wife noticed that he was becoming restless and urged him to sign up for a painting course," adding that his teacher was Vincent Capraro, an artist who now lives in Piermont, N.Y." The obit also said that Agis's art was sold at the Jadite Gallery in Manhattan and that he had "painstakingly restored a portrait of the heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan in Gough's, a gritty saloon."

While many editors and some reporters at The Times would frequent Sardi's, which was adjacent to The Times on West 44th Street, Gough's was the hardcore hangout for the newsroom just as Artists' and Writers' was the hangout for the gang at The New York Herald Tribune on West 41st Street.

In recent years, I have divided my time between being the editor and publisher of thecityreview.com and the editor of cityrealty.com. The former covers not only architecture and real estate, but also films, major art exhibitions in the city and the major art auctions in the city in many different categories. Several years ago, I would chat briefly with Christian Schaernack, a very dapper and dashing art critic, at the elegant press briefings by Christopher Burge at Christie's, the auction house. Finally, about a year ago, we agreed to should get together for dinner sometime rather than on nights when we were rushed on deadline and we exchanged business cards.

A year ago or so, Christian joined Michele Leight and myself at the garden at Barolo in SoHo and in the course of a very entertaining dinner he mentioned that he had known Agis Salpulkas when he was at The Times. I was quite surprised and became even more intrigued when Christian began to tell me about his teacher, Vincent Capraro whom he knew and whose works he collected. According to Christian, Capraro's work was very hard to describe but very exciting.

Christian travels back and forth often to Europe so we didn't see each other again until the start of this year's fall art auction season when he invited me to go to Capraro's 90th birthday celebration November 9, 2009 at the home of Sandy Frank, who, he said, was a major collector and patron of Capraro's and a successful television producer of such programs as "Name That Tune" and "Face the Music." He said that Capraro lives with his 93-year-old wife, Tatiana, upstate in a studio in the woods and that he gets up every morning at 6 AM and is at work painting by 7 AM.

Vincent Capraro blowing out his birthday candles

Vincent Capraro blowing out his birthday candles at Sandy Frank's apartment

Michele and I went to the party and as Christian had predicted were blown away by Capraro's work. It was a very lovely and lavish party with endless Veuve Cliquot and various scrumptious hors-d'oeuvres and the crowds made it a little difficult to fully comprehend a few of the major works.

Sandy Frank and Capraro

Sandy Frank praising Mr. Capraro who is seated and protesting, mildly

Mr. Frank introduced me to Mr. Capraro and I told him I had worked with Salpulkas and his eyes lit up as he fondly remembered his student. Mr. Capraro was besieged with well-wishers and showed no lack of energy especially when presented with a mountain of deserts surmounted by some birthday candles that he easily blew out.

 

According to Christian Schaernack, Mr. Capraro "belongs to a generation of great American artists who worked in and around New York City after World War II, all of them students of the famous abstract painter Hans Hofmann." "Counting Titian, Rubens and Goya to his most important influences, Capraro clearly holds a unique place in American postwar painting."

Sandy Frank has recently acquired a powerful and important late mural painting by Vincent Capraro. "In his painting Vincent is proving once and again his masterly command of the medium, while pushing his haunting imagery and highly personal style - a unique blend of abstraction and figuration - to new heights," Mr. Schaernack declared on the invitation to Mr. Frank's party for Mr. Capraro. In an interview, Mr. Frank said that because of the panel's large size he planned to only purchase three, but Mr. Schaernack said he must have all five.

From several feet away, it is a swirling vortex of browns and reds, an all-encompassing sepia storm that on closer examination reveals chaotic details of desperate depths and dungeons, of collapsing dreams and escapes, and everywhere flickers of hope. This and another Capraro painting at Mr. Frank's apartment and several owned by Mr. Schaernack are reminiscent of Goya's Disasters of War, Ivan Albright's darkest passages, David Alfaro Siqueros's incredible brushwork, and Albrecht Altdorfer's vast forests. They conjure Bosch's phantasmagoric visions and Jan Eyck's Last Judgment. And Dante's Inferno, Mr. Schaernack added.

Huge 10-panel composition by Capraro

Huge, 10-panel composition by Vincent Capraro

According to both Mr. Frank and Mr. Schaernack, who are obviously in awe of Mr. Capraro's talent, the artist paints very, very rapidly, which is remarkable given the complexity of his large compositions.

In an interview, Mr. Frank said that he learned of Mr. Capraro through Sam Shaw, the famous photographer perhaps best known for his many photographs of Marilyn Monroe whom Mr. Frank described as "the ultimate Renaissance man." Mr. Shaw told Mr. Frank that Mr. Capraro was exceptional.

"The Jews of Vught" by Capraro

"The Jews of Vught," by Vincent Capraro, 16 by 8 feet, 1991, cover illustration of 1992 catalogue

In the catalogue on Capraro's "Holocaust," Tom L. Freudenheim, assistant secretary for museums of the Smithsonian Institution said that Capraro's Holocaust drawings are "quite extraordinary and very moving," adding that they are very complicated and full of suggestion, much of it never fully expressed, which is part of what gives the work its power."

"I was overwhelmed by the variety and number, their individuality and yet their force as a group," Mr. Freudenheim said.

The cover illustration of the catalogue is a 1991 Capraro painting that is called "The Jews of Vught." It is an oil on canvas that measures 16 by 8 feet. The catalogue notes that it "commemorates an incident that took place at Vught, a concentration camp established in 1942 near s'Hertogenbosch in the southern Netherlands. Here the Nazis built the 'Black Hole,' a cell measuring 8 feet by 12 feet (ironically, less square footage than the area of Capraro's canvas). Sixty-seven women were imprisoned in this cramped space for thirteen hours, resulting in death for nineteen women, insanity for three others, and hospitalization for thirty survivors. Capraro has presented the honor of the event elliptically, through the reactions of five witnesses."

In his catalogue essay on Capraro's Holocaust Drawings, Mr. Freundenheim remarked that "one the one hand, they constitute a response to specific historical events; on the other, they elevate themselves, and us, into another more universal realm. In that sense, these drawings share a quality that we recognize in the work of other artists, from Goya to Picasso. Capraro's drawings may move into that realm of 'works that extend beyond the moment of their creation and signal to us across the centuries that a decisive, irrevocable, and irreversible change had taken place in man's course on earth, in his consciousness, in his regard of himself and his hopes, duties and destiny.'...while the foundations of Western Christological art may insistently include the visual language of suffering, only a few modern artists have conveyed those sensibilities with much success. That probably derives in part from a detachment in modernism, coupled with this century's repeated discomfort at representational modes. Even much of the art created in camps during the Holocaust tends to be place-descriptive and genre-based, rather than clearly assertive of the profound anguish of the moment. Capraro's drawings are strange, both for the time of their creation, and for the ambiguity of what we read in them. They bear comparison with two other singular groups of Holocaust-inspired drawings, the Dachau and Buchenwald works of Rico Lebrun, and the cluster of grotesque personages in Mauricio Lasanky's so-called 'Nazi drawings.' Each artist owes a great deal to Goya and to that artist's engagement with conveying a sense of brutality and his outrage at what man is capable of inflicting. Each also moves backward, to the powerful influences exerted by a drawing tradition that derives from Northern and Iberian traditions from Lasansky, and from strong Italian traditions fro Lebrun. Capraro's vision partakes of all these traditions, although perhaps the strongest links back are to Rembrandt, Tiepolo, and Goya. But if Capraro's work is an homage to anything, it seems less the recollection of the art traditions to which he is so firmly bound, than the distress at events not experienced, not even clearly recalled, but still desperately calling for expression. Capraro does not say, with Goya, 'Yo lo vi' ('I saw this'), but rather asserts his need to tell us something of which he (and we) know. There is even a subliminal suggestion that these are events of which we would rather not know. Artistic expression of this sort is familiar in our own century even prior to Holocaust utterances....Vincent Capraro's drawings retain their power over us precisely because they can be read in so many ways. On the one hand, we are told that these drawings are a response to a specific event, the Holocaust. But along with a specificity of emotional engagement, Capraro presents the viewer with a universality that holds metaphorical power for all genocide, all brutality. This he shares with all those artists who have tried to engage us in suffering and martyrdom. And ultimately he reminds us forcefully of the artist's traditional role as visual poet, endowing with new meaning that which we must not, and cannot, forget."

Vincent Capraro

Vincent Capraro

In an essay in the catalogue, James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University made the following observations:

"Following three years as a pupil of Hans Hofmann, Capraro went off to Fellini's Rome for an influential six-year span. Unlike many of his same generation, he found the non-objectivity of the art that was exploding around him ( and that quickly became the established, and virtually official, International Style) inappropriate for the expression of his vision. Never an individual who made artistic or stylistic decisions on the basis of convenience, Capraro has retained a deep and unshakable independence and individuality - to the extent that some may take him to be inflexible. He was prepared to go with the flow - not the flow of Madison Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street, but Capraro's flow, which he has never compromised. What best defines Vincent Capraro and his art, in fact, is his insistence upon independence. Thus, while 'in' New York for a half-century as an artist, he remained disenchanted with Establishment Art and watched the favored styles, from Op to Pop to Neo-Geo, come and drain down minimally. He insisted on his predilection, an impassioned devotion to landscape and figural compositions that risked being misread as retrogressive. In a wooded spot beside the Hudson River less than twenty miles from the Museum of Modern Art, Capraro set up a studio and living quarters some thirty years ago, where he still draws and paints. He obtains inspiration from nature, from artists of the past who speak most intimately to him, and from political and social events that have touched his soul. Always a remarkable draftsman, Vincent Capraro approaches the problem of rendering the human figure from the bones outward, like certain old masters. Painters like Goya, Rembrandt, and (especially in the case of landscapes) Courbet and the Barbizon School have influenced the language in which his pictures are formulated. In other words, he pays homage to segments of the past that are sympathetic to his being, as artists of every epoch have done with regard to their own past. He imitates neither the images nor the inventions of this heritage, however; rather, Capraro's way of seeing, of presenting, is compatible with and heir to some of the finest achievements of the Western, and especially the Baroque, tradition. Once all this is said, one must quickly add that this painter is inescapably contemporary. His approach to pure pigment is so free that it becomes mystifying when seen close up; his handling of the oil medium - a craft in which he is so demanding that he grinds his own colors - is that of a virtuoso. He operates close to nature and is inevitably conditioned by his immediate environment, with the sun reflecting off the wide river and filtering through the nearly oppressive growth all around him; yet Capraro's figures, inviting landscapes, and passionate drawings are also a continuing and expanding commentary upon art itself. The dimension that has emerged gradually but emphatically in recent years is his recognition of human suffering, generated by an awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust. Triggered by literary accounts of a particular incident (as Picasso had been been over the bombing of Guernica, or Goya over earlier ravages of war in Spain), Vincent Capraro began to draw his visions with a swift and brilliant stroke, with no further purpose than to record a shared agony. With an unwavering independence and integrity, he allowed these images to filter in and out of his consciousness; finally he began to paint the subject, emerging with the Rembrantesque monumentality in a single massive Nightwatch. It was the logical result of the irrationality of the events he had been pondering, without appeal to a current, movement,style, or specific audience. Precisely this independence and doggedness provided him with the platform to produce a picture of immense honesty and power, the fruit of a half-century of wisdom."

Mr. Frank paid for the catalogue and also arranged for his works to be exhibited at the Knesset in Israel.

Agis Salpulkas prepared the artist's chronology for the catalogue.

Capraro was born in Manhattan and his parents had immigrated from Italy. He attended City College of the City University of New York and was on the championship basketball team coached by Nat Holzman and he graduated in 1942 when he enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps attaining the rank of captain. From 1946 to 1949 he attended Hans Hofmann's School of Fine Arts in Greenwich Village with Larry Rivers and Wolf Kahn and then moved to Italy and exhibited at the 1952 Venice Biennale and in 1953 at the Museum of Modern Art in Rome. After returning to New York, he executed a mural of the residence of Edward Durrell Stone, the architect, in 1959, and exhibited at the Iolas Gallery and Grippi "G" Gallery in New York. In 1961, he exhibited at the Kingworthy Gallery and in 1962 at the Hirsch & Adler Gallery, both in New York. In 1965, he moved to Piermont-on-the-Hudson. In 1984 and 1987, he exhibited at the De Rempich Gallery in New York. In 1992, he exhibited at the Knesset and Vad Vashem in Jerusalem.


detail of large Caparo figurative work at Frank residence

Detail of large Capraro figurative painting at Frank residence

When one enters Mr. Frank's lovely and large apartment one is immediately struck by the enormous painting in the very large and long and broad hall. It consists of many panels that fit together very well and it depicts numerous figures, some who look out at the viewer and some who are lost in reverie. It it similar in style and palette and size to "The Jews at Vught," but here the long-haired men suggest an homage of Rembrandt's era and oeuvre. It is a very handsome and impressive figurative work and the faces almost seem to float in the colorful space, recalling that many of the finest works of some of the great masters like Rubens and Cassatt are their sketches which are clearly intentionally left unfinished because the composition worked for the artist.

Colorful abstraction by Capraro

Colorful abstraction by Capraro in Mr. Frank's bedroom

This Capraro painting does not prepare us for many of the other Capraro works in Mr. Frank's collection. In the bedroom, for example, is a large painting that might depict abstract birds of many different colors in flight but it is also punctuated by a couple of circles with shadows and a small white vertical rectangle that perhaps is a monolithic relic of "2001." It is a joyful, celestial work of awe and mystery.

One of two large Capraro landscapes

One of two large landscapes by Capraro in Mr. Frank's living room

Elsewhere in the apartment are some full-length, rather conventional portraits that are very well executed, but in the large living room there are two large and bright idyllic landscapes that are romantic enough to compare with Fragonard although they are freer in style and hint of a more open society and, in an abstract way, the pastoral and bucolic beauty of the Hudson River School of landscape painting.

One of Mr. Capraro's enormous multi-panel swirling compositions occupies the living room's longest wall and like the huge work in the hall it is overpowering.

Large recent painting by Capraro

Large recent painting by Capraro at Frank residence

It is one of Capraro's later works when he has gravitated to an earthy abstraction that begins to blend the darker Rothkos with the tempestuous Turners, when he has put together his delicate and haunting and Tiepoloesque Holocaust drawings into a vast cauldron. Is someone passing a ladder down to the depths? Is rescue possible? Are we not all in it? Where is the ship of fools and can the four horsemen of the apocalypse be far behind? This is cosmic. Let Munch's screamer scream. Here are the haunting echoes of our history.

Mr. Frank has another similar but smaller work in his study.

Vincent Caparo in his upstate studio

Photograph of Capraro in his upstate studio by Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos

Christian Schaermack with one of Capraro's late paintings

Christian Schaernack, art critic of Neue Zurcher Zeitung of Zurich, in his New York apartment with one of his Capraro paintings

Like Mr. Frank, Mr. Schaernack, a very learned art critic, is enthralled with Mr. Capraro and is especially enamored of his late work, particularly a large black painting where the quality of paint is very much "alive" and very deep. It is a stunning work that brings to mind the vertiginous bleakness of "Bladerunner."

Schaermack displaying another Capraro work

Mr. Schaernack showing another of his Capraro paintings

Mr. Schaernack also has a few late large Capraro paintings that are stronger in their coloration than some of Mr. Frank's late Capraros and are highlighted with a great deal of detail that conjures "The Raft of Medusa" and the submerging of the Titanic.

Capraro painting Capraro painting

Other large Capraro paintings in Mr. Schaernack's collections

The late Capraro paintings have a ferocious intensity and suggest imminent peril, but they are not individual disasters but communal struggles. They are also finely balanced between figurative and abstract art without the pyrotechnical individualism of a Bacon or the sprawl of a Freud. They are temperamentally akin to some of Anselm Kiefer's sometimes organic work while remaining pure paintings.

Small landscape by Capraro

Mr. Schaernack holds a small Ernst-like gem by Capraro

Clearly Capraro has not been stuck in ruts. Mr. Schaernack has two of his smaller works. One is a green painting of glen and haze, a fine Tonalist abstraction. The other is a startling landscape of very blue sky and almost three-dimensional earth in the foreground calling to mind a liberated Dubuffet or Ernst, a gem.

In an interview, Mr. Capraro told me that Hofmann was "a very good teacher, but didn't know much about technique" and was better at "space and composition." Capraro said he was one of about 20 students Hofmann had at his school near the Village Barn in Greenwich Village that he attended on the G.I. Bill. After spending time in Italy and France, "studying everyone from Bosch to Tintoretto to Rubens to Velasquez to Caravaggio to Goya," Capraro returned to New York to paint and he also would soon start teaching down in the Coffee District "by the mosquitoes around the banana boats" near the South Street Seaport.

When I told him one of my favorite paintings was a portrait of a man with a wide-brim hat holding his right hand to his chest at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, he instantly remembered it as also one of his favorites. He laughed when I told him a recent tour book downgraded its attribution from Giorgione to school of.

Mr. Capraro said he enjoys using the computer, not for graphics, but for research, especially close-ups of specific works of Old Masters. He once met Jacques Barzun who told him that Anselm Kiefer was a wonderful painter but Capraro found him not too exciting even though I suggested he look at his more recent work. "Well, I looked at his work some time ago," he said.

He admitted that he works fast, quoting Velasquez who loved "the spirit of the moment." He also explained that his recent monochromatic works were because he was working "very fast and had no time to get the palette."

"I love to paint," he said passionately.

Mr. Frank, whose friends have included Menachem Begin, the Israeli politician, and James Edwards, the star of the great movie, "Home of the Brave," and Mr. Schaernack are as proud and fond of Mr. Capraro as Agis Salpulkas was. Mr. Frank, Mr. Schaernack, Mr. Capraro are energetic and very lively dynamos, very much full of "life."

I should have bought one of Agis's paintings and I belatedly now understand, through Capraro's stunning paintings, his passion for art. I miss Agis. I'm very happy to have met Mr. Frank, Mr. Schaernack and Mr. Capraro and to begin to share in their passion.

Agis and I both discovered pretty late in our careers that mere passive reportage while a noble profession was not as satisfying as the "activity" of creating something personally, individually. The key, of course, is unlocking that compulsion, that passion, and mutual passions are the best. That passion, however, may not just be a singular sensation or style and sometimes can blossom afar from the original seed. Some artists, like Mr. Capraro, have multiple bursts of creativity while most other mortals struggle a lifetime for one.

Ths article was edited by Michele Leight.

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