It would be accurate to say that Austin-based Flatbed Center for Contemporary Printmaking is one of Texas’ most respected Fine Art Institutions. Its antecedent, Flatbed Press was founded in 1989 when artist/educators Katherine Brimberry and Mark Lesly Smith partnered to open a Fine Art Press in a small warehouse on West 3rd Street, just west of downtown. Following the model of the famed Dallas-based Peregrine Press, their dream was to make the printmaking arts available to emerging artists, especially those who lived/worked in Texas.
Katherine and Mark equipped their space with everything they needed to produce prints in the traditional relief, planographic, and intaglio techniques and provided a gallery space for exhibitions of prints. Since both had full-time teaching positions, they spent most of their spare time teaching interested artists the art of printmaking, and then editioned the works they produced. They also pursued publishing projects, did contract printing for those artists who were experienced, and allowed artists to rent the presses when available. They quickly became known for their collaborative skills and were sought out by those artists who seriously wanted to see how their vision would translate into the medium.
We need More Space: First Move
They realized that their West 3rd Street space did not allow for growth, so in 1999, they moved their operation to an 18,000+ square foot warehouse in East Austin on Martin Luther King Blvd. To commit fully to the project, both Katherine and Mark gave up their teaching positions to run Flatbed full time. They wanted to make their new home more than a press and gallery, so they subleased the space they did not need to artists and other creatives.
In the years that followed, Flatbed became the most highly respected press in Texas. A partial list of the Texas artist luminaries the press has either published or printed for includes: Terry Allen, Luis Jiménez, Mary McCleary, Melissa Miller, Andrea Rosenberg, John Alexander, Keith Carter, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Billy Hassell, Sharon Kopriva, Bert Long, Linda Ridgeway, Julie Speed, David Everett, and James Surls. In addition to their standing as a fine art press, their building became the epicenter of the burgeoning East Austin arts scene.
Co-founder Mark Smith left the business in 2012 to pursue his own art. However, because of his ongoing friendship with Katherine, Mark collaborated with her on an anniversary book about the press titled Flatbed Press at 25, published by the University of Texas Press in 2016.
Losing their lease: Second Move
As often happens when artists move into an area, it becomes gentrified, rents soar, and either the artist is hit with lease renewals they cannot afford or the landlord decides to not renew at all so they can repurpose their buildings. In this case, in 2019, Flatbed fell victim to the latter scenario.
At this point, most people who had reached a normal retirement age and were faced with losing their lease would have closed their business. But instead, Katherine decided that what she had built was more important and needed to continue. She moved the Press to a new 6,000 square foot space, renamed it Flatbed Center for Contemporary Printmaking.
In addition to what they have always been doing, Katherine made the business more community oriented with print making classes and 24-hour membership access. She also designed a new gallery into the space, so Flatbed is able to host both traditional and experimental print-based exhibitions.
Katherine the Great:
What has made Flatbed such a successful institution are the people who have managed it. In Katherine’s case, because of her teaching background, calm demeanor, and depth of knowledge, she excels at collaborating with artists. After working together on a project, artist Betty Ward called her an extreme facilitator, then added, Working with Kathy was almost like, working with yourself.
Regarding her role, Katherine says, The main objective of a publishing press is to help artists who may not be familiar with printmaking. Our role is to help them create work in the fine art print medium by being technical collaborators. All the mark-making and decision-making is their own, with our technical assistance. There is a long tradition of this type of collaboration in the printmaking world. If the artist approves and the type of technique allows it, we are able to create small editions of hand-printed multiples.
The prints she helps publish vary in style, technique, subject, and size, but are all the unique creations of the artists by their own hands. Some of the techniques derive from the 17th century, and some involve the latest digital resources. The artist’s experience in the shop is often an experimental blend of old and new printmaking processes. Each project is artist-driven; the shop’s motto is- What would happen if . . .?
FAE is pleased to be collaborating with Flatbed and now has prints available from the Flatbed Press collection. Check back regularly to see what new works have been posed by this Texas fine art institution.
Otis Huband is a consummate artist in every sense of the word. When engaged in conversation, he is very sociable and will talk about art in most any form, however, he is far more interested in producing art than talking about it. Otis’ mother vividly remembered when her son returned from his first day of kindergarten and announced that he was going to be an artist. Otis said she thought it was very cute at the time, but, when he had not changed his mind as a teenager, she worried that Otis would have a hard time making a living.
Now at 87 years of age, he has still not changed his mind, nor has he lost his Virginia accent despite spending most of his life in Texas. Otis confirms his decision, To this day, I have never pursued any other course in my life. Nor was I ever tempted to do so. Nothing to me was ever as interesting or nebulous as art.
EDUCATION & EDUCATOR:
Otis transferred from the California College of Arts & Crafts, located in Oakland, to the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in 1958 to finish his requirements for a BFA. During this time, he became proficient in all the traditional fine arts media. He loved being a student and said of the experience, I know that I learned more from my fellow students than from our well-intentioned and likable instructors. I would say that being in an environment five days a week with a congenial and, for the most part, serious group of seekers made a profound impression on me.
In 1961, Otis received his MFA, also from Virginia Commonwealth University, and shortly thereafter traveled with his new bride, Anne, to Italy where he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti, Perugia for a year. When funds ran low, they returned to the US, settling in Houston, Texas, where Anne was offered a job teaching math. In 1967, Otis became an Art Instructor at the Houston Museum School of Fine Arts (now Glassell School). He left the Museum School in 1971 determined to focus on his own work.
During the 70’s I wanted to find a unique voice uninfluenced by current styles or fashions. Something based on universal aesthetic principals that apply to all painting, both ancient and contemporary.
Otis retired from teaching in 1982 after working as an art instructor at the Art League of Houston for 11 years.
Six years before Otis retired from teaching, he had become so frustrated with the commercial side of the art world, he stopped making any effort to show his work in art galleries. Instead, he opted to focus on painting and sold his work privately.
During this period, he was invited to have solo shows in non-commercial settings in Houston such as the University of Houston and the Health Science Center in 1985, the Goethe Institute in 1889, and the Museum of Printing History in 1993. He did not show his work again in a commercial gallery until art dealer and collector William Reaves offered him a retrospective at his new Houston gallery in 2010 when Otis was in his late 70’s. Valley House Gallery in Dallas began representing Otis in 2014 and produced a monograph on his work in 2019.
Otis’ studio practice begins each morning by creating a series of small collages, before he starts to paint. The act of assembling the collages allows him to …make the transition from cognitive thinking to perceptual impulses, in other words, to bypass thinking in favor of impulsive feeling. The collages that result, made from any two- dimensional material that has been touched or altered by human interaction, are not studies for paintings. Otis states the collages, establish an emotional relationship to the materiality of being, seeing, and feeling, and they adjust his mindset for approaching the canvas that awaits him.
Although his early work was painted with brushes, his later works are composed primarily with oil stick. He loves the freedom oil stick provides as it allows continuous lines to be created without having to interrupt an inspired passage by reloading a brush.
For Otis, the hardest thing is placing the first mark on a pure white canvas. Once that first gestural line or shape is established, sometimes without even looking at the canvas as it is applied, he can then explore all the possibilities it suggests. As the painting evolves, each mark informs the next, figures, or parts of figures often emerge to become elements of an abstracted whole.
For me, painting is like an archaeological excavation. Unexpected treasures are sometimes found, truths revealed, and aesthetic vistas open up exciting possibilities. Banalities disappear. One almost becomes a conduit for aesthetic states which are not always under the complete control of the artist. That is the mystery and the fascination of art. It is mystical!
In Otis’ earlier work, the figure would often be the subject, rendered in a representational three-dimensional style, whereas the abstracted figuration that emerges in his later work is distinguished by two-dimensional shapes and patterns that play off the other elements in his paintings.
My paintings are flat and not illusionistic. An honest celebration of a flat surface which is characteristic of most modern art which celebrates paint itself and the flat surface to which it adheres.
THEN & NOW:
In 2021, Otis will have been a professional artist for 60 years. During his career, he has participated in over 60 group, and 30 one-person exhibitions. In addition to showing in galleries across the country, Otis has had one-person exhibitions at the Lynchburg Fine Arts Center in Virginia, the Oak Ridge Art Center in Tennessee, Wisconsin State College, the University of Houston, and Palazzo Ferretti in Cortona, Italy
When asked what makes a painting successful, he replied, The major requirement of a successful painting to me is that it be saturated with the vulnerabilities and frailties of humanity. The exact opposite of “cool” indifference. I want my fingerprints all over it. It is my testimony to passing through this world in this time and being involved with it in a deeply personal way.
I wanted to return to the pure art impulse that I experienced as a child in kindergarten. The honest independence of a child! I still work towards this goal.
FAE is pleased to offer works from the estate of William Elliott, one of Dallas’ most respected watercolor artists.
William Elliott was born April 4, 1909 in Sedalia, Missouri. After his family moved to Dallas, in 1928 he graduated from Dallas’ Sunset High School, and then enrolled at John Tarleton College in Stephenville, Texas where he received a degree in architecture. Upon returning home, in 1931, he enrolled in Olin Travis’ Art Institute of Dallas. He had no money for tuition so, like Everett Spruce before him, he cleaned the classrooms at the end of each day in exchange for lessons. He took classes for three years at Travis’ Art Institute cultivating friendships with other Dallas artists which he maintained throughout his career.
After Leaving the Institute, he took on his first full time job as a commercial artist, creating artwork for the Interstate Theater chain. He was provided a studio by Interstate in the Melba Theater Building. When he was not working on a project for Interstate, he would look out his window for passersby that he might be able to do convince to sit for him. He learned this technique for finding inexpensive sitters while at the Art Institute. While in the depths of the depression, most people were willing to sit for whatever Elliott was able to pay.
During this time, Elliott frequently worked in the field alongside his friends Reid Crowell, William Lester, Reveau Bassett, and Otis Dozier. They sketched and painted at locations throughout Dallas, and the surrounding rural areas together. Although he was friends with many of the Dallas Regionalist artists, he was not considered a Regionalist by the group because he made his living as a commercial artist. Amusingly, over the next 10 years, he exhibited his work alongside theirs during the Texas State Fair in Dallas’ competitive Allied Arts Exhibitions held in the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, and at the Carnegie Library in Fort Worth.
During World War II, Elliott served as a staff artist with the U. S. Army Air Corps. Elliott returned to Dallas after the war and opened his own studio. He built a successful business serving the advertising and commercial artwork needs of numerous corporate clients.
Because he had been so successful as a commercial artist, in the mid-1960’s he retired so he could devote himself full time to his first love – watercolor. To further his skill set, he went to the Art Students League in NYC to study with Robert Angelock and to Woodstock to study with Stefan Lokos.
Over the next 30 years, he became one of Dallas’ best known and most accomplished watercolor artists. His paintings draw on observations from trips through Spain, Portugal, Colorado, Maine, and along the Texas Gulf Coast. He was a long-term member of the Southwestern Watercolor Society, and during his career, exhibited in over 100 juried art exhibitions, winning over forty awards. His works can be found in the collections of Diamond Shamrock Corporation, Southwestern Bell Telephone, John Deere Corporation, and numerous other corporate and private collections.
In 1969, at the age of 25, the exceptionally talented Visionary painter Valton Ray Tyler painted these three extraordinary and extremely rare to market oil paintings that are now available on FAE. At the time, although his living conditions had stabilized, he was suffering radical mood swings caused by his life-long fight with Manic Depression, or what is now known as Bipolar Disorder. All three are different in temperament and foreshadow the direction his work would take over the next 48 years.
In the beginning of 1970, Valton’s life would take a radical swing towards the Manic. His brother was desperate to try to help Valton find his way and to determine if he really had talent, or if his artwork was just self-devised therapy. He brought Valton and a portfolio of his drawings to Dallas art dealer, Donald Vogel. Vogel was impressed enough with Valton’s talent and creativity that he arranged for Valton to use the printmaking department at Southern Methodist University under the watchful eye of Larry Schoelder, who ran the department. To help keep Valton supplied, Vogel agreed to purchase all of Valton’s plates and paper as long as he wanted to produce prints. Valton became sort of an artist in residence without portfolio at SMU and worked when classes were not in session, often well into the night. During this intense period of productivity, by October of 1971, Valton had started editions on over 50 different intaglio prints.
Valton used themes and working methods in these three earlier paintings that he modified to use in making his black and white intaglio prints. He used a similar cross hatching technique to give the forms he created volume and, when a figure appeared in his prints, he often elongated their limbs in a sort of hyper-Mannerist style.
After Valton’s intensely focused period of printmaking, he started working in oil on stretched canvas. With these works, unlike his earlier paintings and prints where three-dimensional form was derived from crosshatched strokes,
Valton started to render form by carefully blended smooth shading. With practice, Valton was able to subtly render a graduated background shade that would work its way across large canvases. He also started to place his quasi-plant and machine-like organic forms into landscape settings.
Before Valton passed away, he was honored with a one-person show of his prints and paintings at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. Below is the last large painting Valton painted before his death. It was donated to the Amon Carter by one of his family members and is currently hanging in a transitional stairwell.
Yukio Fukazawa was born on July 1, 1924 in Yamashina Prefecture, Japan to Hidensuke and Umeno Fukazawa. Hidensuke was employed by the Japanese government and shortly after Yukio’s birth was reassigned to a post in Korea where he moved his family. Yukio entered Seishu Grammar School from which he graduated in 1937. While in school he met another student named Hiroo Nakahara and they became best friends. After graduation, at age 15, Hiroo went to Kyoto, Japan to study business and two years later, Yukio traveled to Tokyo, Japan to attend the Tokyo Fine Arts School. With these moves and their intense involvement with their new schools and eventual careers, they had no communication between them for the next 26 years.
Although Yukio started out to be a painter, in the mid-40’s he damaged his knee. Because he was not able to stand at the easel for long periods of time to paint, he chose to focus on Intaglio printmaking where he could work sitting down. While he was still attending school, in 1947, he married Kakkiko Kojima. He graduated in 1949.
From 1949 to 1962, Yukio became one of Japan’s most revered print makers and teachers exhibiting in numerous print shows throughout Japan and winning many awards. In the early 60’s, he reached out to the mother of his Grammar school friend Hiroo Nakahara in hopes of reconnecting. He discovered that Hiroo had become a successful businessman in Dallas, Texas working for the Japan Cotton Company that bought cotton in the US and Mexico and exported it to Japan. They started corresponding and when Hiroo found out in 1963 that his old friend had been invited by the Mexican International Cultural Association to come to Mexico City to teach copper plate printing techniques, where his company maintained an office, he arranged to meet with him there. They again became good friends.
When his teaching stint in Mexico ended, Yukio then traveled to New York City. With Hiroo’s financial help, he was able to continue his journey on to Paris to continue his own study. He returned to Japan at the end of 1963.
Once back in Japan, he became a part time instructor at Fukuoka Gakgei University. Through the 1970’s, he became a board member of the Japan Print Artists’ Association; returned to visit Mexico and traveled to Guatemala; was a juror for the Japan Modern Arts Exhibition; became a part time instructor at the TAMA Fine Arts School; and then chairman of the board of the Print Arts Association.
In 1986, Yukio took a position as a full-time professor at the TAMA Fine Arts School. He was so busy teaching, lecturing, and exploring other fine art mediums like etching glass, clay, and acrylic painting, he did not have time to print his intaglio prints. He asked his daughter, Akiko, who had an art degree from the same art school in Tokyo he had attended, to help him edition his prints. She became his printer and worked closely with her father to maintain the exceptional quality printing that had become a hallmark of his work.
From the late 1960’s through the late 1970’s Yukio exhibited his work all over the world. His prints were exhibited in New York, Vancouver, Cincinnati, Napoli, Rome, Firenze, Stockholm, Brussels, Boston, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Australia, Venezuela and in many museums and university galleries in Japan.
Since 1963, He continued his friendship with his old friend Hiroo. To pay him back for the money Hiroo had loaned him over the years, he would send him a print from a current edition when he was especially proud of it. Over time, Hiroo ended up with over 30 prints of Yukio’s in his collection. He gave a number of them to the art department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and turned the rest over to FAE to place.
In 1991, a retrospective of 200 works by the Fukazawa was held at the Yamanichi Prefectural Museum. To cap an amazing career, in 1994, the Ichihara Lakeside Museum was gifted over 450 works by Fukazawa. The museum dedicated a permanent room to his work where exhibitions rotate 4 times a year.
Hiroo remembers his old friend and speaks fondly of the friendship that was rekindled after so many years. He is happy to have helped his friend out saying, “When you loan money to a friend, it is best not to have any expectation to be repaid. In this case however, Yukio repaid me in many ways.”
On behalf of the heir to the Marjorie Johnson Lee estate, one of the dealers who is working with FAE recently facilitated the gift of seven works on paper from the Lee Estate to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. Six works were by Lee herself and the other was a work from Lee’s collection by the Austin artist Kelly Fearing. Spencer Wigmore, Assistant Curator at the Amon Carter Museum said of the gift: We’re quite happy with the selection, which should give us some flexibility to acknowledge her various contributions when we show works by Fort Worth School artists in the galleries….
During the earliest conceptual discussions of FAE’s long term goals, the idea of using the platform to facilitate the gifting of artwork to museums and other public institutions seemed practical and mutually beneficial. There are many cases were an institution, because of budget issues and priorities, would not necessarily purchase an artwork from an artist they considered worthy of adding to their collection, but would be very happy to add a representative example if it was gifted.
Since many of the artworks offered on FAE come from artists or their heirs who are thinking about issues of legacy or making sure that the artworks in their care are well placed, FAE and the dealers who participate have an opportunity to help facilitate their wishes.
Although there are several other estates that have shown interest, this is the first gift of artworks to a museum that came about because of FAE and an associated dealer’s direct involvement with an artist’s estate. We are hopeful that this act of generosity will inspire even more artists, or their heirs, to consider making works available for gifting. As interest in this informal gifting program expands, FAE and the dealers we work with will be reaching out to let institutions know what is being offered.
If you would like more information on Marjorie Johnson Lee and her work, there is a blog postlisted on the postings menu at left and a link to currently available works by her here.
Valley House Gallery is pleased to offer a selection of early works by San Antonio artist, Jim Stoker.
Jim Stoker was born in 1935 in Nash, Texas, and reared in Atlanta, a rural town in East Texas. He received a BFA in Applied Art from The University of Texas at Austin in 1957, and an MA in painting, drawing, and printmaking from New Mexico Highlands University in 1962 where he studied with Elmer Schooley. Stoker painted throughout a teaching career which culminated in a 30-year tenure at Trinity University in San Antonio.
Most of the Stoker works we are offering range from the early 1970’s to the early 1980’s, when he was teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio. Stylistically, in the early 70’s Stoker’s oil paintings tended towards representational landscapes with figures at work. His compositions often incorporated incongruous animals milling around the workers or the tools they used.
In the mid-70’s the subjects and style of his work changed to flat colorful interiors, resembling paper cut out collages more than paintings.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, he and his wife would spend the Summers in Santa Fe, NM where he painted a series of paintings focusing on the architecture and its relationship to the natural occurring and the planted flora.
He later said of that time, you used to see Hollyhocks everywhere in Santa Fe in the late 80’s. You would think it was the state flower there were so many. Now, you hardly see any when traveling around that area.
His work became more representational in style and focused more on nature and the environment.
Jim and his wife Elouise are both naturalists who helped form the San Antonio, Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. Stoker’s efforts to protect the natural fauna and flora around San Antonio led to a series of paintings he titled No Place to Live:… The theme of this series pointed to the animals’ plight when humans are taking over their natural living spaces.
Jim’s current paintings primarily focus on the riparian zone of the Guadalupe river near a cabin that has been in his wife’s family for generations. He has created a unique technique he calls Confetti Splatter that he uses to create a multicolored dot matrix as an underpainting for his naturalistic landscape compositions.
FAE is excited to have a selection of drawings available from the estate of Texas’ most celebrated mid-century modernist painter, Everett Franklin Spruce, consigned from one of his four children, Henry Spruce. Spurce is primarily known for his contributions to the formation of a unique Regional moment that started in Dallas, Texas in 1932.
Unlike the Regionalist movement that began in the upper Midwest and focused on the bucolic rural farmlands and farm life that embodied that region, the Texas version took a different approach, focusing on the effects of improper land management that ultimately caused the dust bowl. It was also a broadly based movement that was taken up by many Texas novelists, playwrights, choreographers, and most all other artistic disciplines.
Everett Franklin Spruce was born in Holland, Arkansas on December 25, 1907. When Spruce was 4 years old his father moved the family to Adams Mountain in Pope County and then later to Mulberry, Arkansas, where Spruce attended high school. Spruce showed artistic talent during these early years, primarily in the drawings he did of the Arkansas landscape. His abilities were called to the attention of noted Dallas painters Olin and Katherine Travis. The Travises had established the Dallas Art Institute in Dallas and had summer painting camps in Arkansas’ Ozark mountains. Hearing about this young prodigy and recognizing a burgeoning talent, they offered him a scholarship at the Dallas Art Institute. Spruce moved to Dallas and studied at the DAI from 1926 – 1929 with Travis and another Texas artist, Thomas M. Stell, Jr. In 1934 Spruce married Alice Virginia Kramer, a young woman who was also taking classes at the art institute.
In 1931 Spruce took a position as gallery assistant at the Free Public Art Gallery, renamed the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1933, and was promoted to registrar in 1936 when the museum opened its doors at its new location in Fair Park as part of the Texas Centennial Celebration.
In the early 1930’s, Spruce became one of Texas’s premier Regionalist artists. He quickly developed a national reputation. He was invited to show his paintings in exhibitions across the nation including the Kansas City Art Institute (Kansas City, Missouri); the Rockefeller Center (New York, New York); the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, New York); the Palace of Fine Arts (San Francisco, California); and the New York World’s Fair Exhibition (New York, New York).
In 1940 Spruce, with only a high school education, joined the art faculty at the University of Texas at Austin where he began as an instructor in life drawing and creative design. From 1949 – 1951 Spruce served as Chairman of the Department of Art, and in 1954 he was promoted to the position of Professor of Art. In 1958 Spruce was the first artist featured in the Blaffer Series on Texas Art, published by the University of Texas Press. The portfolio, titled A Portfolio of Eight Paintings, includes the essay “Everett Spruce: An Appreciation” by Jerry Bywaters, then director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Spruce was also honored by the American Federation of the Arts’ offer to sponsor a traveling exhibition of his paintings in many venues throughout the Midwest and Southeast, starting at the McNay Museum in San Antonio.
In 1974 Spruce retired from the Art Department as Professor Emeritus, yet continued to paint until he was 88 years old. Spruce died in Austin in 2002 at the age of 94, survived by his twin daughters and two sons. Spruce’s paintings were collected by many of America’s major museums including the Metropolitan Museum in New York; Dallas Museum of Art; M.H. DeYoung Museum in San Francisco; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Phillips Gallery, Washington D.C.; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, to name a few.
Spruce’s drawings were rarely used as studies for paintings. The vastness and majesty evoked in his paintings serve as a counterpoint to the drawings’ tighter, more detail-oriented focus. He drew inspiration and subject matter for his expressionist landscapes from numerous weekend outings with his family into West Texas, and South to the Texas Gulf Coast. He would pull over to the side of the road whenever something in the landscape caught his attention and, to his family’s distress, memorize every aspect of the scene for 15 minutes or longer. From these memories of place, he would create paintings or drawings of these inspiration points in his studio, often months later. He did not work from photographs or sketchbook, letting his memory serve as reference.
Spruce’s drawing style became freer as his career evolved, producing increasingly abstract and expressionist works. Even Spruce’s latest drawings show an assuredness of hand and a confidence of purpose. His evocative depictions of Texas landscape have cemented his Lone Star Regionalist status, and stand as a testament to his love of the land.
From May 30, 2020 through September 20th, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art will honor Everett Spruce with his first major retrospective. The exhibition will travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art and open on October 10th and close on January 3, 2021.
There will be a comprehensive fully illustrated catalog co-published by Texas A&M Press and the Amon Carter. The primary essay will be authored by the exhibition curator, Shirley Reece-Hughes.
Part II – Our Introduction to the Photographs of John Albok (1894-1982)
Our first introduction to the photography of John Albok was a life changing experience. It was an unforgettable day twenty-six years ago. A well-dressed woman walked into our gallery on Lovers Lane in Dallas with an acid-free box full of black and white photographs. She gave us the impression of a woman from another era, and definitely not a Texan.
That box contained thirty or forty Depression era 8×10 photographs, a mixture of Central Park scenes, children playing in the streets, storefronts and immigrant street vendors, political themes and more, all dating to the 1930’s and ‘40’s in New York, and all in excellent vintage condition. They were historical gems. I immediately recognized museum quality work.
And that woman was John Albok’s sixty-five-year-old daughter, Ilona Albok Vitarius, who was in fact not a Texas native, but rather a transplant from New York City. Our photography gallery had been open for five years at that time and Ilona was looking for a local venue to exhibit her father’s work. Our reputation for photographic preservation and historical photography must have piqued her curiosity to pay us a visit.
Beckie and I immediately fell in love with the work and the opportunity to introduce Dallas to John Albok. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and working relationship for the next twenty years until Ilona’s death in 2013. Her passion for her father’s work and the desire to share his life and art with others never waned.
Ilona had so many stories to tell about her father. John Albok was a Hungarian immigrant who, in 1923, established himself on upper Madison Avenue as a master tailor. But his true passion and avocation was photographing his newly adopted city. Beckie remembers the countless evenings we spent in Ilona’s living room drinking Chambord or Tokaji and discussing her father’s photographs. She was extremely knowledgeable about the backstory of every image and she was very literate in photography. Every visit was different. She would surprise us with a new selection of prints that she wanted us to see. It ran the gamut from pictorial, soft focus work reminiscent of Alfred Steiglitz to gritty documentary scenes on the order of Farm Security Administration photography, and studio portraiture that her father turned to when the Depression struck.
According to Ilona, a day in the life of John Albok would start with an early morning of greeting customers in his one-man shop, taking measurements for gentlemen’s suits and sitting behind the sewing machine. Lunch was spent hunting the streets and parks with his Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, then back to tailoring. At the end of the day he would draw the curtains, climb the stairs for supper with his family, then back downstairs to convert his small tailor shop into a darkroom to develop the days’ film and print photographs. Other evenings Albok would invite musicians, artists and writers to gather and discuss art and culture, and on occasion to view his latest self-made 16mm film documentaries.
Albok rotated a photography display in his storefront window, and that is how he caught the attention of Grace Mayer who curated his first one-man exhibit of photographs at the Museum of the City of New York in 1938. Gordon Hyatt, a CBS television writer and producer, also discovered John Albok in the mid-1960’s after seeing his tailor shop photo gallery. That relationship turned into an hour-long Emmy nominated documentary film entitled ‘John Albok’s New York’, which essentially exposed the world to John Albok photography. Art galleries and museums took notice and began to collect and exhibit his work.
Highlights of working with the Albok collection were co-curating with Ilona two major exhibits for our gallery, John Albok, An American Legacy in 1994, and For The Children in 1995. American Legacy featured sixty-five photographs and four original artworks by Albok. We enlisted Tom Southall, Curator of Photographs of the Amon Carter Museum to deliver a gallery talk after the opening. And on a subsequent evening we converted the gallery into a theater for a screening of “John Albok’s New York”.
Working with Ilona on the exhibition catalogue ‘For the Children’ was a special treat. It took months of editing and re-design because she would continually surprise me with new items that I found irresistible to include in the catalogue. Items such as hand-written diary entries, a speech he made to the New York Camera Club at Rockefeller Center in 1939, letters from museum directors and curators as well as news clips and international reviews and publications of his photography which were all invaluable in assembling his curriculum vitae.
Over the years, we assembled a collection of John Albok photographs representing the major themes that concerned him. Our private collection includes 100 large scale, exhibition quality photographs taken between the years 1919-1977, plus an equal number of smaller uncatalogued prints; color photographs made in Albok’s later years; the twin lens reflex camera that he used during the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40; a pair of hand-made kid skin gloves; some of his sketches and artwork; and a small clutch of original negatives gifted to us by Ilona.
What was even more remarkable about the first encounter with John Albok photography, and his daughter Ilona, was the fact that we lived just three blocks away from her home in north Dallas for eight years and we never knew it! What a time we would have had if the introduction was made earlier. Had we been aware of such a vast historical treasure in the neighborhood we very well may have launched our gallery years earlier than we did.