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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.