ALBERT YORK’S ART
Calvin Tomkins’ profile of Albert York appeared in The
New Yorker in June
of 1995 under the title “Artist Unknown.” Unknown, that is,
to the general
New York gallery-going public. And unknown, in another sense, to those
painters, critics and collectors passionate about York’s work.
Then as now,
Davis and Langdale Company, York’s dealer since 1963—his
only dealer—published these biographical facts:
||Detroit, Michigan, 1928
||Ontario College of Art
Society of Arts and Crafts, Detroit
The Tomkins profile based on an interview with York—if not York’s
only interview with the press it is the only one I have seen—added
facts, but since then York has done nothing to make himself better known.
He is that rarity—indeed he may be unique in New York’s art
artist who has no interest in publicity or celebrity and who does not
be known as a person.
Because he has not given Davis and Langdale a new painting since
1992, their shows of his work, like the one in March 2007 in which the
paintings reproduced here were exhibited, have been retrospectives. These
have earned York a wider circle of devoted admirers but not a general
Recently, a collector gave two York paintings to the Museum of
Modern Art. Slowly, his work will move out into the world, but it may
never be well known and the reasons for this are instructive.
York’s paintings are small—roughly the size of the standard
catalogue—and this alone has placed them outside twentieth and
century American art. York knows this. He told Tomkins, “The
modern world just passes me by. I don’t notice it. I missed the
train.” If the
Modern does hang York’s paintings in one of their Supersize galleries
where new work is displayed, for all those with eyes to see York will
condemn the billboard and bigger ego trips Modernism has bequeathed us.
His small paintings are exactly the size they ought to be and they have
presence and volume, concreteness of fact and power of imagination that
too much art that is on the train, its ticket punched for stardom, lacks.
York paints beautifully. His paintings have the glow, the inner light
look of inevitableness that real painting has, regardless of size.
Or subject matter. It is obvious that for the most part—Flying
in Landscape and the wondrous Margaret Dumont-like woman posed with
her dog in Woman and Dog in Moonlit Landscape—Albert York likes genre
subjects. It is what he does with them, the conviction in every brushstroke,
that matters. His paintings of flowers in water glasses, tin cans, glass
and pots are the equal of Manet’s. They have a similar dash and
The world has been seen for the first time, and it is thrilling. He paints
wheelbarrow in a Long Island field, at 6 7/8 x 11 3/16 inches on the
end of his scale, and the wheelbarrow sits like the thing it is, unlike
other, while the field recedes in the distance. So much depends upon
the wheelbarrow in Williams’ poem, and York’s painting is
as original as
“there” in the way Williams’ wheelbarrow is.
What sets York apart is clarity and originality. The clarity is on the
surface and it can render the viewer speechless or, rather, wordless,
vocabulary taken away by what is so obvious it has described itself.
originality is implicit but unstated. It is there because York has an
way of seeing and of painting. It’s in the space between his trees,
variations on summer green—it is always summer in a York landscape—
and in his foursquare dogs. He is pure in the sense that, in his best
he does not care what the world outside of his painting thinks. The level
of concentration is hard to achieve and hard to sustain, which may
explain why York sounds so downbeat in his interview with Tomkins. He
leaves the impression that he is unsatisfied with most, if not all, of
work. Perhaps, for York, talk is incapable of holding or conveying the
moment like a painting does. His art is beyond words just as, so far,
life is beyond biography. This will not stop those of us who love his
from trying to speak of its mysteries or find out anything we can about
the man who made them.
These are not useless or ignoble activities. York several times sent
paintings to Davis and Langdale in the US mail. This remarkably casual
form of transport shows faith in not only in the mail but in his dealers.
knew that they were expecting his work, that it would sell—early
on for so
few hundreds of dollars those who will never own Yorks must weep at the
thought—and that it was understood that what mattered to him was
He did not care about the rest. Is this arrogance or modesty or both?
Studied indifference with a hint of contempt? Just another and convenient
way of keeping the world at arm’s length? After the pleasures of
speculation is inevitable with an artist of York’s quality and
Arrogance, the necessary amount that a serious artist must have, and
seem right to me, modesty to the point of anonymity, an address where
York is content to reside. His art will take care of itself.
WILLIAM CORBETT is a poet living in Boston’s South End and teaching
Among his books are Philip Guston’s Late Work: A Memoir. He has
Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara.
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