Ivan Albright: Wrinkles in Time

Fig. 1. Ivan Albright, Heavy the Oar to Him Who is Tired, Heavy the Coat, Heavy the Sea (1939), lithograph on off-white wove paper, image 429 x 269 mm; sheet 505 x 307 mm. Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mr. Norman L. Rice. 1940.79.

With their perverse relish in time-ravaged bodies and haunted, moldering doors, Ivan Albright’s paintings continue to shock, dismay and fascinate audiences. In iconic works such as Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (1929–30) and That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) (1931/41), both at the Art Institute of Chicago, Albright’s meticulous style and macabre subjects make a jarring combination. A critic in 1931 summarized this unsettling effect: “With a technical equipment second to none, a way of working that is so distinctly his own that no one can successfully own it, a rare feeling for modeling and textures, [Albright] has produced paintings that are positively loathsome in the feeling of horror that it gives the spectator.”1

Albright’s reputation as a painter has overshadowed his experiments in printmaking. This is unsurprising given the scant number of prints Albright produced over his six-decade career: fewer than 20 lithographs, along with a handful of drypoints and etchings.2 Michael Croydon, Albright’s friend and biographer, suspected the artist “always relegated printmaking to an adjunct role of his pictorial genius.”3 While it is true that nearly all his prints have a source in his paintings, they occupied an important place in his oeuvre, having afforded him the opportunity to reimagine earlier compositions. For an artist so concerned with the effects of time, such temporal circularity has meaning: a painting unfinished in 1930, for example, becomes a lithograph in 1940 and a drypoint in 1972. Albright, the poet laureate of mortality, reanimated aged paintings as new prints, often making telling alterations.

Fig. 2. Ivan Albright, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (1940), lithograph on cream wove paper, image 412 x 352 mm; sheet 500 x 417 mm.
Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Earle Ludgin, 1963.122.

During World War I, before he had resolved to become a painter, Albright served as a medical draftsman at a base hospital in France, documenting wounded soldiers. This experience became part of the Albright mythos, the origin of his obsession with death and the grotesque.4 When he returned from the war, after brief stints in advertising and architecture, he embarked on a peripatetic career as an art student, attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and the National Academy of Design. He did not undertake printmaking until 1931, when he began making lithographs under the supervision of his close friend, Francis Chapin, an accomplished printmaker and respected teacher at SAIC. Albright’s first print, Self-Portrait with Flies Buzzing around My Head(1931), conveys little of the carefully worked surfaces of his paintings. Executed in lithographic crayon on a zinc plate, the summary treatment is vivid, even frantic, matching the intensity of the wide-eyed expression. His carrion-like features and the swarming flies (smudges on the plate) evoke his recurring theme of decay, even if the print’s spontaneity and hint of humor are atypical.5

Albright continued to work with Chapin throughout the 1930s, making lithographic studies of Chapin’s wife, Hilda (1932), the gallerist Increase Robinson (1932), and the surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie (1935). Each portrait is relatively loose and freely handled by Albright’s standards, and not carried to the level of finish typical of his paintings. His first serious lithographic project in terms of ambition and complexity was Heavy the Oar to Him Who Is Tired, Heavy the Coat, Heavy the Sea (1939) (Fig. 1). It is a largely faithful transcription of his eponymous painting—a portrait of a fisherman completed over a decade earlier in Laguna Beach, California. Albright employed a sharp lithographic crayon to approximate the meticulous details of the painting, achieving richer tones and greater details than in his previous lithographs, with an expressive play of light and shade in the transition from the exterior landscape to the interior space. Chapin pulled ten prints before the stone broke, and pulled five more prints of the fisherman’s head from the partial stone.

Fig. 3. Ivan Albright, Fleeting Time, Thou Hast Left Me Old (1945), lithograph on ivory wove paper, image 350 x 245 mm; sheet 437 x 312 mm. Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Earle Ludgin, 1963.120.

Albright followed this with a 1940 lithograph based on his 1929–30 painting Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (Fig. 2). The painting of a young woman seated before a vanity table gazing into a handheld mirror had sparked controversy when first exhibited in Chicago in 1931. One critic asked, “Why should he paint a woman with flesh the color of a corpse drowned six weeks?”6 In the print, as in the painting, Ida appears as a wrinkled and puckered colossus, her body too large for her cane seat. The table is strewn with vanitas symbols—a burning cigarette, dollar bill and fading flowers—while the skewed perspective renders the space precarious and uncertain. In translating the painting to print, Albright converted the original black background into an ethereal haze of chalky white. By lessening the contrast between Ida’s body and the background, he diluted the uncanny impact of the painting, in which Ida appears almost phosphorescent, her glowing skin surrounded by shadow. Chapin again managed to pull just ten prints before the stone broke on the eleventh pass through the press.

Albright’s commission to paint the title object for The Picture of Dorian Gray, MGM’s 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel, briefly turned Albright into a national celebrity. He was featured in Vogue, Life and Newsweek, and his work entered the pop cultural imagination. In Margaret Marble’s lurid 1947 novel,The Lady Forgot, a fictional print of Albright’s cryptic painting That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door)—which he spent a decade working on from 1931 to 1941—catalyzes the protagonist’s sudden confrontation with a repressed memory:

She went over to some built-in shelves and started rifling through the papers on them. She came back with the print and handed it to me. I looked at it and then I remembered. The memory came crashing back and I screamed, knowing too much at once, too suddenly, too painfully. I knew everything I had forgotten . . . And I went back in time until there was nothing hidden any longer, so that I was a child again, coming home from the cemetery with my father, holding tightly to his hand, looking at the large black bow on the front door of our house and hearing him say, over and over, “Everyone must die, Andrea.”7

Fig. 4. Ivan Albright, Follow Me (1948), lithograph on cream wove paper, image 350 x 226 mm; sheet 405 x 304 mm. Art Institute of Chicago, Mary and Earle Ludgin Collection. 1981.1159.

Fig. 5. Ivan Albright, Self-Portrait at 55 East Division Street (1947), lithograph on ivory wove paper, image 358 x 257 mm; sheet 430 x 326 mm. Art Institute of Chicago, Mary and Earle Ludgin Collection, 1981.1165.

Though Albright never translated The Door into print, Marble may have been aware of the publication of Albright lithographs courtesy of the Associated American Artists (AAA) Galleries in New York. Owing to the success of a traveling exhibition in 1945–46 of works by Ivan and his twin brother, Malvin, AAA commissioned lithographs from both Albrights, to be printed in editions of 250 by master printer George C. Miller. Malvin was better known as a sculptor—often listed simply as “Zsissly” in exhibition catalogues to set him apart from Ivan—but he also painted, and had accompanied Ivan to Hollywood to paint the younger portrait of Dorian Gray for the film adaptation (though the picture was not ultimately used in the film). Malvin based his lithograph Victoria, on a 1943 painting of the same name. The result is a curious if somewhat anemic twin of Ivan’s work, incorporating elements from Ivan’s paintings: the young woman recalls Ida, while the elaborate still life on the table is reminiscent of Ivan’s painting Wherefore Now Ariseth the Illusion of a Third Dimension (1931).

Ivan used the AAA commission to continue revisiting earlier work, beginning with Fleeting Time Thou Has Left Me Old (1945) (Fig. 3). The lithograph, based on a 1928–29 painting, is a portrait of Byron McCain, a neighbor in Warrenville, Illinois, the small town outside Chicago where Ivan had shared a studio with his father and brother since 1927. A horse trainer by trade, McCain had posed in the loft of Albright’s studio wearing a skullcap, denim shirt, horsehide jacket, fur vest and fingerless leather gloves. His distant gaze registers stoic resolve in the face of “fleeting time.” Albright’s 1948 lithograph Follow Me (Fig. 4), meanwhile, is based on his 1927 portrait of a Franciscan monk, absorbed in thought. Albright made a few subtle modifications to the original: intensifying the glowing penumbra surrounding the monk, and also adding glimpses of a landscape through the window, perhaps to add a visual counterpoint to the figure’s profound interiority.

Fig. 6. Ivan Albright, Show Case Doll (1954), lithograph on off-white wove paper, image 425 x 623 mm; sheet 510 x 709 mm. Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Earle Ludgin, 1963.123.

In Self Portrait at 55 East Division Street (1947) (Fig. 5) Albright reimagined a self-portrait from 1935 that had been commissioned by his friend and patron, Earle Ludgin.8 The artist, wearing a tuxedo, sits at a table holding a cigarette and wine glass. His forehead is furrowed and his eyes heavy-lidded with wrinkled pouches and crow’s feet. He rests his elbow on a table teeming with reflective surfaces and intricate patterns: a mirrored cigarette box, crystal vase of flowers, ashtray, bucket of champagne and lacy tablecloth. As in Ida, these objects appear to tilt precipitously, as if ready to slide off the table and out of the composition. While the painting featured a dark background, in the lithograph Albright has placed himself in his new house (a hallway, chest of drawers and cracked door are visible) at 55 East Division Street in Chicago, shared with his recent bride, Josephine Medill Patterson, journalist and heiress to the Medill newspaper fortune. The lithograph, which received an award from the AAA, was reproduced in the organization’s publication American Prize Prints of the 20th Century (1949), where Albright is described as the “high-priest of decadence in art.”9

In 1954 George Miller privately printed Show Case Doll (Fig. 6), based on an unfinished painting by Albright begun in the early 1930s. (Albright had abandoned the picture to concentrate on The Door, which took ten years to complete.) Art historian Sarah Burns has identified the central prop as a “boudoir doll” used as a decorative accent in bedrooms or sitting rooms.10 Wearing an outfit of satin and lace, with high heels placed at an angle, the doll reclines on a satin pillow. It is trapped inside an oblong, coffin-like glass case that warps and undulates with eerie animation. Light ripples over the surface, dappled against a sooty, atmospheric backdrop. It is the most sumptuously realized of Albright’s lithographs, with a richness of tone and texture surpassing his previous efforts.

Fig. 7. Ivan Albright, Hail to the Pure (Portrait of Maria Piedra) (1977), lithograph on white wove paper, image 457 x 330 mm; sheet 610 x 461 mm.Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Ivan Albright, 1978.284.

Fig. 8. Ivan Albright, Self-Portrait (Ancient Eyes) (1983), etching on wove paper, plate 123 x 99 mm; sheet 178 x 174 mm. Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Philip and Suzanne Schiller, 1997.875.

Show Case Doll represents Albright’s last “faithful” transcription of one of his paintings into print. His subsequent experiments in intaglio departed from the mode of his earlier lithographs. As artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College in 1971, he had access to the school’s printmaking facilities, and began working in drypoint and etching. These prints offer freer, more dramatic reinterpretations of previous work. In Three Love Birds (1972), for example, he revisited in drypoint the subject of an abandoned painting (1930–31) and lithograph (1939) of the same name, but with a surreal and disturbing transformation: the young woman in the painting has become a strange, almost animalistic creature with fur and heavy feet and hands. Her face is a black cavity, and the background spins in a nightmarish whirl.

In the 1970s, as his vision began to be affected by cataracts, Albright produced Hail to the Pure (1976) (Fig. 7), a lithographic portrait of a young woman who posed in his Vermont studio. “I did it in five weeks from an earlier drawing,” Albright remembered. “The last two days, someone saw it and said the eyes of the girl were blind. So I looked closely and, by George, the eyes were blind. I couldn’t help it. I was getting a blind feeling. I was making a blind woman.”11 In August 1977 Albright underwent a corneal transplant that restored his vision. The artist, who had long explored spiritual themes, saw it as an almost biblical miracle.

In 1980 Albright embarked on his final artistic campaign, a series of over 20 self-portraits, which he worked on until his death in 1983 (he completed the final self-portrait in his hospital bed three days before he died). Mostly painted in oil on hardboard, the series bears a relationship to Rembrandt’s late self-portraits (etchings Albright made after Rembrandt confirm his close looking at the Dutch Old Master during this period).12

In a journal entry dated 29 February 1982, he recorded his thoughts on the process of making an etching after one of these self-portraits: “All curves of etching tool have to follow curvature of lips, of chin, of cheek bones—make it as strong as granite sculpture. Work, pray, worship, love it.”13

Among the self-portraits is a poignant etching, posthumously printed, that concentrates on Albright’s eyes, the proverbial windows to the soul (Fig. 8). Throughout his career, Albright had been driven to realize on canvas and paper what could not be seen or experienced in the phenomenal world. For Albright, the work of looking and understanding was ongoing, never finished, subject to flux and transformation. His lithographs, etchings and drypoints thus engage with his deepest artistic concerns and preoccupations, and merit the same attention as his indelible paintings.

  1. Charles Fabens Kelley, “Chicago Annual Exhibition,” Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 1932), 8. []
  2. Susan Teller, “The Prints of Ivan Albright,” Print Review 10 (1980): 21–35. Peter Pollack, “The Lithographs of Ivan Albright,” The American Art Journal 8, no. 1 (May 1976): 99-104. []
  3. Michael Croydon, “Introduction,” in Gael Grayson, ed. Graven Image: The Prints of Ivan Albright, 1931-1977 (Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College, 1978), n.p. This catalogue was published to accompany a small exhibition of Albright prints at Lake Forest College. Earlier exhibitions of Albright prints included “Ivan Albright: Prints and Drawings” (Roosevelt University, 1964) and “Ivan Albright Lithographs” (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973). []
  4. Sterling North, “The Man Who Drew Wounds: Portrait of a Painter,” Chicago Daily News, August 5, 1931. See also Courtney Graham Donnell, “A Painter Am I: Ivan Albright,” in Ivan Albright (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1997): 13-52. The 1997 catalogue accompanying the traveling exhibition remains the best available source on Albright’s life and career. See also Robert Cozzolino, “Every Picture Should Be a Prayer: The Art of Ivan Albright” (Ph.D. diss, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2006). []
  5. In an interview with print dealer Susan Teller, Albright connected the fly motif to the work of Lucas Cranach, one of Albright’s favorite artists. See Teller, “Prints of Ivan Albright,” 24. []
  6. Irwin St. John Tucker, “‘Horror’ Features Exhibit,” Chicago Herald Examiner, Aug. 31, 1930, clipping in Ivan Albright Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries. []
  7. Margaret S. Marble, The Lady Forgot (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1947), 208-209. []
  8. The 1935 self-portrait had itself been a variation on a 1934 self-portrait painted as part of the PWAP federal art program. []
  9. Albert Reese, American Prize Prints of the 20th Century (New York: American Artists Group, 1949), 4. []
  10. Sarah Burns, “Opening Albright’s Door,” in Flesh: Ivan Albright, digital catalogue published by the Art Institute of Chicago (forthcoming May 2019). []
  11. Alan G. Artner, “At 81, Ivan Albright enjoys his gift of second sight,” Chicago Tribune, Oct 22, 1978, f8. []
  12. Albright’s 1983 etchings after Rembrandt—Copy of Rembrandt’s Bearded Man in a Velvet Cap of 1637 and Copy of Rembrandt’s Sheet of Studies with the Head of the Artist, a Beggar Man, Woman and Child—are reproduced on plate 27 of The Late Self-Portraits, 65. []
  13. Ibid., 42. []