The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2012

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OCT 2012 Issue

A Studio Visit in Four Parts

I happily rekindled a very old friendship in the last couple of years with the painter Archie Rand whom I’d met in a previous century, sometime in the mid-1970s, through either Ross Feld or Gil Sorrentino, both writers and both, now, sadly departed. The immediate spur revolved around the death of my father, Albert Alcalay, in 2008. He had also been a painter and I wanted to show Archie some things I’d retrieved and sound him out as to how one might proceed to think through the future of the vast amount of work he’d left. At any rate, a few months back Archie and I actually decided to spend a good part of the day together, have lunch, visit his studio, and look at paintings, something almost unimaginable given the usual plethora of obligation and over-extension that seems to plague life in the present. Our affinities for jazz, comics, poetry, and things heretical got the better of us so I guess we both realized it would be time well spent. And I was very excited to hear the details of his successful campaign to have an honorary degree bestowed upon his old friend, the great pianist Cecil Taylor, by Brooklyn College. Walking into Archie’s studio, an appendage to the living quarters (or perhaps the other way around), I was immediately taken back to some of the most familiar scenes of childhood: the narrow stairs into another realm, the music, the paint-spattered floor, the stacks of stretched canvasses laid out in every corner, sometimes two or three levels high, the massive wall of books and piles of records and cassettes and now CDs.

Albert Alcalay, “End of a City,” 1961. Oil. Photo: Ammiel Alcalay.

Taken back. Taken aback, taken home: I guess they all coincide in such an encounter with the familiar: the very glint of the sparkled linoleum, the hum of the overhead fluorescents, the smells of various solvents and paints, the stretching pliers, the wooden shims, the feel of the stapler in my hand. I certainly got my love of tools and the ability to work with my hands there, in that studio, things I later took to work as an automechanic, autobody worker, carpenter, plasterer, house painter, building super, and so many other jobs. It was also where I saw the work that sometimes gets called “art” actually being made. And like any such direct and pervasive meeting with a past we carry, it made me think of some of my own journeys, and the length of time it has taken to come to terms with them, all things that have been much on my mind as I reach various chronological markers in my own work.


Some six or seven years ago, in a direct confrontation with a balding colleague who had made his career on being an “exile,” I decided to let my hair grow long. It seemed a plausible response, one that would exert a kind of constant presence and continue to nag, even though we made a point of avoiding each other. After all, what could he do, scalp me? The conflict was certainly an anomaly, but proved quite productive as I began to think more and more about the public use and abuse of this category of exile, primarily political and very concrete but elevated, in more recent cultural terms, to a metaphysical state, a state of being, and a way of excluding and holding oneself above the great unwashed amongst whom one actually lived. It bothered me a lot, and I saw more and more of it, particularly in a literary culture where prestige was increasingly given to a certain kind of “global” writer, and less and less space was available for those who had grappled untiringly, to the point of isolation, poverty, and madness, with the almost unimaginable complexities of this continent’s past and more immediate legacies. I thought of John Wieners, the great poet I had the privilege of getting to know when I was a wayward teenager, growing up in Boston. In one of his masterpieces, “The Acts of Youth,” Wieners wrote:

The fear of traveling, of the future without hope
or buoy. I must get away from this place and see
that there is no fear without me: that it is within
unless it be some sudden act or calamity
to land me in the hospital, a total wreck, without
memory again; or worse still, behind bars. If
I could just get out of the country. Some place
where one can eat the lotus in peace.
For in this country it is terror, poverty awaits…

Right on the heels of my un-collegial incident, I remember Anne Waldman telling me about the then-new biography of de Kooning that she’d been reading, and it was clearly one of those cases of not having been able to see the trees for the forest. The proverbial light went on in my brain: of course, like de Kooning, my parents came to this country and hardly looked back. What did that mean? Their circumstances, of course, were somewhat different: having survived the Second World War, they’d already made a temporary home in Italy, having fled from their native Yugoslavia. This, of course, was only one route: my in-laws, for instance, both remained to fight with the Partisans, with all the postwar trauma that entailed.

Albert Alcalay, “Hilly Landscape,” 1947. Oil. Photo: Ammiel Alcalay.

While going through some of my father’s papers after his death, in preparation for an exhibit at the Cape Ann Museum in 2013, I discovered an extraordinary letter, written by my father to the Review Board of the Eligibility Division of the International Refugee Organization in Rome in 1948:

I received your notification that I have been found ineligible because I am not concern of IRO. Please, will you kindly review your decision for following reason:

I was born on 11 August 1917 in Paris by Jugoslavian parents, who at that time lived in Paris as refugees from Serbia. When the World War I finished, in 1919, they returned to Belgrade, in Jugoslavia, where we lived until the Germans invaded this country.

After the territory of Jugoslavia has been occupied, we went into a part of Jugoslavia occupied by the Italians. In the month of July 1941 we were deported to Albania and interned in the concentration camp of Kavaje. At the end of 1941 we were transferred to concentration camp of Ferramonti di Tarsia (Cosenza Province) in south Italy, where we remained until the end of 1942. During the occupation of Italy by the Germans, we were obliged to hide in the mountains until we were liberated by the Allies in 1944. From that time I was waiting the opportunity to emigrate.

It is clear that I am DP for I was deported by the [     ] from my home and interned in a concentration camp until the time I was liberated by the Allies and all the time until the liberation I lived with my relatives in a concentration camp as internee, until my final liberation. I can’t go back to Jugoslavia for psychological reasons. There were killed all my dear relatives and I feel that I could not live in such an atmosphere. Moreover, the political situation doesn’t allow me to express my opinions without fear for my life.

I was never a French citizen, nor my home was in France.

Moreover, my parents and sister who are living here are eligible. It must be a mistake to declare me ineligible.

My emigration aim is U.S.A. or of that impossible Palestine.

At the time this letter was written, one of my father’s paintings had already been chosen for the 24th Biennale in Venice, after participation in group shows and notices of his work in the Italian press immediately following the war. Some very formative parts of his life as an artist were already in place: his apprenticeship, in Belgrade, to the great Expressionist painter Bora Baruh, killed in a concentration camp in 1942; his friendship and study with the older German Expressionist Michel Fingesten, associated with Otto Dix and others, in the Italian camp where Fingesten died of typhus in 1943; and his friendship with the circle of Italian and other refugee artists in Rome from 1945 to 1951.

After 10 years of precarious living, my parents embarked on a new adventure, one that was even greeted by the American press: “Yugoslav Artist Refugee On Way to Home in Bay State,” one article read, and “Survives Nazi Torture, Paints Again,” read another. Very quickly after settling in Boston, some connection was made to people in Gloucester, first to the artist Mary Shore and then to poet Vincent Ferrini who had recently started a small magazine called Four Winds, famously critiqued by Charles Olson in Letter 5 of The Maximus Poems, another person who would become a family friend. A pen and ink drawing by my father appeared in the first issue of Four Winds, dated 1952, less than a year after arriving to the United States.

My dates and some of the details may not be fully accurate, but I believe the first trail leading to Gloucester was initiated in Rome and involved Corrado Cagli, an Italian sculptor and painter whose sister Serena married Mirko Basaldella, the great Italian artist, and my father’s close friend. I remember Mirko from my childhood, impeccably dressed, a chain-smoker, able to sculpt out of any and all possible materials, making little figures of bulls out of tongue depressors when my brother or I were sick, or masks made from hoods of automobiles, and monumental totems from bronze or driftwood. When he died suddenly of a massive coronary, my father disappeared in the studio and attacked a huge canvas, finishing one of his most complex pictures in one non-stop session filled with anger and emotion at the loss of his friend.

Albert Alcalay, “Moonlight Night,” 1949. Oil. Photo: Ammiel Alcalay.

Cagli managed to send his daughter to study in the United States in expectation of the racial laws that would be instituted in Italy in 1938. Because of his Jewish origins, he fled to Paris, then New York, where he got a studio. In 1941 he became an American citizen and enlisted in the army. He entered Buchenwald as an American soldier and made a series of remarkable drawings of what he saw. After many years of searching in all the wrong places, I finally discovered these drawings, in a very rare portfolio published in Italy, buried under piles of art magazines atop one of the print cabinets in my father’s studio. And it was one of the things I was most eager to show Archie when we first got together after being out of touch so long.


By the time I was born, in 1956, we were spending summers in Gloucester. The photograph on the cover of my book from the warring factions shows the house we rented, with my baby carriage in the garage that my father used as a studio and the old Hudson parked in front. It was to this studio that Andy Leaf, the son of Munro Leaf (so well known for his great 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand—banned in Franco’s Spain and burned in Germany), would come with the writer Peter Anastas, assigned as cub reporters by the Gloucester Times to interview my father, the European artist. But by now he had fully immersed himself in the sights and sounds of a new country and culture, listening to jazz, following the Abstract Expressionists, reading all the small magazines just coming out, standing for hours to draw at the intersection of Times Square every chance he could get to New York and wander the streets, bookstores, galleries, and museums. 

As I continued to go through his things, I was struck by the meticulous order that he kept: photos and slides of all the paintings, a huge book with every clipping and review, and copies of each announcement and catalogue. Although I certainly knew a lot about where he showed, actually handling the materials added a different layer to one of his many stories I had gotten so used to hearing, the one about how suddenly the art world changed. From the time my parents arrived until the explosion of Pop Art, when supposedly no one was interested in painting any more, I could see frequent gallery exhibits, with his work included in group shows at the Whitney, MoMA, and Guggenheim. But as things changed, like so many other painters of his generation, he became more local. In my father’s case this meant showing mainly in the “Bay State” that had, as the Boston press noted in 1951, become home.

Toward the end of his life, before macular degeneration set in and he went into what my mother, Vera, called his “post-macular” period (feeling his way through and across watercolors), my father did something very unfashionable: he returned to his paintings of the 1940s, and the strikingly expressionistic scenes of Italy just after the end of World War II. But this time, as opposed to the small canvases he could afford at the time he originally made the paintings, he repainted them big. These paintings were not, in any sense, nostalgic. At least not in a sentimental way—the scenes he depicted were not of particularly good times he yearned to go back to, though he was certainly glad to be alive. Rather, I think, the paintings he managed to hold onto from that period were in themselves an archive of memory and emotion in form, particularly expressed through color; it was this, I’m sure, that he wanted another shot at, a way of liberating that time from its circumstances, returning to a place in himself and his work that those circumstances made available then, but only blindly. One could not even hope to say it better than Sir Thomas Browne: “To live indeed is to be again ourselves.” If the future is in front of us, sure of only one simple thing—that time runs out like sand in an hourglass—the past keeps changing, unpredictably, always bringing other facets of the prism to light. 


Ammiel Alcalay

Poet, critic, translator, and scholar AMMIEL ALCALAY has two books forthcoming from re:public / UpSet: the 10th anniversary reprint of from the warring factions, and a little history.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2012

All Issues