Alfred Russell Biography

Early Years

Alfred Russell was born in 1920 in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated and received his MFA at the University of Michigan, then prepared for a doctorate in Art History at Columbia University. He taught Art at Brooklyn College from 1946 to 1976. Russell gained early recognition in the initial part of the Abstract Expressionism movement, exhibiting both in New York and Paris alongside Wilhelm De Kooning, Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Stanley William Hayter. He studied with Hayter at his renowned Atelier 17 in Paris, learning printmaking and engraving from this remarkable teacher of Picasso's. In 1948 Alfred Russell met and married Andree Descharnes, Beaux Art trained painter, who with her brother the photographer and filmmaker Robert Descharnes was a member of the Paris Avant -garde art scene. Russell was already well known both in Paris and in New York by this time, exhibiting with Georges Mathieu and Camille Bryen in the legendary "Blanc et Noir" show at the galerie des Deux Iles and also at the Salon des Realites Nouvelles and in 1949 at the Galerie Pierre. In New York Russell was exhibiting at Peridot Gallery and until 1953 was regularly included in The Whitney Annual with the museum purchasing a painting for their permanent collection in 1950. That same year he was also included in the New Talent show at Koontz Gallery curated by Meyer Shapiro and Clement Greenberg and he was in MOMA'S "Calligraphic and Geometric." In 1951, after an appearance in MOMA'S "Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America", Russell spent the year in Paris where he was a huge success with his exhibit at the Galerie Colette Allendy as well as in the controversial "Vehemences Confrontees" with De Kooning and Pollock; a show organized by Michel Tapies,(who included Russell in his book, L'Art Autre). In 1952 Leo Castelli had Russell as a star player in his Bi-coastal exhibit; "American Vanguard" at New York's Sydney Janis gallery and at the Galerie de France in Paris. At this time Russell was preparing for his doctorate in Art History with Margarethe Bieber, the eminent classical scholar and authority on Hellenistic Sculpture.

Disenchantment and Disenfranchisement

Increasingly disenchanted with Abstraction, with the "New York Art Scene": with "The Club" and it's Cedar Tavern gatherings, Russell turned to the Figure and to the classical world. He found in the Tragic Grandeur and eloquence of Hellenistic Greece an answer, much as Picasso had when he turned to the simplicity of 5th century classicism after World War 1. In November of 1953 Alfred Russell, at a symposium on the human figure, denounced Abstraction and The Art World, especially what he called the "bureaucratization of the avant garde." Although he did appear in the 1955 exhibit "New Decade" at the Whitney, Russell was now a "persona non grata" and found himself effectively "blacklisted." Unable to exhibit, finding his name deleted from texts and omitted from new studies on postwar art, the artist all but disappeared in this "Stalinist" re-writing of Art History. It is, however; in this obscurity, that the new figurative movement took hold, as Alfred Russell created a new visual language using his discoveries in non-Euclidean geometry, perspective, human anatomy and dramatic expression. Living in Paris in 1955-56, he immersed himself in the paintings of the Louvre, quickly copying works by Poussin and Caravaggio among others. He met and befriended Albert Camus while working on Caravaggio's " Fortune Teller." Russell also copied "Et In Arcadia," a darkly poetic philosophical painting by Nicolas Poussin, the 17th century French artist who's interpretation of the classical world has inspired artists for centuries. That year while staying at surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann's "Villa Seurat", Alfred Russell and his spouse Andree Descharnes had their only child, Elsie.

Brooklyn College and the New Classicism

Returning to New York, Russell resumed his teaching of the MFA program at Brooklyn College, where his rigorous curriculum was attracting young artists from all over the world. Beginning with the generation of Gabriel Laderman, himself a catalyst for the Realist movement in the 60's and 70's, Alfred Russell's students have become the core of a new force in figurative painting in America. Russell's daughter, Elsie, who also travels this road is curating this museum in answer to overwhelming demand of friends, students and scholars. In 1975 Alfred Russell retired from Brooklyn College and the family moved to Europe to care for his spouse, Andree, who was dying of cancer and wished to be with her relatives in Nevers, France. Andree died in March of 1976. Russell settled briefly in Italy where he reunited with long-time family friend Joan Silverstein, the author and classical scholar. They soon married, working and traveling throughout Europe. Russell is quite prolific and continues painting in a variety of styles, treating Abstraction, Geometric Topology, improvisational Calligraphy and figurative compositions merely as different expressive modes for his pre-Socratic understanding of a universe both unfathomable and in constant flux. He is quoted in Serge Guilbaut's "How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art" with one of his characteristic flames, published in Iconograph: "I believe in power, activity, reflection, destruction and creation in art. I believe in confusion and above all, unevenness, in those who never find themselves. A painter is lost once he has found himself. Quantity is much more important than quality. Paint large pictures, crowded pictures. Scribbles, scrawls errantly reflect only terrifiedly about a past that is nightmarish. Eroticism in all forms is the pervading magnetism of the picture, the sun must bicker with an incessant madness." After years of painting complex constellations of twisted, falling figures, Alfred Russell has been busy of late with new works of abstract calligraphy; which he is exhibiting in Paris, where he now lives.

Alfred Russell and his Madness of Damnation - A Daughter's Story of a Family of Artists Destroyed by Anti-Semitism
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