Anthony Terenzio, The Blue Studio, 1976-77, oil on linen, 50 by 40 inches
Two years after the painter Anthony Terenzio died in 2000, I went to his studio in rural Connecticut with his friend and former student – and my own long-time mentor and friend – Peter Devine. The line of connections between us three painters made the trip into a reunion of sorts. I hadn’t met Tony when he was alive, but had heard about him often from Peter, who owed much of his own complex aesthetic sensibility to this former teacher’s example. The core of Tony’s mindset, blending the draftsmanly figurative European tradition with a more gestural American Modernism, had in turn been passed on to me as a young art student many years before. Now in my forties, I would at last meet the man himself, if only by way of the works he had left behind.
The purpose of our visit was to make an archive of the artist’s drawings and paintings for his estate. Tony’s daughter Lisa had recently lost both her parents to untimely illnesses and was struggling to figure out what to do with the material legacy of a prolific and respected painter who had never sought commercial success. I was hired to help sort through and record a sampling of works spanning Tony’s long career. Instead of using the customary small-format slide film, we decided to photograph the work with an 8” x 10” camera. This would give Lisa high quality source files for a set of detailed reproduction prints that she could then take to galleries and museums. It would also enable us to produce a book at some future time should it ever prove practical to do so.
Peter and I met at the Terenzio house on its wooded hillside in Connecticut on a Saturday morning in the late Fall, just as the last leaves were falling. Lisa greeted us with coffee, then led us down to her father’s studio. The room had a small footprint but soared to a high ceiling with windows to one side for the natural light that painters covet. On entering, it was clear that we were about to excavate a lifetime of work: paintings, notebooks and folders full of drawings were stacked everywhere, crowded into racks and leaning against walls and on one-another. We stood up an easel in front of the camera and began to pull things out of the racks.
I didn’t know much about Tony’s history before that day, only that we were there to record the life’s work of a man who had left most of what he’d done in that room. This kind of posthumous archiving is a daunting task for an artist to take on, in part because one is responsible to curate a selection of things that may go on to define that person to others, but also because it is difficult to face the reality of what might happen to our own work after we are gone. Beyond the inner rings of art world celebrity and success lies a vast plane, heaped from horizon to horizon with the efforts of lesser-known, now departed talents. Confronting the evidence of a life spent accumulating achievements that went unnoticed by the public is difficult; worse still if that effort was spent without the artist having attained even some private success. I feared the latter possibility in this case. My friend admired his teacher so and plainly hoped I would appreciate what he had brought me there to see. What if I didn’t like Terenzio’s paintings?
Though not at all a self-promoter, Tony Terenzio was a dedicated, serious painter — known and admired by many in the art world, including some of his more celebrated peers. He was a product of the Modernist age that had begun in Europe in the late nineteenth century and taken root in the US soon after. Born in the small Italian town of Settefrati in 1925, he emigrated to the US as a boy and spent his formative student years in New York during one of the most inventive periods of American art. Tony’s painting career began at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn just before the Second World War. After taking time off from school to serve overseas, he returned to complete his BFA, then went on to earn a Masters degree at Columbia University. He also attended the American Art School, where he studied with the painters Raphael Soyer and Jack Levine. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s he showed with the Creative Artists and ACA galleries in New York, where his exhibitions won positive critical reviews. In 1950, he was included in a Biennial exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Art. A later solo show, also in Connecticut, was favorably reviewed in the New York Times
Terenzio began to teach in the early 1950s, and in 1955 he was offered and accepted a position on the faculty of the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The job held out the prospect of a kind of financial security for his family that the uncertain life of a gallery artist simply couldn’t provide. Though now removed from the action in New York, Tony continued to paint and to show in regional galleries and museums in New England. Some time after the family moved to Connecticut, Tony’s wife Stephanie, also initially trained as a painter, but by then an art historian, took a job at the William Benton Museum in Storrs. In 1980, the Benton mounted a show, accompanied by the publication of a book written by Stephanie, about the painter Robert Motherwell. While working on these projects, Motherwell became friendly with the Terenzios and soon grew to be both an admirer and a booster of Tony’s work. On Motherwell’s recommendation, Tony was included in an important survey show at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, titled Connecticut Painters 7+7+7. Motherwell also nominated Tony for the prestigious Francis Greenberger Award, which he received in a special ceremony at the Guggenheim Museum in 1986.
This biographical history was told to me by Peter and Lisa as we photographed the paintings, giving a sense of the evolution of the work as it was being revealed during our archiving. Since that day, I’ve often thought that I know something of how archeologists like Hiram Bingham or Howard Carter felt when they discovered the treasures of Maccu Piccu and King Tut’s Tomb. As each painting slid out of the racks and came to the easel, my initial apprehensions gave way to surprise and pleasure. It was clear that we were handling the legacy of a significant artist — one whose work deserved to be known and recorded.
It was particularly striking to see how much Terenzio’s painting stands apart from the familiar “isms” that were making news in the years when he worked. He was an erudite student of the art of his own time, and yet his work is not easily plugged into any one movement within it. It neither resembles the meticulous formalism of early European and American Modernism, nor the aggressive Action Painting of the later New York School. Where many painters of his time sought to distance themselves from the past, Tony’s work incorporates the ideas that were current when he was working, as well as an interest in the whole sweep of art history that preceded him. It does contain some recognizable influences — a bit of Bonnard here, or of Guston there — but at the end of the day, he feels entirely his own man.
Anthony Terenzio, Untitled, 1999, oil on linen, size unknown (approximately 20 by 36 inches)
In 2002, Tony’s unique pictures were refreshing to see. American painting was still mostly eclipsed at that point by the idea art of the 1980s and ‘90s. Students at top art schools like RISD, Columbia, and to a lesser degree at Yale, were being taught in their history classes that the line of descent leading most directly to Conceptualism was the single manifestly destined path traversing the Modernist age: a procession of culturally critical, aesthetically iconoclastic artists that began with Manet and Cezanne in Europe and continued through Duchamp and Pollack to Warhol in the US. This narrative was sketched-out by mid-century critics between the 1960s and ’70s then nailed to the church door of our college fine arts departments in the 1980s. The arrival of Postmodern Conceptualism, it was said, heralded the end of art history, the death of painting, and the triumph of pure thought over aesthetics. In this worldview, philosophy had finally, and righteously, killed art.
But the stories that academics and critics tell one another don’t always reflect all that is going on in the world outside the confines of their inevitably narrow sphere of influence. The feeling in the art world at the height of Tony’s career in the 1970s and 80s was that the works of the past were obsolete and could have no relevance to a contemporary audience. Postmodernism ostensibly opened the whole of art history to re-use, but only as so much deflated detritus that could have no autonomous authority beyond a “de-constructed” contemporary reading that sneered at the past rather than revering it. This triumphal linearity seemed to echo the revolutionary stance of the earlier Modernists. But many of them —including that prototypical Modernist, Paul Cezanne, who wanted nothing so much as to be a grand painter of the museum like his beloved Poussin — embraced the liberating ideas of their age without condemning all that came before. In the 80 years since the abstract painters of the New York School staked out their vision for a new and historically unencumbered language, other less lavishly celebrated modern painters, people like Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, reflected a more expansive reading of painting’s history, as well of its contemporary potentials. Tony Terenzio comes from a different but similarly alternative camp — one more directly descending from Cezanne, Braque, Giacometti and other near abstractionists from his youth. As we waded through his pictures that day, it felt that we were looking at things that had come down a divergent path from the one that I at least had been taught about in college, as if we had stumbled on the works of an important artist from a parallel universe – one much like our own, yet governed by subtly different values.
Another way in which Tony differs from the mainstream of his time is in his utter disinterest in the kind of art world “buzz” and celebrity that has became such an obsessive preoccupation of younger artists since the 1980s. This may sound strange to us today: the culture’s conjoined fascination with fame and money has made it all too easy to confuse artistic recognition with artistic success. If it’s famous art, we think, it must be great art, and vice-versa. The painters who began winning this sort of attention in the Postwar period in New York conditioned those who followed them to expect that they could (or even should) also become superstars. Alongside their mainstream acclaim, the Ab Ex painters became big, noisy, self-obsessed characters — operatic personalities as much as working artists. Even when their work was sincere, it incorporated a marketable persona on which their canvasses could hang like a lavish Mardi-Gras costume. That certainly made for some entertaining public personalities, but the qualities that make artists popular don’t necessarily insure our ongoing engagement with their work. Nor was all of the past art that we admire today once popular. As often as not, an artist’s popularity wanes with the passing of the era that acclaimed it. The works that outlive such shifts transcend the ephemeral tastes of the moment and evoke responses that can be felt across the great spans of time and difference which otherwise divide one age of the culture from another. Great Art made centuries ago is described as such precisely because it retains the power to move us despite the passing of all that time. Apparently, fame was not as alluring to Tony Terenzio as the goals out at the end of that longer range of focus. This is a way of thinking about the life of art that needs desperately to be rekindled — not only in the hearts of the makers of artistic things, but also in the experience of those who look at and collect the things that artists make.
Anthony Terenzio, Scylla II, 1983, oil on linen, approximately 60 x 24 inches