The Generations Entwined: the modernist legacy of Arthur B. Carles

Arthur B. Carles, 1882 -1952, American modernist at the Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia

The golden thread is an abstract way of talking about the transmission of artistic values.

The material of this twine is everything which artists brings to their work, directly or not. 

In an act both courageous and insouciant, Marcel Duchamp took this twine and offered it to the person looking at a work of art.  To hold onto, or not. It is the person viewing a work who makes of it a work of art, Duchamp said.   (‘C’est le regardeur qui fait le tableau’).  

Marcel Duchamp made the reaction of the viewer as important as that of the artist. 

Only one condition:  the viewer should educate himself ** in the language of art and artists.

This request has become more useful as Duchamp’s work has given way, in one hundred years, to art more and more difficult to understand, more and more a concept only.

The golden thread coiled in comfortable bales on the floor of museums, and in the rooms of our minds, and strung up as hammocks between sturdy trees are supports for the whole life of any of us willing to learn the lexicon of art.


 Abstract Bouquet, 1939, oil on canvas.  Arthur B. Carles.  Woodmere Museum


The Woodmere Museum has mounted a jewel of an exhibition, small and to the point, to mark the transmission of the golden thread by Arthur B. Carles to us.

Carles trained both in Philadelphia and in Paris.  An early American adopter of modernism, he taught both at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and privately and left to us the sumptuous multicolored twine which is his contribution to the golden thread.  This binds him to his students and us to him and us to them.

The exhibition lays out Carles’ modernism and what he passed onwards.   Duchamp would be pleased.

 A bare generation younger than Pierre Matisse, Carles died two years before the great French colorist.  He much admired Matisse whose work he came to know when he studied in France in the first decade of the 20th century.



More information on Carles is in an informative 45-minute video:  type Vimeo Arthur Carles into your browser to watch his students and scholars place Carles’ work in French and American context.


The  first thread the Museum teases out  of Carles’ modernist twine in his work and that of his students is the treatment of figuration and portraiture.


 Woman with Red Hair, 1922, oil on canvas.  Arthur B. Carles.  Woodmere Museum

The red of the hair is an essential element of the model’s self-presentation and sensuality.  Unaccustomed colours in the flesh almost as a shadow of this vibrant red.



 Nude on Bench with Plant, 1939, oil on canvas.  Jesse Drew-Bear, 1878-1962.

  A student of Carles, the artist took seriously the injunction to use colour to create and define form.



Woman Reflected, 1970, charcoal and watercolor on paper; Elizabeth Osborne, born 1936, American.

Very few lines.  Much more colour.   But a portrait  with character and a pronounced atmosphere nonetheless.



 Seated Nude, 1937, oil on canvas.  Morris Blackburn, 1902-1979, American.

A distribution of similar but non-contiguous multi-colours across the canvas to allow the model to be comfortable in her nudity in her environment.




Nude, 1940s, oil on canvas.  Betty Hubbard, 1901- 1967, American.

Betty Hubbard took part in Carles’ costume sketch class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for 4 years until 1925 and continued to study with him in private class after.



Late modernism:  Untitled, 1968-83, oil on canvas.  Lee Krasner, 1908-1984, American.  Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

This painting is not in the exhibition at The Woodmere but at PAFA where Carles studied and taught. 

 It is included here for comparison  (and because I like it very much) with the Nude painted by Betty Hubbard above. The two artists were the same generation. Lee Krasner lived a generation longer and did not enter into modernism until almost 10 years after Betty Hubbard. 

Very clear here is the progression of modernism to flatter surfaces, abstract shapes standing in for living organisms and with a most inviting colour  and bleeding over the figure’s outlines used to rectify for the loss of recognizable human sensuality.





Immediately above, Pierre August Renoir’s The Large Bathers of 1884-1887 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Above this Renoir is Bill Scott’s  – born 1956,  American – magnificent  Two or Three Nudes in a Landscape, oil on canvas.  Collection of Jamie and Lisa Maguire

Bill Scott pushed off from the riverbank of The Large Bathers to see whether a painted journey would take him to a coherent place. 

As can be seen it took him to a fulsome modernist re-enactment of Renoir’s scene:  pictorial flatness, stylized treatment of the human figure whose fragmented shapes have as compensation curves and sheaths of light-touch colour.  

The picture is held together by small balls, again of light-touch colour, bouncing across the surface as if inviting us to enter the frame and catch them.

 This is Renoir’s oasis of sensuality in gorgeous modernist configuration.

Bill Scott’s creative life is entwined with that of Carles’ through several of Carles’ students.  He is one generation removed from the direct transmission of Carles’ teaching and he also teaches.  The work of two of his students,  Benjamin Passione and Michael Ciervo , in the exhibition further demonstrates the efficacy  and creative force of the multi-twined golden thread.

As does this work below.



Marcel Duchamp would be particularly pleased with the inclusion of this painting – rare for the inclusion – in this exhibition because it shows how artistic language can be taught and learned.



Untitled, (May 3, 2016) and detail, oil on canvas. Frances M. MacGuire, born 1935, American; Susie MacGuire, born 1961, American; Bill Scott, born 1956, American.


All three painted this, each reacting to the intervention on the canvas of the other.

  Bill Scott, a recipient of Carles’ artistic values through the teachings of Carles’ students, and Frances MacGuire had known and frequented each other for more than 20 years before they engaged jointly in this painting with Frances’ daughter.  Nor is this their first collaboration.  Nor is this the only kind of interaction between the two because Frances had also made herself a student of the work of others of Carles’ students.

  It is as though they are all swimming in a Carlesian ocean.

I find this painting moving.  Not for itself, because an artistic collaboration is a compromise and I am uncertain if compromise makes for the most pungent work if we are talking art. 

 I find it moving as an example of the human qualities – openness, generosity, a mastery of the ego,  fun, discipline – in the successful transmission of anything as hard to grasp as artistic values.  I find it moving as a record – right here in front of us – of a friendship.

I find it also moving for the effort made by all three to understand Carles’ language.  This is both in his work and that of his students. 

Carles was said to have a difficult character but he also had to have displayed the characteristics  I mention above when he was teaching.

I can hear our master Duchamp clapping.




The second thread the Museum teases out of Carles’ modernist twine in his work and that of his students is the use of color. 

Carles spoke of colors almost as though they are sentient beings with characteristics (properties) and interactions and effects.  He saw his environment in color.  Bold, many hues, many shades. Sometimes screaming color but always disciplined.

Carles’ work is color and even if his style changed from one painting to another, what did not change was his valiant use of colour.



Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas.  Benjamin Passione, born 1987, American.

Carles used white as any other colour,  as space and volume and not as something which needed to be included primarily because it reflects light.

Here is a perfect example in a wonderfully poised painting in which  the blushing white is both in contrast to and in balance with the colours like an army watching on the right of the painting.

  The painting could stretch on either side and it would need to go a long way before I felt it was exceeding itself.






Still Life with Three Vases, and detail, 1987-’88, oil on paper.  Jane Piper, 1916-1991, American. 

The painting’s notes say that this artist is master of the uses of white, a student of Carles and herself a teacher of artists represented in this exhibition.



Snow flowers, acrylic on canvas, date unknown.  Jimmy C. Lueders, 1927-1994, American.

White used as background, and pointer, and overlay, and object, and light, and mass.




Switchback and detail, 2010, acrylic on canvas.  Michael Gallagher, born 1957, American.



Untitled, c. 1967, oil on canvas.  Patricia Mangione, 1915-2002, American.

Colours as though they are sentient beings, standing on a wooded street at nightfall, interacting with each other and accompanied by their pet dogs.  A particularly suggestive and enticing painting.



Red Zinger, 1989, oil on canvas. Jacqueline Cotter, born 1921, American.

The painting’s note says that the artist did not feel that she switched from realism to abstraction but that she moved towards seeing in a different and broader way.

The colors of this painting project it out of the category of a painted canvas into that of an object in the room with me as a chair is in the room with me. 

This is undoubtedly the effect of the vibrant colors highlighted by the offsetting white, struggling to prevent from being leached into the salmon-rose-pink  on the right hand side of the painting.  It is also the result of the unafraid lettering at the top of the frame.

Look at me! the white says to me.  So long as you look at me, I will be here!




Dancing Waters 2 and detail, 1991-92, oil on canvas.  Jan Baltzell, born 1948, American.

Colours not in competition with each other – because many are too closely related to be anything but intimates – but urging each other on in their dance.  Sumptuous.

An example of abstraction as a way of seeing in a different and broader way which are the words of Jacqueline Cotter whose white speaks so to me.

Here is another painting which could extend for a long way on all sides and we would be content.




Still Life With Poinsettias and detail, c. 1940, oil on canvas.  Mary G.L. Hood, 1886-1967, American.

Colours describing a reality which we recognize.  On the verge of moving in a direction in which we may not recognize the objects.  And so all the more precious as a capture of our reality.  In a manner of speaking.



Inner Scape 1, 2016, mixed media.  Kassem Amoudi, born 1951, American born Jordan.

The artist says that beauty ‘may be hidden in a slight hint of color at the edge of the canvas or it may become the main attraction.’ 

As Duchamp knew well from the rigours of his French academic training, it happens that beauty may also be called up by our associations in memory, emotional or intellectual, of the colors in a canvas.

Here are several of Matisse’s 1911-1912 Moroccan blues. Floating sky and the heat which shimmers in a very hot climate.

 This recall adds to the mystery of this painting as both a place inside us and outside in the world.  I like this work for itself and I like it for Matisse in memory.


Something about Carles’ attitude to the presentation and marketing of his work.

From the evidence, the artist did not work because his market demanded it.  He worked as he saw fit. He was exhibited in New York but was not taken up by clients and supporters except in the Philadelphia region.  And he did not seem to care.

As it happens, there is currently an exhibition ongoing at The Whitney, New York of the work of another Philadelphian and modernist master, a contemporary of Carles:  Stuart Davis:  In Full Swing. 

Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Owh! in San Pao, 1951. Oil on canvas, 52 3/16 x 42 in. (132.6 x 106.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 52.2  © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Owh in San Pao, 1951, oil on canvas.  Stuart Davis,1892-1964, American.  Whitney Museum of Art.

Stuart Davis left Philadelphia early for training in New York, then Paris, then back to New York never to leave again the megaphones of that great metropolis where he achieved significant fame. 

The differences in the history and subsequent trajectory of the work of the two artists point up that there is invisible twine which binds that golden thread:  the exposure and publicity of art and the need for each artist to achieve balance between what the market ‘wants’ and what the artist’s undivided life pushes him to create. 

This is the invisible thread wound around the golden thread and holding its twines in place, as important as any other constituent of that thread.  It is this which allows the world to experience the work of artists.  

One wishes only that Carles had done more to bind his work  with this invisible thread so that his work could have the widest possible exposure, that which habitually is accorded to other American modernists.  So rich is his work.

On the other hand, that he did not may be a source of that very richness.

As it is I am I am grateful to The Woodmere and to Carles’ students and scholars who have sent out word to us so that we may join the generations entwined now with him.


**used in a gender neutral way.

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