Copyright (c) by The H. W. Wilson Company. All rights reserved.

by David Ramm

The artist Nicolas Carone has synthesized a breadth of influences--some as remote as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, others as intimate as his friends and fellow painters Jackson Pollock and Roberto Matta--to create a body of work that has at times during his decades-long career swerved close to recognizable styles but has never settled comfortably into them. The winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome when he was only 23, Carone went on to participate in New York City's legendary 1951 Ninth Street Exhibition, which perhaps more than any other single show created a canon for mid-century American art and artists, as well as in such important international exhibitions as the 1956 Venice Biennale; the 1955 and 1958 Carnegie International; and the 1958 World's Fair, in Brussels, Belgium. In the mid-1980s, after more than 20 years of teaching at a variety of prominent art schools, Carone started his own school, the International School of Art (now called the International School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture). Located for most of its existence in Montecastello di Vibio, a tiny, ancient town on a hilltop in the Italian region of Umbria, the school is not far from the home where Carone, a first-generation American, has spent many of his summers for roughly the last 30 years. "You see," Carone told the curator and art historian Paul Cummings in a 1968 oral-history interview for the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art (on-line), "living and working with the Italians, there's something about their aesthetic that sort of seeps in, you know. For instance, the Italians speak about tone. They don't paint pure color. It's a tonal idea. But that tonal idea also has a metaphysical meaning. It has a time sense. It's like pushing; it's pushing forward in time."

The second of six children of Italian immigrants, Nicolas Carone was born on June 4, 1917 in the New York City neighborhood known as Little Italy. (His surname is pronounced Ka-ROHN-ay or the more Americanized Ka-ROHN.) His father was from Altamura, near the southeastern Italian port city of Bari, and his mother hailed from the village of San Costantino Albanese, in Basilicata. A traditional Italian family in many ways, the Carones were a large, closely knit group. His father was a dock worker for most of Carone's youth, and his mother worked in the home, making dinners for not only the immediate family but also for a group of artists, writers, and musicians who regularly visited the house in Hoboken, New Jersey, to which the family moved when Carone was about five.

Shortly before they moved, Carone began to do his first drawings from life, sketching horses in chalk on the cobblestones of the street in front of their home. His formal art education began in about 1928, when he traveled from Hoboken to Manhattan after school, to take night classes at the rigidly academic Leonardo da Vinci Art School. A few years later Carone persuaded his mother to let him leave A. J. Demarest High School to take full-time art classes. "I felt that I really wanted to be an artist," he told Cummings, "and why waste all this time at public schools when I could get an education in the meantime in a practical sense." (Carone is arguably the second-most-famous person ever to drop out of Demarest High School; the singer Frank Sinatra, then an acquaintance of Carone's, occupies the top spot.)

For the next few years, Carone studied at two venerable New York art schools, the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design (now the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Art). The National Academy was the home of his most important teacher during the 1930s, Leon Kroll, who "was more liberal and modern," as Carone told Cummings. "He had a very broad point of view." In 1939 Kroll was awarded a commission to create a set of three massive murals--the central one 31 feet high and 57 feet long--for the Worcester Memorial Auditorium in Worcester, Massachusetts. The mural filled a special hall dedicated to it with images expressive of New Deal-era political and social ideals; the central panel, for example, depicted Americans from a wide array of ethnic and racial backgrounds assembling around the country's flag. Carone served as Kroll's first assistant for almost three years, working on the mural from eight in the morning until six in the evening. He was responsible for transferring Kroll's drawings to the Belgian-linen canvas and roughly applying paint to parts of the landscape and the clothing on the figures in preparation for Kroll. It was "a good experience," Carone told Cummings, adding: "And actual work . . . a big surface."

In April 1941, the month before the Worcester murals were unveiled to the public, Carone participated in a show at the National Academy of Design, and in August of that year he won the highly prestigious Prix de Rome for painting, an annual award offered to emerging or mid-career artists by the American Academy in Rome. (The American award and similar awards offered by other countries are inspired by the prize the French government has sponsored since 1666.) Though the primary benefit of the award was normally free access to the facilities of the American Academy in Rome, World War II was already underway in Europe by the time Carone won, making the usual arrangement impractical. Instead, Carone was given $1,500, which he set aside so that he could travel to Italy once the war was over. "I was looking forward to that practically all my life," he told Cummings.

Carone enlisted in the U.S. Air Force not long after American involvement in the war began, late in 1941. He was assigned to the First Fighter Command, which initially stationed him in New York City before moving him to Long Island's Mitchel Field Air Force Base. Creating military maps and providing radar scopes by day, Carone spent the time he was allowed off the base hitchhiking into Manhattan, where he got to know members of the New York art scene, including the influential dealer of surrealist artwork Alexandre (sometimes spelled Alexander) Iolas and some of the artists associated with Iolas's gallery. At the same time, he continued his art education under the German expatriate painter Hans Hoffman, who directed a one-person art academy, the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts. Located most of the year in New York's Greenwich Village but relocating in the summer to Provincetown, Massachusetts, Hoffman's school had a revolutionary effect on both Carone and the New York art world in general. Among Hoffman's students were such important American painters as Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Larry Rivers; the famed critic Clement Greenberg was also strongly influenced by Hoffman. Carone turned to Hoffman after growing "very dissatisfied with what I was doing before because I was looking for something more real," as he said to Cummings. By "something more real" Carone did not, in this case, mean paintings that offered a more convincing illusion of depth or of physical objects but work that captured what he called "the underlying abstract structure that I knew was in art."

Under Hoffman's tutelage, Carone's art went from figurative and largely realistic work, whose style approached the Impressionist-influenced manner of his former teacher Kroll, to increasingly abstract art, culminating in what he described to Cummings as "a very pure plastic approach to the work," one reminiscent of the highly simplified grids and flat colors of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. "And I think if you arrived at that . . . you were just ready to leave [Hoffman], that's all, because he couldn't take you anywhere else," Carone explained to Cummings. Hoffman's teaching and the work produced by students in the class nonetheless left a strong mark on Carone, affecting the way he painted and drew, shaping his own approach to teaching, and giving him a deeply informed and unusual perspective on the direction in which art would go as the 1950s and 1960s neared. "I think that the most advanced--and you can quote me now, boy--the most advanced art [of the time] was done in Hoffman's class," he told Cummings. Carone added, "I really think that Hoffman was probably the greatest teacher in the world. I really do."

Carone left the army in 1945, following the end of World War II, and in 1947, after about two years of working in a studio in New York, he moved to Italy, along with his first wife and young son. Using the money from his Prix de Rome and the G.I. Bill (a program that provided funds for education, housing, and other needs to returning veterans), he established a studio off a courtyard in the center of Rome. ("The rent was, oh, ten dollars a month," he told Cummings.) He began painting what he described to Cummings as "very abstract expressionist work." Carone and his wife lived on the via Margutta, an area famous as a home to Roman artists and the setting for a 1963 Italian film of the same name. He soon became familiar with important Italian artists from the postwar period, including the sculptor Pericle Fazzini and the painters Afro Basaldella, Giuseppe Capogrossi, and Alberto Burri, as well as the Chilean painter Roberto Matta, who would become a close friend of Carone's and a key influence on his work. Carone was also an acquaintance of the famed Italian painters Giorgio Morandi, Gino Severini, and Lucio Fontana. Rome was the site of Carone's first one-man show, as well as a base for explorations throughout Italy and into France. "It was really the most wonderful time of my life," Carone told Cummings. After about three and a half years in Italy, during which Carone had been awarded a Fulbright grant from the U.S. Department of State and had shown his work alongside Matta's at Rome's Museum of Modern Art, his marriage came to an end, and he returned to New York.

In 1951 Carone and a number of other artists who would eventually come to be called abstract expressionists held a show in a small space at 60 East Ninth Street, in Manhattan. Now referred to as the Ninth Street Exhibition (or Ninth Street Show), it has come to be considered by American art historians as one of the most important exhibitions of American art of the previous century, highlighting a distinctively American approach to painting and bringing together a group of artists who for the next decade or so commanded worldwide attention. In 1953 Carone began working with Eleanor Ward, an acquaintance of the dealer Iolas. Ward was opening a new gallery, located in an old carriage house (later destroyed) in Midtown Manhattan. Called the Stable Gallery, it became one of the most daring galleries in New York, giving such artists as Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly--all of whom Carone recruited--much-needed exposure early in their careers; Andy Warhol and Alex Katz later became affiliated with the gallery.

Among the Stable's most important contributions to American art history was its hosting of the New York Artists Annuals that, between 1953 and 1957, helped give added cohesion to the New York painting scene. Carone participated in each of the annuals; a group of artists juried the shows, rather than Ward or Carone alone, thus eliminating any conflict of interest. Shortly before he began working with Ward, Carone had gotten married again, this time to Adele Bishop, a Juilliard-trained singer who would later be "instrumental in reviving the popularity of decorative stencils in the United States," according to her obituary in the New York Times (February 6, 1996). Bishop took up the practice of stenciling after she and Carone joined Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others in moving out of Manhattan and onto Long Island, at that time a rural and more affordable place to live.

Over the years between the 1951 Ninth Street Show and his appearance in a show of abstract expressionists at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, in 1962, Carone enjoyed a strong period of sustained public exposure for his work. In addition to his appearances in the Stable annuals, Carone appeared in the 1955 and 1958 exhibitions of international paintings at the Carnegie Institute (now the Carnegie Museum of Art), in Pittsburgh; in the 1956 Venice Biennale; in the 1958 World's Fair, in Brussels; and in a show of abstract expressionists at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Along with those appearances in important group exhibitions, Carone's work was seen on its own in at least seven solo shows during the same period. The first was in Chicago's Allan Frumkin Gallery, in 1952. In April 1956, having apparently stopped working at Stable, Carone had his first one-person show there; a second one followed, in November 1957. The paintings Carone showed that year, as the critic Dore Ashton wrote for the New York Times (November 5, 1957), "present in abstract terms a chilly, wild, imaginary landscape filled with glacial abutments receiving the thrusts of dark currents. There are associations of underground streams and sudden draughts and quaking terrains." As Ashton's comments suggest, Carone's paintings during the 1950s and early 1960s were often completely abstract and muted in color, just a few shades of gray keeping them from being black-and-white works. (They could also be entirely black and white, as proven by Carone's participation in a December 1956 Stable show of work in that mode.) Carone's canvases during that period were often very large, and one criticism occasionally made of his work at the time was that the smaller canvases seemed more successful than the large ones. Ashton wrote in a New York Times article (November 13, 1959) about Carone's first solo show at New York's Staempfli Gallery, for example, that Carone's smaller works "show the artist in unguarded, natural moments when his innate love of detail is honored."

In 1956, meanwhile, Carone had participated in a show in Washington, D.C., titled New Approaches to the Figure in Contemporary Painting. Peppered throughout critical commentary on his work during that period are remarks about the sudden emergence of figures in otherwise abstract spaces. Writing about Carone's third solo show at Staempfli, in 1961 (the second had come in 1960), Brian O'Doherty opined in the New York Times (November 9, 1961), "Sometimes Mr. Carone introduces the figure to ignore it, and paint as it were, against it, so that it is immured in paint like a skiagram." (A skiagram is a photograph made with X-rays or gamma rays.)

In about 1960, with his second marriage coming to an end, Carone returned to Manhattan. By 1965 he had rented a studio and living space on the Upper East Side (in the same building in which the painter Mark Rothko lived) and begun the teaching career that would sustain him into the late 1990s. He took visiting-instructor positions at such universities as Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut; Columbia, in New York City; Brandeis, in Waltham, Massachusetts; and Cornell, in Ithaca, New York. In addition Carone taught for about six years at New York City's Cooper Union, and in 1964 he began a quarter-century association with the New York Studio School, where he was, according to Jennifer Sachs Samet in the New York Sun (February 17, 2005), "hugely influential."

By the end of the 1960s, Carone had returned to Italy, living on and off in Rome, particularly during the summers. In the 1970s he bought a remote piece of property in Umbria and, with it, an abandoned and at first uninhabitable stone house dating from the 16th century. Bit by bit, often camping there with his sons, who pitched in as well, Carone rebuilt the house and in the process increased his attachment to the country, growing frustrated that every fall he had to return to the U.S. in order to teach. In the mid-1980s a former student of Carone's offered to help him with the administrative work necessary to start his own school, and the International School for Art came into being, with a second business partner joining after a few years. The school's first home was in a still-functioning monastery in the hilltop town of Todi; it soon moved to the tiny village of Montecastello di Vibio. During the school's four- to six-week-long sessions, students worked much of the day in their studios or in classes--drawing, painting, or sculpting from models, still-life arrangements, or the green and brown hills around the town--while the night brought a communal dinner and visiting lecturers. Most Fridays there were excursions to Italian cities to view the artwork that had given the country such a prominent place in European art history. Though the school was an apparent success, the relationship between Carone and his business partners soured at the end of the 1990s, spurring Carone to bring a legal case against them in the Italian court system. (The case remains unresolved.)

Between 1962 and about 1999 Carone's work had been shown in public only intermittently, though he continued to sell it privately. In 1978 and 1993, however, Carone had solo shows in Florida, exhibiting exclusively a type of painting that he had been doing for decades: portraits, often of people in simple clothes, with firm gazes and wide noses--subjects that were not glamorous but suggesed deep sensuality. In addition to those paintings, whose figures were not based on actual models, Carone was carving heads out of stones he found outside his home in Italy. Mysterious yet evocative like the paintings, following the contours and geologic makeup of the stones themselves, the heads have become important examples of Carone's work in sculpting, an art he had taken up in the mid-1960s at the suggestion of a friend.

The beginning of the 21st century brought a renewed interest in Carone and his work. In addition to his appearance in a variety of group exhibitions, in 2003 Carone had a solo show at the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio, that focused on his works on paper, especially gouaches, paintings made with a rich type of watercolor more closely resembling oil-based paints. Many of those works featured hunched male nudes in dreamlike atmospheres, their compositions reminiscent of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, a monumental fresco in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. A more wide-ranging exhibit of Carone's works on paper opened in October 2005 at the Lohin Geduld Gallery, in New York City. The exhibition brought emphatically positive reviews from the city's critics. "Mr. Carone's mixture of de Kooning-, Old Master-, and Greco-Roman-inspired works made up of nearly abstract figures [is] rich and absorbing--a rhythmic tumble of classicism, eroticism, and ambiguity," Lance Esplund wrote for the New York Sun (November 17, 2005). "Looking at his works, most of which, though fresh and alive, feel as if, half-baked, they had fallen straight out of mid-century, I could not help but think that here is an artist who is not anxious about what 'must-see' exhibition is currently showing. Here is an artist focused on his work who, moving picture to picture, line by line, is taking his own sweet time." With shows of his heads and other sculptures being planned for the near future, a reevaluation of Carone's work seems inevitable.

Now unmarried, Carone lives and works in Italy, New York City, and New York State's Hudson Valley, where he has a working space near the homes of his twin sons--Christian, a photographer, and Claude, a painter. David, a son by his first marriage, lives in Indiana.

Suggested Reading: New York Observer p1 Nov. 28, 2005; New York Sun p1 Nov. 17, 2005; New York Times p17 May 6, 1941, p37 Nov. 5, 1957, p58 Nov. 13, 1959, p31 Nov. 9, 1961; Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art (on-line)


Original source: Current Biography (Bio Ref Bank)
Original publication date: 2006
Original publication type: Print
Publisher of original publication: The H. W. Wilson Company
Database publisher: The H.W. Wilson Company
Database: Biography Reference Bank

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Source: Current Biography (Bio Ref Bank), 07/01/2006
Accession Number: 202986369

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