Remembering A Master
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art celebrates Carroll Cloar in the 100th year of his birth.
Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993 Where The Southern Cross The Yellow Dog, 1965 Casein tempera on Masonite Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Brooks Fine Arts Foundation Purchase 65.17 ©Estate of Carroll Cloar
In 2005, shortly before Stanton Thomas was hired as a curator at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, he was admiring works in the permanent collection and discovered Carroll Cloar.
“I saw Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog and thought it was the most beautiful American regional painting I’d seen in years,” says Thomas. “Ever since that moment I’ve wanted to do a Cloar exhibit.”
His wish, and several years of dedicated labor, come to fruition on June 8th, as the Brooks opens an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cloar — the Arkansas native who became Memphis’ most famous artist, described as a Southern surrealist, a magic realist, and an American master. On display throughout the downstairs galleries will be approximately 80 of his paintings loaned by such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as perhaps 50 private collectors.
And the Brooks itself, in its permanent collection, boasts 14 of his works.
The show, sponsored by Boyle Investment Company, is titled “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South” — and Thomas believes that title captures what the artist represents for many people. “I liked the idea of memory in the title. Not just his but ours. He painted familiar things. He portrayed the commonality of American experience. If the schoolhouse wasn’t yours, it was your grandparents’. He’s the small town in all of us.”
Though the images in Cloar’s paintings are familiar, the works themselves can be deceptively complicated. “Cloar looks simple,” says Thomas, “but you begin to take apart the pieces, you see they’re really profound.” For instance, Cloar’s sympathy toward African Americans comes through in several works, including those that depict Cloar’s childhood friend, Charlie Mae. “It’s remarkable to have a Southern painter depict very graciously and generously images of black Southerners.”
Within many of Cloar’s works are elements of a story and “he was a beautiful writer himself,” Thomas adds. “He once wrote that when he was a child he thought some great magical power, a genie or fairy, could reach into the Tyronza River and pull the summer days out, one after the other like a string of fish. That’s a great mental image. Every time I see one of those giant orange sinking suns, I think of those days and Cloar’s words.”
The process of requesting major museums to loan their Cloar paintings to the “Crossroads of Memory” exhibition required time, dedication to detail, and no small amount of money. “To do a show like this, you start writing the museums as soon as possible and probably visit them all to see the works and to be sure they’re in good condition to travel.
“It’s expensive,” Taylor adds. “The museums charge a loan fee and a packing fee. The paintings require a crate specially made for it, so it can be shipped in a climate-controlled setting. We have a truck that gathers them up and drives them across the U.S. to Memphis.”
One institution — the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. — loaned five of its 11 Cloar paintings. “Mr. [Joseph] Hirshhorn himself purchased these five, all very good, very early Cloar works,” says Thomas. “People have been extraordinarily generous.”
During this “Summer of Cloar,” as Thomas calls it, five other institutions are also having Cloar exhibits. Among these are the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, the U of M Libraries Special Collections, Christian Brothers University, David Lusk Gallery, and DeltaARTS in West Memphis. “We’re trying to cross-promote all of them,” says Thomas. When the Brooks exhibit ends on September 15th, it will travel to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, then to the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.
In conjunction with “Crossroads of Memory” are numerous activities and public programs. Music lovers can participate in a singalong featuring the songs from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? — the era of Cloar’s childhood. They can also listen to the exhibit audio tour that includes songs by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Cloar himself. “He was what you might call a cowboy crooner,” says Thomas, “and sounded a little like Marty Robbins.” Literary junkies can access a summer reading list with a link to all the great Southern Gothic writers — O’Connor, Welty, Faulkner, Wolfe — as a nod to the Gothic undertones in some of Cloar’s work. And explorers can take a bike excursion, or a car ride if they prefer, that will start in Earle, Arkansas, where Cloar was born, and go up Highway 49, where participants will see such landmarks as the 13-foot-tall grave marker that inspired the painting Angel in the Thorn Patch; Gibson Bayou Church, which Cloar attended as a child; the adjacent cemetery; and Cloar Road. “Then we’ll head back to Earle and see the train depot,” says Thomas. “This will get people out in the Delta not only to appreciate Cloar but the landscape he knew and loved. I’ve been having a great time with all of this.”
The curator’s enthusiasm for the exhibition is contagious. “People have a very rare opportunity to see these pieces all together. We’re so fortunate to get these loans from major institutions. I think a challenge of getting people to a museum is that they’re intimidated and don’t know what to do there. But most of us have driven across the Delta or to Earle, and to see those places elevated and transformed by this artist’s work is very much appealing and touches something inside us.”
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis magazine. Her in-depth article about the artist, “The Art and Life of Carroll Cloar,” was published in November 1993. A slightly revised version ran in June 2011.
For more information about this exhibition or dates of special events, visit brooksmuseum.org.
Cloar was a man of many talents and strong opinions. Here we offer a few quotes about his paintings as well as his thoughts on life.
On Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog:
Once while riding a taxi in New York City, Cloar chanced to meet a man from Moorhead, Mississippi, the location of the railroad crossing referenced in the painting’s title. Cloar asked the man if he knew the painting. When the man said he not only knew it but owned one of the prints, Cloar declared, “Well, I painted that!”
On Garden of Love (pictured here):
Studded with sunflowers and brown-eyed girls in light summer dresses, this piece prompted Cloar to acknowledge, “As far back as I can remember I was always secretly in love with some little girl. She always had brown eyes.” A mosaic mural featuring the images in the painting once hung beside Cloar’s home on South Greer.
About a comic-strip character named Junius that he created in 1934:
“An unlikely hero, a fat boy character with glasses, erudite but strong as an ox. He was very plain, but he could do superhuman things and he had a fine vocabulary.”
About an oil-painting class he took in 1939:
“I did poorly. [The teacher] would look at my work, shake his head, sigh, and say, ‘Color, color, color.’ He had no hope for me.”
From a letter to a friend written in 1939 after taking a late-night walk in New York City:
“I think that there is no such thing as a protracted happiness, but the full life is made up of such moments as these, when everything is right . . . It’s the quality of the moment — not the number of days, of events, or of actors — that counts.”
From a letter to the same friend written in 1945 after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II:
“Now that it’s all over do you consider it a valuable experience? I am not sure whether I do or not. . . . but it may have had some value. For one thing it has decided me to make the very most of my time from now on. I also feel that three years have changed me a good deal — although this may be temporary. I believe in fewer things, have less illusions. At the moment I would classify myself as a good-natured cynic.”
On modern art:
Cloar admitted a “grudging admiration” for what he termed “the orgasmic school of painters” who begin with nothing but a “vast expanse of canvas and $25 worth of paint.” But he added: “I wonder if they ever know the ecstasy of ideas, the joy and pain and hard labor of nurturing and developing a thought and carrying it in the heart until it becomes visible and palpable to the world.”
From a letter to his wife, Pat Cloar, found shortly before he died:
“Dear Miss Patty, I have known for a long time that my days were numbered. Now that the agony has exceeded the ecstasy. I think that it is time for me to go. Thanks for all you have done for me. I love you. Carroll”
These quotations are excerpted from an article, “The Art and Life of Carroll Cloar,” which Memphis ran in November 1993.
A slightly revised version of the story appeared in our June 2011 issue.
The making of an artist.
by Marilyn Sadler
Before he achieved international fame as a painter, Carroll Cloar considered other endeavors — football coach, track star, preacher, cowboy, cartoonist, writer, musician. But a 1934 trip to Europe introduced him to great art and set him firmly on course.
What followed was a career that spanned six decades and a body of work that earned critical acclaim. His works hang in major museums and adorn the homes of private collectors. These dreamlike renderings capture the Delta South that Cloar knew and painted so well.
Born January 13, 1913, in the small town of Earle, Arkansas, Cloar was the child of a strict farmer father and a Pentecostal mother and grew up exploring the landscape that later found form in his art. He studied at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), the Memphis Academy of Arts (now Memphis College of Art), and the Art Students League of New York. His talent eventually landed him an Edward MacDowell Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
By the 1950s he had achieved no small measure of fame. He was featured in Life and Time magazines, and after his first one-man show in New York, critics hailed his “sharply observant eye for faces” and his knack for rendering “concrete expression to the ghosts of old memories.”
In 1954 he moved to Memphis — where he would live and work for the rest of his life — and soon such collectors as John D. Rockefeller III and Joseph Hirshhorn were buying his art. He continued to refine his style so that one critic wrote, “His work became instantly identifiable in any place and any context” and another described it as “luminescent.”
Cloar’s wife of 20 years — now Pat Cloar Milsted of Athens, Georgia — says her husband was always confident of his work and never surprised by his success. He pursued his art with a vision and a routine from which he seldom wavered. He was also prolific, finishing a painting about every three weeks, more than 800 by the time of his death.
That death came at his own hands one April day in 1993, after a four-year bout with cancer. But his images endure — whether happy and vibrant, or dark and Gothic — as do the themes that transcend generations: fear and yearning, heartache and humor, magic and mystery, the struggle with faith.
Just as his work endures, so does his reputation, as this summer, celebrating the centenary of his birth, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art presents “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South” from June 8th through September 15th, with 80 of his works on loan from major U.S. museums.
Set for release later this year is a book by Rick Gruber, former director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and published by the University of Mississippi, titled The Last of the Old America: The Art and Life of Carroll Cloar. The poignant title is drawn from text the artist wrote in 1955 about a way of life he saw growing more remote with each passing day: “If you will go northward in Arkansas, you will still see people who might have stepped out of my mother’s album; early American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs. But they are changing too. They are the last of the Old America that isn’t long for this Earth.”
The book is the first to use treasures from the Cloar archives at the University of Memphis library’s Special Collections department — family scrapbooks, lithographs, sketchbooks, and more — as well as personal items his widow, Pat Milsted, has contributed.
Looking back on her years with the artist, she recalls how “he loved to tell stories as he painted, or as we traveled about the country, or as we sat on the sofa in our little library with the usual drink, or with friends who just loved to hear him.”
She credits her second husband — Jack Milsted, who died in 2012 — with encouraging her continued promotion of Cloar’s art. “Jack was surrounded by Carroll’s paintings and quite proud to have the association; he even loved giving tours and telling some of Carroll’s stories.”
Milsted has lived for five years in Athens, where she has worked as a docent at the Georgia Museum of Art. That institution will host “Crossroads of Memory” when it travels from Memphis to Athens in October. Milsted recently entertained the Georgia Museum docents and collectors, showing the Cloar works she owns, which include seven paintings and more than 20 lithographs.
Emphasizing the universal appeal of her husband’s art, she says, “Those doubts, dreams, fantasies; the loves, deaths, memories — everything we had or wished we had — are there in his paintings.” People from other countries, as well as other regions of America “have identified with Carroll’s work and love it,” she adds. “That identification and the way the emotions reach the viewers — that’s what I cherish the most. I hope the viewers of the show will recognize how one painter captured their lives and loves.”