The Lost Cloars

They're out there somewhere. Stanton Thomas and the staff of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art would love to find them.



Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993
The Ghost, 1955
Location Unknown

We do know the whereabouts of the preliminary drawing which Cloar did for The Ghost; that study was on display in the David Lusk Gallery’s centennial show this summer. But the actual painting itself (its last known owner was a Pennsylvania attorney) dropped off the radar screen sometime in the 1980s. It was reproduced in Hostile Butterflies, an excellent book on Cloar published in 1977 by Memphis State University. “Ghosts were a regular theme in his early art; he’s big on apparitions in bedrooms,” says Dr. Thomas. “Some of Cloar’s best work spoke to his own childhood fears.” His childhood recollections on canvas are among the most haunting and beautiful evocations ever made of the American South.

Midway through this month, one of the most popular art exhibitions ever conceived in this city will bid Memphis adieu. “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South” will head this fall for Athens, Georgia (The Georgia Museum of Art) and then on to Little Rock (Arkansas Art Center) in early 2014.

Put together by Dr. Stanton Thomas, curator of European and decorative art at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the exhibition represents the single largest collection of Cloar’s work ever assembled; a total of 85 paintings are on display. And since as many as three-quarters of his approximately 900 known paintings are still in private hands, this show is a Carroll Cloar virtual tapestry unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon. So if you haven’t seen the show yet, you’d best head over to Overton Park before September 15th.

 Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993

Green River, 1963

Location Unknown 

This particular painting has been “missing in action” for decades. “Green rivers” — meandering streams nearly covered in summertime with the thin pale-green sheen of fast-growing duckweed, the smallest flowering plant — were familiar sights in the flat rural landscapes of the eastern Arkansas of the artist’s childhood, before river channelization and fertilizer run-off created a more toxic environment for duckweed and rendered such scenes rare. Rivers are a constant in Cloar’s work, be they used for baptisms or fishing; in this particular painting, he captures perfectly not just the colors of the scene but the thin, ever-changing linear divisions between weed and open water. “How great it would be to rediscover this one!” says Thomas, admiringly.  

 

 

 

 Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993

The Idyl, 1950

Location Unknown 

Last seen in a New York City gallery catalogue in the 1970s, and also used as an illustration in Hostile Butterflies, The Idyl is clearly the artist’s fantastical statement of the traditional Garden of Eden scene. In what is arguably the most mysterious of his lost works, the dark-hued couple below in the garden look upward with wonder and delight, towards an orange-blossomed magical tree that seems to glow right off the canvas. In this work, Cloar appears to be channeling Henri Rousseau, the French Post-Impressionist so devoted to painting surrealistic landscapes, whose luscious colors seem to foreshadow Cloar. Thomas notes, “Like Rousseau’s fascination with Eden-like jungles, Cloar drew upon his experiences in Costa Rica to create this New World Adam and Eve.”

 

Dr. Thomas had plenty of Cloar images to choose from, of course, since so much of the artist’s work was bought and sold right here in Memphis, much of it out of his own studio on Greer, where he lived until his death in 1993. But there’s no complete catalogue of Cloar’s oeuvre in existence, and some of his most striking work has vanished. “We don’t know the whereabouts of about two dozen significant Cloar paintings,” says Thomas.

Criminal conspiracy? Hardly. “In most cases, these particular paintings,” he explains, “have probably been passed along from one generation to another. And somewhere along the line, the paper trail of ownership has been lost.

“We do know the identities of the original owners of nearly all these ‘missing links,’ and sometimes the next two or three,” he continues. “But at some point, the trail goes cold. For instance, a particular painting might be part of an estate that is divided several ways, and at that point, the piece gets ‘lost’ as far as the art-collecting public is concerned.”

Part of the problem, Thomas says, is that individual works of the man who was arguably twentieth-century Memphis’ greatest painter were considerably undervalued by the time their original owners died. “I can only imagine that, in settling estates, paintings by Cloar were simply lumped into groups with other works, and not specifically named. Most of these paintings aren’t really lost; it’s perhaps better to say they’re just ‘missing in action.’ Some of them are probably hanging right now over fireplace mantels or in guest bedrooms, where the current owners are likely unaware of the celebrity of the artist.”

 

 

 

 Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993

The Draught of Fishes, 1965

Location Unknown 

Cloar’s work is filled with Biblical references, a natural consequence of his growing up in Wynne, Arkansas, where church was not only the center of every family’s religious life, but also the hub of the entire community’s social network. “He put a Delta spin upon many of the sermons he’d heard and stories he’d read,” explains Thomas. In the case of The Draught of Fishes — hardly the Sea of Galilee, but a sleepy Delta oxbow — a thin man in blue, probably Cloar himself, his ankles in the still water, calmly holds one end of a fishing net obviously put to good use in gathering the large haul of aquatic creatures now scattered on the bank.

 

This sounds like the introduction to an episode of Antiques Roadshow, doesn’t it? That’s why we at Memphis decided to try to move the search process along, by publishing images of five of these as-yet-unlocated Carroll Cloar originals. Thomas tells us that the particular images shown here were scanned from old 35mm slides from the artist’s estate, which are now part of Special Collections at the University of Memphis Libraries. As a result, the photographs vary considerably in terms of the quality of reproduction.

Because Cloar lived in New York City during the early 1950s, he also had several gallery connections there, most notably Edith Halpert, a pioneering dealer of modern art whose other clients included Ben Shahn and Georgia O’Keeffe. Among Carroll Cloar’s earliest collectors were Billy Wilder, Doris Day, and the Rockefeller family. That’s why it’s likely that some of these lost Cloars have traveled far, far away from his native American South.

Two of the five lost Cloars in this feature date from the 1950s, two date to the 1960s, and one comes from very late in his career. Perhaps someone reading this particular issue of Memphis will recall seeing one of these classics at a vacation home in the Smokies, or in a ranch house in Montana, or in a townhouse in Paris. If you happen to come upon one, be sure to let us know.  

 Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993

The Luckless Fishermen, 1985

Location Unknown 

Almost nothing is known regarding the current locus of this striking piece, one which contrasts so dramatically with The Draught of Fishes, painted exactly 20 years earlier. “Throughout his career, Cloar touched upon social realism,” explains Thomas. “This is clearly a commentary on his environmental concerns.” The plentiful bounty of fish on the bank in the earlier painting is replaced here by a polluted stream, full of bottles, shoes, and even a Prince Albert tobacco can. It’s a sad place where the efforts of the young fishermen — clearly Carroll Cloar himself and his ubiquitous childhood friend Charlie Mae — are indeed proving fruitless.

 

All images are courtesy Carroll and Pat Cloar Collection, Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries. © Estate of Carroll Cloar. Special thanks to Dr. Stanton Thomas of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art for his assistance.

 

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