William Congdon’s Sabbath of History exhibit …

William CongdonIf you are going to be anywhere in the vicinity of New Haven, Connecticut between now and September 16, you owe it to yourself to get to the Knights of Columbus Museum. The goal of your visit is an art exhibition of paintings by William Congdon, accompanied by excerpts from “Meditations on Holy Week” written many years ago by Joseph Ratzinger (now known as Benedict XVI). There is an utterly fascinating story behind this show. Though he is all but forgotten now, Congdon was one of the rising stars of the art world in the mid-twentieth century, associated with Abstract Expressionism and the action painting of Jackson Pollock. To quote the exhibition materials: “His first one-man show, at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949, was lauded by reigning art critic Clement Greenberg who credited his paintings with having ‘real painterly emotion.’ In 1951, he was profiled in LIFE magazine and heralded as ‘A Remarkable New U.S. Painter.'” Then he more or less disappeared from the art scene. What happened? Among other things, Congdon moved to Italy, converted to Catholicism, and joined the Catholic lay movement, Communion and Liberation. Though he abandoned the art world, Congdon continued to paint—and his conversion did not induce him to abandon his cutting-edge style. His semi-abstract paintings were often crafted with an impasto knife, a method that created dramatic gestures and incised expressive lines within the work. His early subjects were largely urban and conveyed a sense of modern alienation and isolation, but after his conversion he turned increasingly to landscapes and religious subjects. Congdon’s rendering of traditional biblical scenes was always probing and creative, never falling back on cliché or sentimentality. The pairing of his works with texts by Ratzinger makes sense for a number of reasons, including Ratzinger’s close friendship with the founder of Communion and Liberation, Luigi Giussani. IMAGE published an essay on Congdon’s work by art critic Peter Selz way back in issue 14, which we’ve put in its entirety on our website. This is an artist whose reputation deserves to be much greater than it is, so please spread the word.

Learn more about the exhibition here. Read Peter Selz’s essay from IMAGE issue 14 here. Visit the Congdon Foundation website here.

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