Publication Date: Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Young at art
Young at art
(August 13, 2003) Arthur Krakower, 82, brings a youthful enthusiasm and a lifetime of experiences to his paintings
By Andrea Gemmet
Almanac Staff Writer
Arthur Krakower gazes thoughtfully at his latest work, scanning the plexiglass rectangle for any flaws. The vibrantly colored abstract, based on a snapshot of a young woman named Jennifer, is the second monotype Mr. Krakower, 82, has painted during a productive morning session.
The Atherton resident is thinking out loud as he coats a small roller in thick pigment and bends over his painting in the sunny studio at Smith Andersen Editions in Palo Alto.
"Why am I doing a wide band? She's a very expansive, very joyous individual," he muses. "What I'm playing with is contrast. Now, here's a dark coming in. It'll pop the whole thing ... we hope."
Mr. Krakower has embraced his third career -- he is a retired department store merchandising executive, who then went into commercial real estate -- with an enthusiasm and energy usually associated with younger artists.
"There's a lot of innocence in his work, an enthusiasm that you don't see with a lot of older artists who have been painting all their lives. There's a real freshness," says Andra Norris, the gallery manager at City Picture Frame Gallery in San Francisco.
Although he's been painting as a hobby, it wasn't until recently that Mr. Krakower decided to devote himself to being an artist. He went back to school, earning his bachelor's degree in fine art from San Jose State University in 1999, and at the age of 80, becoming the oldest graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts (now called California College of the Arts), where he earned his master's degree in 2001.
The New York City native began taking painting classes when his job with Macy's transferred him to Augusta, Georgia, and he met an art teacher there.
"I guess as a kid I had painted and drawn, and I started again and I loved it. So, just about every weekend for the next 47 years, I went to some school, whatever city I lived in," Mr. Krakower says. "I kept doing things while I was working until finally I decided I had to learn more, had to do more. I wanted to see how far I could go."
His work has been displayed in a number of group shows, and last year, City Picture Frame Gallery hosted his highly successful solo show.
The gallery usually doesn't show a lot of emerging artists, and rarely does one-person shows, says Ms. Norris. But she was so taken with his work, she decided it was worth the risk. The risk paid off, with Mr. Krakower selling a remarkable 16 of the 23 paintings from the show, which drew a tour bus full of serious art collectors, she says.
"All of a sudden there were 100 people in the gallery, and they were fighting over the [pictures]. It was mayhem," Ms. Norris recounts. "Everybody responded to his work."
Mr. Krakower's art also caught the eye of Paula Kirkeby, whose Palo Alto gallery and monotype press have an international reputation. Also a noted collector, she invites artists to work at the studio with master printer Kathryn Kain making monotypes, artwork which is painted onto sheets of plexiglass and run through a custom-made press, creating a single, one-of-a-kind print.
Ms. Kirkeby tracked her former customer's metamorphosis into an artist through postcards announcing his various shows, she says.
"I really liked what I saw, and one day I said, that's it, I'm calling him," she says. "Usually I deal with artists with big track records, but sometimes, I take a chance on a young new artist -- and he is a young artist."
His recent efforts making monotypes have only increased her enthusiasm for his work, she says.
"When I saw them, I said, 'You don't waste any paper, Arthur.' Every piece is wonderful," Ms. Kirkeby says.
Many of Mr. Krakower's paintings are based on images of his family and his memories of growing up in New York in the 1930s. His inspiration sprang from a collection of Depression-era family movies compiled on videotape and sent to him by his sister, he says.
A recurring presence is his aunt Jean, a glamorous young flapper who died at the age of 30. She is the central figure in his painting, "A loving family," dominating the canvas while the faces of his family, obscured by a heavy layer of paint, peer out at the viewer.
"I buried them underneath with painting because I had forgotten them," he explains. "My Aunt Jean, she died of opium, so she stood out. Because in my memory, when I was young, she was so important to me."
A melancholy undercurrent is palpable in Mr. Krakower's work, and even in his more densely populated pictures, each figure seems set apart from the others.
"The majority of my figures are isolated, because I feel very strongly about the conditions of the world today," he says, adding that he was lucky to have his family around him during his childhood. "In those days, everybody lived very near each other. Today, my kids live in New York and L.A. and everybody else is separated. There's such an isolation in the country, and I felt that had to come out in my paintings."
Ms. Kirkeby said she sees in Mr. Krakower's work a sense of isolation that is central to the immigrant experience.
"My grandparents immigrated, and I work with a lot of artists from other countries who immigrated," she says. "I saw in his work what I see in people who come here from other countries -- a distance and aloneness."
Although painting is a solitary pursuit, Mr. Krakower says he enjoys the time he spends in his home studio, a converted garage.
"You're alone, all by yourself in creating this whole world of images, and it just makes me so happy," he says. "And to have someone appreciate it is even more rewarding."
He clearly loves every aspect of his creative process and is particularly excited when he has a concept in mind and is able to capture it in the action of painting.
"The most exciting thing to me in painting is the idea before you get to the canvas," Mr. Krakower says. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who paint, but do not conceive. Conceiving is very crucial."
At the Smith Andersen studio, it's easy to see how he puts this method to work. He works rapidly but thoughtfully, pausing occasionally to take in the overall effect, changing course with a swift dab of his rag, and finally examining with satisfaction the finished product as it emerges from the press. As he works, he talks about Jennifer, one of his classmates at San Jose State. Even in the abstract color blocks, the spirit of the young woman with the wide smile and a mod's dark hair and precisely cut bangs, is apparent in the hues he chooses.
The snapshot beside him, he pauses several times to inspect his work, at one point adding bands of gray paint with a brush and observing the effect.
"His colors are beautiful. He's turning into Mondrian," says Ms. Kain, the master printer.
Mr. Krakower says he's been inspired by abstract American artist Richard Diebenkorn, among others, in his latest work.
"It looks so straight, what's so beautiful is the wavering of the line," he explains of the appeal.
Mr. Krakower's work will be part of a group show at Smith Andersen next month, and there are tentative plans for another solo show at the City Picture Frame Gallery next year. He also plans a trip to Italy in September, where he is looking forward to revisiting the work of his favorite artist, a 15th century Italian named Masaccio, whose frescoes adorn the Brancacci chapel in Florence.
Two of his monotypes are also part of the Smith Andersen permanent collection at the deSassiet Museum at Santa Clara University, but of his many accomplishments, he is particularly proud to have one of his paintings win a coveted spot on the wall in his own house.
"My wife finally let me put a picture up in my house," he says with a laugh. "She's very critical. I have to fight to put my paintings up. I have to pass muster with Jean Krakower. She's my best critic."
** Arthur Krakower's monotypes will be on display at a group exhibit
running September 10 through October 11 at Smith Andersen Editions, 440
Pepper St., Palo Alto. For information, call 327-7762 or go to
** A selection of Mr. Krakower's artwork can be seen on his Web site, www.ArthurKrakower.com.