A portrait of an acrobat by Alton Pickens.

Alton Pickens

American, 1917–1991

The Acrobat, 1947

Oil on canvas

493⁄4 × 34 inches

Signed and dated lower left

The 1940s were a prolific period for Alton Pickens, and he gained wider exposure in the New York art scene through major exhibitions. In 1943, the surreal and bizarre painting, The Blue Doll, was exhibited in the Romantic Painting in America exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and was purchased by the museum for its collection the following year. In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art included eight of Pickens’ works in the Fourteen Americans exhibition. The Acrobat presents Pickens’ fascination with carnival and performance. A circus acrobat appears to walk a tightrope with his hands, however it is merely an illusion for the enjoyment of the audience. Wearing a sheet to conceal his head, a mask is placed between the man’s legs, and his feet are made to look like hands to convince viewers of his daring feat. The red eyed, blue mask further conveys a surreal scenario, drawing parallels to the titular figure of The Blue Doll, and suggests the artist’s influence of the Flemish grotesque style.

A portrait of an acrobat by Alton Pickens.