Detail image of Alton Pickens image of an acrobat

Walking a Tight Rope with Alton Pickens

By Beth Hamilton

Born in Seattle, Washington in 1917, Alton Pickens came of age during the Depression and described his youth as nomadic. He spent part of his childhood in Germany and was inspired by its culture and art, particularly the German old master painters. Pickens was educated at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and the Portland Art Museum School. In 1939, he moved to New York and briefly attended the New School for Social Research before abandoning any type of formal education. Pickens was largely self-trained as an artist, but cited his visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art as formative for his personal artistic development. Pickens first worked in the mediums of ink and woodcut, but later learned the oil technique through his study of Old Masters and artists such as Francisco de Goya, Honore Daumiere, Pierre Bonnard, and Max Beckmann.

The 1940s were a prolific period for the artist, and he gained wider exposure in the New York art scene through major exhibitions. He first exhibited a woodcut in the Artists for Victory exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942. In 1943, the surreal and bizarre painting, The Blue Doll (fig. 1), was exhibited in the Romantic Painting in Americaexhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It 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. At the time, Pickens was represented by Buchholz Gallery in New York, a gallery run by German art dealer Curt Valentin.

Pickens’ work has been described as surreal, yet he refused to state his artistic aims. His surrealistic style is exemplified in The Blue Doll, in which two grotesque child-like figures mutilate their small dolls. In Carnival (fig. 2), painted in 1949, Pickens depicts a similarly frightening scene showing a blue-faced monkey, a woman devouring a bird, a fire-blowing woman at right, and a man ceremoniously crowning the central monkey. The distinctive imagery in these works are undoubtedly symbolic, perhaps alluding to the theme of revenge or violence. In 1950, Life featured Pickens among a group of nineteen notable young American artists, and described Carnival as “a ghoulish parody on loud-mouthed frauds who pose as defenders of liberty.” Formerly in the collection of Lincoln Kirstein, the painting was gifted to the Museum of Modern Art in 1951.

Alton Pickens image of an acrobat
Alton Pickens, American, 1917-1991. The Acrobat, 1947. Oil on canvas. 49 ¾ x 34 inches. Signed and dated lower left. On loan from a private collection.

In the present work, The Acrobat, Pickens presents his 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 blue-faced monkey in Carnival, and the titular figure of The Blue Doll, and suggesting the artist’s influence of the Flemish grotesque style.

A surrealist work with figures falling off of chairs.
Alton Pickens. American, 1917-1991. The Send-Off, 1950. Oil on canvas. 53 ¼ x 44 inches. Signed and dated upper left.

The Send-Off, a Jonathan Boos Notable Sale, was painted in 1950 and mirrors the architectural background seen in Carnival. Set underneath a wooden staircase, three figures appear to float in space, yet remain trapped within the confines of the composition. At left, a man in a vibrant yellow suit precariously supports himself atop a bright wooden caned chair, of which a similar design appears in Carnival. The man seems to communicate with the suited figure below, who sits crouched at the base of the stairs. A third figure floats above, with only his bare legs and feet visible. Despite the mysterious scenario and surrealistic effects, Pickens was a masterful painter of realism as seen in the intricate patterning of the pink suit, the attention to light and shadow, and the exacting details of the hands and feet of the figures.

Alton Pickens surrealist picture with two kids playing with dolls
(fig. 1) Alton Pickens, American 1917-1991. The Blue Doll, 1942. Oil on canvas. 42 ⅞ x 35 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York
Alton Pickens carnival image of three figures and a monkey
(fig. 2) Alton Pickens, American 1917 - 1991. Carnival, 1949. Oil on canvas, 54 ⅝ x 40 ⅜ inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York