Appreciation: Francis Celentano (1928 – 2016)

The Seattle-based painter and Op Art pioneer continued to create works that appealed to the responsive eye.

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“Triangle Overlay 2,”  2015, Francis Celentano
“Triangle Overlay 2,” 2015, Francis Celentano, Acrylic on canvas, 25″ x 48″
Courtesy: Russo Lee Gallery

Francis Celentano (1928-2016), the optical perceptualist painter who died last November, had two long parallel careers. His life was truly a tale of two cities, New York and Seattle. A native of the Bronx and star art pupil at DeWitt Clinton High School, he gravitated to New York University where his interest in art led to an undergraduate degree in art history and psychology in 1951. This led to his introduction to Abstract Expressionist painter Philip Guston (with whom he studied painting privately for 10 years) and art historian Horst W. Janson, under whom he wrote the first master’s thesis on Abstract Expressionism, later cited by Harold Rosenberg (among others) in his monograph “de Kooning” (1973). Following Guston’s encouragement, Celentano seemed fated to embrace the New York School, which he did until his 1957-58 Fulbright fellowship in Rome, Italy. While in Europe, he was exposed to the growing Hard-Edge painting movement and met Piero Dorazio, who suggested Op Art as a direction. Back in New York, Celentano rejected his mentors at the Artists Club and Cedar Tavern in favor of the new depersonalized, systematic style. It took another five years before he left New York completely, after being offered a Rockefeller Visiting Artist residency in Seattle at the University of Washington School of Art and hired full time.

Before that move, he had been swept up in the new trend, feted in the seminal 1965 touring exhibition “The Responsive Eye,” organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York (they bought three paintings) and launching his career downtown at the legendary artists cooperative, Phoenix Gallery. Tapped twice for Whitney painting annuals, everything was going great, especially when he was selected for two canonical Op Art surveys at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY and had his official New York solo debut at Howard Wise Gallery in 1966.

Even better, art critics were paying attention. Udo Kultermann put Celentano into his big 1969 coffee-table book “Painting Today,” and the artist was included in his first art history textbook, Ray Faulkner and Edwin Ziegfeld’s “Art Today” (1969). This followed the singular honor of being attacked in the New York Times by Hilton Kramer; a positive review by Rita Reif followed in the Times a few years later. Several paintings were illustrated in the definitive 1970 “Op Art” by British critic Cyril Barrett.

Celentano’s second life began in Seattle in 1966, abruptly but not permanently cutting him off from all the stimuli, friends, and connections on the East Coast and in Europe. New York friends included artist Hans Haacke, critic Elizabeth C. Baker, photographer Evelyn Hofer and Polish painter Wojciech Fangor, whom he had met at the “International Artists Seminar” at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where many North American and European Hard-Edge painters first met.

“Triangle Overlay 2,” 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 25″ x 48″
Courtesy: Russo Lee Gallery

For the next 50 years, Celentano acted as if Op Art had never ended. Collector Virginia Bloedel Wright recalled meeting him soon after his arrival, “Op Art,” she said, “was dead on arrival—but nobody told him!” Fortunately, the ravishing experiments in color, materials, shapes and surface treatments proceeded in a rapid series of undertakings, each more surprising than the last. From electric motors to automotive spray guns to cut-and-twisted PVC plastic that was then flipped and glued, Celentano transformed canvas shapes into ovals, tondos, diamonds, and triangles, including kinetic paintings, colored sculptures the size of tall columns, and nine-foot-high leaning planks. In 1970, he dropped black and white and switched to exploring color, in all its permutations. His largest work—at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Spectrum Delta II (1972)— spans over 75 feet wide.

During these years, West Coast interest was piqued by his indefatigable, fiendish studio attempts to defy Op Art’s death warrant. Group exhibitions in Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu and Portland brought him several awards, grants, and commissions. Showing regularly in a series of Seattle galleries, including Foster/White and Gordon Woodside / John Braseth, softened the blow of being dropped by New York dealers until a younger generation picked up his vintage work in the 2000s. These included such historically minded galleries as Gary Snyder and Jacobson Howard (later, Loretta Howard) in New York, and in Santa Fe, David Richard Gallery. As American art museums re-assessed the 1960s, he was invited back to the Albright-Knox and to the Columbus Museum of Art’s “Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s” in 2007. Working continuously, Celentano never ran out of ideas and worked with an assistant to paint and assemble the constructions until four months before his death, all the while making plans for future series. Less structurally adventurous than previous series, the last works expand hues and tones of color into areas that nudge references to popular culture while also suggesting other chromatic allusions to contemporary society and the manufactured environment.

With such a long career, and a life long enough to be rediscovered, one would have thought there was little left to see. To the contrary—future curators and scholars should examine Celentano’s Guston-era works, which he refused to show during his lifetime except at one of six retrospectives, as well as his Diachromas and Color and Shadow Displacements (1987-89), which one Seattle dealer refused to show. Russo Lee Gallery in Portland plans a full-scale retrospective of the artist this coming December.

The only New York critic not to desert Celentano, Suzi Gablik, pointed the way toward future criticism of this remarkable artist. Her 1986 catalogue essay for his first retrospective at Portland Center for the Visual Arts rejected a formalist reading and held that his art had “healing” properties and a therapeutic, chromatic presence. The final works, seen at Russo Lee last year, the Gradient Electras and Triangle Overlays radiate color and light in ways that might affect the sympathetic viewer in the manner Gablik suggested. Perhaps Celentano may not be forgotten—again—after all.