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Carmen Cicero

Carmen Cicero has re-emerged today as one of the most stimulating and innovative artists who was a major precursor to the neo-expressionist artists of the 1980s. Writing in 1982, Lowery Sims, then Associate Curator of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: “For Carmen Cicero, it has been a long patient wait for the rest of he world to catch up with him. He is not alone. One can think of several other artists—including Philip Guston—who left abstraction in the late 60s and began doing a “funky” figuration that is so much in vogue these days, and who were ridiculed until the art world finally modified its exclusive formalist point of view…The tactile, visceral surfaces that he shared with such contemporaries as a Leon Golub, have also survived in the recent paintings, effecting a nice bridge to the work of the current generation of figurative artists.”     



Cicero began his early career as a successful Abstract Expressionist and these works were collected by some of New York’s premier museums including the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1957, Cicero had his first solo show at the Peridot Gallery, New York, showing with fellow artists Louise Bourgeois and Philip Guston. In the early 1960s, his canvases began to be populated with intense, expressionist figures. These works positioned him as one of the earliest figurative expressionist painters of his generation. Three of these early figurative expressionist pieces, dated 1962, were acquired by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Cicero arrived in New York in the early 1970s (his second residency in the city) after a devastating fire that destroyed his studio in Englewood, NJ. He lost the entire body of his work—mostly his figurative expressionist paintings. The artist began again in his new loft on the Bowery, which at the time was filled with flophouses and homeless men and was New York’s “Skid Row.” As stated by Sims, “The transition there from a more conventional and comfortable life in the suburbs to what was then the frontier of the downtown art world, certainly shaped the sardonic fatalism of his work…” 

After several false starts (including working as a hard-edge painter), the artist returned to figurative expressionism in the later 1970s and 1980s and produced a body of work that was well received both uptown on Madison Avenue and downtown during the heyday of the East Village art scene and positioned him as one of the precursors of neo-expressionism in New York City. In the early 1980s, he was featured in a solo show and participated in group exhibitions at the Gracie Mansion Gallery in the East Village along with younger neo-expressionists. 

The social content of Cicero’s works from the 1970s and 1980s—tackling such subjects as race, crime, battle of the sexes and feminism—reveal that he was aware of themes in American culture then, which are profoundly significant today. Sims spoke of his work as “combative and rebellious, and defiant in its unrepentant exposure of the raw emotion that lies just beneath the veneer of civilization.”  Artists such as Red Grooms and Robert Colescott admired Cicero’s work. Colescott, who also explored themes like sex and race, believed as artists they shared an attitude toward social matters, which was both serious and satirical. Cicero’s work was reviewed by critics such as Grace Glueck, Donald Kuspit, Nicholas Moufarrege, Roberta Smith, and John Russell, who wrote in 1984: 

Living on the Bowery, Cicero takes late-night subjects that are both rough and raw—death hailing a cab, a young man fleeing in terror from an invisible enemy on the waterfront, or his near-double running for dear life from a burning city in which even the flagstones are red hot. Others have had hideous fancies of the same kind, but Cicero’s paintings have an educated presence. We see at once that he is a true painter, and one who has labored hard and long for his effects of spontaneity. From Currier and Ives to Milton Avery, and from the comic strip to German Expressionism, this former pupil of Robert Motherwell lives with learning lightly borne. 

More recently (2015), Roberta Smith reviewed a show of Cicero’s expressionist pieces from the 1970s and 1980s:

A disastrous studio fire in 1971 seems to have turned Mr. Cicero toward his own comical version of neo-Expressionism figuration, a vibrant, sometimes visionary style enlivened by vigorous brushwork, radiant color and a sense of high drama. The earliest work here is “Crime” from 1976, which features a blizzard of short rapid brush strokes — a kind of parody of Abstract Expressionism — that, with study, reveals a tough guy firing a gun in the viewer’s direction. It is like an American-gangster version of the thick-limbed young men for which the Italian artist Sandro Chia became known. More accomplished is “The Surprise at the Window,” from 1981, in which a ghostly Count Dracula scares the wits, cigarettes and martinis out of a bunch of soigné Hollywood silent-film types standing in a wood cabin — or on a stage — alive with light and shadow. The generally white-on-white “Nightmare” (1986), which depicts a madman in a frozen landscape dotted with faces has some wonderful moments, while the relatively small “Man With Mask” (1987) contrasts a green hat and a vivid orange mask. It is in many ways a perfect painting that some museum should add to its Cicero holdings. 

Text by Mary Abell.