PROFILE: FRANKLIN ALEXANDER 1925-2007
It is an axiom that though there are fine artists and skilled teachers, rarely are those qualities found in one and the same person. Serious artists are wont to crave and need solitude for the germination of their work; teachers, though they might be familiar with their subject matter, require little more than an audience and a glib patter. Franklin Alexander — painter, philosopher, writer, teacher, Bach aficionado and amateur musician (he would randomly tootle sections of Johann Sebastian’s Six Unaccompanied Suites with Cello on his alto recorder while contemplating the merits and faults of his latest painting propped up on his studio easel) — was, from observations of friends, family, colleagues, and students, an exception to that old axiom. His students — and they were many since he has for more than forty years taught at a dozen art schools and colleges, even being one of the co-founders of the internationally respected Woodstock School of Art in Woodstock, New York — all seem to concur on not only his considerable expertise and range of technical know-how, but also his sensitive imparting of that knowledge to his charges. By almost all accounts, Franklin Alexander knew his craft and dedicated his life to passing on its secrets to whoever sought his counsel. For some, he was not only a respected teacher, but a cherished friend and sometime father figure. One student recalled: “Franklin seemed most himself when he was teaching art.” What more enviable epitaph might one want? To be seen as someone who has found one’s true calling — indeed, to have found oneself — must surely be one of life’s greatest rewards.
Clearly, none of this latter-day veneration came easily. From his first critical put-down at the age of 16 by Robert Brackman, his first art instructor at the Art Students League of New York, Franklin Alexander determined to alter that teacher’s early assessment of his talents. In speaking with those who knew him most intimately — Pia, his first wife, and his two sons Paul and John — his single-minded resolve — in whatever pursuit fell into his orbit of interest during his life — most defined him. Once set upon a path, he was — like Captain Ahab — unswervable from the iron rails of will that laid out his course. While Pia, of course, lived with that unshakeable determination during their years of marriage, his son John (who now lives in his father’s home and studio), in sorting through his father’s personal papers and effects, came across it time and again in Franklin’s notes, journals, files, and library. In sharing with me some of his father’s highly detailed and meticulous files, John could only shake his head in wonder. How could he be so driven?
And driven by what? His art, of course — but more than that. His well-kept journals tell a good portion of the story. Divided neatly into three separate books — Art, Philosophy and Psychology — his observations, notes, comments and insights reflected the on his shelves, they consisted mainly of those artists he respected and admired; one suspects that most of his opinions, tastes and artistic vision grew out of his own creative journey from his early forays into abstract expressionism and, eventually, into the classical representation for which he was most known. In any event, the core of art and its pursuit that informed his soul was bolstered and enlarged by his intellectual curiosity in philosophy and psychology — the latter, specifically in the matter of human consciousness and, ultimately, in its pre-historical sources for it is herein that lies the mystery of mankind’s creativity. However close Franklin Alexander came to logically resolving his search into the enigma of the human quest for visual expression, what he did learn transformed him from that 16-year-old would-be artist into Franklin Alexander: Painter, Philosopher, Writer, Teacher — and, we must not forget, Amateur Musician. It ought not escape the notice of the reader that all of these endeavors are means of communication, music even more ancient than image-making and both far more so than vocal and written language — communicative expression being a human trait that was of paramount importance to him.
I suspect that Franklin Alexander’s move from abstract expressionism to realism came about precisely as a result of his concern for clear communication — communication of one’s inner psyche onto a canvas may be all well and good; communication of one’s psyche to another human being in an intelligible manner even more so. Inevitably, his journey into human consciousness, creativity and communication rooted him in a profound mantle of humanism — and, hence, into a teacher par excellence. Thus, though he painted the occasional still life, town, or landscape, and a large number of portraits (including self-portraits) — and did so with considerable skill — it was to be the depiction of the human figure, sometimes in an interior, more often highlighted against a scumbled background, that would consume his mature years of artistic vision. This concentration on the worthiness of the human form as a motif, as evidenced by scores of studies and finished works, was also reflected in his teaching — both in the workshops at his studio as well as in the various schools at which he taught. His approach was classically academic — from having his students learn the rudiments of drawing and painting and then on to the living model, each step formally structured and assiduously adhered to, the importance of which was part of his method of imparting not only a thorough-going introduction to human anatomy but also to the necessities of good draftsmanship. As in his teaching, so in his painting. A Franklin Alexander nude is a consummate work of art. I once had occasion to come across several of them at a gallery that chose to exclusively feature them and wrote that they appeared “closer to ‘Calendar Cheesecake’ than serious art” — to which he responded in a Letter to the Editor: “I hope and think Mr. Steiner’s judgement is wrong. But, he may be right. If so, I hope his argument will appeal to calendar publishers, since I can dearly use the extra 12 sales.”
This final anecdote serves on several levels since it not only points up the dangers of a critic assessing an artist on the basis of only a small portion of his work, but even more pointed, allows for an insight into Franklin Alexander in particular and into the plight of the fine artist in general. Not only did his response reveal a subtle sense of humor in this most disciplined of artists, but it also lays bare the deplorable neglect in our society of the dedicated, accomplished, skilled, and largely unsung ‘toilers of the field’ who, in spite of all their proficiency and learning, can barely keep financially afloat. It is a sad commentary on our present-day artscene wherein solid draftsmanship, expertise and knowledge of one’s craft are considered passé, and that the likes of Franklin Alexander and his kind are fast becoming an endangered species. Kudos then to his family for ensuring that his legacy is not lost by preserving his papers, to his students and colleagues for holding him up as a model for future artists to emulate, and to the Woodstock School of Art for honoring him by mounting this major retrospective of his life’s work. For a man who long held it beneath himself to court the tawdriness of the art market, such a tribute to his memory would surely not displease him.
Raymond J. Steiner
Editor/Writer ART TIMES