The Knights of Columbus Museum in downtown New Haven — described by USA Today as one of the “10 great places to explore religion in artistic detail” — is hosting a retrospective of work by American artist and Yale alumnus William G. Congdon (1912–1998).
Titled “Sabbath of History: William Congdon/Meditations on Holy Week,” the exhibition combines artwork by Congdon, considered one of the foremost painters of his generation, with Lenten meditations written in 1967 for Bavarian Radio by Father Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
Presented in cooperation with the William G. Congdon Foundation, the exhibition marks the centennial of Congdon’s birth and the 85th birthday of Pope Benedict. It will be on view at the Knights of Columbus Museum through Sept. 16.
Congdon is among the most celebrated of the Abstract Expressionists, a coterie of American artists — including such notables as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mark Rothko — that sprung up in New York after World War II. Congdon’s paintings are in many collections, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice.
While Congdon’s achievements in the decade immediately following the war are well known, his accomplishments later in the century have gone largely unrecognized, say the organizers, who add that his exhibition, the most comprehensive overview of Congdon’s art to date, may change that. That show includes more than 65 works, ranging from drawings the artist made during World War II to abstract paintings he completed in the final months of his life.
Born into a wealthy New England family with deep Puritan roots, the artist graduated from Yale as an English major in 1934. As an American Field Service ambulance driver in World War II, Congdon was with the invading forces in Italy and followed close on the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, an experience that was to prove pivotal to his development as an artist. Two of the sketches he made as a witness to the atrocities at Bergen Belsen are represented in this exhibition.
Following the war, Congdon moved to New York, where he quickly gained renown as an “action” painter. Closely associated with abstract expressionism, the “action” genre is characterized by the spontaneous application of paint — as opposed to carefully thought-out brush strokes. While Pollock’s signature dribbling on canvas is the most commonly cited example of action painting, Congdon’s “action” technique was to spread paint on a hard material — most frequently a wood panel — and use an awl to etch fine lines over the paint.
In the late 1940s, Congdon’s expressive cityscapes caught the attention of critics and artists alike, and, most importantly for his career, gained him representation by Betty Parsons, the influential gallery owner and art dealer. In 1951, the artist was profiled in Life magazine as “a remarkable new U.S. painter.”
Throughout the post-war years, even as he gained prominence in the American art scene, Congdon continued to go back and forth between New York and Europe, making prolonged stays in the Italian cities of Naples, Venice, and Assisi.
Beneath many of the paintings on display at this exhibition are quotations from Congdon’s correspondence and personal papers. In 1949, he mused about this period of his life: “There was much resentment in my painting at this time: protest against my disciplinarian Puritan upbringing. I wanted only to get back to Italy, where the values of life were not veiled by psychoanalytical and existential jargon, or limited by the selfish interests of materialism, but were seen in totally human terms . . .”
In 1957, Congdon moved to Italy permanently, and in 1959 he was baptized a Roman Catholic in the Basilica of Assisi.
“For Congdon, painting was a form of theology and an activity through which religious devotion could be enacted. … Throughout his career he forged a singular approach to painting that incorporated the spontaneity of action painting with forms of figuration and landscape,” note the exhibition organizers.
Joseph Ratzinger was born in Bavaria in 1927 and ordained a priest in 1951. He authored the Lenten meditations featured in the exhibition soon after serving as an adviser to the Archbishop of Cologne, during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).
Curated by Daniel Mason with the collaboration of the foundation’s research director, Rodolfo Balzarotti, the exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, which offers an extensive analysis of Congdon’s work and career.
“The Knights of Columbus takes pleasure in presenting the artwork of William Congdon, who studied here in New Haven at Yale University,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “His themes show a deep introspection and an appreciation for the transcendent.”
A public panel discussion on Congdon will be held at the museum on Saturday, June 30, at 12:30 p.m. Part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, the free event will include a tour of the exhibition.
The Knights of Columbus Museum, located at 1 State St., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission and parking are free. For more information, call 203-865-0400 or visit kofcmuseum.org.