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A Life in Art | Victor Thall - Abstract Expressionist

A Life in Art

Thall in the early 1980s

Victor Thall around 1980

Victor Thall belongs to that unique American brand – the rugged individualist. Throughout his life he strove to define and produce art that was true at its most fundamental level.

Thall was born in New York in 1902. His formal art education began at the Art Students League in Manhattan at the age of eleven, where he studied under Arthur B. Davies, George Bellows, George Luks, and John Sloan. Further studies were at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He left for Paris in 1924, continuing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Academie Julien, and the Grande Chaumiere. “By that time I had had enough of the academics and started to travel,” Thall said later.

Returning to the United States in the early 1930’s, he became friendly with Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. He participated in the WPA New Deal Art Project of New York City between 1935 and 1939. He taught at the Art Students League in the late forties and was represented in the Whitney Annual of 1949 and 1950. Teaching, however, “didn’t last and I discovered that I had no interest whatsoever in art schools. I worked in lithography, sketching and sculpture.”

Working closely for a time with such painters as Gorky and de Kooning, Thall wasn’t content to join the burgeoning American clique of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, on the eve of its international recognition, he left New York, making a worldwide tour of indigenous cultures attempting to find a solution to the crisis of abstraction. Thall lived and painted in Mexico, the West Indies, and  in Europe. Much of his work of the late 1950s was done in Torrevieja, a fishing village in Spain, and in Palma de Mallorca. He returned to New York in 1963, leaving for Florida in 1965.

Thall felt that painting needed to communicate in a way that Abstract Expressionism could not. Using parts of its vocabulary, Thall created work that was modern in spirit but based on fundamental traditions that he believed connected the whole history of art. In this way he resembled his contemporary Max Beckman, and it is fitting that Thall was chosen with Beckman by The New Yorker art critic Robert Coates as the best painter of the 1949 Whitney Annual. His paintings are in numerous private collections in the United States and Europe.

Thall - Serious Artist

Thall - Serious Artist

Thall said in a 1960s interview, “My point of view in art ranges between expressionism and abstraction, the motif determining how far I wish to go in either direction.

“The term ‘Modern Art’ seems to indicate a break with the past as if suddenly at a certain date modern art was born. I do not believe this to be true but it is a convenient peg on which to hang the mantles of incompetence and ignorance. The history of art goes back to the cave drawings at Altamira done forty thousand years ago but as modern as Picasso. I believe in the tradition. I see no reason why an abstract painting cannot contain the design and structural strength of a Turner or Tintoretto. I see in good modern painting a continuance, a respectful quintessence of the formal methods employed by the masters of the past.”

Thall loved the outdoors, the jungle and the sea. A scuba diver, he delighted in exploring the ocean depths and was also an ardent herpetologist. At one time he kept 37 live reptiles from various parts of the world in his New York apartment.

“It did limit my social life,” Thall said. “I find that being outdoors studying the habits of these creatures is far more interesting than sitting in cafes talking about art. I suppose we all need some form of escape mechanism. The animal world is mine or down below in the sea. The coral reefs of the West Indies make for fascinating themes for abstraction [but] the final challenge of an artist’ s stature is people. The Spanish gypsy holding a child, the fisher folk, demand that Expressionism in its most highly surcharged volatile form be employed.

Whitney 1949

Whitney 1949

“The landscape from my window in Terreno poses a different problem and demands another solution. Here is a problem of space and the necessity of formal design to control it. It permits no accidents. Every line, each nuance of color is my responsibility, determined by the conception.”

Fiercely uncompromising in his opinions and with a lack of regard for “success” in the art world, Thall settled in the latter 1960s in a small village outside Palm Springs, California. There he painted for until the late 1970s, then embarked on writing a semiautobiographical novel that consumed his artistic juices until his death in 1983. The novel remains unpublished.