Who was Charles Howard? Berkeley museum has the answer
by Lou Fancher
It’s easy to overlook significance when it’s right under your nose. Or, when it occupies a rare niche.
Which makes an exhibition of Berkeley-raised artist Charles Howard’s bold paintings and expressive drawings at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive a surprising, well-deserved and intriguing spectacle. It is the first survey of Howard’s work in decades: until now, a 1946 retrospective at California Palace of the Legion of Honor was the most recent Bay Area exhibition.
“Charles Howard: A Margin of Chaos” combines 78 works drawn from collections worldwide by curator Apsara DiQuinzio. Howard (1899-1978), son of John Galen Howard — the supervising architect of the UC Berkeley campus — aspired to become a writer but became equally fascinated by fine art after traveling in Italy with American artist Grant Wood. There, inspiration sparked by the Venetian-Florentine crossover style of Italian painter Giorgione’s “Madonna and Child Between St. Francis and St. Nicasius,” led to a lifelong pursuit of art he called “ideographic.”
Art historians, scholars, critics and curators define the hybrid space Howard’s work occupies with such terms as architectural, abstract, surreal, graphic, fusion, synthesis. Critic Douglas MacAgy described his work as involving “a margin of chaos.”
“That was MacAgy’s essay title,” says DiQuinzio. “He talked about Howard’s work as a snapshot of metamorphosis transforming; a limited chaotic moment.”
Occupying 5,000 feet in two galleries, the exhibit’s mostly small pieces are arranged chronologically from the mid-1920s to early ’60s. Letters between Howard and his sister-in-law, artist Adeline Kent, Works Progress Administration posters, notebook sketches and other materials add perspective. Despite having exhibited with the likes of Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Man Ray and leading 20th-century European Surrealists, Howard, who spent most of his life in England, remained relatively obscure in the U.S. But his six-year stint living and working in San Francisco from 1940-46 had a significant impact on his work and on art history.
“He’s the critical link between European developments and what was happening in the U.S. Through him you see the renaissance of abstraction in the Bay Area,” says Diquinzio. “But when I visited the Whitney, the curator had never seen the drawings archived there. When his brother’s studio was sold, a huge, forgotten box of Howard’s work was discovered.”
DiQuinzio’s exhaustive investigations resulted in an exhibit that emphasizes paintings in which Howard’s jewel-box like arrangements of figurative and abstract images result in energetic, kinetic compositions.
“He gave himself permission to combine forms,” DiQuinzio says. “You see the influence of childhood trips to Carmel, mechanical shapes he saw in Marin shipyards, organic shapes found in science books, narratives he sketched in his mind before starting to paint — the intention is metamorphosis on the verge,” she says.
Arguably, the best way to experience a painting by Howard is to climb inside.
In his meticulously rendered 1949 oil on canvas painting, “The Aimant” (The Magnet), architectural symmetry informs the subterranean, cavelike base. An eery vertical tunnel is lit as if by stage lights. Astute color sensibility perfectly balances the graphic shapes in fire engine red, mustard yellows, navy blue, slate gray, ominous black, stark white and the brilliant emerald green of a slender crescent moon. Whit and whimsy suggest an abstract black shape is a seal, balancing the moon on its nose, or an ant-like creature’s escape through the tunnel is dramatically thwarted by spider webs.
The experience is visceral, carnival, chaotic, yet oddly organized according to otherworldly logic.
Howard’s niece, Galen Howard Hilgard, provided archival materials and guidance as the exhibit was created.
“I always gasp when I see ‘Hare Corner,'” she wrote in an email. “This piece was at my grandmother’s house in Berkeley when I was growing up and is a knock-out. The gouache painting features subtle coloration and mysterious, abstract images anchored in a gray field that stretch upwards as if yearning for flight.”
Hilgard says the family had “a flare for the theatrical.” She recalls a drawing she made at age 14 of a worm working its way into human skin. “He cheered!,” she recalled. “This was just how he wanted me to do art! And doing art was an integral part of family life. We gave drawings and small paintings for Christmas, birthdays, any old occasion. They were a way of telling stories and telling about ourselves.”