The car makes its way along 96th Street, then I get out at a convenient spot and continue a short distance on foot. I reach the front door, take the elevator, and he’s there at the entrance to the apartment. Waiting for me.
His trousers billow out from his hips. The softness of his clothing is echoed by his cheeks and the build of his body, reflected in the drapes Francis paints and those that are scattered around his studio: these are notably relaxed, ready to take an active part in a new setting. His art lives with him, filling every nook and cranny of his—not very large—Manhattan apartment. The lives that share the living space of Francis Cunningham and his wife are many and are piled up one in front of the other, as if they were in a line waiting to take their turn. They’re patient, they don’t push or jostle, and even if they did, a number of large, brown cardboard boxes would cushion the impact.
It isn’t easy to choose where to stand in the house. One’s eyes are constantly attracted by books, paintings, and old greeting cards. And in any case, it’s impossible to keep still.
Bill, Francis’s brother-in-law, patiently helps him move his canvasses, taking over the operation, almost as if he were a latter-day Simon of Cyrene. And we’re talking about large works. Bill’s arms have to stretch to their fullest in a movement that seems to have a symbolic dimension. The effect is to encompass the work, to welcome it and make it one’s own. The spaces are constantly being shaped and then re-shaped. The corridor is no longer a corridor, nor is a door a door. There’s no point ringing the doorbell at the Cunninghams. The door can’t be opened. The living room has lost its boundaries; no longer is it an elegant space in which to relax, set apart from daily chores. It is now one of them. Huge rectangular canvases draw the eyes hither and thither. A microcosm is being created, and the painter gives the first breath of life to this performance that is slowly being enacted before the viewers’ rapt gaze.
Sasha, Francis’s daughter, who must have witnessed not a few of these household performances over the years, tries to play the part of the conductor in this orchestra of spatial arrangements, but she can never have the final say in things. And her shy smile betrays her awareness of the fact.
I go up to a picture, but I’m swiftly called back. “You have to start by observing from a distance,” she says. “Take a few steps back to admire the work as a whole, to get a better idea of the composition, the movement, the way the eye is drawn here and there…”.
I step back.
Those two imposing, naked human beings unconsciously bring to mind the desperate cries of Masaccio’s precursors. There’s no room for desperation in Cunningham, but the presence and plasticity of these bodies, the color fields forming the ground, as uniform as they are penetrating, achieve an extraordinary potency.
I move closer.
Everything changes. One works one’s way into the canvas, one feels the brushstrokes, one can observe his work almost as though one were a privileged figure standing next to him at his easel.
Cunningham, one of Edwin Dickinson’s pupils, borrows his master’s spot painting technique and looks at the world through it. He has always taken this stance, although an encyclopedic panorama of his work would suggest there has been considerable development. By the time the eye is just a few centimeters from the canvas, the method is no longer merely “technique”: the brushstrokes once again acquire life and independence. The dabs of color reveal the time spent seeking the exact shade, the hours that elapsed before every detail was just right.
The artist’s obsession.
The naked flesh that finds its models in paralyzed and mutilated bodies is a triumph of figurative realism, in which anatomical precision plays a leading role. In an imaginary life-giving injection, these figures would have no trouble in turning round, in completing the leap, in “unwinding” their coiled poses that sometimes make them look like caterpillars in a cocoon; ready, in other words, to turn into butterflies. Even the paralytic doesn’t seem to be hampered, but rather free not to make any movement. And the figure with a mutilated right arm has enough strength to turn a handicap into an advantage.
The epiphany of a picture gallery, created through the work and constancy of just two eyes and two hands, but never veering into habit. Instead, there is constant innovation, with the works from the early period raising the curtain. These small works tend towards abstraction, not with regard to the subject, but in terms of the color effects the artist explores. And it’s here, in these memorably beautiful paintings, that the spot painting technique becomes consolidated. And Cunningham could spend entire afternoons seeking the perfect colors for these pictures; indeed, often concentrating only on particular details in them.
Nevertheless, much of Francis Cunningham’s career has featured very large canvasses depicting men who are often giant sized—“big men”, as they’re known in the family. In these cases the color is applied in short brushstrokes, one on top of the other, to create “patches” of new color that can only be discerned close up. The landscapes that surround the figures, without stealing the limelight, recall Giotto’s volumes—those crevices in the rocks that can be seen in some of the frescoes of Franciscan scenes in Assisi, which, perhaps for the first time in the history of art, created a sense of monumental perspective.
The nude, which is the preferred form of all Cunningham’s full-sized figures, is as conspicuous as it is ethereal. This is nature’s nude, the archetypal nude. And perhaps it is no accident that the New York artist’s nudes recall classical statues and are not inspired solely by the works of the Renaissance. “Renaissance bodies were frozen,” he never tires of repeating. “I preferred to delve further into classical Greece and its statues. I studied the golden section and I wanted to learn its secrets.” This is the means Francis Cunningham has used to achieve absolute realism, giving these figures, whose proportions in his words are “like music,” the chance to add movement to their qualities.
The vertical thrust of the pictures from his second period gave way to the largely horizontal later works in his studio—for the most part still lives. The human figure has virtually disappeared. Residual examples can occasionally be found when the objects that are silently arrayed in a New York studio bathed in light (which requires shielding with gossamer screens) include one or two of his “old” paintings.
Indeed, because in Cunningham’s last paintings the extensive color fields do not express any horror vacui but are instead full of life. Nothing is missing. They contain everything. And this “figurative-non figurative” approach is the final form his work has taken, as if he had undertaken the task of closing the circle. “One always returns to one’s origins,” he claims. What remains is technique—his boast, albeit humbly expressed. A technique that requires the spectator to move and concentrate his gaze if it is to be appreciated.
A magnifying glass on the table suggests that behind the facile label “figurative art” lurk some abstract elements in Francis’s art, too. And his brushstrokes make this quite clear.
This very magnifying glass can be seen next to Kitty, enabling her to read without strain. Strong and silent, she watches her husband with an untroubled mind. She looks at all his work and knows everything about it. But there is never any sign of tiredness, or boredom arising from a sense of “knowing it all already.” The nudes that surround her, the male and female sex organs that seem to predominate in certain areas are for her enriching rather than disturbing, as one might otherwise suppose would normally be the case with “ladies of a certain age.” Kitty’s eyes follow attentively and perhaps with a certain pride the way a private mobile picture gallery reveals itself to enchanted guests. And Francis wanders around, nimble and observant, through the rooms that house the evidence of the artistic path he has taken.