“Alvin Ross was a real bon vivant, whose life, loves, interests, and connections were complex and often intertwined,” says James Bakker. Bakker, a local gallerist, auctioneer, and art historian specializing in the Provincetown art colony, spent last winter diving into Ross’s letters and datebooks, connecting dots of time and place for an essay in the catalog for “Alvin Ross: A Centennial Exhibition.” The show, on the centennial of Ross’s birth in 1920, was meant to launch the summer season at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, but it was postponed due to the pandemic and is opening Friday, Sept. 18.
“Ross was a handsome man. He made connections easily, and people found him to be absolutely charming,” Bakker says, mapping out Ross’s social circle among the gay culturati of his era. “He had an affair with Lord Amulree, a British physician, visiting him in Kensington and London. Ross also loved music, and had close relationships with Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, and Virgil Fox. In theater, he knew Jerome Robbins. Aaron Copland and Tony Perkins bought his work.” And when dance critic Edwin Denby was staying in a dune shack, Ross was a visitor. As the 1960s began, Ross was in town working at Plain and Fancy, a restaurant at 334 Commercial St., owned by his younger sister, Lenore.
“As an artist, Alvin Ross definitely went against the grain,” Bakker says. “When he was getting out of art school and abstract expressionism was coming into play, Ross became a self-described realist painter. He was educated in the history of art. His mother was a sculptor, and he spent time teaching and educating other artists.” He taught at Pratt Institute and the New School for Social Research. Painters Paul Resika and Sideo Fromboluti were among the friends he saw both in Provincetown and New York.
Asked to name a favorite Ross painting, Bakker laughs. “Angel Food Cake and Mixmaster,” he confesses. “Lenore gave it to me, because my mother used to make me an angel food cake for my birthday.” Bakker was close to Lenore and her partner, realtor Pat Shultz. He also represents the artist’s work on behalf of the Lenore Ross Trust. (Lenore died in 2013; Pat in 2008.)
The exhibition includes more than 70 works, some from PAAM’s permanent collection and some, rarely seen, from private collections. Housed in PAAM’s Alvin Ross Wing, the show feels like a family affair, starting with Lenore and Pat and extending to Bakker; Steve Roderick, president of a local payroll and bookkeeping company; and PAAM CEO Christine McCarthy, who is the curator. All three are friends. Led by McCarthy, the trio drew from their familiarity with individual pieces in making exhibition selections.
Roderick knew Lenore and Pat growing up in Provincetown and is co-trustee of Lenore’s estate. Lenore had donated much of their collection of Ross paintings to PAAM and established a fund there for educating children and teachers in the arts. Roderick’s connections helped in assembling the work for the show. “There was a piece in Seamen’s Bank we all wanted,” Roderick says, referring to Before the Storm. “I called Lori Meads,” the bank’s president and CEO, “and asked, ‘Can I come get it?’ ” As Roderick puts it, “This show is one from the heart.”
The exhibition will also be online at PAAM’s website. “A lot of Ross’s family in California are lenders to this exhibition, and they were planning to come,” McCarthy says. “Especially if there’s a Covid spike in the fall, I would hate for people to miss this show.”
The museum’s closure in the spring gave McCarthy an opportunity to become deeply engaged with Ross’s world. “I see a lot of Hopper in the work,” she says. “People are in the same small space but aren’t really engaging with each other. Perfect, in an eerie way, for this season of social distancing. There’s a similar mood, an ambience, to all the paintings.”
McCarthy’s favorites include three Interior, Provincetown paintings from 1964 and 1965, reflecting the two summers Ross spent in a cottage he called “the old shack,” at 349A Commercial St. The three works (not shown together since they were first in a New York gallery) form a kind of triptych: there is a single room, with a window looking out to a treed area with a hooded metal gas tank, an object familiar to generations of townies. Furnishings are compact: a stove, a table, a single chair, a day bed. A young man, half hidden by a small refrigerator, washes his face. The second and third Interior paintings close in on details. The picture’s casual mystery invites contemplation.
“Ross was elected PAAM president in 1973, shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer, and even so, he would never miss a meeting, flying from New York,” McCarthy says. He died in 1975 at 55. “Ross’s dedication to Provincetown and to this organization was very evident,” McCarthy says. “At the time of his death, he was at the height of his career. He had a New York gallery, and was finally getting reviews with photos in the New York Times. Naming the wing after him made perfect sense.”
With PAAM re-opened, McCarthy says she is excited. “If you come to the museum in mid-September, you’ll see the Alvin Ross show, which I think is going to blow people’s minds, plus Kahn and Selesnick’s contemporary photography,” she says. “In October, we add the beginnings of the art colony, tracing our history from the Pilgrims’ landing with the Mimi Gross installation, plus two rooms of gems from the permanent collection, Hawthorne to Hopper, Hofmann and more. Visiting the museum, you can see the history of PAAM and Provincetown and how we continue to have a giant influence on artists of all generations.”
With a classicist’s nod to interior spaces, Alvin Ross created a recognizable milieu, and its fluid dimensions mirrored his own. Arguably, a knife on a table or plunged into an Idaho potato, or a cigarette in the hand of a louche young man, were metaphors of hidden passion and signals to the circles in which he traveled. But this much is clear: in Provincetown, Alvin Ross was at home.
Man About Town
The event: “Alvin Ross: A Centennial Exhibition”
The time: Friday, Sept. 18, through Nov. 15: Wednesday through Sunday,
11 a.m. to 5 p.m.: time-slot reservations required, at paam.org
The place: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St.
The cost: $12.50; members free