At 96, Carmen Cicero is full of stories. There’s the story of his friend whose gnarled fingers spoke of a past life as an assassin in World War II before he became a French professor at Vassar. And another friend who went to a nudist party at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater for which the architect showed up fully dressed — only to come later to dinner nude when everyone else was dressed. He also tells of serving on a jury for a show of “terrible pictures at some little museum in New Jersey” with Marcel Duchamp.
Originally from Newark, N.J., Cicero came of age as a painter in New York during the 1950s heyday of abstract expressionism. He still lives in New York, where he continues to climb to his fourth-floor walk-up apartment and studio. In 1972, he bought the old South Truro railroad station off Old County Road, now transformed into a yellow home with an adjacent studio. He spends summers in Truro with his wife, Mary Ellen Abell, an art historian, and has been deeply involved in Provincetown’s art scene, showing at the storied Long Point Gallery throughout the 1970s and ’80s and receiving PAAM’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. This weekend, the June Kelly Gallery is showing his work at the annual art show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.
Cicero has a parallel career as a jazz musician, playing saxophone and clarinet. He performed at PAAM in its summer jazz series earlier this year.
“I switched from music to painting because there were musicians I worked with who had astounding abilities but couldn’t find work,” he says. “The first painting I sold was to a museum. I thought this was the direction I should go.”
Cicero first studied painting when modern art was just beginning to gain traction with the American public. He approached the new style with skepticism. “Even Picasso was highly questionable — his realistic paintings were what hit me,” he says, referring to Picasso’s more traditional early work. “How could the same guy paint this and a distorted head? I must have been missing something. That opened me up to Picasso and everything else that followed.”
After studying with Robert Motherwell at Hunter College, Cicero made a quick ascent as a second-generation abstract expressionist. “I understood what it was instantly,” he says. “They look like arbitrary strokes of paint, but they’re not.” Cicero’s work from the 1950s features the gestural marks typical of the period. The shape-driven compositions show Motherwell’s influence but also point toward Cicero’s future as a figurative painter.
He got a break in the New York art world one day while lugging a large painting to his gallery. “I had it on the roof of my car,” says Cicero. “I was struggling, and the director of the Guggenheim, James Johnson Sweeney, came down the street. I asked him to help me bring it upstairs.” Sweeney agreed — and ended up buying the painting. The piece, Odradek, was shown in 1959 at the museum’s first exhibition in its new building.
Sweeney told Cicero that Joan Miró visited the museum and admired his painting. “So, I made a small drawing and sent it to Miró,” says Cicero. “A few weeks later, I got an envelope from Mallorca and pulled out a drawing from Miró.”
Unfortunately, he no longer has that drawing. His home and studio in Englewood, N.J. were destroyed by fire in 1972. “Down went the Miró, my priceless clarinet, and about 40 paintings,” he says. The fire happened during an important shift in his practice. “I started as an abstract expressionist and then got into figurative expressionism,” says Cicero. “Those were the paintings that burned. I might have been a significant person in that movement. I had a terrible time getting restarted.”
The mid-1990s saw another shift in Cicero’s work. His imagery was still imaginative, but his manner became more meditative and controlled. A 2015 painting in his Truro studio typifies these “visionary works,” as he calls them. In the painting, inspired by one of Cicero’s dreams, an oversized pair of women’s shoes sits inexplicably on an empty street. The painting is smaller than his earlier works and built with meticulous marks. “A painting like this can take a hell of a time,” says Cicero.
A somber tone mixes with adventure in many of these paintings with metaphysical inflections that suggest Herman Melville and Albert Pinkham Ryder, two of Cicero’s favorite artists. A few pieces have local references: an image of a train in the snow was inspired by a view outside his Truro studio; in another work he transposes a knight’s helmet on a scene of sailboats in Pamet Harbor.
Despite the melancholy strain in some of his work, Cicero is upbeat and gregarious. He speaks with enthusiasm, hopping up to sit on a table as he talks about a loosely painted image on his studio wall of two figures genuflecting in a stage-like space.
“I made about five or six paintings in 2018,” he says. “It was an incredible run.” It also marked a return to figurative expressionism: “My temperament was more directed toward being free and rather spontaneous than reflective.”
Cicero’s shifting styles make it difficult to place him historically. His work feels fresh, especially given the recent resurgence of figurative painting. But style isn’t his ultimate goal. “Style could be the most superficial and unimportant thing about painting if it doesn’t have to do with deep expression,” he says.
Cicero is busy tending to his legacy: preparing some drawings for a publication and working on a museum show. A recent two-page spread from the New York Times hangs on his studio wall and features his painting in an advertisement for the Armory’s art fair. He says things have been busy since the ad appeared: “It’s been constant emails and telephone calls: this, that, and the other thing.”