T hank heaven that William Congdon converted to Catholicism in 1959. If he hadn’t, New Haven might not have gotten this rare and remarkable retrospective of his work.
The Sabbath of History: William Congdon/Meditations on Holy Week is not only a rare splash of modern art for the Knights of Columbus Museum, an institution which has graced the intersection of State, Fair and George streets for a decade now. It’s also one of very few major exhibitions Congdon has received in this country, and it is the most comprehensive ever.
The artworks, many never before displayed publicly, range from a bust Congdon made of his younger brother Ted when the artist was fresh out of Yale University (an English major, class of ’34) and when he considered sculpture to be his primary medium. When he later turned to painting, Congdon became part of the world-changing gaggle of Abstract Expressionists in 1940s New York. He was represented by Betty Parsons, the gallery owner and art dealer who helped establish Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. In 1951, Congdon merited a profile in LIFE magazine, similar to the one which elevated Jackson Pollock’s career in 1949.
In some ways, Congdon’s art brought the
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drips and splurts of Pollock, the lines and boxes of Rothko and Still’s vibrant blocks of color all together in one place, and added a sense of place and purpose. In his masterful cityscapes done in the late 1940s, he scratches out details in the thick paint, finding order amid the natural chaos in a manner reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s seascapes.
When Congdon left the U.S. to live in Italy in the 1950s, he fell off the Abstract Expressionist map. He continued to paint for the rest of his life—his later work, well represented in the Knights of Columbus exhibit, shows a deep debt to Rothko—but didn’t receive the stateside attention he deserved.
The Knights of Columbus lets you see Congdon’s style—and his moral consciousness—develop, from realistic sketches of his wartime adventures to increasingly abstract takes on the world around him.
There’s a special spiritual connection which the exhibit fleshes out. “The relationship between Pope Benedict and Congdon wasn’t
‘real,’ in the sense that they never met,” co-curator Daniel Mason explains. “But they’re joined in this show.”
When he was still a priest, Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope penned a series of meditations on Holy Week. The writings had a lot in common with Congdon’s own artistic explorations of nature and religion, so the words and pictures were combined in a gorgeous hardcover book published by the Congdon Foundation in 1998, by which time Ratzinger had become a Cardinal and Congdon had been using Christian iconography in his work for decades.
The resulting “involuntary dialogue,” as the publishers put it, was also called The Sabbath of History and was the genesis for the Knights of Columbus exhibit. The museum, however, has transcended that inspiration.
Rodolfo Balzarotti of the William G. Congdon Foundation in Milan laid the groundwork for the show, which also features ongoing screenings of a biographical film the foundation co-produced in 2009.
Co-curator Daniel Mason, from his American perspective, has been able to fact-check and amend some of the biographical data about Congdon’s time at Yale and in New York. Mason also tracked down the painter’s brother Ted, who was living in California and contributed a whole room full of his brother’s works to the exhibit. Unfortunately, Ted Congdon died earlier this year, just weeks before The Sabbath of History opened. The situation sadly mirrored William’s dying in 1998, just months before the publication of the initial The Sabbath of History book project.
“Out of his paintings came a spiritual awakening,” Mason says. “He pursues a sense of redemption through painting.”
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.