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Dick Carter selling his legacy

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times
ALL |

BASALT ” Since resettling last year as a more-or-less full-time resident of the Roaring Fork Valley ” which has meant moving, once again, his stash of unsold paintings ” Dick Carter has decided to sell off much of his legacy. So Carter has inventoried and prepared for sale some 40 years worth of stockpiled work, selecting approximately 300 canvases.

In one sense, however, there is not all that much material to go through. Those four decades of painting were already condensed naturally by Carter’s methodical approach to making art. Over the past 20 years, there have been four series of works: the geometry paintings for which the 62-year-old is perhaps best known; the night sky paintings; and two series from the past few years ” the iceberg paintings and the lightning works, Carter’s first major foray into drawing.

Carter grew up in northern New Jersey, in the ’50s and ’60s, a time and place which afforded him a great view of the ascendance of the New York School of art. What he saw were artists, like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, who worked in series ” exploring a theme in depth, with painstaking variations on the central idea.



“I was a big fan of Frank Stella, and his work was über-serial, He was into birds and used bird titles for his work ” even when the work had nothing to do with birds,” said Carter, whose Studio Art Sale on Saturday, Aug. 2, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in his Basalt studio, is a benefit for the Wyly Community Art Center, with all proceeds going to the nonprofit organization. “Everyone seemed to work that way.”

The small number of series Carter has turned out hardly translates into a small output. Quite the opposite. When Carter hits on an idea worth his energy, he approaches it like a scientist, putting it under a microscope and examining every facet, permutation and possibility until the topic is exhausted. So the collected output is extensive; Carter plans to lay out the pieces for sale in stacks.



“I always felt comfortable plumbing the depths of an idea. Maybe over-plumbing, I don’t know,” said Carter in his studio. “I don’t know if other artists accumulate this much work. I’ve got a lot of stuff.”

The analogy to a scientist is a fitting one. Carter’s work has often related to the natural, physical world; his geometry paintings, which occupied him for most of the ’90s, reveal an intense interest in the nature of, and relationships between geometrical figures. Similarly, the night sky works are much in the realm of astronomy. And his methods are meticulous and thorough, as Carter’s output shows a desire not to overlook any corner of his subject matter.

“I’m kind of an anal, over-organized person. I mean, look at this studio ” it’s immaculate,” said Carter, whose personality away from the easel is a bit looser, and whose tastes run toward topical folk music, with a special love for Bob Dylan. “Even when my studio is trashed, I need to know where everything is. And all the years doing production design” ” Carter has had a secondary career in the film business ” “just made that worse: If you’re not organized in a crew of 60 people, you’re not doing it. So working in series the way I do is a super-logical way of moving through all these ideas associated with an image.”

– – – –

There are few suggestions in the early part of Carter’s history that he would become so methodical. He passed on going to art school, figuring he could learn what he needed from his older brother, who had attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and teach himself the rest. Instead, he studied engineering at Villanova University, outside of Philadelphia.

Carter moved to Aspen in 1971 and set up a studio in a West End cottage, but his big break came accidentally. He met an assistant to Herbert Bayer, the renowned local artist of the Bauhaus School. The assistant was leaving town and was in search of a replacement. He brought Carter to Bayer’s attention.

“I told him I didn’t have any formal training, and he didn’t care at all,” said Carter who, during his five years as Bayer’s assistant, was part of the team that established the Aspen Art Museum. “He saw my work and liked me. I was building these geometric collages out of wood, and Bayer bought them for the Atlantic Richfield Collection, for their new building in Los Angeles. I was into that geometric school, and I think that’s why he hired me. We were very simpatico.

“We did architecture, painting, tapestry work; I retouched his photographs. And you couldn’t get an education like that. To walk into that, here? That was big-city shit. That gave me a lot of credibility.”

When Bayer left Aspen in the late ’70s, for California, Carter continued to do some work for him, and eventually relocated west as well. Living in San Francisco in the mid-’80s, he got pulled into the production design end of the film business. In the early ’90s, Carter moved to Los Angeles. Thanks to his wife Claudette’s business sense ” she owned the building that originally housed Gracy’s in Aspen ” they were able to keep a house in the valley as well, in Emma. After Claudette died last year, Carter acted on his long-standing wish to return to the valley full-time, and though he still has a small apartment in Los Angeles, he plans to spend most of his time in his new house, in old town Basalt.

Carter says he has moved 19 times in his adult life ” a lot of moves considering how long he has spent in particular corners of the art realm. Each artistic move, he says, has come out of the previous series. For instance, in the latter part of his geometry paintings stage, he began inserting small windows of star fields into the canvas. These became the night sky works. When he craved having objects in the foreground of those star-studded skies, he experimented with architecture before hitting on the idea of icebergs, which could shine and glow and further his interest in the natural sciences. And when he finally exhausted himself with paint ” “It was all black paint. I didn’t know what to paint anymore,” he says of the night sky and iceberg series ” he turned to drawing, a discipline he barely knew. He kept his eye on the sky, only now, the skies included a dramatic lightning bolt, and the landscapes below were derived from familiar valley locales.

“I could show you how I went from geometry to night skies to icebergs to lightning,” said Carter. “Believe it or not, it’s all following a thread. It all comes from what I just did: It’s, ‘Hey, what if I go from here to there?’ And that makes for an interesting show. There’s that logical exploration of a subject. Scientists logically follow all the aspects of something ” and that’s what I do.”

“People see it and are surprised, because it’s some kind of realism,” continued Carter, of the lightning pieces. “But it’s a continuation of the natural sciences, which has always been my interest. I’ve always been interested in the age of exploration ” 18th, 19th century guys on sailing ships always had an artist on board. Darwin drew. It was a great time when art and science were really intertwined.”

Carter already has his next few months planned; he says he’ll be doing the lightning drawings through the fall. (He’s also at work on a rare side track: his “Dog of the Day” satirical comic strip, based on the character of his Jack Russell terrier, Joe, which he e-mails to friends.) The next phase remains a mystery, though he has at least one idea that is beginning to form.

“I’d really like to draw fire as the next natural phenomenon,” said Carter. “But for the life of me, I’m not sure how to do that. That might be my return to painting. Fire’s all about color.”

Carter knows he can expect an artistic upheaval when the next big thematic turn hits. “It’s exciting. I’m taking a leap,” he said. “When I started the night sky paintings, I wanted to do all 88 recognized constellations. That was a big deal. It was, ‘Whoa! I’m going to be painting black pictures for the next couple of years.'”

Before he moves on to the next phase, Carter would like to do something beneficial with his past output. The Studio Sale will feature his works at cut-rate prices, from $50 on up to $1,000. He’s looking forward to donating money to the Wyly Center: “I like that they’re in the midvalley. I like that they work with families here,” he said. And, just in case he moves again, he’d like to do so with less baggage.

“You go to the storage and see all this stuff and say, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to this?'” he said. “I’d rather see it on someone’s wall than collecting dust. And I’m still making work. It’s still coming out the other end of the sausage grinder.”


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