'The Door': An Artwork Analysis

December 18, 2008
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During my time spent at SAIC's Early College Program over the summer, I learned a lot, not just about art itself, but about what goes into it. A work of art is not simply about the final piece you see in museums or over dining room tables. I have discovered that it is rather, the process -- both internal and external -- that makes art great. I recently read a book by Daniel H. Pink called A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. In this book, Pink states bluntly that you should never use the phrase "I could've done that" because the bottom line is, you didn't. In a few short words, this says a lot about the creative approach. Yes, a piece may consist of a few paint splatters, like that of the late Jackson Pollock (called "Jack the Dripper" by Time Magazine in 1956) but what kind of thought process leads one to that technique? To those particular colors? I'm simply saying that the creative process is a journey, not just a destination. This leads me to the piece I have chosen to review. 'That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door)' by Ivan Albright, 1931-41. This piece truly exemplifies a great journey. It took about a decade to complete, and evokes enough symbolism and emotion to last a lifetime.

For someone familiar with his work, Albright's name initially elicits images of rather macabre nature. Famous for his painting 'Picture of Dorian Grey' painted for the movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1892 novel, Albright is known for his lurid color and shocking detail. Although his style bares no resemblance to my own, and our genres differ greatly, I find it difficult not to become mesmerized both by his process and his final product.

I stood before this painting ('The Door') the summer of 2008 at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago. Our class assignment was to choose a work and sketch it for twenty minutes. Some strange force pulled me into Albright's section of the museum. Upon first glance, ‘The Door’ was literally that -- a door -- an 8-foot, decrepit, Victorian door. But as you got closer to it, one would discover that it was slightly warped. When I say this I do not mean that the door was actually twisted out of shape, or augmented in certain places. But rather, the viewer perceives the illusion that something is wrong with this door -- whether an unnatural proportion or a skewed perspective -- I felt almost as if I had a slight fisheye’s view of the door, which made for a strange feeling in my stomach. Beyond the shape of the door, I began to notice details -- the cracks; the intricate moldings; the broken nails; the doorknob with the key still inserted; and the large funeral wreath, with black drooping Calla lilies and pinkish roses. Then I saw the hand, an ancient hand, gingerly wrapped around the doorframe -- a lace handkerchief hanging from its ringed fingers.

I continued to sketch. As I did, more and more ornate features swam into view. Ten years. Ten years of studying an old, junked door, using oil on canvas to transform it into this dark, strange image. What was Albright trying to say? The strengths of this piece are the obvious detail and patience that the artist incorporated. But what I find most interesting are the concepts that Albright was dealing with when he painted this. Each of us can only speculate on the true meaning behind art, but with this piece I felt a strong tug between life and death. The very title suggests a strong sense of both regret and sorrow. Perhaps the closed door is a symbol -- an ambiguous way of representing the end of life, the beginning, or both. I feel as if Ivan Albright was very aware of mortality. The grim style of this work is very thought provoking, and I have a deep appreciation for both this final piece and the ten-year period that was devoted to its creation.
In the end, few would look at this piece and say "I could do that," and even if someone does possess the technical skill to re-create it, that is not what’s important. The initial ideas and experiences that went into the creation of 'The Door' are what truly matter, and that is what makes it beautiful. Daniel Pink would argue that Albright is a trailblazer -- creating an emotional bond between the viewer and that which is viewed. But whether you approve of Albright’s style or find it downright gruesome, respect need be paid. For, as Jackson Pollock once said, "It doesn't matter how the paint is put on, as long as something is said." And Albright is no doubt saying something.





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