Kaldis, a Greek Falstaff, Comes Back to New York

For people of a certain age-mine, for example-the late Aristodimos Kaldis (1899-1979) is fondly remembered as a familiar figure on the New York art scene. In every respect but his painting, which was unmistakably modern in a 20th-century American idiom, Kaldis resembled a character out of a 19th-century opera-a Falstaff, perhaps, but with a Greek accent and a temperament to match. He was large, noisy, histrionic, outrageous and irrepressible. His hair was long and unruly, his highly animated face seemed to sport many more features than could be entirely accounted for by nature-his very large nose was especially memorable-and in every weather he was wrapped in a bright red scarf of Isadora length that instantly set him apart from ordinary mortals. Even his speech, delivered in a booming guttural basso, was more like an operatic aria than conversation. It was a style of utterance that commanded attention but did not invite interruption.

Given this outsize personality and the many stories about it that circulated in the art world in the days when it was not uncommon to encounter Kaldis on 57th Street or at the downtown Artists Club or at some gallery opening, it was often a shock for people to discover that the man’s paintings were beautifully executed landscapes in a lyric mode. One hardly expected such a commanding pastoral style, all delicacy and nuance and romance, from the Falstaffian character that had been met on the street or at some art-world event. Where the public Kaldis seemed all but consumed in rhetoric and bluster, the painter had all the while been engaged in a highly poetic pursuit.

Some of the results of these highly poetic endeavors can currently be seen in two exhibitions: Kaldis Rediscovered: Paintings, 1941-1977 , at Lori Bookstein Fine Art; and Aristodimos Kaldis: Monumental Late Paintings, 1974-1977 , at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture. Together these two exhibitions offer 28 paintings that trace the artist’s development from 1941, the year of his first solo exhibition in New York, to 1977.

I hadn’t, before now, seen any of Kaldis’ earlier paintings, of which there are several fine examples in the Lori Bookstein exhibition. Aegean Village (1941) gives us a more literal, more innocent, almost folkloric account of a subject that came to dominate Kaldis’ imagination: the Greek landscape. The really pivotal picture in the Bookstein show is, however, the extraordinary Panhellenic Landscape (1951), in which the panoramic view of mountains and villages acquires the kind of painterly turbulence and lyric intensity that would form the foundation of all the artist’s later work.

Many of the later paintings are sparer-more “abstract,” if you like-in their account of the Greek landscape, and a lot freer in giving priority to the legendary white light of the artist’s subject. Under the pressure of that light, color too becomes more luminous, less equivocal, more forthright in feeling. Yet everything in the later paintings seems to derive from that Panhellenic Landscape of 1951, which is surely one of the best American paintings of its period.

Who, then, was Aristodimos Kaldis? He was Greek, of course, born on the eastern coast of the Aegean between Pergamon and Troy. He immigrated to this country at 17, living first in Boston before settling in New York in 1930. Amazingly, he did not become a full-time painter until the late 30′s. Yet, when the Poindexter Gallery in New York organized an exhibition called The Thirties in 1956, Kaldis was included in the company of Stuart Davis, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. He seems from the outset to have been recognized as a significant talent by his fellow artists and in 1978 a group of 100 painters petitioned the Whitney Museum for a Kaldis exhibition. Needless to say, the Whitney’s response was negative.

One of Kaldis’ great advantages as a painter was that he was in thrall to a subject-the Greek landscape of his boyhood and youth-that never ceased to fire his imagination. Another advantage was his ability to respond to the changes that were occurring in American painting during the earliest years of his development-the changes that in the 1940′s and early 50′s produced the New York School. That he was also able to harness the expressive freedom of the New York School to the poetic subject that continued to dominate his imaginative life was a remarkable feat-and that, too, earned him the high esteem of his contemporaries.

Lest it seem odd that an American painter of Kaldis’ generation should devote the bulk of his oeuvre to memories of a foreign landscape, it is worth recalling that Arshile Gorky did much the same thing in his late paintings, which are crowded with evocations of his Armenian childhood. But the parallel that I am especially reminded of in Kaldis’ case is that of Marc Chagall, who produced in Paris in the early years of this century the wonderful paintings based on the village life of Vitebsk in his native Russia. It was indeed when Chagall strayed from that cherished subject that much about his art went wrong. In Kaldis’ case, his cherished subject yielded him deeper and richer rewards as he grew older.

Kaldis Rediscovered: Paintings, 1941-1977 remains on view at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 50 East 78th Street, through July 14. Aristodimos Kaldis: Monumental Late Paintings, 1974-1977 is on view at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, 7 West 57th Street, through Aug. 29.