Carlo Pittore’s last round?
The late artist’s foundation fights to survive
By Chris Busby
The great Maine artist Carlo Pittore never let anything extinguish his spirit.
The prolonged indifference of an incestuous, fad-infatuated gallery scene could not deter him. The soul-crushing machinations of art bureaucrats could not break him (indeed, he cracked their egg-headed egos on more than one occasion). Insults, isolation, destitution, condescension — Pittore conquered all that and more.
Even his own death from cancer in 2005 could not stop Carlo Pittore.
Not long before his passing he set up the Carlo Pittore Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting his enormous body of work and helping other artists master their craft. For example, per Pittore’s instructions, in 2006 the foundation donated his library of art books — an extensive collection valued at over $35,000 — to Maine College of Art, which had awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts the year before.
The foundation’s efforts to catalogue the over 1,000 works on canvas and upwards of 50,000 works on paper Pittore left behind are ongoing. This is in addition to the organization of several thousand other artifacts from his life, such as journals, sketchbooks, publications, and correspondences from fellow artists, many of which are believed to be of significance to art historians and researchers.
But in America’s capitalistic system, the dollar can undo what even death cannot destroy. The stock market’s precipitous tumble last year decimated the assets of nonprofits across the country, the Carlo Pittore Foundation among them.
Thus, a major auction of Pittore’s work, the planning of which began before the crash, is now crucial to the small foundation’s ability to fulfill its mission. The sale — the first large-scale public offering of his art since his death — takes place May 16 in the Portland home of one of the foundation’s board members.
Pittore’s estate had about a quarter of a million dollars four years ago, a sum that’s been “dramatically cut” in the wake of Wall Street’s meltdown, said David Tobis, president of the foundation’s board.
The auction’s success is “very essential” to the foundation’s future, said executive director Sarah Boss, its sole employee. “It will determine the course of the foundation for the next couple of years, at the very least, and our ability to manage the collection and begin planning how to move forward with promoting Carlo’s work and [assisting] figurative artists in Maine.”
Nearly 100 works are being auctioned, both online (via carlopittorefoundation.org) and at the event, including 45 paintings and 54 works on paper. A “surprise” item or two may be added shortly before the live bidding begins, Boss said.
The auction catalogue presents a broad overview of Pittore’s 40-year career. There are early, abstract watercolor-and-inks; landscapes, including the sole surviving cityscape Pittore painted of Portland; nudes and portraits, including selections from his acclaimed — and once infamous — boxer series of the early 1980s; and mail-art artifacts from the same period: seven sheets from the “Bern Porter Commemorative Stamp Series.”
“We didn’t select the ultimate or the quintessential pieces, but chose ones that were significant to his development as an artist and his career,” said Boss, herself a multidisciplinary artist who grew up in Brunswick, not far from Pittore’s home in Bowdoinham. The foundation hopes Pittore’s most iconic works will grow in value as a result of this auction’s sales — one of the few advantages to holding it in the midst of the Great Recession.
“It feels like we’re just getting started and building momentum, and doing it at a time when the economic situation is not our friend,” said Boss. “We’re not necessarily guaranteed support from traditional avenues. This auction is one way … to tap into those individuals who may be able to support us even in minimal ways.”
The estimated value of most of the paintings on the block this month is $5,000, give or take a couple thousand, with starting bids under a grand. The works on paper are generally estimated to fetch just a few hundred dollars each; many have starting bids of $50.
No attempt to reflect Pittore’s career could ignore the passionate, in-your-face way he pursued it, and this auction is no exception. “We definitely included a few pieces that are indicative of Carlo’s provocative nature,” Boss said. “If we felt that a piece was strong … we wouldn’t edit it out because it might offend someone.”
Pittore wouldn’t have allowed anything less.
Sketch of the artist
The details of Pittore’s biography are significant, but like a bare, stretched canvas, they are merely the framework beneath the work of art that was his life.
He was born in New York in 1943, the son of a successful businessman and a loving British mother who, now in her early 100s, has survived him (as has an older sister, his only sibling). Pittore grew up on Long Island, in Port Washington, where Tobis met him in a swimming pool in the mid-1950s and soon became a close friend.
Back then, Pittore was known as Charles Stanley. He changed his name after a sojourn in Italy in the 1970s, inspired by the kids who followed the American painting student around, calling out “Carlo Pittore!” (“Charles the Painter!”).
Pittore was gay, but he “didn’t want to be defined as a ‘gay painter,’” said Tobis. He was Jewish, but friends say he held more generalized spiritual views. One noted that Pittore once made an effort to more formally reconnect with Judaism, but gave it up when the dictates of the faith interfered with his art, because he always, and above all, considered himself an artist.
“Right from day one, even before I could draw anything, I felt like I was an artist,” Pittore told an interviewer. “So, how did I become an artist? I didn’t become an artist. I was always an artist. Over the years I’ve learned how to draw and maybe how to color, but I was always an artist.”
Tobis said his friend turned his back on what could have been a very lucrative career in business to live an artist’s life. “He had a brilliant sense of organization and business,” he said, citing the time Pittore, when still in high school, arranged to bring Eleanor Roosevelt to the school to give a talk.
But Pittore’s aversion to business also cost him as an artist. “He never wanted to be involved in the business aspect of art and never promoted the sale of his work because of that dislike,” Tobis said. Members of the foundation tell an anecdote about a wealthy older woman who once invited Pittore to show her his paintings, and how he arrived with some of his most explicit nudes, knowing full well how the matron would react.
In the mid-1960s, Pittore studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and then attended Portland School of Art (the precursor to Maine College of Art) before working and studying in London and Rome.
From the late ’60s to the late ’80s, Pittore orbited between two very different centers of gravity: Manhattan and Bowdoinham.
In the former he opened one of the first independent art spaces in the East Village, a window gallery called La Galleria dell’Occhio, and rubbed elbows with fellow artists like Ray Johnson, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. In the latter he lived in a yurt — a squat, round, wooden structure that lacked running water and electricity — and communed with another wide circle of creative people, whom he eventually helped organize as the Union of Maine Visual Artists.
The Maine poet and painter Stephen Petroff, one of Pittore’s oldest and closest friends, recalled that Pittore’s decision to finally settle in Maine was spurred by the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
“That was a startling thing for him, because it really laid waste to the arts community [in New York],” Petroff said. “As he always did, he had a thousand new friends, and every time he came up to visit in Maine, it seemed another 100 had died…. His community had suffered so much attrition that it was no longer, to him, the place he had to be.”
In 1987, Pittore established the Academy of Carlo Pittore at his home studio, a converted chicken-processing barn in Bowdoinham, where students joined him to paint and sculpt models several times a week. He later taught drawing at the University of Maine at Augusta, but continued his academy until he was too sick to keep going.
Though Pittore painted consistently, and profusely, throughout his adult life, he explored other media during his years in New York. Most notably, Pittore was a major figure in what became known as the “mail art movement,” the renaissance of the century-old practice of making envelopes, postcards and stamps art objects sent among networks of artists. His work was included in over 1,000 mail art exhibitions and publications around the world during his lifetime.
Pittore’s passion for mail art never really waned — friends recall receiving hand-decorated birthday and anniversary cards from him every year for decades — but after settling in Maine, he devoted himself almost entirely to figurative painting, striving to attain the skill of the Italian Renaissance painters he revered. “That’s when he got a focus on who he was as an artist,” said fellow painter and friend Abby Shahn.
Pittore achieved this by building a deep rapport with his models, friendships that went far beyond the typical artist-model relationship.
In an e-mail, model Rachel Feero described how Pittore won her over during her first nude modeling session with him. “I was incredibly nervous and self-conscious, so to help put me at ease, he pulled a clown nose out of his desk and wore it for the whole session,” she recalled. “Also, mid-way through the session, the ceiling started leaking right above his head, and instead of moving to a new spot, he balanced a plastic bowl on his head to catch the drips.
“I loved him right away.”
“He wanted to get into everybody’s psychology,” said trumpeter Mark Tipton, another model-turned-friend of Pittore’s. “Not invasively, [but] he wanted to find out what made everybody tick.”
Pittore’s friendship was not without its challenges. “He was the most demanding person I’ve ever modeled for,” Feero wrote, “but also one of the most caring, and protective.”
Tipton recalled the time he was considering going to graduate school in New York City. “I was dragging my feet,” he said. “[Pittore] said, ‘Either you finish your applications and turn this in or I’ll never speak to you again. Either do it or we’re not going to be friends anymore.’
“That’s just how he was,” Tipton continued, noting the sign Pittore hung over his door. It said: “All or nothing.”
“He’d be like, ‘See that sign? That’s the only way to live.’”
Tipton went to grad school.
How to make friends and offend people
The full portrait of Pittore that emerges in interviews with those who knew him is a collage of Neal Cassady, Pablo Picasso, and Emeril Lagasse.
Like Cassady, Pittore was famously animated, full of life, talking loudly, talking with his hands, singing impromptu songs, making declarations. During their sessions together, Tipton recalled, “I would go and play trumpet and he would sort of sing and dance and holler and paint.”
“When one had spent time with Carlo, one felt very much alive,” said Herb Hartman, a friend who serves as the foundation board’s secretary. “He was such a force of nature. He radiated all this unbelievable energy.”
“You have to be able to hear his booming laugh in your head for the full effect,” Feero remarked. “The laugh is very important. He told terrible jokes, terrible, sometimes the same jokes for a few weeks in a row, but he would laugh SO hard every time he told them that you couldn’t help but laugh with him.”
“He had a way of getting people angry at him,” said Petroff. “When he made his decision about something, it was sort of like the thing everyone should be doing…. If he got into red and green, everybody had to paint with red and green.”
Conversely, Pittore took no shit.
For example, in 1994, artist and critic Ken Greenleaf reviewed an exhibit of Pittore’s paintings at June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Greenleaf interpreted the portraits and nudes as being “almost a by-product” of their “real subject”: Pittore himself as a heroic, yet self-important and tortured artist.
“Either you are stupid, Ken Greenleaf, or else you are perverse,” Pittore wrote in a lengthy “open letter” to the critic, most of which was published by the newspaper. “I do not need to defend my paintings, they are my life blood and they speak for themselves; but your implied characterization of me as an alienated, insane, unhappy visionary tweaking the bourgeoisie is vulgar to the extreme, unwarranted in a review anywhere, and unworthy of your intelligence.”
Pittore was known to display even less tolerance for gallery owners. In an e-mail exchange with Aucocisco Galleries owner Andy Verzosa prior to his 2001 exhibit there, he unleashed on Verzosa’s apparent suggestion that he’d arbitrarily priced his work.
“I am glad you think my prices are arbitrary — they are not,” Pittore wrote. “They are based on MY expenses. If no other artist has charged the prices I must, that may indicate to you the extent I go through to create my work.… My work is not like anyone [else’s] you have ever shown. Nor am I.”
Despite this friction, Verzosa remembers Pittore fondly. The exhibit that resulted was “a tour de force, critically,” he said. “It got a lot of attention and it was very well attended.”
Hardly anything sold.
“He was by nature a contrarian, a rebel — that was his energy,” said Verzosa. “But at the same time, he wanted that attention.”
Petroff’s take on Pittore’s conflicted approach to showing and selling his work is illuminating.
“Americans have a really strange relationship with the arts,” he said. “In one way, we’re kind of taught — maybe not officially, but you get it in grammar school from your teachers — that art is one of the most important things there is. It’s in biographies of Van Gogh and Cezanne, people who wouldn’t compromise — that’s what you need to do.
“But if you say young that you’re an artist, they try to get you into a commercial job, as an illustrator or something, get you thinking that way,” Petroff continued. “So you get a guy like Carlo who decides when very, very young that he wants to be a great artist, and every biography you read, it stresses that every time you compromise, you lose, you lose some part of yourself. So he translates that into losing part of your soul.”
Pittore had two infamous run-ins with Portland art venues that wanted him to compromise his artistic integrity: The Seamen’s Club restaurant and Portland Stage Company.
In 1987, Seamen’s Club owner Joe Soley took down an exhibit of Pittore’s boxer paintings. “Blood and gore are not conducive to a restaurant,” Soley told the Evening Express. “[P]eople don’t want to eat in that kind of setting.”
Pittore shot back that the work — very little of which is actually bloody — had previously been shown in New York and Chicago. “The Chicago Tribune described them as epic, with considerable force,” Pittore told the paper. “I’d like to think the Tribune’s is a better opinion than Joe Soley’s.”
(Asked about Pittore, Soley had kind words for the man and his work, but denied the fact he took the paintings down.)
In 1995, Greg Leaming, Portland Stage’s artistic director at the time, refused to exhibit seven of 13 nudes Pittore had provided for an exhibit in the theater’s lobby that coincided with PSC’s production of Sight Unseen, a play by Donald Margulies about a controversial artist.
Leaming told the Portland Press Herald that Pittore’s nudes were “so overwhelmingly strong that I’m afraid it would look like we are making a comment on the painter that is on the stage. People have such a potent response to the art it would alter their response to the play.”
Pittore was not flattered. He was outraged. He pulled the entire show, sued the theater company for breach of contract, and settled out of court. “They did pay me,” he told Casco Bay Weekly: “enough to have lunch at McDonald’s.”
When Pittore’s ire was focused on other targets, the results were more constructive. In 1979, the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA) he helped found and lead got two major pieces of state legislation passed on behalf of artists.
One was a first-in-the-nation change to estate tax law that allows the families of deceased artists to pay that tax with artwork (based on its current market value), rather than sell work on short notice to private buyers (usually at bargain prices) to raise the money, as typically happened before.
The other was establishment of Maine’s “percent for art” program, which dedicates 1 percent of the cost of constructing state buildings to an art project related to the development. The program has netted Maine artists millions of dollars in commissions over the past three decades.
And in the mid-1980s, Pittore and the UMVA successfully pressured two of the state’s top arts institutions — Maine Coast Artists (now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art) and the Portland Museum of Art — to stop charging artists fees to apply for inclusion in their prestigious juried shows, a practice Pittore railed against with venom.
Pittore made a stir on the national level in 1991, when he devised a humorous way to oppose Gulf War I. Having noted that President George H.W. Bush was no fan of broccoli, Pittore assembled the Broccoli Bunch, a group of protestors who took to the streets of Kennebunkport during the president’s vacation stay at Walker’s Point wearing broccoli costumes and necklaces and brandishing the vegetable in protest.
Otherwise, Pittore had too much respect for food to waste it antagonizing a president. His culinary skills were legendary, as was his generosity with this gift.
“He cared about food — nothing was ever mediocre; everything was always the best thing you’d had in a long time,” said Clarity Haynes, an artist to whom Pittore was a mentor. “He made amazing salads and amazing pastas that were much more garlicy and spicy than you were used to. Wonderful bread with the best olive paste.”
Petroff recalled a visit to Pittore’s apartment in New York in the ’70s. “He’d converted the whole kitchen area into a café, with café tables and big awnings he’d painted up that said Café Carlo…. At Café Carlo, anybody who came in the door, he had to cook ’em up a big plate of pasta.”
The same rigorous set of ethics Pittore applied to art was applied at the dinner table. “You had to eat and you had to eat right,” Petroff said. “He would kick you out if you tried to cut the spaghetti or ask for a knife.”
The Pittore legacy
Whether his foundation stands or falls in years to come, Pittore’s impact on the arts in Maine and elsewhere will still be considerable.
The state legislation he helped enact with the UMVA and its success eliminating application fees for major juried exhibitions are tangible examples of his legacy. So too is all the work he left behind, much of it still unseen by the public.
But more profound is the impact Pittore has had on the countless people he encountered and inspired throughout his life.
“I got lots of life lessons from him about how to be an artist in the world,” said Haynes, who serves as one of the foundation’s advisory board trustees. “His philosophy was: You simply can’t be like other people and expect to fit in.
“Also, you really have to be prepared to live a different life,” she added, “to separate yourself from the flock, tolerate solitude, forgo — I wouldn’t say the comforts of life — but live very much on [your] own terms.”
As the press release for Pittore’s Aucocisco show noted, “Carlo Pittore is well known in Maine art circles not only for his paintings, but also for an activist pro-art, pro-artist position which he has earned by passionate attacks … upon the anti-art forces he sees not only in society at large, but in the art world, as well.”
The author of that press release: Carlo Pittore.
“It’s really important for people like him to exist, because it’s a cold, lonely world out there,” said Petroff. “It’s important to have someone that passionate. He wouldn’t allow you to lose faith…. When I was 19 years old, he’d write to me in this big, scrawling script: ‘There are very few of us. Courage.’ Then this big signature.”
Pittore’s fiery commitment to the integrity of art and the artist’s life is well summed up in an undated call-to-arms he left behind in that scrawling script:
“Artists contribute to the problem with our world, because in our media based sensibility, we have become entertainers, & performers, & we have forsaken our ancient & classical responsibility, to work in the realm of the sublime, and to exhort & inspire our civilization — at least to the heights of our forebears.
“We must oppose everything that is NOT art. Our struggle is to advance & to sustain the eternal artistic vision for those who follow us.”
A Carlo Pittore Auction and Celebration takes place Sat., May 16, at 51 Deering St., Portland, at 6 p.m. RSVP requested via email@example.com. Admission is free. Auction previews take place on Fri., May 15, from 5 p.m.-7 p.m., and Sat., May 16, from 1 p.m.-3 p.m.
[Editor’s note: Due to licensing issues involving a piece of music that accompanies video footage of Pittore, the posting of that footage has been delayed. The footage will be posted as soon as possible.]