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Thomas Chimes

American, 1921 - 2009

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Thomas Chimes was arguably one of the most important and influential artists to have emerged on the Philadelphia art scene in the past 50 years. Of Greek descent, Chimes was born in Philadelphia in 1921. In 1939, the artist enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with Daniel Garber and Francis Speight, but his studies were quickly interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Chimes served in the United States Army Air Force during the war years, before returning to his studies in New York in 1946. Under the G.I. Bill, the artist studied philosophy at Columbia University, and painting and sculpture at the Art Students League, where his teachers included Reginald Marsh and John Hovannes.

During his three years at the Art Students League, Chimes became acquainted with such contemporaries as Tony Smith, Barnett Newman, William Baziotes, Michael Lekakis, and Theodore Stamos. His own paintings from the 1940s and early 1950s reveal a strong debt to the dominant artistic trends in New York at that time, especially the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other painters associated with Abstract Expressionism.

Despite early success in New York, Chimes chose to heed the advice of the French-born artist Marcel Duchamp, who predicted that "The great artist of tomorrow will go underground." He wanted to avoid the insidious influence of the commercial art world, so, with this famous statement in mind, he made a conscious decision to return to Philadelphia in 1953 (much to the bewilderment of many of his friends and colleagues in New York). Inspired by the artists and writers whose names have become associated with the city of Philadelphia, most notably Thomas Eakins and Edgar Allan Poe, Chimes began to formulate an intensely personal and highly original iconography-- the result of an imaginative synthesis of philosophy, art, and literature-- that often drew upon childhood memories and dreams.

The diverse body of work that he produced over the next five decades--which includes crucifixion paintings, metal boxes, a celebrated series of panel portraits, and white paintings--reveals the remarkable ability he had to periodically reinvent himself, and underscores the conceptual nature of his artistic practice.

He found inspiration for his evocative imagery in the writings of Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, and other literary heroes, as well as in the art of Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Thomas Eakins, and Marcel Duchamp. The works of these artists are strongly represented in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Chimes first visited in 1931 and considered his second home.

Crucifixion Paintings

In the late 1950s, Thomas Chimes began work on a series of boldly painted, semi-abstract landscapes, which were inspired by Vincent van Gogh's anguished subject matter and use of vivid yellow hues, as well as by the thickly impastoed surfaces of the Russian-born French painter Nicolas de Staël. Given his own susceptibility to bouts of depression, Chimes may have been drawn to the tragic nature of the work of van Gogh and de Staël, both of whom battled with mental illness and eventually committed suicide. These painters also confirmed Chimes's belief in the role of the artist as a clairvoyant prophet or visionary whose work provides unique insights into the human condition. Like many artists of his generation, Chimes regarded van Gogh's ability to convey emotion through expressive color and agitated brushwork as an important precursor to the art of his own time.

By the early 1960s, Chimes had moved on to larger canvases that combined landscape references with symbols such as stars, ladders, dice, and crucifixes. The crucifixion motif relates directly to the artist's upbringing in the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as to his fascination with Henri Matisse's Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican Nuns at Vence, near Nice in southern France, which Chimes visited in 1952. He transformed his borrowings from the French artist's vocabulary of schematized animal, fish, and vegetal motifs to create his own dynamic canvases, deploying rows of X-shaped forms on fields of bold, flat color that unfurl over the compositions like flags or banners.

Chimes's largest and most ambitious work, the monumental Mural (1963-65) took two years to complete. The subject matter reflects his interest in the suffering and plight of Christ as analogous with the struggle of the artist in modern society. Reading Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1961 had reinforced these ideas and provided imagery based upon the Greek author's vivid description of Christ as the supreme model of a man in torment. The painting's original title, Man in Exile in the Universe, correlates with Chimes's understanding of the meaning of Kazantzakis's novelistic re-creation of Jesus's life as a confrontation between conventional family life and the self-sacrifice required of an artist or visionary. Mural's glowing colors reflect the impact of Chimes's encounter with Op Art at the Museum of Modern Art's landmark 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye. The influence of the striking combinations of colors used by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly can be felt in Chimes's own color choices in Mural, which also makes use of strong color contrasts. The psychedelic, Day-Glo colors have a hypnotic, vibratory effect in the painting, where flat, hieratic shapes appear to pulsate in an orgy of riotous color.

Among the last of Chimes's crucifixion paintings is Baroque (1963-64), which takes its title from the complexity of its composition and its palette of vivid colors, which glow like crushed jewels. Completed in 1964, it was shown in the artist's highly successful solo exhibition at the Bodley Gallery in New York in 1965. Baroque was subsequently included in several important exhibitions, including the 1966 exhibition Surrealism: A State of Mind, 1924-1965 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where it was displayed alongside major works by Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and André Masson.

In 1965's Hieropornophany, Chimes impulsively glued a piece of aluminum on the surface of an earlier crucifixion painting featuring a flying mythological creature. This use of aluminum as a color led the artist to transform the painting completely by housing it in an elaborate frame made from riveted plates of aluminum. He had learned to weld sheet metal as part of his training as an aircraft mechanic during World War II, a skill that would prove useful when he began his series of metal box constructions in the mid-1960s.

Also in the mid-1960s, Chimes began a new series of paintings featuring highly abstracted symbols mixed with recognizable imagery, such as letters, mathematical equations, and X-rays. In these Surrealist-inspired paintings, the artist delved into his unconscious, preferring the symbols he found there to remain mysterious, even to himself.

Metal Boxes

Thomas Chimes's austere, finely crafted metal box constructions often incorporated small symbolic drawings, paintings, or even hidden messages. He had become fascinated with the work of the tormented French poet, author, and actor Antonin Artaud, whose writings inspired Chimes to incorporate the image of Artaud's tragicomic, birdlike alter ego "le Mômo" into his boxes. This emblem was often placed within stark assemblages of aluminum panels accented with electrical switches, radio antennae, and intercom speakers. His use of the latest technological devices was directly informed by the then controversial ideas of the Canadian cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan, who called for artists to interpret modern technology (doomed to increasingly rapid obsolescence) as the art forms of tomorrow.

The hard-edged, pristine surfaces of Chimes's metal boxes contrast sharply with the Renaissance and Art Nouveau-inspired drawings he included within them, calling attention to McLuhan's accelerating timeline and the increasingly blurred distinction between functional and aesthetic objects. These boxes have an affinity with the wit and eroticism of Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass, as well as Joseph Cornell's poetic box constructions (such as Homage to Juan Gris). Chimes's often humorous and erotic compositions were also a criticism of the formal austerity of Minimalism, which had begun to dominate the artistic climate of the mid-to-late 1960s.

In contrast with Minimalism's cool, industrial surfaces, the heated eroticism of Chimes's works reflects the prevailing atmosphere of sexual freedom and experimentation. Master and Own (1966), for example, presents a series of binaries: an on/off switch, male and female genitalia, and two plates reading "plus" and "minus" screwed into the work's burnished metal surface. The removal of the "plus" plaque reveals the word "baiting" underneath, completing the word "master-baiting." This pun inverts the title's meaning and suggests that the piece is concerned not only with sadomasochistic domination (further implied by the "Abusophone" speaker), but also with sexual self-gratification. Bright, flat areas of color, bold lettering, and the pieced-together aluminum surface reference the industrial modes of production that Pop Art brought into the fine arts realm.

The artist's imagery of genitalia, open mouths, and sexual arousal through electronic stimulation transcend its origins in Surrealism and Pop Art to produce a startling iconography of sadomasochistic pleasure and pain in the age of McLuhan.

While the majority of Chimes's metal boxes appear to be optimistically open to new technology, a handful of works look back to the outmoded communications devices of the past. The sinuous lines and sensuous exterior of Untitled (Radio) (c. 1967), for example, reference Art Nouveau design and, as such, can be understood as a haunting reminder that today's technology is increasingly tomorrow's antique.

By the early 1970s, Chimes's metal box constructions increasingly incorporated portraits of celebrities and icons of popular culture. A figure underneath a strange helmet in Top Hat (1970) can be identified as Mick Jagger playing the title role in the 1970 film Ned Kelly. Jagger was cast as the legendary nineteenth-century Australian outlaw, famous for wearing a cast-iron bucket on his head for protection against police bullets. Chimes was interested in the way that helmets conceal one's identity while at the same time allowing an outlaw like Kelly to attain the mythic status of a medieval knight by wearing an iron bucket on his head.

Chimes's 1972 Set (The Descent) features the disguised profile of Marcel Duchamp based on a 1952 photograph in Life magazine, in which he imitated his famous 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. Chimes flattened Duchamp's distinctive nose so that the famous artist would not be instantly recognizable. The curved snout is also a reference to the Egyptian god Set, thought to resemble an aardvark, who seized the souls of mortals on their journey to the underworld, perhaps linking him in Chimes's mind with Duchamp's descent in the photograph, as well as to Duchamp's famous notion that great artists of the future would go underground.

Panel Portraits

Between 1973 and 1978, Thomas Chimes created a haunting series of forty-eight portraits of French Symbolist poets, philosophers, and other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary and art historical figures, all of which relate somehow to his beloved hero, the French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). Chimes wanted to continue Marcel Duchamp's legacy of putting painting "once again at the service of the mind" in the panel portraits--which required extensive preparatory research into the lives of the subjects, their writings, and their influence. The subject of each portrait is connected either directly or obliquely to Jarry, author of the shocking play Ubu Roi (King Ubu), which shocked Paris audiences in 1896. Jarry's unconventional life and radical nonconformism had interested Chimes to the point of obsession since the early 1960s. He was especially intrigued by the writer's invention of 'Pataphysics, which Jarry defined as "the science of imaginary solutions" and which he used to create an alternative universe. The portraits reveal the artist's strong sense of affinity and continuity with his iconoclastic avant-garde forebears, all of whom he regards as possessed characters whose work remains as relevant today as when it was first created. "To get to the future you go to the past. To get to the past you go to the future," he explained in 1975, revealing his interest in a 'Pataphysical fluidity of time.

Chimes painted these portraits from carefully chosen photographs of his heroes, seizing upon the photographic medium's unique ability to capture a fleeting moment in the past. In his 1986 portrait of James Joyce, for instance, the artist took as his source material a 1915 photograph of the Irish writer strumming a guitar. What drew Chimes to the image was the shining glare on Joyce's spectacles, which the artist exaggerated in his painting to the point where the glinting reflection on the eyeglasses appears to slice the writer's eyeball in two. Chimes's painting thus brilliantly alludes to Joyce's poor eyesight, which reduced the writer to near blindness during his later years. Each image in Chimes's Panel Portrait series, reminiscent of a sepia-toned nineteenth-century photograph, is enshrined within an oversized wooden frame resembling those often found on the paintings of Chimes's Philadelphia predecessor and hero Thomas Eakins, which situates the work somewhere between a family snapshot and a devotional icon.

White Paintings

Thomas Chimes's celebrated series of panel portraits gave way to a series of luminous white paintings that he began in the early 1980s. These hermetic works, whose meaning is often willfully obscured, were created through the application of glaze upon glaze of pigments worked into a white ground and then wiped away to leave only a glowing suggestion of figures and faces, which often float in a circle of pale light. The effect is that of a distant memory breaking through the fog of the unconscious. The apparent emptiness of the works from this period echoes Chimes's feelings of emotional barrenness following his separation from his wife in 1979. His interest in Alfred Jarry and portraiture continues in these white paintings, which often depict the painter's artistic heroes, such as James Joyce and Erik Satie, whose visages slowly emerge from the flurries of white brushstrokes that cover them like a blanket of snow. In several works based on a photograph of the French writer riding his bicycle, Jarry reappears as his own fictional character Doctor Faustroll, endlessly traversing the unknown landscape of the imagination.

In the late 1980s the series took a different turn when Chimes began to enliven the surface of his white paintings with quotations in India ink from Jarry and other writers, such as Homer and James Joyce. A trip to Greece in the early 1990s renewed the artist's interest in Greek mythology and led to a new group of diminutive paintings incorporating maps, constellations, and geometric forms.

Chimes continued to work in this mode into the 2000s, creating ethereal white paintings with raised lettering on carefully prepared wooden panels measuring just three by three inches. These works took the form of medallions and often verged on caricature as Chimes continued to mine the deeply provocative ideas of Jarry and his followers.

Painting and 'Pataphysics

In 1964, Thomas Chimes received from his brother-in-law the May-June 1960 issue of the Evergreen Review, devoted to Alfred Jarry, and entitled "What is 'Pataphysics?" It was through this publication that Chimes became interested in the French writer's invented science of 'Pataphysics, which Jarry defined as "the science of imaginary solutions," and the journal remained the artist's "bible" ever since.

Jarry explores 'Pataphysics in his dauntingly dense masterpiece Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, 'Pataphysician (Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, 'Pataphysician). Jarry presents a highly imaginative alternative universe where even the most absurd and contradictory propositions make sense. Faustroll offers a positive vision of the future, in which 'Pataphysics will harness the energy of the universe to extend the laws of science and physics and push the possible to the limits of the imaginable, thus anticipating quantum physics and many other scientific developments of the twentieth century. Jarry's idea of extending frontiers clearly appealed to Chimes, who remained fascinated by the author's search for a new reality through humor and a heightened vision informed by science, poetry, classical learning, religion, and, above all, an unfettered imagination that allows his mind to conjure a supplementary universe made up entirely of exceptions:

'Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be--and perhaps should be--envisioned in the place of the traditional one, since the laws that are supposed to have been discovered in the traditional universe are also correlations of exceptions, albeit more frequent ones, but in any case accidental data which, reduced to the status of unexceptional exceptions, possess no longer even the virtue of originality.

In this "neoscientific" novel, which was published posthumously in 1911 (although a few fragments of the book had appeared in the Mercure de France in 1895), Jarry's protagonist, Doctor Faustroll, embarks on a Homeric voyage "from Paris to Paris by sea," navigating across dry land in a sieve with his two companions, Panmuphle and Bosse-de-Nage. The trio's peregrinations carry them to exotic locales inhabited by Jarry's friends or enemies, where a variety of adventures, discussions, and a great banquet ensue. After sinking his skiff, Faustroll dies, but his death does not prevent him from continuing his scientific explorations, which now focus on the ethereal realms beyond the physical world, as in his "telepathic letters" to the Scottish mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin regarding the latter's experiments in measurement, matter, and light. Finally, Faustroll undertakes the ultimate 'Pataphysical experiment: ascertaining the surface and nature of God, which he determines to be "the shortest distance between zero and infinity."

A testimony to the validity of paradox, Faustroll's vessel also reveals Jarry's consummate skill in recasting scientific documents into literature. The skiff is constructed from woven quartz fiber and coated with melted paraffin. When placed in water, the skiff would stay afloat according to the laws of surface tension, weightless membranes, surfaces without curvature, and the elastic skin of water demonstrated by the English physicist Charles Vernon Boys. All of these phenomena were central to Boys's experiments, the findings of which he published in 1890 as Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them, and which were appropriated and embellished by Jarry. Jarry's obsessively detailed and seemingly logical explanation of how the elongated sieve is not only seaworthy, but also unsinkable, typifies his synthesis of the absurd and the rational in Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, 'Pataphysician, in which the author unrelentingly contorts external reality through a complete embracement of contradiction and paradox. Faustroll's ever-dry floating sieve, which should leak and sink, due to Jarry's logical reversal can be used safely as a skiff. Having established the magnificent seagoing properties of the sieve, which is propelled by oar blades and three steam rollers, Jarry informs the reader that "we shall not be navigating on water but on dry land." There is, of course, no hint of irony or sarcasm in the novel's tone, which always remains clipped and inhumanly pompous, like the "official" language of the military or government bureaucracy.

On his travels in the sieve, which trundles through the streets and sidewalks of Paris, Faustroll and his companions visit fourteen islands or countries, each of which are subsumed by the world of a specific artist, writer, critic, composer, or scientist, among them Aubrey Beardsley, Emile Bernard, Pierre Bonnard, Félix Fénéon, Paul Gauguin, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rachilde, Marcel Schwob, and Paul Valéry. Each island is an imaginative synthesis of that figure's own writings, pictures, or ideas, often expressed by Jarry through affectionate parody.

This idea of a hallucinatory voyage to the imaginative realms of a particular artist or writer would provide the impetus for Chimes's extraordinary series of panel paintings in the 1970s, which were similarly intended to refer less to the subject represented than to the ideas that person generated. The panel portraits, as well as the more recent white paintings, are all informed by Jarry's farcical, tongue-in-cheek philosophy of 'Pataphysics, which defies rational explanation. 'Pataphysics opened up for Chimes a new and exciting vocabulary of esoteric, quasi-scientific imagery, along with a pantheon of like-minded "father figures" to whose contributions to the world of ideas he continually paid homage.

Thomas Chimes passed away in Philadelphia on April 21, 2009. It was his 88th birthday. As Michael Taylor, Curator of Modern Art at The Philadelphia Museum of Art has said, "He was the dean of Philadelphia contemporary artists."

Thomas Chimes: Adventures in 'Pataphysics, 2007

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