In spring 2007, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present a comprehensive, 50-year retrospective exhibition devoted to the art of Thomas Chimes. On view from February 27–May 6, 2007, Thomas Chimes: Adventures in ’Pataphysics will present approximately 100 paintings, metal box constructions, and works on paper created between 1959 and 2006, including many never previously exhibited. The first full-scale review of Chimes’s career since 1986, this exhibition will provide a fresh look at the life and work of this highly original artist.
“We are delighted to present this long overdue examination of the career of an artist who has brought a unique voice and perspective to some of the most important artistic issues of the last half-century,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “This retrospective will offer our visitors a wonderful opportunity to consider Tom Chimes’s career as a whole and explore the full scope of his vision.”
“By tracing the stylistic evolution of Chimes’s work, we aim to reveal the artist’s remarkable ability to reinvent himself periodically, as well as to underscore the conceptual nature of his artistic practice,” said Michael Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, and organizer of the exhibition. “Another key component of the exhibition will be the interplay between his paintings and those of his artistic precursors. The context of the Museum’s superb collections of American painting and Modern and Contemporary art allows us to appreciate the complex relationship of Chimes’s highly individual art to that of his artistic heroes, including Thomas Eakins and Marcel Duchamp, whose work he admires above all others.”
Thomas Chimes: Adventures in ‘Pataphysics opens with an examination of the artist’s early landscapes of the late 1950s, which were inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s anguished subject matter and vivid yellow hues. These works also represent his first experiments with abstraction in which Chimes explored the formal and structural relationships in his work, delving into what Taylor calls a “serious interrogation of the canvas surface.”
Within a few years Chimes had moved on to canvases that combined landscape imagery with specific symbols such as stars, ladders, and crucifixes which register the profound impact of his encounter with Matisse’s decoration of the Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican Nuns at Vence in the South of France, which Chimes first saw in 1952, as well as his Greek Orthodox upbringing. By the early 1960s Chimes had enjoyed successful solo shows at the Avant-Garde and Bodley Galleries in New York, resulting in sales to many prominent collectors. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. purchased two of his paintings for the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in 1961 and 1963 respectively. The first museum purchases of Chimes’s work, these acquisitions cemented his reputation at the time as an artist of talent and promise.
Despite his early success in New York, Chimes chose to heed the advice of Marcel Duchamp, who predicted that the “great artist of tomorrow” would need to go “underground” to avoid the insidious influence of the commercial art world. Inspired by Duchamp’s famous statement, Chimes has continued to live and work in Philadelphia, always in search of his next big idea rather than commercial success.
In the mid-1960s he began making austere, finely crafted metal box constructions that often incorporate small symbolic drawings, paintings, or even hidden messages. Chimes’s metal boxes from the 1960s and early 1970s reflect a strong affinity with the wit and eroticism of Duchamp’s Large Glass, as well as Joseph Cornell’s poetic box constructions. The often humorous and erotic aspects of Chimes’s works also offer a commentary on the formal austerity of Minimalism, which had begun to dominate the artistic climate of the mid-to-late 1960s.
At the heart of the exhibition will be 38 of the 48 haunting panel portraits, painted between 1973 and 1978, of French Symbolist poets, philosophers, and other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary and art historical figures including Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Marcel Duchamp. These intimate, sepia toned portraits reveal Chimes’s strong feelings of affinity and continuity with these avant-garde forerunners, all of whom he regards as “possessed” characters. Each iconic portrait, reminiscent of 19th-century daguerreotypes, is contained within an oversized wooden frame of the type constructed for some of the paintings of fellow Philadelphian Thomas Eakins.
These panel paintings were directly inspired by the artist's profound interest in the writings of Alfred Jarry (1873–1907), the iconoclastic French author of the notorious play Ubu Roi (1896) and one of the most revered figures in Chimes’s pantheon. Chimes was most interested in Jarry’s invention of the concept of ’Pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions,” which posits a highly imaginative alternate universe made up entirely of exceptions, in which the traditional laws of the universe are upended.
The concluding section of the exhibition will feature the luminous white paintings that Chimes has been producing since the early 1980s. These ethereal paintings are created through the application of layers of colored glaze worked into a white ground, which is then wiped away to leave only a glowing suggestion of the figures and faces of Chimes’s subjects. The submerged visage of Jarry, James Joyce, or Erik Satie slowly emerges from underneath the flurry of white brushstrokes that covers these paintings like a blanket of snow. In 1999, he began his latest series of paintings, which measure just 3 x 3 inches, and extend the artist’s interest in Jarry and diminutive portraiture. These works often take the form of medallions in which the French author is barely recognizable beneath the layers of white paint that partially obscure his features.
Through decades of reinvention and transformation, Chimes has maintained a resolute commitment to his craft, and an ability to engage in new and exciting ways with the provocative ideas of Jarry and his followers. The artist’s imaginative synthesis of philosophy, art, and literature in his highly original and idiosyncratic work has made Chimes an influential figure to generations of young artists in Philadelphia, a thriving center for the avant-garde in all the arts.
This exhibition was made possible by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, a program of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and administered by The University of the Arts. Additional support was provided by The Locks Foundation, the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation, The Robert Montgomery Scott Fund for Exhibitions, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and The Robert H. and Janet S. Fleisher Foundation, the Areté Foundation/Betsy and Ed Cohen, Susan and Washburn S. Oberwager, Linda and Paul Richardson, and other members of The ’Pataphysical Society, a group of generous donors.
A fully illustrated, 272-page catalogue, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will accompany the exhibition. This book will include an extended essay by Michael Taylor, along with important biographical and archival material, as well as a comprehensive bibliography and full chronology of the artist's life and work, partially based on Taylor’s numerous interviews with Chimes over the past seven years.