Gossamer Gallery recalls Albert Alcalay, abstract expressionist

Landscapes like this one often captured the late Albert Alcalay's imagination. His work comes to Gossamer Gallery, on Sunday, Aug. 12. — Photo courtesy of Gossamer Gallery

The late abstract expressionist and Island summer resident Albert Alcalay often spoke of the vibrant colors in his paintings as part of his bloodstream. His family, who continue to summer on Martha’s Vineyard after the painter’s 2008 death, will present his work in collaboration with Chilmark’s Gossamer Gallery, beginning Sunday, Aug, 12.

Mr. Alcalay was born to a Jewish family in Paris in 1917. He studied art and architecture in Belgrade, and as World War II broke out, joined the Yugoslav army. Sent to a concentration camp, he met fellow prisoner Michel Fingesten, a German expressionist painter allowed to have a studio in the camp. From him Mr. Alcalay learned about technique and portrait painting, lessons that played a prominent part in his later career.

After narrowly escaping Dachau, he fled with his parents and sister to the Italian countryside, where they hid for the remainder of the war.

“He was a good storyteller, and connected to his past,” his wife, Vera Alcalay, says. “Everybody has a story to tell and his was very interesting.”

Mr. Alcalay told his stories through his art and a memoir, “The Persistence of Memory.” He worked in oil, watercolor, and ink on paper. Primarily a landscape painter, he depicted the camps and the Italian countryside, but among his most captivating works are his self-portraits.

In a documentary, “Albert Alcalay: Self Portraits,” made in 2008 by some of his former students, he said, “Emotions are the most important part of the human endeavor, especially, I think, in art.”

The joy and appreciation that Mr. Alcalay felt towards life is evident in the bright colors and lively shapes he used in his work.

Ms. Alcalay convinced her husband to move to the U.S. after World War II. In 1951, they settled in Brookline, where Mrs. Alcalay still makes her winter home. Mr. Alcalay spent his time painting, teaching privately, and, after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, lecturing at Harvard, where he is considered a founder of the School of Visual and Environmental Studies.

In 1963, David Douglas, an architectural design student of Mr. Alcalay’s, invited the Alcalay family to visit the Vineyard. Mr. Douglas and friends Allan Miller and Bronislaw Lesnikowski built the Alcalays a house in West Tisbury in 1968.

“When he came to the Vineyard, he changed his style so that it was reflective of his experience here,” said Leor, his eldest son.

Mr. Alcalay described Martha’s Vineyard as a place where “you forget all your troubles.” He began painting geometric abstract portrayals of Island landscapes like the Gay Head Cliffs, Chilmark’s rolling hills, harbors and seascapes.

Mr. Alcalay’s work has shown on the Vineyard at the late Virginia Berresford’s gallery and the Field Gallery. His work can be found in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge’s Fogg Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, Simmons College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts. A pen-and-ink self-portrait of Mr. Alcalay is housed in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s permanent collection in Edgartown.

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Alcalay suffered from macular degeneration and became legally blind. He continued to create new work by using smaller canvases and watercolors, and by focusing on the white spaces between colors since he could no longer perceive where the edges met. He called these his “post-macular” pieces, and said that holding a paintbrush was part of his daily routine.

“He always said, ‘Be optimistic.’ I took from him his sense of not being afraid of all kinds of experiences that could be perceived as negative and his ability to find in them the positive, and the solutions,” Leor Alcalay said.

The show at Gossamer Gallery will contain 15 oils and watercolors. Some depict scenes from Europe, and some of Martha’s Vineyard, which Mr. Alcalay referred to as “memories” and “festivities” of life. “When people see these, I think they will feel his love of painting,” Ms. Alcalay says.

Members of the Alcalay family will attend the opening reception on Sunday, August 12, and Mr. Alcalay’s works will be displayed at the gallery until August 19.

Remembering Albert Alcalay, Gossamer Gallery, 24 State Road, Chilmark, opening reception on Sunday, Aug. 12, 5 to 7 pm. For information, call 508-645-7978.