Treasures from the Vault: Clarence Holbrook Carter

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Not all abstract artworks are beyond recognition of their influences or realistic derivations, despite many views that abstract artwork is “too hard to understand” or “not technically sophisticated”. Some, such as Clarence Holbrook Carter’s Fiery Furnace, below, are immediately recognizable for an object, despite its abstracted form. Take a moment to consider: what is this a screenprint of and how did you come to that conclusion?

This abstract, minimalist print's background is a tiled blue. Inside the blue tile is a red square, in which sits five egg-shapes, four of which are smaller and lay on top of the fifth. The four smaller oviods are a lighter red while the larger is a deep red, darker than the red background on which it rests.
Clarence Holbrook Carter, American, 1904-2000. Fiery Furnace. Screenprint, 1978. Gift of Paul O. Koether, 2005.09. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Fiery Furnace, Carter’s 1978 screenprint, is an abstract, minimal depiction of a fireplace. The mantle is dark blue bricks or tiles and surrounds the orange, glowing fireplace – we can even see the shadow created by the glow of the fire beyond the mantle. Within the hearth, an encompassing orange hue emanates outward. Four light egg-shapes are staggered and layered in the background, while there is a larger, darker red ovoid in the foreground that is layered on top of two of the lighter eggs. It’s likely that the larger, red shape represents the heart of the fire, while the smaller, white ovoid’s capture the flickering flames. Overall, the print gives off a warm, comforting, and stable feeling.

While numerous 20th century artists dabbled in Minimalism, Carter’s career was long and varied, resulting in him working in numerous styles. When he started his career in the 1930s and 40s, he was known for his drawings and paintings of rural America. These realistic works of art captured the loneliness and despair in the country during the Great Depression, and Carter was successful during this time. His style changed, however, following World War II.

With the advancements of modern advertising and design in the 1950s, Carter was inspired to start incorporating abstraction into his artwork. From this point, Carter’s work became increasingly surreal, often featuring imaginary animals within fantastical landscapes. These eventually simplified into clean, geometric shapes.

Fiery Furnace fits into a specific series from the 1970s, Transections and Eschatos, which incorporates floating, transparent ovoid shapes within architectural landscapes. There’s no better explanation of Fiery Furnace! For Carter, these shapes represent his conception of the human spirit and its constant struggle for perfection. We can interpret this print as a representation of the in-between, or the process of finding perfection – not only are the shapes not quite perfect ovals, but we can see through them, giving the impression that they’re in transition. When we take this into consideration with the title, we can imagine the heat or intensity of someone striving to be perfect, or, at least, improving their state of being.

The true meaning of this print, however, is ultimately left to our own interpretations. While Carter stated general ideas, and included symbols within his surreal series, he sparks the imagination with his odd, yet captivating compositions. He gives just enough information to lead you down an inquisitive path, while allowing you find your own way to the finish line. And, in the end, isn’t that what all the best art does?

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