The ghost in the print
Octogenarian artist mixes the bittersweet and the joyful in his work
At the end of a long Atherton driveway, Arthur Krakower seems to find perfect tranquility among the art books and family photos in his garage studio. Jars of paintbrushes await his next move, along with canvases, palette knives and a sheaf of French drawing paper, soft as cotton.
"Doing art is a respite from this busy world," Krakower says. "To be able to sit by yourself, alone, and create. It's essential to our life."
It's a respite well earned. Although Krakower has been a weekend painter for decades, it was only after two other careers that this octogenarian has devoted himself to painting, drawing and printmaking.
First, he was an executive at Macys for many years, but wasn't ready to slow down when he hit the mandatory retirement age of 65. So he went into real estate in the '80s.
When the call of art became too strong, Krakower's life took another turn: He went back to school to study art at San Jose State University. Then at the age of 80 in 2001, he earned a master's degree in painting and drawing from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
"I love doing art," the courtly Krakower says with a broad smile and a New York accent. "It's better than playing golf."
Krakower's art has been warmly received in the creative world. People taken with his work include Palo Alto's Paula Kirkeby, who has shown his prints at her Smith Andersen Editions gallery. His work is also in the permanent collection of the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University.
In downtown Palo Alto, Mahmut Keskekci rarely holds exhibits at his RS Gallery — he says it's much easier to earn a living doing quality framing than selling expensive art. But this fall he's giving Krakower a solo show.
Although the exhibit doesn't officially open until Oct. 30, Krakower's oil paintings and monotypes already fill the gallery walls. Earlier this month, Keskekci said: "I sold 21 pieces already. In the past, if we sold four or five in a show, it's a success."
Keskekci's exuberance bursts out as he gives a visitor a tour of the 40-some works. "This makes you so happy," he says, adjusting the cheerful "Flowers in the Castle" canvas. Holding his heart, he adds, "Living with these pieces for two months (in the gallery) is just a bonus."
Keskekci says he's drawn to the innocence of the work, the bold strokes that leave thick layers of oil paint and reveal many colors in their depths. The confident hues, especially in the many images of flowers and nature, remind him of Matisse. In "Peonies in a Vase," the background could be mint-chip ice cream until Keskekci turns on a strong overhead light; then lavender shimmers in the pale green.
Many of Krakower's works have this hopeful, bright feeling. Titles include "The Geraniums Were There When We Fell In Love" and "What A Great Day." "Flowers On the Road to Rome" and "The Garden At Beaulieu," of course, are inspired by his travels, and "Smile" is named for the song in the soundtrack of the Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times."
But there are also ghosts in his art. One type of specter is merely an art term. When Krakower makes his monoprints, he does a painting on a piece of plexiglass, then prints it onto a piece of paper. Whatever paint is left on the plexiglass can be used to make a second and sometimes even a third print: a ghost. Several ghosts are up at RS Gallery.
To demonstrate, Keskekci points to both the original and the ghost of "Women In the Garden," one vivid, the other shadowy. Both can have appeal, he says. "I like the ghost better. It's very mystical to me," he says. "There's less paint, and it's less defined."
Krakower also delves into the past. Ghostly family figures from his childhood are common subjects, with the ocean a regular background. When he was 10 years old, the family moved from Manhattan to Long Beach, New York, transplanting a city kid to a wide-open world. Perhaps that's why flowers recur so often in his work. Flowers, he says, represent more than blossoms; outside the urban grit, they were "an introduction to life."
In his studio, Krakower recalls the move with pleasure. "I found out I could run. I found out I was fast," he says. "When you're 10 years old, it's like a new awakening in life." Happiness is blue water in "A Summer Day At Long Beach," and his family is all vivid stripes and old-fashioned bathing suits.
But another painting, "Aunt Jean At Long Beach," is melancholy, with the young Jean looking plaintively over her shoulder. Decades after her short life, she is a repeating motif in Krakower's work. "Aunt Jean died of opium at age 30," Krakower says.
He also notes, without pathos: "My father was a gambler; he wasn't around much." Instead, his uncle became a father figure, and one of Krakower's paintings got named "Papa Never Came Home."
"You've got to put out what you have in your heart," Krakower says.
The artist's influences are myriad, stretching well past Matisse. A walk through the Atherton house where he lives with his wife — who is also named Jean — reveals works by Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Diebenkorn. One wall boasts a linocut print by Picasso that the couple bought in 1964.
"Imagine! A Picasso for 250 dollars!" Krakower marvels.
Those influences are always filtering in: Krakower can typically be found in his garage studio for three hours each day. He's also fond of plein-air painting.
In September of 2007, when he was out painting at San Gregorio State Beach, two dogs knocked him over, and he injured his hip and back. That forced him to paint sitting down for a number of months, and he concentrated on small oils and a lot of palette-knife work. Now Krakower is back up, and grateful for the chance to create art without having to worry about making money at it.
"I've been lucky. I've had two careers I've loved," he says. Then he looks at his collection of art books, picks up a Picasso volume, and is instantly lost in its pages. There's still plenty of work to be done in career number three.
What: "Wild and Lovely," an exhibit of monotypes and oil paintings by Arthur Krakower
Where: RS Gallery & Framing, 628 Emerson St., Palo Alto
When: An opening reception is set for Thursday, Oct. 30, from 6 to 9 p.m., with the exhibit continuing through Dec. 24. (Many works by Krakower are already up.) Show hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Info: Go to www.rsgallerypa.com or www.arthurkrakower.com , or call 650-322-3330.