Lustrous clusters William Georgenes’ little galaxies
William Georgenes’ (1929-2017) art was never more eclectic than his life. His light shone brightly since he was a child, despite hardships that seem especially tough compared to most childhood experiences. Georgenes, known for his assemblage sculptures made mostly from toys, was born in Boston just as the Great Depression hit. His mother had tuberculosis, and his family kept him away from her out of fear that he would catch it. Until he was three, he lived in near isolation in an attic room, where other family members brought him his food. He knew little to no English, nor any other language, having not been around people enough to learn any. He saw his mother briefly before she died, and then social workers placed him in a TB sanatorium, where he lived until he was twelve years old.
“There was no one to take care of him,” said Helen MacLeod, his wife of many years. “He never went to school until he was twelve, and so the patients taught him. He said he was like a little kitten because he was young and he would roam around the place. They thought he was mute. Until then he had no one to talk to.” MacLeod recounted how a resident priest asked to speak to him when he first arrived, and young William didn’t understand, earning him a smack. It wouldn’t be the first time. “Twelve years later, he gets out of the sanatorium, his sister takes him to a Greek church, and the priest says, in Greek, ‘Come here, little boy,’ and he just stands there because he doesn’t know Greek,” she said. “So the priest comes over and hits him, and he said, ‘That’s it. No religion for me.’ ”
Georgenes was by no means wealthy but painted most of his work, currently on view at 5. Gallery in Santa Fe, in bronze, copper, silver, and gold — noble and resplendent colors for such humble materials as plastic Army men, Disney characters, dolls, chintzy beaded garlands, dinosaurs, horses, turtles, and other baubles and toys. He worked almost like an alchemist, seeking to transform base metal into precious treasure. Georgenes, who was also a painter of abstract pointillist works he called dot paintings, rarely exhibited in Santa Fe. His last show, Unity and Multitude, was held at the Visual Arts Gallery of Santa Fe Community College in 2015.
He and MacLeod moved to Santa Fe about 35 years ago. For five years he ran Aura Gallery, next door to La Posada, but never showed his own work there.
Aura was also the name of a photographic magazine he published for a short time when teaching art at SUNY Buffalo in New York, in the 1970s. “He did the magazines as a competition,” MacLeod said. “People would send in their photographs. He didn’t make any money off it. But even if a person was rejected, he sent them a magazine and a note saying, ‘We didn’t accept your work but this is what was accepted and please submit again.’ It kept him busy and he was happy.”
Georgenes’ career as an artist and educator was extensive. He attended the Massachusetts College of Art in the 1950s and Yale University in the early 1960s, studying under James Brooks and abstract painter and color theorist Josef Albers. According to MacLeod, his introduction to Yale was serendipitous. “He was having an opening on [Boston’s] Newbury Street and, across the street, was an opening of the works of Bernard Chaet.” At the time, Chaet, a member of the Boston Expressionists, was teaching in Yale’s art department, where he was employed for several decades (eventually becoming the department’s chair and the William Leffingwell Professor of Painting). “Someone said to Bernard Chaet that he should go across the street and see Bill’s work. So he came over and said to Bill, ‘If you’re interested in coming to Yale, just send me a letter.’ Bill had planned to go to France. A friend was giving him a houseboat, but that fell through. So he wrote to Bernard Chaet and said, ‘I’ll take you up on your offer.’ It was just a little handwritten note. That’s how he got into Yale.” By the time he came to Yale, Georgenes had already held teaching positions at various colleges and universities, including Boston State Teachers College, the Vesper George School of Art, and Harvard University. At some point, apparently while still engaged with his studies at Yale, he did restoration work for a man named Morton C. Bradley, who was a restorer at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. “So Bill worked on Monets and Rembrandts, and his best friend was Kahlil Gibran, who was a sculptor,” Macleod said. Gibran was an Abstract Expressionist and a descendant of Gibran Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet (1923). “Kahlil had a shop on Newbury Street and sold pre-Columbian artwork. Bill used to take the work to Yale and set up a blanket and the students would buy it.” One day Albers came by and was quite taken with the items, and so Georgenes put him in touch with Gibran and, according to MacLeod, that was the start of Albers’ preColumbian collection. “Bill became good friends with Josef Albers,” she said. “They worked together on a stained-glass window, but the commission never went through. It was for some monastery, but one of the monks was a stained-glass worker and the monastery didn’t want to hurt that person’s feelings, so they didn’t use the Albers.”
MacLeod first met Georgenes at Vesper George School of Art, where she worked as a secretary. “He had gone off to teach in Mexico but he had a house in Boston and he was back for a couple of weeks,” she said. “I went to a Marie Cosindas opening [Cosindas was a Boston-born pioneer of color photography known for her still lifes and portraits] and he was there.” The two were married in 1981.
For the last 12 years of his life, Georgenes, who suffered a bout of polio at age twenty, was confined to a wheelchair — the result of post-polio syndrome. As his strength wavered, his work got smaller. Large-scale paintings and works in assemblage were condensed to about a foot in height and width. “He didn’t have the arm reach anymore,” MacLeod said. Still, even the smaller pieces, like the assemblages on view at 5. Gallery, are energetic, playful works that are mostly
Georgenes painted most of his work in bronze, copper, silver, and gold — noble and resplendent colors for such humble materials as plastic Army men, Disney characters, dolls, chintzy beaded garlands, dinosaurs, horses, turtles, and other baubles and toys.
untitled. When he did title them, he gave them whimsical names befitting their appearance. There are no definitive narrative elements at play in the works, but viewers can tease out stories if they wish, making connections from one element to the next. “He used to draw comic books for the patients in the sanatorium, and that’s sort of what these assemblages are like,” MacLeod said. “They’re like the comic books he did as a kid.” Georgenes first started doing assemblage work while working at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico in the 1970s. “He lived in a house that was owned by John Muir,” MacLeod said. “Muir wrote How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. He made a fortune with that book. It was a big old hippie house and people would come and visit Bill and would say, ‘We love it here. We love your lifestyle. We’re going to move to San Miguel.’ And they would leave their suitcases. Bill said that one time he ended up with about 20 suitcases and these people were not coming back so he started opening the suitcases and using the material. He did a lot of wrapped pieces made with the old clothes and shoes that people left.”
In his final years, despite being in the wheelchair, Georgenes remained lively and engaged with making art until he he became unable to do so because of complications from his illness. “People loved Bill,” she said. “He listened to people. He was interested in people. He talked to them and really cared about them. Growing up in that TB sanatorium and seeing people die — I mean, he told me this story once that, when he was young, he’d see the nurses bringing in this screen and he’d say, ‘What’s that?’ ” Georgenes would wonder why, after the screen came in, a patient always seemed to vanish, never to return. “‘Where did he go?’ ” MacLeod said he would ask the nurses, “and they would say ‘He went home.’ Of course, that meant the person died. So he’d see the screen coming and he’d say ‘Over here, over here. I want to go home.’ If you believe in karma, whatever he did in his last life, I think he made up for it in this life.”
▼ William Georgenes; through Feb. 14 ▼ 5. Gallery, 2351 Fox Road #700 ▼ www.5pointgallery.com, 505-257-8417
Hollywood Dream ,2004,mixed-mediaassemblage