Self-portrait No. 4
?Kerkam was one of those extraordinary artists about whom we no longer know much and wish we knew more.? Jed Perl, New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century
This painting was made in the late 1950?s when Kerkam was at the height of his powers, working on a group of experimental self-portraits in a thickly-faceted fragmentary style.
Kerkam was a romantic figure, a mentor of sorts to the younger artists of the post-war downtown scene in New York. Elaine de Kooning, in a 1951 Art News article about Kerkam, called him ?a character out of Damon Runyon?s Broadway sagas.? He led an ascetic?s lifestyle in a Spartan downtown studio, sleeping on a cot and washing his clothes in a pot on the stove. It had not always been so. In the 1920?s he was a successful commercial artist, making movie posters for Warner Bros. But he fled that life and moved with his wife and young son to Paris, which was still the epicenter of artistic ferment.
The Abstract Expressionist Al Held described studying in Kerkam?s class in France:? ?Loved him absolutely incredible man? I used to follow him all over Paris. . . He had made up his mind that the only way he could become a great artist was to be French, and he was going to change his citizenship. I remember following him all over Paris trying to talk him out of it…?
When Kerkam?s family became homesick and returned to the States, he remained for a while, developing his gestural figuration by looking at the Modernists, especially at Picasso?s early cubist experiments?and he would return constantly to Cezanne as a kind of polestar. With the Depression, Kerkam came to New York where he seemed to be universally admired by the Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar Tavern?Pollock, Kline, and De Kooning?even though the artistic path Kerkam pursued was so divergent from their own. He was an artist?s artist, a character Melville might have invented?independent, resourceful and ultimately alone in his poetic hungers.
?The work that Kerkam has left us is at once delicate and brusque, and the effect can be exceptionally moving,? writes Perl. ?If de Kooning was the public poet of the city?all bare, tough, explosive movement?Kerkam reflected a quieter kind of yearning.