Visions Beyond: The Artistic Legacy of Avel de Knight
When we examine the last name of Avel de Knight, we find a name suggesting devotion to a noble cause. This is quite appropriate because the artist was always quite dignified in his bearing, and maintained a serious dedication to both his craft and personal vision. It is a quality of dedication that one could refer to as a quest for “truth.” Thus, his many paintings and drawings stand as witnesses to the sophisticated manner in which he investigated various life experiences in his journey toward a perceived ideal.
The paintings and drawings of Avel de Knight have the ability to stimulate a sense of life’s mysteries within the viewer. Bubbling orbs or “light energy” seem to emerge from the inner worlds of his subjects, and from nature. To provide not only compositional linkages from one part of the work to another, but they also create or affirm connections between animate and inanimate entities within the visual field. One can tell from viewing his work that this was done by an artist who has paid a great deal of attention to light—whether that light is from nature or from an intuitive sense of inner, spiritual light. Ideals traditionally found in a significant number of classical works of art include the qualities of intellectual engagement and spiritual transcendence. The artist provides abundant evidence for these characteristics in his work. One may view a reclining or huddled figure, a winged angel, or a small group of people quietly standing, waiting or silently passing through uncrowded cities, a mysterious landscape, or along a vacant seashore. Sometimes these figures stare out at us, thereby directly engaging us within their worlds. But they are all images rooted in both the experience and imagination of the artist. Their origins can be found in the experiences of the artist’s world travels.
In 1961, he spent two months in a cultural exchange program for the U.S. State Department as an artist-lecturer in the former Soviet Union. During that time, he was particularly attracted to the regions influenced by Islam, such as Samarkand and Bukhara, just north of the Afghanistan border. He recalled that he “came in contact with Byzantine architecture. It was wondrously exotic…the people wore robes and turbans.”1 When asked to elaborate on how he was affected by the experience, he added, “Exoticism appeared in my paintings. After my return, I began to work and explore a fantasy-oriented world of architecture and people.”2 This interest in “the exotic” also appears to have further stimulated his fascination with the French Romanticists, such as Eugene Delacroix. I recall him asking me if I was familiar with Delacroix’s visual journals of North Africa. He strongly recommended them to me. Interestingly, even his apartment was decorated to suggest a North African or Middle Eastern abode. This interest in North Africa coincided with the growing Black Arts movement of the 1960s in many urban centers throughout the United States, and it seemed to reflect the further development of the Negritude movement extending from its roots in West Africa and the Caribbean. He began collecting masks, and he expressed an interest in living on the African continent for a period of time.
Though de Knight avoided any direct political statements in his work, his paintings and drawings during the latter part of the 1960s through the early 1970s can be viewed as celebrations of a perceived African aesthetic. And along with this sense of beauty, there also echoed the principles of classicism that he had internalized through his studies in Europe. From these sources, as well as Asian art and Ancient Western sculpture, he was able to draw from a broad cross-section of historic world culture influences. The ability to seek out and absorb different influences suggests a quality of openness on the part of the artist, and the capacity to learn from others while refining one’s personal vision. When one looks at de Knight’s work, one becomes aware, not only of refinement, but of a permeating mystical aura of silence, a stillness at the center of his work. It is a stillness that invites contemplation—not words. Words seem to fall away when the experience of the work is allowed to expand. And we become that expanse. It stimulates a current of energy that enlightens our senses, and suddenly we find ourselves at the center of the artist’s vision. It is not just the final result of the work itself that is experienced, but also a glimpse of the reality from whence the work has arrived. This can occur according to the degree to which we allow our sensitivity to resonate with that of the artist when viewing his arrangements of colors, lines, shapes, and textures.
If we want to have an understanding of his work, we must allow silence to be an acknowledged part of our exploratory journey. De Knight’s work invites us to take this step. It seems to ask us if we are willing to go beyond viewing his skillful technique as an end in itself. Are we willing to see it as a vehicle through which the artist shapes his silence? As we continue to explore the artist’s work, we begin to see an outward continuity of common features: the contemplative figures, deserts, angels, radiant lights, plants, seascapes, shells, masks, and pyramids.
During the time when he was an instructor at the Art Students League, I was invited to visit one of his classes. I remember observing the quiet respect that he was shown as he encouraged his students along their journey toward artistic discovery. He also taught as an academician for many years at the National Academy of Design. Artist George Nama, a colleague of de Knight’s, once acknowledged that de Knight was well respected by other faculty, and by students. In fact, “his students loved him,” he recalled.3
Interestingly, some of the figures in his drawings were based on models at the Academy. There were other images he drew based on paintings of Renaissance artist Raphael. Although he enjoyed the works of Renaissance artists, he also felt particularly close to the work of nineteenth-century French artist Edgar Degas: “He was an extraordinary craftsman and colorist, but Degas was a very individualistic artist, and I appreciate that. Degas was an artist’s artist.”4 He kept clippings of illustrations of figures used in advertisements and photographs of figures in either advertisements or in accompanying articles. He also collected photographs of cemeteries, and illustrations of horses and figures whose appearances are suggested in many of his works in terms of posture and countenance.
From humble beginnings in Depression-era New York City, the artist discovered that he could offset the harsh world of concrete and steel by creating a world of aesthetically satisfying images from his imagination. The value of a good education was a significant part of the de Knight household. His parents, originally from the islands of the Barbados and Puerto Rico, were not directly involved in the world of art. Nevertheless, they supported his creative interests.5 At the same time that his intellectual curiosity continued to grow, he also learned to protect his sensitive nature with a veneer of coolness. After all, de Knight was a young artist who was socially identified as a black man in America. And if that wasn’t enough in itself, he grew up during a period of time when being different from others could result in ostracism from the “mainstream,” harassment, or at worst, death. As if to counteract the effects of this negative atmosphere, de Knight developed a sharp and sometimes biting wit, cultivated a mind knowledgeable about a broad range of cultural topics, and continued to hone his formidable technical skills as an artist.
He knew he would eventually have to find the right type of environment where he could further develop his passion for artistic expression. He would discover this land as a soldier fighting for freedom during the Second World War. France, home to the “City of Lights,” had been a safe haven for many expatriates seeking to escape from worlds of suffocating restrictions—whether external (self-imposed limitations), or both. Here he discovered an environment that reflected the kind of freedom that an artist of color from the United States needed. He would return there after his discharge from the army in 1946 in order to pursue his artistic development. But he also came to realize that if he was going to mature as an artist, it would not happen through his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts, the Académie Julian, or the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, alone. His development would also have to take place from his experiences outside of the classroom—in the cafes and gardens throughout Paris. He was determined to stay the course of his creative visions. Perhaps he was emboldened in this regard after having witnessed the way the people of France had persevered under difficult circumstances. Fighting in the war must have reinforced in him the idea that there were some freedoms so precious that they were worth dying for. Though he, along with other intrepid souls, fought valiantly in the name of freedom and democracy, they did so in a segregated armed service. This was a sad and bitter irony for veterans of color in general, and certainly for those returning to study art in Paris as a result of the G.I. Bill of Rights. They could never go back to, nor accept the way things used to be in a segregated America. And so, it was in France that de Knight decided to make his stand and claim the victory of his new found freedom. Other black artists who were there, or would soon arrive, included Herb Gentry, Ollie Harrington, Romare Bearden, Beauford Delaney, and Ed Clark.
Rome (cat. no. 22) is a small and strangely compelling painting from 1965. Abstraction abounds in these images from Rome (also cat. nos. 20 and 21). They share qualities of severity—heightened by the contrast of geometric forms and space—and of softness and sensitivity due to the variety of, and subtle interplay between, the paintings’ various tonalities. The limited palette of sepias and grays contributed to the starkness of the urban scene, along with the sharp angles of geometric volumes offset by the empty space in the sky. Interestingly, he also allows empty areas of paper to function as solid objects. To be sure, the cityscape is crowded with monuments—tributes to heroic figures and moments of glory from the past.
On the street, long, dramatic shadows are cast as we observe what, at first, appears to be an early morning stroll by a city dweller in flowing robes. Undoubtedly, this figure was inspired by de Knight’s travels to the Islamic-influenced regions of the Soviet Union years earlier. But the figure is not simply strolling; it is, in fact, advancing quickly toward an arch in the middle ground of the composition. The artist would occasionally feature such portals—points of demarcation and transition—in his paintings. In the distance is a pyramid that almost appears volcanic due to the dark, billowing clouds. Light from the pyramid is suggested by the use of radiating lines defining the edges of the voussoirs in the arch. Structures such as these would be more prominent in his Monument Series in years to come.
The pyramid, in addition to being a marvel of technical skill in engineering, was designed to house deceased royalty. This particular structure of African antiquity would later become a recurring image in his Mirage Series. He regarded the mirage experience as involving the advancement toward an unreachable or unattainable goal or ideal. The pyramid itself represents an ideal. With this form, together with the reduction of human presence and the atmosphere of mystery, he appears to be grappling with the themes of death and eternal life. They would become more explicit in his work toward the end of his life. After several years, he decided to return to the United States on a more permanent basis. As de Knight said, “I thought that [by] getting away from the scene of my apprenticeship…in the arts, I could find myself as an artist.”6 Eventually, he settled into an apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a section of New York City that, for many years, had been a fertile environment for intellectual and artistic creativity. He would go on to win prizes and acclaim for his art, and supplement his income writing reviews as an art critic for the French language weekly “France-Amérique.”
He began building his library of books that included the artistic legacies of Europe, Africa, and Asia. They informed his creative efforts and would eventually be reflected in his paintings and drawings. This is not surprising since the many books that I recall seeing in his apartment attest to the powerful intellectual appetite that he possessed. He was simply fascinated by creative process—in it’s myriad manifestations. I recall that one of the books in his collection was about the writer Jean Cocteau, who de Knight had met in Paris during the postwar years. This biography referred to the way the writer was influenced by drugs, and how he would hallucinate and envision angels. One notices many examples of reclining figures who also appear to be under the influence of some dream-like spell throughout many of de Knight’s paintings and drawings. And some of these figures also happen to be angels. In the later years, we discover the presence of cemetery monuments and despondent looking statues in his work.
Some of his books addressed the subject of nineteenth-century French artists. One immediately recognizes a strong affinity between the artist and this group, particularly with artists such as Olidon Redon. A romantic sense of equanimity abounds. It is here that one finds strong links to the works of Avel de Knight, particularly in his Moroccan Series. Both artists evoke an atmosphere of silence. But de Knight’s figures, a number of which are clearly self-portraits, often seem pensive, sad, or appear to mystically glide slowly through an environment that has seemingly materialized into themselves, and there is an air of loneliness about them. When they are together, it is as though they do not interact—or perhaps they are as one, and do not need to speak.
De Knight’s interest in spirituality—more explicit in his later work—was deeply rooted in his early experiences as a member of La Iglesia Católico de la Milagrosa. Located at 114th street in Manhattan on the fringe of “El Barrio,” the church was a Spanish National Parish that served a large Spanish-speaking community. Inside, images of sorrowful angels and pious looking saints stood watch over parishioners. Ornately painted ceilings depicted Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In addition to images of hooded saints, there were statues of the Virgin Mary, richly garbed, with silver and gold streams of light emanating from their outstretched arms, even as they stepped on curling snakes. (Years later he would record such images in his sketchbook while serving in the army during a visit to the Cathedral of Norte-Dame in Verdun, France.) One of the most powerful images was a life-size statue of Saint Sebastian, complete with piercing arrows. 7 Among other attributes, Saint Sebastian is identified as the patron saint of the dying, and invoked as an intercessor against plague. It is interesting that de Knight would use this image in his work even as he saw the AIDS epidemic ravage the community that he loved.
The painting in 1977, Halo of Memory, we see the head of a man in profile, facing to our right. With a lavender-tinted wing above his ear, the figure suggests Hermes, the Greek messenger god of eloquence and good fortune. The halo, or corona, of yellow and white lights that crests the top of his head suggests Apollo, the god of light and reason. The figure seems to attract orbs of light on each side of his neck, almost as if they are there to protect him. He is pensive and focused on something outside of the viewer’s gaze. He dominates the foreground of the composition. One can discern tension in the jawbone, although paradoxically, the lips appear to be slightly pursed&—the top lip protruding ever so slightly. This feature is common in many of de Knight’s figures. It is also a feature that I would see him display as he spoke in a quiet, yet reflective manner, while making a particular point. The figure’s head bears makings at several locations—on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the chin, and around the edge of the ear. Perhaps they are ethnic markings, suggesting that he is a member of a people unknown to us. Is he a reflection of a memory from an ancient past?
Although the artist had many books on African art in his collection, it is likely that he did not intend to portray an actual ethnic group. He tended to resist such specifics. Rather, he was more inclined to exercise the freedom to allow source material to be filtered through his imagination. The figure’s hair appears to consist of tightly knotted braids; the skin tone, overall, is a cool brown.
Light appears to be coming from slightly left of center, so that his face is mostly in shadow. The lower background is a combination of lavender, brown, and yellow, and unifies the main colors in the composition. The upper region of the background is created by layers of horizontal bands of cool off-whites and varying tints of oranges and yellows. Bands are recurrent motifs throughout de Knight’s Mirage Series of paintings. It is here that we begin to sense a world that is at once transcendent from, and indicative of, an environment that is submerged below the surface world of reality. This would further suggest the realm of the subjective and interior space of the psyche. Through his expression, the figure suggests a sense of both focus and purpose. The arched format of the painting creates a portal through which we are able to view this exotic mystery.
In other paintings, we are shown volcanoes—derived from the artist’s visit to the volcanic butterfly-shaped island of Guadeloupe—spewing forth molten lava, and hinting at a tumultuous caldron of seething rage below the quiet cool of the surface earth. Quite telling, because there always seemed to be an uneasiness, an air of restlessness, and a hint of pain that seemed to reside deep below the surface of the artist’s otherwise cool demeanor. Or as Herbert Gentry, a fellow painter and compatriot in postwar Paris, once told me “he was warm in a cool way.’8 Others have indicated that de Knight exuded an air of confidence. In certain ways, it reflected the rigorous discipline required for his skillfully refined draftsmanship. That technique served the romantic and demanding muse whose visions of fantastic worlds stood in proxy for the reality the artist was challenged to negotiate on a day-to-day basis in “the real world,” As he once remarked, “I am trying to escape from the tensions of everyday reality and finding a certain calm in my own work or projecting a certain calm that I would like to see around me.”9
Thankfully, it was on canvas and paper that he could pour his soul, absolve himself of life’s slings and arrows, and thus find, if only for a moment, his redemption. Perhaps, in our willingness to look deeply into the artistic legacy of Avel de Knight, we too will discover, to paraphrase Matisse, “the experience of our first communication.” To explore the work of Avel de Knight is to truly experience a vision beyond.
- Mary Carroll Nelson interview with Avel de Knight, 1984
- Author’s interview with George Nama, December 1999
- L. Meredith Phillips interview with Avel de Knight, October–November, 1990
- Author’s interview with Frances de Knight Crawford, May 1999
- Henri Ghent interview with Avel de Knight, 1968
- Author’s interview with Sunchita F. Tyson, May 2001
- Author’s interview with Herbert Gentry, 1999
- Henri Ghent interview with Avel de Knight, 1968