When painter Carlo Pittore (né Charles Stanley) received a terminal diagnosis in 2005, he asked me to come to Bowdoinham, gave me the bad news and asked me to write his obituary, which I was honored to do. As I wrote on his Legacy.com memorial page, “I have known many artists nominally more famous and more successful than Carlo, but I have never known anyone who held the calling of artist in higher esteem or who did it greater honor.”
Carlo Pittore (1943–2005) was also a greatly conflicted character who struggled all his life to make art and to make ends meet. He was both a much-loved artist, art activist and teacher, and a somewhat intimidating figure. That’s because he was as passionate about art and honor as any artist who has ever worked in Maine.
As friends are fond of saying, Carlo’s greatest creation was himself. In an all-too-brief life, he transformed himself from Charles J. Stanley, Jewish New Yorker, into Carlo Pittore, a Maine painter with an Italian avatar. Carlo Pittore translates as Carlo the Painter, the name the children of an Italian village gave him.
I confess that I did not always hold Carlo in such high regard. In 1981, shortly after I began writing about art for the weekly Maine Times, I wrote an off-hand comment about The Printed Art of Carlo Pittore at the University of Maine that was not up yet when I visited Orono. “Based on the artist’s irrepressible correspondence, his ME magazine, and a stack of postcards sent to me recently,” I wrote glibly, “I think I can tell you what you might expect to find in the basement gallery at Carnegie Hall this month: an inky bulk mailing advertising Self.”
The very next week, Carlo’s Bowdoinham landlady, benefactor and great friend Priscilla Alden Berry rightly skewered me in a letter to the editor. “Let him look at the beautiful colored stamps, at the variety of posters, and at the books about Maine and New York artists, and the Merrymeeting Yurt Colony,” wrote the formidable Ms. Berry. “Mr. Beem will find more than ‘an inky bulk mailing advertising Self’. In the future, in fairness to the artist reviewed, I suggest he write only about what he has seen.”
As I got to know, interviewing him for a feature profile in Maine Times in 1987, attending a mutual friend’s wedding with him in Key West the same year, and visiting his Bowdoinham studio with my young daughters on several occasions, I came to understand that Carlo was equal parts bluff and bluster. His life was a balancing act between his fierce love for art and his nagging self-doubts.
All this came flooding back to me in April of this year when I visited the Sarah Bouchard Gallery in Woolwich to see the mini-retrospective, I Am Still Performing, that Bouchard (who is the president of the International Artists Manifest which preserves and promotes Carlo Pittore’s archives) had mounted to mark what would have been Carlo’s eightieth birthday.
I Am Still Performing featured a representative selection of Pittore’s nudes, self-portraits, boxer portraits, collages and mail art pieces, as well as one of his masterworks, the eight by sixteen feet La Buffonera, a riotous circus of clowns, acrobats, musicians, fire-eaters and trapeze artists, all of whom are the same character.
I was particularly taken by a trio of life-size nudes, two male and one female, posed between wooden studs against a red curtain backdrop as though alive in their own coffins. There was always something flagrant and bawdy about Carlo’s nudes. Carlo was a sensualist whether it was painting flesh, listening to opera or preparing a wine-drenched spaghetti dinner.
Carlo was a co-founder of the Union of Maine Visual Arts in 1975. The UMVA, as readers of the Maine Arts Journal surely know, was instrumental in supporting Maine’s Percent for Art law and its Artist’s Estate Tax Law (which allows artists’ estates to pay taxes with works of art) and in opposing artist entry and jury fees for group shows. Carlo was particularly fierce on this latter score.
Carlo was forever battling with what he saw as the forces of darkness arrayed against him and against the high calling of art. I remember his fierce defense of his paintings when they ran afoul of middle class tastes and mores.
There was a carnal element about Carlo’s bruised and battered boxers and fleshy nudes. But he would not stand for it when a Portland restaurant removed a boxer painting from its dining room when a diner (no doubt gnawing on a bloody steak) complained that the picture of the pugilist was unappetizing. Carlo yanked the whole damn show.
The Sarah Bouchard mini-retro gave viewers a small taste of Carlo’s defensiveness in the form of a 1989 letter to the director of an art venue that had failed to include his work in a large group show.
“Taking a stand of aesthetic superiority deserves to be challenged,” wrote Carlo in his bold, black, inky hand, “when your system fails to catch the likes of me.”
Then there was the protest Carlo mounted in print against the 1990 Maine Visual Arts Dialogue, sponsored by the University of Maine Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art Museum, and Maine Arts Commission. Carlo’s ten point manifesto attacking the two-day conference began with the indignity of an artist being asked to pay to attend a visual arts dialogue. “I will not pay to dialogue with you who will come free,” Carlo declared. He then got down to his real principled opposition. “Teaching us to be capitalists stinks,” Carlo wrote. “Money, media and ego have ruined the good name of art in America.”
Carlo had no use for “art bureaucrats” in part because they rarely benefit him or his art.
Accompanying the works of art in I Am Still Performing was a video loop of Carlo at times laughing wildly and at other times commenting somberly and quietly about life and death. The video captured the tension between passion and insecurity, the love of art and his self-doubts.
And there is a chance that the long-overdue Maine Masters video portrait of Carlo Pittore will soon be completed. The Maine Masters series, which includes videos on artists such as Lois Dodd, David Driskell, William Thon, and Dahlov Ipcar, is sponsored by the UMVA. Filmmaker Richard Kane has been working on the Carlo video at least since 2009.
Having seen the rough cut, I can tell you that Carlo is an engaging visual profile that uses the artist’s own words and pictures and the words of his friends to conjure the colorful character Carlo became. Among the commenters are former Bureau of Parks & Recreation director and Carlo Pittore Foundation board member Herb Hartman, art critic Carl Little, myself, poet Bob Holman, museum director George Kinghorn, and artists Clarity Haynes and Abby Shahn.
There is also a recurring al fresco dinner party sequence featuring Hartman, artists Katherine Bradford, Natasha Mayers, Stephen Petroff, Rob Shetterly and Pam Smith, and critic Lucy Lippard who drink and dine while discussing Carlo’s life and art.
What struck me about the way his colleagues talked of Carlo, an observation that prompted this expansion of my review of I Am Still Performing in the Portland Phoenix, was how artists who clearly loved Carlo were frank about his ambivalence about their art. Carlo defended the rights of all artists, but he pledged allegiance to figurative art, the human form as directly observed, drawn and painted.
To make sure I wasn’t reading too much into comments Kathy Bradford, Natasha Mayers, and Pam Smith made, I emailed Kathy Bradford for clarification.
“Carlo was very critical of me as an artist,” recalled Bradford, “and several times threw his hands up in the air and yelled at me to sign up for his life drawing class as I badly needed to know how to draw the figure.”
Ironically, Bradford became perhaps the most successful artist of all her UMVA contemporaries, painting enigmatic human figures but perhaps not in a way Carlo would have approved.
“You are focusing on an important aspect of Carlo—the passionate defense and the doubts and insecurity,” Bradford assured me. “I totally agree with you that this was very much his way of relating to his art community. I’d also add that most artists have this ‘imbalance’ to some degree one way or another.”
What Bradford refers to as “this imbalance” was simply more pronounced in Carlo Pittore than in most artists.
The videotaped luncheon conversation that raised this issue for me is so casual and honest that it’s almost as though Carlo had just stepped away from the table for a moment rather than for all eternity. His art possesses both a raw immediacy and a longing for immortality.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. This article originally appeared in a briefer form in Portland Phoenix, 26 April 2023.
Image at top: Carlo Pittore, Self-portrait, oil on linen, 1973 (photo courtesy of Sarah Bouchard Gallery).