Ken Tielkemeier

The Art of Magic Expressionism

Ken Tielkemeier is the master of the artistic movement defined by the writer Leonetto Leoni as “Magic Expressionism”. In his art works he transmits the essence of the places he lived in and the artists that he studied and worked as well as all the life experiences that characterized his life.

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Biography by Marco Moretti, 2001

The voyage into "Magic Expressionism"

Since a couple of years we have again in Florence the American painter Kenneth Tielkemeier.
The artist with his wife Franca Barbara Frittelli, also a painter, after a long wandering between New York and Florence, has definitely chosen the city of his heart where between the 50s and 60s he completed his not brief or easy forming itinerary, and where his figurative expression took the way of mysterious mechanisms, towards a free expression of the unconscious. This will dominate the poetic and disturbing message of his painting, defined - with a Bontempelli approach - by the Fiorentine writer Leonetto Leoni: “Magic Expressionism”.

A type of painting expressed through absolute, ferocious, unheard of, I would like to say, colors, to try to connect the impact of such chromatisms to the startling that at the same time rises from the content that is evoked, so much as to remind one of the assumption of Dubuffet by which: «Art must scare and must bring happiness. Art is made of folly and delirium: no manierism, no habit, no cunning or cultural wisdom…»

In his studio of Via Guerrazzi the artist shows his work and while he is moving a large painting temporarily loose on a stretcher, the waving of the canvas contributes to confirm the sensation of how these paintings are really able to make the walls tremble. One guesses from the very beginning that one exchanges a few words, how inside the calm of the man, there is the agitation of an articulate and complexed personality, reflecting that some dichotomy that occurs between his quiet way of talking that curiously reminds me of the cadence of the Mississipi River boats, and that screaming, excited character of his painting. The artist tells how around the end of the 1800s one of the river boats sunk in the big river, taking down a large amount of leather and skins: the whole patrimony of many years of work of his grandfather (from the fathers' side), a German boot-maker from Hannover who landed in Illinois around 1870 and had reinvested in that kind of work. This loss had him completely ruined.
Ken has never been in the land of his ancestors, neither he asserts, in his long varied artistic schooling has ever had German teachers. Therefore it is extraordinary to observe how, at a pure DNA level, could filtrate his predisposition to a kind of painting connaturated by a strong trait, expressionistic in a wide sense, that after all the young artist went to look for among cultures dispersed in three different continents.
Traces estrange among them in appearance, but actually associated by expressive necessities rooted in the vitalities of different peoples.

From the states to Japan to Mexico

Ken Tielkemeier has studied at the night Art School of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the city where he was born in 1929. Drafted in the Army in 1951 at the time of the Korean war, Tielkemeier was exempted from the front-lines as the only surviving son, after the death of his brother Melvin who was an officer candidate. Ken was therefore sent to Tokyo, Japan on a Special Services assignment, in charge of the Publicity Division. In Tokyo he was able to pick up again his nude art studies entering the Ginza Street studio under the teachings of painter Fujikawa and later with the sculptor lwao Norimatsu, who will depict the young American in a bronze portrait now at the museum dedicated to the maestro in Matsuyama Ehime, Japan.

During his Far East period, in the young man will mature the decision to dedicate himself completely to painting. Discharged from the Amy, after a short period at home, taking advantage of a missed admission to the lnstitute of Technology at the University of Chicago, he will travel to Mexico, attracted by the greatness of the “primitive” and by the modern art of Tamayo, Rivera, Orozco, Siquieros. In Mexico City he will study at the “Academia de San Carlos” and later at “La Escuela Esmeralda” with painter Orozco Romero. A profitable period, where through his studies in museums of ancient and contemporary art, and the practice of drawing and painting in large dimensions, his ancestral expressionistic vision will take form bringing forth a strong meaning of trait and color. He will come back home in 1955 enriched with great Mexican experiences which in painting will bring forth his first self portrait destined to remain one of the most significant paintings in the work of the artist: Ken's features enter the painting almost with fear, the long neck and head bent in on emotive order, the outlines of his face tense to catch in the mirror's lucid physicity the obscure tangle hidden in the metaphysical mirror of the soul. A self-portrait that revealed his complex and articulated personality, his post and his ghosts as much as his mittleuropean ancestry. Registered in that expressionistic way it recalls an incident as much as a combining similarity with the “Autoritratto con alchechengi” by Schiele, also called “with Chinese lanterns”. But nevertheless, as Ken wants to make clear, the Austrian artist never had any influence in his work.

New York and the European influence

After having painted the Selfportrait in St. Louis, in the some year the young man established himself in New York City. Here in the environment of great artistic fervor begun in the preceeding ten years by the beat of mostly expressionist and surrealist painters escaped from Europe before and during the war, took hold on avantguard movement dominated mostly by the figures of Jackson Pollock, based on materie informal values of an all -American revendication. For this the critic Rosemberg had created a happy identity: “Action Painting” by which the artist's gestural act was declared as a direct “philosohical action” connected to the impulse of the “human creativity”.
A way of painting that will not catch the interest of the young Ken, who is rather oriented towards various expressionistic figurative lessons that he could observe in museums and galleries, such as the bursting art of Kokoschka, or that more distinct and clear of Beckman, or still another, objective and surrealistic together of Hopper. Alert observer young Ken won't let himself be mislead by such imported painting as artistic novelty, but only as clever repropositions on American soil of the lesson of the great contemporary maestros as Picasso and Matisse. In his solitary research for the expression of form, color and light, Tielkemeier will be interested also in the works of the ltalian painters, also represented in museums and galleries, such as De Chirico, Boccioni, Balla; but mostly he will become interested in Carlo Carra's work. And because ideally turned to this fast one, in 1956 Ken will leave for ltaly with his G.I. Bill. In Perugia he will attend the “University for Foreigners” and the Academy of Fine Arts, where the ex-futurist Gerardo Dottori was teaching. But his aspiration still remained the Milano Accademia di Brera where Carrà was teaching, his paintings continued to attract the young artist's interest for that arcaic incisiveness and tonai austerity, which Longhi already had registered as “dreadfulness of shadows”, defining the artist “descendant of Masaccio”. Attraction for a strong expressiveness, that, as others searched before, went to rummage in on obscure bottom of Ken's soul, his intricated interiority, in which were probably playing also complexed ascendencies from birth in the flux of most dissimilar bloods: German and mittleuropean from the fathers'side, English and Black Foot lndian from the mothers'side.

Florence: the discovery of “humanism”

Once in Milano, Ken was told that Carrà had quit teaching. Disillusioned he thought of leaving ltafy, sail from Naples and go back to New York. Except that in his fast visit to the Brera Museum, he became attracted by a work of arcain expressive strength: “The Philosophers”, three figures sitting in an interior lit by a surreal light. Figures of an almost Carrà style, but with a more sour and aching feeling more in tune with Ken's own depth. The author, as referred to him, was Ottone Rosai, who was teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. He decided to try to meet him, being also that traveling to Naples, Florence and the museums fit like Rome, as obligatory stops. Ken recalls entering the Academy in Florence towards the end of 1956, his going through looking for Ottone Rosai's class, the impact when he saw the calligraphy of his nome, written on the door by brush as the signature on one of his paintings, and then meeting the Maestro that looking at his work he observed that this young foreigner was “on the real path of art”.
The decision of establishing himself in Florence to study at the Academy, in Rosai's school, was a decision that will change Tielkemeier's life as artist and as man. Attending that class there was also Franca Barbara Frittelli, already a pupil of Rosai since 1940 at the Liceo Artistico, and still a fervent “disciple”.
A pupil “sui generis” as Mario Luzi recalls: «from the classroom of the Academy she even followed Rosai in his external wanderings and in his stopovers, including the rituals of the Cafe'. She was I think, the only feminine presence in that masculine group of varied and converse partialities. That girl, with her svelt rosy foce and her hephebic buiId, corteously but eagerly drank in the master's every word and gesture, impermeable to the liberties and verbal lewdness of the troop.»

Ken became part, guided by Franca Barbara, of the artistic and cultural protagonists amongst the tables of the Giubbe Rosse Cafe'. The encounter between Franca and Ken was love at first sight. A few months later, on April 15th, 1957 they were married with the laic blessing of their Maestro. Once an established Fiorentine with a studio in Palazzo Pandolfini in Via San Gallo and later in Via Ricasoli, Tielkemeier went deep into studying the masters of the Renaissance. Through the university teachings of Roberto Longhi, fascinated with the discovery of the ltalian "umanesimo", he felt an extraordinary continuity also in the schooling of Rosai. Such as Franca Barbara Frittelli will write: «His assiduous visits to the Uffizi, the other museums and churches of Florence worked to build in him the reassurance, the equilibrium of his own expression through non indifferent struggles and bewilderment, but that ali together were part of his growth and development».

Acquisitions that come to solidify in Masaccio's colors that well tuned in with the chromatic lesson of Rosai's post seasons. Among the first paintings of that period is the “Nude with lion's head”, a selfportrait of a low chromatic tension, where the fine of an obscure horizon cuts the figure at the height of the neck, while the lion's head appears as projected by that line at the shoulders of the nude figure that covers himself with a bunch of leaves and flowers. Again an unquiet and disquieting selfportrait, in which the "struggles and bewilderments" mentioned by his wife, come back to evidence. lt is also a piece of art in which the vein of a surreal expressionism surfaces in its whole evidence, welding itself, because of his deep chromatisms, to an accentuated Masaccio-influence example, fused with the modem lesson of Viani, but that is already set out solitarily to a personal, mental path that no Tuscan, modem or ancient, could have ever been able to show him. In “Portrait of Franca”, a year later, one can feel the chromatic style input of Rosai's lesson, although steered by his personal accents that put the figure of his companion as in a “mental” isolation, a painting that his teacher will appreciate very much. Not long after, nearly a month from his two pupils'marriage, Rosai will suddenly die in Ivrea, leaving all those that were close to him in complete desolation. Exactly that day Ken finished his painting of “Giulietta”, on which as a remembrance of the concurrence of the two events, will affix the date in full: May 13th, 1957.

In that some year will spring from the mind of the artist the first painting symptomatic of a turn destined to mature in the Fiorentine air: the “Flying cat”, a large rigid feline up in the air between two building scenes, that seemed to have been inspired by the wild behaviour of his friend Romano Bilenchi's cat, a formidable jumper. lt is the first work totally impressed on the surrealistic “provocation”, expressed with a palette of raw, low chromatisms. In a similar scale of colors, Ken will paint in the following year the “Male Nude in interior, Vico” characterized by a strong plasticity, stili recalling Orozco, and the strong “Selfportrait with red scarf” in which the young artist arrives to his personal result making himself elbowroom between suggestions of Tamayo and Rosai.

In 1958 one must mention “Piazza Pitti”, a peculiar vision of the famous Fiorentine square painted in a low chromatic fabric of yellows and ochres, inwebbed with recent suggestions between Sironi and Rosai.
But in the some year, with “Summertime Allegory No. 1” the impulse of the fantastic vision comes back: a free interpretation of bodies in the sun, among which the previous figure of the naked selfportrait; a painting that in 1958, during a short American return, Ken will exhibit in St. Louis and receive a prize by a jury lead by Larry Calcagno.

The Fiorentine years until 1961 spent at the Academy will evolve into this intense and impatient research. Years after all quite nebulous for the general course of Art in which - on this side or that of the ocean - abstract and informal currents had settled in, putting doubts into the surviving figurative art. In the lapse of time between the 50s and 60s from New York comes the so called “Pop Art” by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dine, Segal and friends, which in the establishing of mass consumerism was reproducing highly publicized commerciai images in series. Tielkemeier who firmly believed in the representation of a figurative research brought forth by personal emotions, gushed out from the depths of an ego that cannot be disregarded, ruled by a personal autonomous sensibility, come to find himself at the opposite side of the new American current, that was leaning towards stereotyped images applauded by the some media consumerism.

Towards the representation of the unconscious

Therefore if the position was clear in comparison with the confrontation of the avantguard, more obscure were the choices to proceed with in an autonomous manner, which knowledge seemed to Ken, already over 30 years old, worked out but not yet conclusively.
There was something not yet captured that sometimes he perceived in that some deep anguish: vague forms, not yet known but that insistingly pushed to manifest themselves, until then suffocated by the acquisition of the rational baggage that would end up mastering the canvas. To free that stili mysterious tangle, the lessons of Orozco and Tamayo have not been sufficient, nor the other great Mexicans'. Neither in ltaly the strong and devouring lesson of Rosai that penetrated and sweetly echoed his anguish, had been enough, or the extreme and lean lesson of Viani. Neither, after all, his research could be satisfied in the generic expressionist resource, even if not to be neglected in any way. He felt in his depth something else to which, through those strong stimuli, he was coming closer letting it hardly look at the edge of “his” abyss. Such was therefore the impact in which the artist found himself at the end of his Fiorentine Academy period: a symptomatic arrest determined by equal and contrary forces of the rational and unconscious. Looking back from the beginning: what was Ken Tielkemeier trying to capture in 1955 in that first selfportrait? Already in that work there were signs of an uneasiness not yet of a mature determinatiòn. The situation at that time led him to the traces of the knowledge of a trait in which to inscribe the founding language of his form. Now that all seemed reached, he felt his research not exhausted: as if such assimilations were non other than pieces of a puzzle with which to express a drawing that originated by the perpetuous sense of anguish, could give tangible form to the mystery of his internal cry. «An art that doesn't look into mystery is useless» wrote Franco Rella in his “lmpressionist revolution”, to link up to Macke's concept, according to whom "form in itself is a mystery because expression of mysterious forces. Only through forms we can guess the secret forces, the “invisible god”. "Those “secret forces”, so spurring, were now near to free themselves, not without apparent contradiction, to the presence of the Fiorentine Renaissance classicism, in which feeling was however implicit, also the message of the individual’s centrality: that free human arbitration to operate according to one's own will that seems to have matured from the subterrain into the expressive conception - his own determination - of what it seems to be altogether inexplicable, freeing it in the egocentric and irrational free-will of “other possible realities”. This will happen in 1962 with a work not accidentally entitled “Marching Men”, where with a palette of flashing colors congenial to himself, the artist recreates his other 'reality', formed by a geometrical landscape. In the middle foreground three human configurations advance while at their shoulders stand two vegetai spheres, maybe cactus, that as bristling and tangled asperity, were just overcome by those men marching towards the horizon's leafy heights. Symptomatic piece “Marching Men” will be then the painting that will inaugurate the Ken's new art, finally free to express entirely what up to now had remained in his inner world.

Giorgio Colli in his volume “Philosophy of Expression” makes clear similar obscure mechanisms of vision, speaking of the “manifesting character” as expression of “something hidden in the deep” that sends one back to an “extra representative immediacy” where “the free will of the game” places itself at the side of form. An overcoming by obscure mechanisms of the vigil conscience, or of Kant “reasoning reason”, in the some way will Tielkemeier abandon himself to the expressions floating in his depth. As some have asked themselves before and we con still ask about Klee, evocator of a «magic territory where the control of means comes to be translated into infinite possibilities of fantastic forms», how much have influenced «the dark obsessions that must have troubled his childhood, they are resolved in the mature works, in an offering to the man of dream images»? The some we could ask ourselves of those freed by the “vigil conscience” of Tielkemeier. For our artist infancy and early youth will not be spent without trauma. Right after his birth the difficulties of his feeding put in danger his survival. Later, still a child, the long illness that will alienate for good from the domestic world the figure of his mother. And finally at age sixteen, the trauma of the loss of his adored brother Melvin, six years older and main reference. There is enough to protect one till mature age, especially if one is unable of other outbursts, struggles and anxieties repressed by the rational, but present and inalienable to dominate the sphere of the unconscious.

"Nous vivons avec le monstre" as the surrealist verb translates regarding the expressibility of the world of the absurd, which more or fess obscurely troubles every one of us. This, if and when, somehow “exorcized”, can by arcane mechanism, pour into fantastic and poetic liberating images.
In the new fervor of the first half of the 60s therefore will come forth on large canvasses, dominated by a crude and audacious sense of color, compositions inspired by the given reality freed by any compositions conventionality. Here we have the “Banana Vendor” conceived on the omonimous reality registered that summer in Massa Carrara, and the three works highly significant of 1964: “Flamenco”, the “Red Grate with dragonfly” and “La Terrazza”. Works dominated by the sense of the playful and of the drama, at any rate fascinating for their chromatic and composite weave. Therefore the symptomatic “Grata Rossa”, where the anguish screamed by the man behind the bars becomes accentuated by the disquieting gigantic dragonfly that dominates the foreground.
Animals, insects that as real zoomorphic entities, take to run about on Ken's canvasses 05 logos of freed entities. Prevailing will be dragonflies, butterflies, doves, parrots, salamanders; and the dog, represented (except for his pure white Maltese Schatzy) in the form of perennial aggressive behavior.
Fantastic symbols inserted sometimes with the human form or what is its synthesis, in the complex organization of the paintings, where a mash of geometric designs splits and organizes prospectic grounds, as in “La Terrazza” where to the chaos apparent at first observation, a harmonic power of other order and of high poetry takes over.

The first result of that interior trip “Marching Men” was exhibited in Oct./Nov. of 1963 at the Chalet Fontana with other twentytwo works of various periods.
Three years later Tielkemeier will exhibit again in Bologna, at the Johns Hopkins University, and then again in Florence at the “Proposte Gallery” with a presentation by Mario Luzi, in which the poet takes in his par the exteriorized interior sense of that work of art which: «speaks clearly, shouts foud from all his bristling sighs, from all his violent colors, often willingly coarse, not absorbed, as if under the menace of so many barriers and fences, of so many monsters ready to force it, to compress it, to loose it, man's freedom should find idle and therefore non artistic to speak another idiom rather than that of hallucinating and delirious protest. We are then in front of his torment and his attempt to free himself from it through a screamed and impellent confession, without giving time to second thoughts. The nightmare of the alientating modem world - American par excellence - that our friend Ken lives with and carries with him - in corpore suo - with his escapes and returns and new escapes from New York, Chicago, St. Louis his birth piace, to this illusion of peace and human reconquest in ltaly, in Florence.»
And so Umberto Baldini on La Nazione newspaper, will pick up in a critic sense the value of that research:
«We believe the accomplished step remarkable ''tn the precise research of an idiom that becomes all the more personal, which has completely freed itself from our solutions (which nevertheless helped him and gave him the possibilities of an outstanding human maturity). His painting has very clear accents in the continuous excitement of a dramatic situation that engages his modem man nature inside the hallucinating incubus of the alienating modem world and it makes him accomplish a conscious and immediate protest. And we also feel that pictorically too his nature has adjusted in a more precise manner, more substantial because of a simplicity and a nackedness that hit directly into the bull's eye».

The American artist will continue in the following decades to express his pictorial necessities of the given objective and those of his own internal world, the sphere of which is actually that of conscious reality, a potential forthcoming of images.
Alternated in that doubled but yet unitary identity, here we have works like the playful and fantastic representation of “Piazza Beccaria” (In 1980 it will be exhibited in a show at the New York Gallery of Marisa Del Re), painted on the vein of a spontaneous creative impulse, by which the square is summarized in a certain circensian running track isolated from any perspective rapport, with a vase of flowers in the center around which run bicycles and pedestrians. Work from which emanates that poetic surreal indiscipline for which as Salvator Dalì warns: «he who doesn't know how to imagine a horse galloping on a tornato is an idiot».

In the art of painting of the real given Ken offers very valuable proof of his reached maturity inside the congenital expressionist assumption as in the very beautiful portrait of his daughter lnghe. A work obtained with solid chromatic volumes, “summa” of conquered and absorbed rapports already in a style unity exquisitely his own. Such intense constructive capacity will show up again in time as in the strong drawings of his model Otho Dilworth, whom he met on his return to New York with his wife. From these will follow the just as masterly paintings of the some subject in a sitting pose. In that return to America that will last from 1978 (except for a brief Fiorentine period) for twenty years, Tielkemeier will work isolated with his wife Franca in his house among the green trees of the hill overlooking the Upper New York Bay.

The circle closes

In America the avantguard movements followed one after the other, leaving marks of their whims for future generations. Then, at the beginning of the 80s, European artists like Baselitz and Penck (ten years younger than Ken) were pressing to push up new, but not new, figurative instances oriented towards the surreal and the fantastic. Wolfgang Becker, director of the Museum of Aquisgrana, in one of his famous essays, was explaining the new expressive and figurative tendency of the contemporary art, in which «could be plausible to establish some relation between the American sumptuous draping, the expressive paintings of the German artists and the click of the Fauvists around Henry Matisse, “putting” in foreground the connection between the neofigurative developments of the American and German art» to the point of forging the denomination of “young savages” for the young generation born between the 40s and the 50s following that of Baselitz and Penck.

Those expressive links in which from the very beginning Tielkemeier's painting was stirring, were then coming back after various modes and tendencies. Process of a visionary sphere, opened again by the research of the new generation that reached Kassel between the end of the 70s and in the next decennial in several issues of “Documenta” with a punctual reference of market and critique also from the other side of the ocean.
Young artists like the German Fetting and Dahn, and the ltalian triptic of Cucchi, Paladino and Chio, up to the American Basquiat, born in Brooklyn in the 60s. Young artists that in the sphere of figurative suggestions were and still are looking for a self distinction, the given inside of man.

A research that Ken had continued with similar address in his usual, incurable, volontary isolation, interrupted only by sporadic group-shows in some New York Galleries: from Marisa Del Re to City Center, Imago and Agora in Soho. In that solitary research, on his canvasses will alternate the playful and the witty and the dramatic, opposite feelings in which man is called to recognize himself.
As in “Man and Lizard” in which still echoes the scream of the naked human being, prisoner of grates, impotent in front of a society that classifies, isolates, imposes; soliloquy of a drama painted in violent colors, red on yellow, a sky of incombent blue and pink. Of a lower range of colors, the forge “Crucifiction” where a “patiens” Christ exhales his fast breath like a scream, while the grotesque present is shown on the foreground with a child that wears a clown mask. A dog screaming to Christ, a dove that rises like a missile to pierce the low sky, and a woman with her head in her hands complete the scene cut diagonally over a constrained horizon split in color sections that get together without any prospectic solution to that of the sky, sharpening with a hopeless pessimism the drama of the event.
Climbing from a soul’s recess these works shake up with their expressive tragedy, recesses of other souls, talking, rather screaming, as Luzi wrote, any clear hurting truth. Even in the apparent tranquillity of a painting like “Franca's Dream”, composed as a figurative painterly fable of the sleeping wife, one can gather the sense of the profound and the occult, where on the figure lying down on the foreground impend emotively the tellurial paintings of Ken. Contrasting elements between the laxity of the reclining figure and the ferocious crowding of the animals represented, seem to suggest the intercurrent line between this woman, provoker of life choices, becoming his light, his guide that by and by with her intelligent understanding will be able to mitigate moods, mediating filter of those recesses for a long time unsounded and unsoundable, then finally freed through painting: Franca Barbara uxor-mater-mulier, substitute entity of the painful other of his childhood.

Time renews itself

Ken's painting will continue in these fast ten years with very significant work, strongly anchored to that “spirit of the time” that is present throughout the fantastic-surreal painting and the coeval European and America art. Paintings like “Summertime Allegory No. 2” composite fantasia çentered on the rapport of man and nature, dominated by the soaring preminence of the butterflies, in a narrative duct dominated by the strong sense of trait and color, confirms with other paintings like “Medea” and “Cebra Avenue” to have reached his artistic maturity with al/ the multiple, intricated messages of the human content.
In Ken Tielkemeier's coherent work is always evident the will, never scraped by current modes, of a coherent sound operated as much as in the physical sense of forms, expressed in the vibrations of materia and blood, as in the rummaging in the recesses of the soul, to give back sublimated by art, the “malaise” contracted during the long twisting “task of living”. Through these, expressing his most intimate and painful image of himself, Ken Tielkemeier, just over 70 years old, paints now in his new studio of Via Guerrazzi, the found-again trace of human reality that superposes the unreal: feminine bodies painted with the background of his fantastic canvasses to show the impossible division between the world of reality and that of the unconscious.
Active and evermore enthusiastic, with his frail and bursting vein of speech, Ken Tielkemeier picks up again just at the beginning of the third millenium, his ties with Florence, for a long time dreamed of from across the Atlantic as the piace of his heart and the great days in which a laic prophet called Rosai, who professed an art as «life, suffering, pain and joy together», had the intuition of how this young, witty and sorrowful Yankee, was already «on the true road of painting».

Marco Moretti, Ken Tielkemeier "Magic Espressionism", 2001