ALTON PICKENS was born in Seattle, Washington in 1917. His adolescence was spent under the shadow of the great depression, the rise of Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, Munich. With his schoolmates he watched ships being loaded with scrap-iron for Japan and debated the threat of Japanese or Bolshevik invasion of our West Coast.
At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which he attended, there were no art courses, but his interest in art was given strong encouragement by Lloyd Reynolds, his professor of English. Pickens went on a scholarship to the Portland Art Museum School but after a few months he was drawn to New York where, he says, he learned from observing artists at work and frequenting the museums. Earning a livelihood at odd jobs, he confined himself for some time to ink drawing and woodcut, slowly learning the oil medium through study of the old masters who, he felt, had the most to teach him. He also greatly admires Goya, Daumier, Bonnard and Beckmann.
Pickens had painted some of the most bizarre, disturbing and memorable images in recent American art. He first exhibited in 1942 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a woodcut in Artists for Victory. The Museum of Modern Art showed a painting in 1943 and included a group of his paintings in Fourteen Americans, 1946; he held his first one-man show in 1956. He taught art at Indiana University in Bloomington, spending a year in Europe in 1952-53.
Pickens: Perhaps it is sacrilegious to ask why one paints, but if it is an error, it is understandable today. . . .
My painting concerns itself with man and the traumata of his life. How he constructs and lives by an unending chain of fables, each with its own completeness and each unrelated. . . . I cannot paint reality for what it pretends to be or for what I think it should be.
I attempt to capture the warping of the truth and the fiction into one schismatic reality. The limitations of my skill and perception compel me to select the minutest aspect of this phantasmagoria, often constituting only a strange ritual of manners, real but senseless. Underlying all is the consciousness that each new hour verifies another intangible--the feeling of imminence and threat that follows the life of any sentient man.