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Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21.2 (2003) 293-294
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James F. Block (editor), Sam Karres: Urban Expressionist.Royal Oak, MI: Centaur Books. 2001. Pp. 125. 169 Illustrations. $25.
Sam Karres is not well known to most Greek Americans or to habituates of New York art galleries. This beautifully printed book, which contains nearly two hundred reproductions selected from over 900 oil paintings and 5,000 watercolors created over a fifty-year period, means to change that. Editor James Block's brilliant, often poetic text provides a social and aesthetic context for specific works; and an autobiographical essay by Karres puts the lie to the notion of Greek Americans as culturally insular or naïve.
In the 1950s, when abstract expressionism was the latest rage, Karres, freshly graduated from Detroit's Wayne University, was not impressed. Formalism bored him and he was outraged that the abstractionists called themselves expressionists. He believed that term rightly belonged to the German Expressionists of the inter-war years whose work he greatly admired. The art of Edvard Munch and Francisco Goya also fascinated him. Among American artists, he valued the rigor of Edward Hopper and the energy of the Ash Can School. Various elements from these and other influences would result in a unique figurative style that Bloch has termed 'urban expressionism.'
Like many Detroit residents short on cash, in 1955, Karres took what he thought would be a temporary job in a car factory. A quarter century would pass before he could afford to paint full-time. Although a blue-collar worker by day, Karres was an artist for the rest of his time. He worked in oils during this period and favored darkly-colored, crowded canvases. After 1979, when he could paint full time, he turned to watercolors where the immediate subject often took shape within airy lines and empty spaces.
Stone Burlesque (1958) is characteristic of the pulsating, sometimes dangerous energy of Karres's early period. It features an African American male buying a ticket at the box office of a notorious open-all-night theater once located on Detroit's main thoroughfare. The marquee of the neighboring art deco Fox Theater pushes in at the top but the teeming street is filled with the menace of ethnic tension, casual sexuality, and the squalor of the destitute. In Green Hell (1957), half-asphyxiated clerical workers caught in claustrophobic workplaces are so despondent and alienated they are unable to even look at one another. In The Grey Fox (1959), a balding, narrow-shouldered man hopelessly ogles a woman he can never touch while the two women in Vivian and Kathryn (1957) have demonic faces that suggest anything goes because nothing matters. More abstracted dangers permeate industrial still-lives like Work Fast or Freeze (1978) and Belle Isle Bridge (1969). In such works, the fate of humans seems to be rendered irrelevant by the massive power of industrial infrastructures. Although Karres makes no outright plea for political reform, his work, always filled with immense affection for the city, is never cynical. As the city's social fabric unwinds, his rage will turn to sorrow and nostalgia for what might have been. That transition finds expression in Skyline at Dawn (1979) in which Detroit's skyscrapers seem to be dissolving even as we gaze at them.
Block notes that as Detroit devolved into an urban rust bowl, Karres's work [End Page 293] took on an evanescent quality. Characteristic of the new mood is Vanity Ballroom (1981). The Vanity marquee is disproportionately large and the street scene bears little resemblance to the actual Jefferson Avenue where the neighborhood ballroom was located, but the composition quietly evokes an era when East-siders routinely went dancing. Urban squalor is more directly addressed in neighborhood portraits like Fort at Greene (1994), but the details in these streetscapes are usually kept politely out of focus. Another mini-series with titles like Rickel Malt (1991) renders local landmarks as if they were funereal steles. Even more sinister is the distressingly blissful Ford Tower & Tug (1979) that deceptively suggests a city where...