Charles H. Carpenter, Jr. was a calm and cultivated man whose steady commitment to art and artists made a difference in the lives of a few brilliant contemporaries while immeasurably enriching his own. A chemist and businessman, Carpenter with his wife Mary Grace, assembled several landmark collections of Shaker furniture and design, American scrimshaw and American 19th century silver, but their collection of contemporary painting and sculpture, acquired from 1945 to 1995, was their most personal and significant accomplishment.
The 1947 Art Institute of Chicago 58th Annual Exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture came as a revelation to Charles Carpenter who discovered that he truly enjoyed contemporary abstract art and wanted to live with it. His interest focused upon works by two young Americans, Mark Tobey and Jackson Pollock. He could not afford the work on view but determined to have something from both artists in the near future. It was a hallmark of Charles Carpenter's character that he would embrace two such divergent personalities. Quoting from Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Carpenter said of himself, "I love the wild not less than the good." Throughout his life, Carpenter would seek the work of introspective and intellectual painters while also exploring the far reaches of passion in works by expressionist painters and sculptors.
With a deep understanding of contemporary art and a renewed desire to take part in its evolution, Charles and Mary Grace Carpenter moved on to the next generation of important American painters. Charles and Mary Grace Carpenter created an uncluttered and spacious home where their paintings took center stage. The rooms shone with color. American antiques and classic modern furniture in subdued beige, black and silver established the contours of everyday life. Clean, disciplined, imaginative and visually extravagant, their personal style influenced many of their peers.
Visits to the Reuben Gallery in the late 1950s, opened the eyes of Charles and Mary Grace Carpenter to a new generation of expressive artists including Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Red Grooms and others involved in happenings and theatrical presentations. Charles Carpenter struck up a friendship with Jim Dine in the early 1960s and purchased the canvas collage Orange Tie in 1961. Dine sent along the playful and evocative Milk, 1961, with the inscription, "Some milk which you can't get in New Canaan." These early encounters led to a strong presence of Dine's work within the Carpenter collection.
Celebrated as an astute, imaginative and open-minded collector, Carpenter always put his emphasis upon the fundamental role of the artist as innovator and thinker. His collection continued to give pleasure and meaning to his life, but he understood it to be a temporary arrangement of significant objects destined to continue their journey after the lifetime of the collector. He agreed with his old friend, Ad Reinhardt who underscored the independent destiny of great works of art, "The separating of the art object separate in 'time' from its original 'place' and 'use' gets rid of all its meanings but one."
Susan C. Larsen, Ph.D. is an art historian and curator. She is currently writing a biography of the American constructivist artist and theorist, Charles Biederman.
Property from the Estate of Charles H. Carpenter, Jr.