In 1983 some 500000 persons in the United States suffered a stroke. Of these more than 155000 died. One of them was the American painter Ivan Albright (1897-1983) (JAMA covers, December 4, 1967, January 19, 1994, October 16, 1996, and November 19, 1997). Then in his 87th year, Albright had been admitted to Mt Ascutney Hospital, Windsor, Vt, in August 1983. In the hospital, with mirror, pencil, pastel, and graphite, he executed these self-portraits, 2 of them dated August 21 and 23 and the third simply August 1983 (cover). They are the last save one in a series of Self-portraits Albright had made throughout his life; remarkably, some 20 of them were completed after his 84th birthday. "Start to make a new career in art," he had written in his journal at that time. Albright was a poet and a philosopher, as well as a painter. Throughout his literary musings and his visual works sounds a persistent theme: the corruption and eventual decay of matter, not least of human flesh itself. Paradoxically, however, Albright does not negate its beauty. Beneath this "all too solid flesh," these leathery, warty visages of his subjects (and himself), time's corrugations have not annihilated beauty; their thick encasement has only disguised it—serving as a kind of armor for the spirit that survives within. Ironically, in these last, nearly clinical self-portraits, the corrugations have been smoothed into a surface so fragile, so nearly transparent that we believe, almost, that we can touch the spirit as though it were an object with dimensions. There is, so to speak, an exchange: as the flesh becomes less solid, less tactile, the spirit within becomes more accessible, more tactile—and more vulnerable. This is Albright the patient, a man devastated by a catastrophe, physically dependent against his will, yet it is also Albright the artist, very much in control of his spirit: The very act of painting is itself an act of defiance and an assertion of selfhood. But, lest these portraits be too timid an assertion, perhaps, Albright also made a word portrait of himself following the stroke: I who have decreed all things Find myself an instrument of pain A stroke has laid me dormant Not subject to movement or amusement Things that I thought were mine Have been lost and in their place are sad memories of the past and present Things most important to me are lost And in their place rises colossal terror and fear and nights of eternal length Bring uncalled for colors and sounds And mirrors appear that were not there before and half alive They slip around the room waist high.* Here is a person who at once acknowledges, defies, and accepts death. He dares look into the mirror and give it a human face: his own. It is also, as Oscar Wilde aptly reminds us, the face of the spectator that art really mirrors. *Quoted by Robert Cozzolino in Ivan Albright, catalog of an exhibition organized by Courtney Graham Donnell. New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press; 1997. Ivan Le Lorraine Albright(1897-1983)Self-portrait (No. 20) colored pencil on hardboard, 30.5×25.4 cm; Self-portrait (No. 19), colored pencil and graphite on hardboard, 33×23.5 cm; Self-portrait (No. 20), pastel, pencil, and colored pencil on hardboard, 33×25.4 cm, 1983, American. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Ill; gift of Mrs Ivan Albright.
– American Medical Association
Published: Apr 22, 1998