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Raymond Parker (1987)
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 inches
An Abstract Expressionist artist of the New York School, Raymond Parker was also an accomplished jazz musician. He was born in South Dakota in 1922 and grew up during the Great Depression which hit South Dakota severely. The landscapes and colors of his homeland were a great influence on his art and music.
Ray Parker was very interested in the implications of art and he played with color field and lyrical abstraction. This included the expanding field of musical expression being discovered in jazz. He was an instrumental part of the post-painterly abstraction movement led and named by Clement Greenberg.
In 1940, Raymond Parker enrolled at the University of Iowa. The War disrupted his studies, as it did for many artists. By 1948 he had earned a Master’s in Fine Arts and went on to teach painting at the University of Minnesota. During this early period, he was heavily influenced by cubism. By the 1950’s, he was one of the leading abstract expressionist artists, associated with heavyweights like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Like many of his less famous contemporaries, Ray Parker had to teach to sustain his art.
There was a rising wave of abstract expressionism art that exploded into popular culture in the 1950’s. Raymond Parker played an important, if not well celebrated role, and there was a fascinating evolution of his art. His early artwork showed a distinctive color style and he decided during the 50’s to refine and focus his work, making them simpler and more powerfully colorful. They are distinctive and instantly recognizable if someone has even a brief familiarity with his artwork.
The improvisational nature of jazz music was inextricable to the improvisational nature of abstract expressionism. The unconventional ways of discovering methods of expression in both fields appealed to Raymond Parker, as it did to great artists like Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. The simplest forms of emotional expression were deeply appealing to Ray Parker, who admired Henri Matisse above most for his use of color and form. The Samuel M. Kootz gallery in New York exhibited Parker’s work during the late 50’s and mid 60’s. His art was exhibited beside some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, like Pablo Picasso, Hans Hoffman and Zao Wou Ki.
Raymond Parker taught at Hunter College in New York for more than 30 years, from the late 50’s onward. His greatest works come from this period and he is best known for his simple paintings. He taught some of the best artists to come out of Hunter, who remembered him fondly and admired his dedication to art, music and teaching. History books tend to leave Raymond Parker out or include him as a footnote. The shadows cast by the greatest artists of his era are lengthy and hard to escape. But modern post-revisionist historians have worked to place Ray Parker in his rightful place. A position as one of the finest artists of his generation and a considerable influence.
The burst of American abstract expressionism left indelible marks on art history. Ray Parker deserves more recognition for his contributions to this art form. His works are bold, colorful, full of energy and vitality, and always evocative. Using very simple forms, he tried to communicate feeling in the most abstract and direct ways he knew how. Much like the jazz he listened to and played on his trumpet.
After his death in 1990, there was a Hunter College Memorial of Ray Parker’s Artwork. This memorial included artwork from 1955 up until his death. The New York Times paid tribute to Ray Parker with a flattering article that described the event. His progression from cubism to more radical abstraction was clear to see in the eighteen paintings displayed in the memorial. The essence of 1950’s and 60’s expressionism contained in these works. This ranged from one “big red vertical brushstroke” suspended on a white background, which the New York Times described as “an icon and a specimen”, to a monochrome background daubed with acrylics squeezed straight from the tube. A theme of freedom and possibility always flowed through his artwork.
Perhaps what limited Ray Parker to the occasional reference and footnotes of history (which is better than most ever get) was the absence of real pain and suffering in his works. Great art is often born of great suffering and nowhere is this present in his artwork. Ray Parker was a relatively content man, yet he was still able to channel his feelings into artwork that was popular and sought after. This was probably enough for him, but not enough to propel him into the starry ranks of the greatest artists.
Raymond Parker’s artwork of the late 1970’s and 80’s were not as well received and his great period was behind him by the time of his death. Yet, he had an illustrious career as an art teacher and inspired a generation of budding artists to explore and create. While his influence as an artist was significant, he never became a household name. Nowhere is it recorded that he ever wanted that, so it looks like it worked out well for him. His teaching took him around the United States and he was a guest critic for the Columbia University.