Lost Modernist, Found: Jean Xcernon, a Motivating Force in NY and Paris

Jean Xceron, one of the pioneers of nonobjective painting in Paris as well as New York, is now something of a lost figure in Greek-American circles. One rarely hears Greek-American artists, of any kind, mentioned when Greeks gather. Xceron was nothing less than one of the motiving forces in the Modernist Movement in both New York and Paris. Researchers in the field of modern art refer to Xceron as a “vital link” between Europe and North America during this pivotal moment in Western art. Attending to the life and career of persons such as Jean Xceron is not some idle past time it strikes directly at how Greeks are portrayed in an American setting.

Since the arrival of Greeks in large numbers during the 1880s and onwards from their ranks one can effortlessly identify a collective of women and men who each in their own fashion have changed/or are in the process of redefining how Western art is understood. In 1947, Athene Magazine published a special oversize issue that the editor and writers hoped would ultimately be turned into a hardback full color volume. For nearly a year the dedicated writers searched out Greek artists who had their work exhibited or collected by the premier museums, galleries and collectors in the United States. A short list from this singular issue must include: Abanavas, Constant, Constantine, Baziotes, Daphnis, Hios, Kaldis, Lekakis, Marros, Nicolaides, Pappas, Polos, Pougiales, Psaropoulos, Sideris, Stamos, Takis, Tsavalas, Vagis Varda, Vassos, Xceron and others. Whenever the history and development of art in North America and/or the world is discussed names from this list must be invoked. This says nothing about the dozens of Greek-American artists now at work across the nation.

With each discussion of any one of these artists the whole scenario of immigration history is brought up for critical review. Certainly nothing is “wrong” with those Greeks or other immigrants who were day workers. What is wrong is that the whole story of immigrants as creative, thinking, politically astute, self-motived individuals who often were much more successful in ways of business than native-born Americans proved to be and so on is left out of historical accounts. This is not a question of celebrity culture versus everyday life. The human potential for ground breaking creativity is not limited to any single realm or field of experience. How the Greeks and all the other immigrants from the 1880 to 1920 waves of migration to North America transformed the history, culture and so very experience of being an American is what Establishment History intentionally edits out of the public record.

Establishment authors will say any who applaud the accomplishments of the Greek American artists listed above (or any immigrant group one would care to single out) are nothing but “community boosters.” But then what are the Establishment authors doing but maintaining a norm for their special target group? The real question is why are they doing so and towards what end?

What I would hope the Greek-American Press, as well as any of our brethren journalists in the other ethnic publications, is doing is not being a mere celebrity booster but quite literally an investigative reporter on documents, persons and events in the past (and present) that the Establishment media ignore – for their own unstated purposes. For our purposes Jean Xceron’s life encompasses the whole arch of an artist’s stereotypic experience, e.g. humble beginnings, new insights, vast successes, neglect and then re-discovery.

In 1890, Jean Xceron (Xerocostas) was born in Isari, Greece. In 1904, at the age of 14, Xceron immigrated to the United States joining family members who were already here. For the next six years he lived and worked with relatives in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and New York City. In 1910, Xceron was determined to be an artist, so he moved to Washington, D.C. By 1912, Xceron enrolled in classes at the Corcoran School of Art. While at Corcoran, Xceron perfected his skills as a draftsman focusing on the traditional academic practice of drawing from plaster casts.

Xceron first encountered modernism in 1916, when two fellow students arranged an exhibition of avant-garde paintings borrowed from Alfred Stieglitz. The show made a deep impression on Xceron, whose own appreciation for flat color and expressive distortion paralleled the work being done by others.

In 1920, Xceron moved to New York and became friends with such notables of the day as Uruguayan painter Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, and Joseph Stella. According to art critic Peter Selz, it was Torres-Garcia who advised Xceron “to liberate himself from the ‘baggage’ of the past in order to live in the abstract.”

He exhibited in the New York Independents” exhibitions in 1921 and 1922. In New York, Xceron studied Ceanne and read as much as possible about new artistic movements abroad.

In 1927, Xceron was finally able to travel to Paris where his own painting underwent a dramatic transition. From 1927 to 1937, Xceron lived and worked in Paris, exhibiting with the group of emerging painters known collectively as the “Ecole de Paris.”

During this period Xceron began writing reviews of the latest in art for the Boston Evening Transcript and the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. As Xceron’s steady stream of articles revealed he was gaining an increasingly sophisticated understanding of recent art by discussing such figures as Jean Helion, Hans Arp, John Graham, Theo Van Doesburg, and other up and coming artists.

Xceron also mixed with the Parisian Greek community where individuals such as Christian Zervos, editor of the influential magazine Cahiers d’Art, arranged a solo exhibition for Xceron at the Galerie de France in 1931. “Visitors to this first exhibition saw an artist who was working his way through Cubism. Still-life and figural motifs remained prominent, but the artist was striving to capture rhythmic and fluid movement rather than solid form. Over the next several years, Xceron moved away from his figural foundations, introducing at first grid like structural patterns and, by the mid-1930s, planar arrangements of severe Constructivist purity” showed his increasingly sophisticated understanding of recent art.

In 1935, Xceron returned to New York for an exhibition at the Garland Gallery, he was among the inner circle of Abstraction-Creation and other leading Parisian art groups. Moreover, he had achieved some reputation. In 1937, while arranging a show at New York’s Nierendorf Gallery Xceron and his wife decided given the war news from Europe to stay. Xceron soon joined the company of the American Abstract Artists, who welcomed him as a leading Parisian artist. Despite his reputation, however, he fared little better commercially than did his new colleagues. He was hired by the WPA Federal Art Project and executed an abstract mural for the chapel at Riker’s Island Penitentiary.

Xceron exhbitited his work regularly throughout the 1930s and 1940s and he soon became one of the first American abstract artists to acquire an international reputation. In 1939, Xceron began working for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, for 28 years, from 1939 to his death.

Recognized modernist art critic Daniel J. Robbins notes that “Xceron has reversed the customary function of light, for instead of using light to reveal form, he arranged to have it swallow shapes, dissolving the crispest forms in the process. He created a mysterious dawn, in which light absorbs rather than illuminates his pure geometry…”

Xceron’s art has always been so gentle, its drama internal and apparent only to those who follow it attentively. Instinctive, almost humble, it attains a rare poetry that too few have taken the trouble to contemplate. David Smith, who was as American as Xceron is Greek, and knew of the world as Xceron does not, once wrote to his painter friend: “You have the pictures and that is not new – you have always made them, and maybe they are too good, too subtle, too sensitive; but someday the world will catch up with you. Most artists are with you and that is the greatest level of appreciation (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1965).”

By 1947, “Xceron’s paintings have been acquired by Cahiers d’Art of Paris, Phillips Memorial Gallery of Washington DC, Museum of Modern Art of New York, Museum of Living Art of New York, Museum of Non-Objective Painting (Guggenheim Foundation), Museum of Fine Arts of the University of Georgia and numerous important private collections in the United States and abroad (Athene Volume VIII (3).”

Jean Xceron died on March 29, 1967, in the Polyclinic Hospital he was 77 years old. Yet among those who study and celebrate modern art Jean Xceron is still revered as a recognized pioneer of non-objective painting. Aside from viewing his paintings one can also read, Jean Xceron: Rediscovered American Modernist Pioneer, Life and Works, 1912-1949 by Thalia Trezos Vrachopoulos (City University of New York, 1999). As unique a contribution Xceron made to world art he is but one of more than a dozen Greek-American artists of his generation who achieved such status. Why do we not hear more of such things?


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