ROBERT VICKREY (1926–2011)
Clown in Armor, 1961
Egg tempera on gessoed panel, 33 1/2 x 23 7/8 in.
Signed (at lower right): Robert Vickrey
RECORDED: Robert Vickrey, “Giving Them the Bird,” Time, March 10, 1967, illus. (detail of a reversed image) // Robert Vickrey and Diane Cochrane, New Techniques in Egg Tempera (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1973), p. 60 illus.
EXHIBITED: Midtown Galleries, New York, April 10–May 5, 1962, Robert Vickrey, no. 3 illus. // Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 1964, Mid-Year Show // National Academy of Design, New York, Audubon Artists Annual // University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona, February 17–April 1, 1973, and traveling, Robert Vickrey: A Retrospective of Paintings, Drawings and Watercolors, p. 59 illus. in color
EX COLL: [Midtown Galleries, New York]; Richard Shields; sale, William Doyle Galleries, New York, November 6, 1996, lot. 124; to private collection, until the present
Clown in Armor is one of a series of insightful paintings of elderly clowns, created during the 1950s and into the late 1960s, in which Vickrey explored the theme of aging and decay, depicting his subjects dressed in what he described as a “variety of extravagant costumes.” Vickrey’s works in this genre also include Circus Figure (1961; Newark Museum] and Clown in Gold Cape (1962; San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California). In Clown in Armor, one of the most unusual of the group, Vickrey renders his subject close-up on the picture plane against an unadorned background, a strategy that imbues the image with a sense of monumentality that seems very much in keeping with the heavy suit of armor that shields the clown’s thick-set body and gigantic hands. The man’s pose is erect––even defiant––the artist interpreting him as a “god of war." However, the ravages of time are clearly apparent in the man’s wrinkled, fleshy face, captured so effectively with fine, granulated brushwork. The fact that his eyes are tightly shut suggests a determined state of mind that is amplified by the cold, steel armor that both traps and protects him. Vickrey later related that he refrained from using a model for this painting, making up both the face and the bizarre suit of armor that encases his subject, preventing “any movement or flexibility.”
Vickrey scholar Philip Eliasoph posits that Clown in Armor, and similar paintings by Vickrey, can be viewed as an “allegorical rumination of American military follies between the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict." Certainly, Clown in Armor stirred up interest beyond the art world. Indeed, the painting served as the inspiration for the cartoonish portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson that was used as a backdrop to MacBird!, a satirical and highly controversial 1967 off-Broadway play by Barbara Garson, in which she interpreted the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson’s [MacBird’s] rise and fall, and her own aversion to the Vietnam War in terms of the plot of Macbeth. In a published letter to the editor of Time magazine, Vickrey explained that his dealer had been approached by the director of the production about using Clown in Armor as a part of the stage set, but he refused permission. The production designer of the show subsequently arranged for the creation of a closely related image featuring an old man in armor, his features, like those in Vickrey’s painting, not unlike those of the unpopular Johnson.