The exhibit touched me in ways I scarcely understood. But soon afterward, I moved from the area and all but forgot about the artist and the impact his paintings had had on me. After several years, I returned, and in 1998 was covering art for the Albany Times Union when a friend called to recommend I write a story about Dick Callner. He had been stricken with Parkinson’s disease a decade before, around the time of his UAlbany show, and the symptoms had accelerated. Yet for all the physical disability the disease created, he was still painting, and that was what my friend wanted me to see.
One of the advantages of being a journalist is that you go places you have no regular business being. If it hadn’t been for my job, I might never have found myself in the great white studio of Callner’s Latham home, a capacious, high-ceilinged workspace with a bank of north windows. And so I met the painter for a second time, this time in person. He greeted me with a brush in his hand, which is how he spent much of each day of his life. There were paintings everywhere, on easels, on worktables, propped on chairs, leaning against walls, and every one of them rife with hue and tint. There was no radio, no neighbors, no traffic noise, but the room seemed filled with music. Kandinsky had written about this. “Color is the keyboard,” the German abstractionist wrote, “and the soul a piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating.”
Color was a sixth sense for Callner. He told me that he only needed to see a color once and never forgot it. He apprehended color in a way that went beyond mere sight. I can’t explain it more clearly, because I do not fully grasp the mysteries of color. Few of us do, just as few of us hear the way Beethoven or Coltrane could hear. I can’t imagine what it was like to respond to color the way Dick did. It must have been like having the world bestow a continual blessing on you.
The Parkinson’s had him in its grip even then, and he endured the shaking hands, slurred speech, and fatigue without any apparent complaint. I knew as a journalist I had to ask him about the disease—that’s another bizarre aspect of this profession, the prying questions you get used to asking: “Do you ever feel sorry for yourself?” I queried, near the end of our visit. “Once,” he replied, unfazed. “I think I dropped something. Feeling sorry for myself would be a waste of time when I could be painting.”
I left that day knowing once again I had been in the presence of someone uniquely majestic. I tried to capture it in the profile, but never did find the words for the essence of what I was feeling. Five years later, I met Callner for a third time, when I went to review a vast exhibition of his work at the Albany Institute of History & Art. Each encounter I had with Dick, either through his work or face to face, had the force of a fresh complexity. No matter how familiar I was with him, there was something I couldn’t quite express. At the Albany Institute, I was struck anew by the power of his colors. (This, by now, was expected.) “Callner uses color like verbs, to quicken his paintings and give dynamic force to his vision,” I wrote.
In 2005, Dick and I met for a fourth time, when I interviewed him on camera for the now-lamentably departed Firlefanz Gallery. We had a marvelous time talking about color, about painting, about primitivism, about his ongoing “conversation with the image.” This was on the occasion of an exhibit of abstract landscapes he had made after a summer vacation to Italy. Imagine—at the age of 78, you have a degenerative, increasingly debilitating disease, and you decide to travel to Tuscany for the summer, where the sun brings out its most intense colors. And imagine coming home and releasing those colors in an exuberant suite of new paintings.
Can you? I can’t. Or at least I couldn’t, right up until early in September, when I attended a memorial service for Dick Callner, who died on August 31 at age 80. Relatives, friends, and colleagues spoke of him, and you know what they talked about? His devotion to travel and his fondness for food. His affection for cigars. His capacity for generosity, hard work, and love. His lifelong willingness to take risks in life, in art, even at the gambling table. His inability, regardless of the circumstances, to complain or feel cheated. And when they talked about art, it wasn’t so much to discuss his paintings, but by way of illustrating some larger point.
As I listened, I came to realize that for all the times I’d been in the presence of Richard Callner, I was only now, upon his passing, coming to know him. All those rich, glorious colors in his paintings—they weren’t so much about beauty, or intensity, or music. They were, at root, the footprints of a life deeply felt, closely observed, and most important, richly lived. If you want to know what it means to be an artist, look no further than the life and work of Dick Callner. It means being so fully in your existence that everything experienced, learned, and felt has purpose. Artists embrace that purpose and give it voice. For Dick, the essential art was immersion in life. The paintings he made were evidence, proof, aftermath. This capacity for immersion is what stirred me after my first “meeting” with him in that exhibit two decades ago, and what I tried to put into words again and again afterward. Callner, of course, had already articulated it. “Awareness of all experience is to be savored,” he once wrote. “Anything that is savored is precious enough to be translated into art.” Sometimes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Other times, the student is so dense the teacher has to keep knocking him over the head with the lesson until it sinks in. Finally, Dick, I think I get it. Thank you for everything, and farewell.