For the next ten years I watched his move from full-bodied genre pictures, rich and full of energy, to a linear, flatter, more abstract formal, and finally to a lyrical romantic fusion of nature and the female nude. Whatever direction he took (in retrospect it was far more consistent than one thought at the time), he never betrayed his deep feeling and affection for the tangible and human. He could never make his peace with total abstraction or with the nonobjective styles that emerged triumphantly in the fifties. It should be recalled that by 1950 Presto had reached a maturity and accomplishment that had been rewarded by prizes, critical acclaim, museum purchases, and a following among the most advanced collectors.
Like others who would not or could not compromise their personal vision, it was a bad time for Presto, as for realists of whatever school. It would be an error to say that the new painting had no effect on him. Indeed, his forms became simpler, his compositions more planar, with larger areas of pure color and a more analytical approach to form. Whatever shock he may have suffered, his love of art, purse and intense, unattended by practical considerations, sustained him. The reader may be put off by such subjective interpretation, but the fact is that may major figurative artists capitulated and embraced the new dogma, or ceased painting entirely, or produced poor, dispirited echoes of their former work. For Presto, for whom art was always a "burning ambition," such shifts and vagaries of taste and popular acclaim had no lasting effect. His inherent need to create, to be a painter, was the focus of his life.
I would look forward to his visits to the ACA Gallery so I could engage him in talk about painting. A man of strong opinions and convictions, he spoke about art and artists with surprising tolerance but with deep insight. There was a manly quality about him that never concealed his romantic nature or his sensitivity. There are elements of humor in his work that also served him in conversation. He loved the quirky and offbeat as well as the everyday. Ordinary people – dock workers, miners, composers, scrubwomen, artists – all appealed to him as subjects for scrutiny and interpretation.
His paintings are strong, energetic, the early works tinged with a youthful gloominess and introspection that was to give way to a greater fancy and a celebratory air, and finally to a concert of nature and the undraped figure. His intelligence permeates his compositions – he was a master at organizing shapes in space. In the later paintings the elements are more linear, the formal relationships expressed in strong contrasts and simplified drawings. They are the works of an artist whose vision has been clarified and freed of nonessentials.
As with one or two of his contemporaries, too much as been made of the social content in his art. It is a gratuitous label which, despite evidence to the contrary, has stuck to his work. While one can't deny nor wish to, to see superb paintings of working people, they actually occupy a minor place in his range of subjects. As one goes down the list of his works one finds a great variety of themes – flowers, wheat fields, city streets, pine woods, birds – to name only a few.
The variety in Prestopino's oeuvre confirms his breadth of interest in man and nature. His work challenges our preconceptions and patiently awaits its overdue recognition.
Abram Lerner, Founding Director Emeritus, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Artists speak best for themselves, better surely than critics; they start from the heart of the matter. Prestopino wrote: "I have come to the point where I feel more and more that the paintings must speak for themselves. I can only add to that by saying that I have come to the conclusion that no matter how one paints (by that I mean in what manner one paints), if he reaches a high level in his form of expression, he understand and appreciate what he has been trying to do."
What matters about Presto is that he was a painter, from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, a passionate, thoughtful, extremely skillful maker of pictures – paintings, drawings, posters, illustrations, magazine covers, prints … a one-man school of art. His exuberant, laughter-filled pastorals of nudes, vibrant in dappled glades and woods, are so different in temperament, in mood, from his early solemn canvases, in which black played a role not unlike the leading in stained glass, that they seem to come from a different man.
The illusion is more apparent than real. "My materials follow my needs," he said once to Karl Fortess. "I was still working on the Harlem things (a series of drawings and prints made into a film in the 1960s), and I would walk out of my studio (in Peterborough) and I would find myself a tree and a rock. I would just let it happen… there was something in the forms of the trees and the rocks that intrigued me." He explored them for a year and destroyed the paintings he made. "I don't have that precious attitude about my work that some painters have," he said. "Every day is a brand-new day." Finally a quality emerged that satisfied him; finally the forms spoke a language he uncovered in them or, perhaps more accurately, they finally began to sing. The sound of the city, so strong in his early paintings, gave way to the sounds of the country, the relentlessness of bricks and pavement and steel to the happy disorder of dappled things.
Presto was physically a long way from the woods when our paths crossed in Rome in 1969. He was a painter in residence of the American Academy and I turned up there briefly as a resident writer. He was a man who understood and was fascinated by cities in a city he well knew and loved and endlessly explored, but here in his Roman studio was a ma in the New Hampshire woods, a sea and an ocean away. Light filtered through trees on nymphs and rocks and fallen branches and stumps and bounced off leaves and grasses and pools to land on canvases as clear as daybreak. The illusion that there was a distinction between Presto the city man and Presto the country man, or between the protagonist for humanity in him and lyricist in him, is as misleading as it is false. "Once I'm in a canvas," he said to Fortess, "I don't know where I am." Presto was the only kind of man he knew how to be or wanted to be and it encompassed all the others that he was or might be. Prestopino, let us be thankful, was all artist.
Russell Lynes, author
The Art Makers: An
Informal History of Painting, Sculpture, & Architecture in 19th Century