"A sizable addition to the art scene." That's how The New York Times described Indiana-born artist James Spencer Russell in 1964. During the '60s, Russell exhibited alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. His work appeared in the film Midnight Cowboy. But by his death in 2000, the art world had mostly forgotten him.
Carmel residents Ron and Julie Kern certainly hadn't heard anything about Russell when they went to Jacksons Auction in 2006.
"We were a little bored," says Julie. She and Ron headed to the back of the room, their interest piqued by a sheet-covered table. They picked up the sheet, "And there we saw James Spencer Russell's art."
Two others who bought Russell's work at the auction, Dr. Tom Kuebler and Dr. Steve Conant, were as excited as the Kerns. Eventually, the new converts proposed a Russell exhibition to the Indiana State Museum.
That idea comes to fruition with the April 4 opening of Style, Elegance and Wit: The Artwork of James Spencer Russell.
Russell was born in 1915 in Monticello. As a little boy, he was interested in art. But his father wasn't, and at the age of nine, when the family moved to Albuquerque — ostensibly for his older brother's health — Jim was enrolled in the New Mexico Military Academy.
"He went to college in New Mexico," says Ron. "And he also ended up going to Yale to the School of Drama and then to WWII and then back to Yale to finish up. He actually winds up getting out of Yale and going to work for NBC TV."
After his father died, Russell took time off from his job to go to Europe. On that trip, he decided to leave NBC and try to make it as a full-time artist. And at age 46, he got his first solo exhibition in New York City.
The right people noticed. Here's more from The New York Times' Brian O'Doherty, the critic who called Russell a "sizeable addition" in 1964: "This is a quite dazzling show by a mature new arrival, whose visual play with language is highly provocative. The starting point comes from some of Joyce's neologisms from Finnegans Wake. With inventive cunning, Mr. Russell...adapts children's work games and bead frames to put multicolored letters in controllable combinations. Or he hides them under tiny hinged doors or in miniature drawers."
"And so Jim was on his way," says Ron. "The question always becomes: Why didn't he become famous? His thing was doing the work, being recognized and moving forward. He didn't want to climb the social ladder at all."
Russell was also very devoted to his mother, and after her death, he moved back in 1976 from New York to Kewanna, Ind., where his family had land. Russell exhibited for the last time in New York in 1987, though he continued making art in Kewanna until his death.
The exhibition covers all aspects from Russell's career, from his days in theater and set design, to representational watercolor sketches created during a trip to Europe in 1957, to abstract work influenced by Joyce.
"One of the most interesting things about this exhibit is not only the high quality of the work, but also the fact that, at the time he was doing it, it was a new artform," says exhibition curator Mark Ruschman. "He was there at the advent of the pop art movement, although he was not considered a pop artist. And it's in his elaborate wall constructions, made using found objects, that people will have an opportunity to see reflected the magnitude of his talent."