Alan Fenton, American (1927 - 2000)

Alan Fenton

Alan Fenton's Style:

Alan Fenton always referred to himself first and foremost as a painter, sometimes without specifying himself as an artist. Styles subscribed to his work included "Lost Generation" (his term) Abstract Expressionist, non-objective imagery, New York School, Color Field Painter, Gestural/ Action /Drip Painting, Washington School, blank art minimalist, reductionist, etc.

A Taoist, existentialist and absurdist, for my Dad, life could be summed up with his favorite word - paradoxical. The ever-present yin yang consciousness of the everything and nothing, infinite contradictions, simultaneously existing, drove my Dad's art and life.

Fenton exemplified these paradoxes: intellectual, street thug, romantic, absurdist, brooder, cock-eyed optimist, intellectual, anti-intellectual, traditionalist, rebel, devoted father, Don Juan, dreamer, pragmatist, hedonist, purist, hypocrite, idealist, narcissist, egoless transcendentalist...

He liked to discuss the philosophical meaning of his art, which, particularly during his most minimalist period of monochrome "transition landscapes," confounded even the art world sophisticates. To "civilians," Dad's metaphoric relating of the I-Ching to what appeared to the naked eye as a flat canvas painted all maroon, had the taint of "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Despite his propensity to wax esoteric, Alan considered himself a classical artist. He was a strong proponent of the importance of classic training and building a strong foundation, which he drilled into his art students. He contended that one must know how to draw in order to paint.

This played out one afternoon in an overcrowded restaurant during my three year old son's hunger melt down. My Dad grabbed a crayon from the children's menu pack, and with a few quick strokes, Barney appeared magically on my son's napkin. This was not a cursory likeness to Barney; it was a sighting - an unveiling of a masterpiece. It was an aha moment. That he could draw was what quantified Alan Fenton as a consummate artist


Alan Fenton was born on July 29, 1927 in Cleveland, Ohio. A middle child of three, he grew up during the depression. In the rough and tumble "Kinsman" section of town, Alan, a classmate of former teamster and mob boss, Jackie Presser, grew up on the streets.

As a child, Alan was a poor student and a dreamer, spending much of his day drawing. His teachers repeatedly rapped his offending hand with a ruler, (years later he developed a tremor) not to punish him for drawing but to "cure" his left-handedness.

When he was 17 years old, he joined the merchant marines. Stationed in Florida, when he got out he supported himself by boxing. In the interest of preserving his good looks and sharp mind, he hung up his gloves and returned to Cleveland to design the interior of a clothing store one of his high school buddies had just opened.

By the time he was 22 years old, Alan had a successful career as a commercial artist and designer. He had legally changed his birth surname of "Freedman" to Fenton, presumably to avert assumptions regarding his ethnic heritage. Like the "blank art" he likened some of his work to, he created a blank name.

In 1955 he married Naomi Feigenbaum also of Cleveland and moved to NYC to attend Pratt Institute. Alan studied privately with Jack Tworkov and Adolph Gottlieb (who wrote Alan a strong recommendation letter) and they both remained lifelong friends and mentors.

After the birth of his daughter, Danielle, Alan Fenton graduated with a degree in fine arts from Pratt University at age 33 and much to his family's surprise, decided to become an abstract painter.

Instead of getting a job on Madison Avenue, he went to Max's Kansas City, writing absurdist theater, poetry and hanging with influentials such as art dealer Dick Belamy, Filmmaker/photographer Jerry Shatzberg, photographer Diane Arbus and artists Mark Rothko, Paul Jenkins, Morris Louis, David Budd, Carl Holty and Kyle Morris.

In 1959, Kyle invited Alan to participate in a group show of the New York School in the March Gallery on 10th Street in 1959.

Shortly after the March Gallery Invitational, Alan met Vincent Melzac, renowned owner of "The Vincent Melzac Collection of American Art". Melzac, later to become a CEO of the Corcoran, was on his way to establishing what is said to be one of the earliest and boldest collections of abstract expressionist paintings.

By 1960, Alan Fenton was included in the Melzac Collection along with Jack Bush, Willem de Kooning, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollack.

For the next 29 years, Vincent was Alan's collector, proponent, dealer and close personal friend. Alan was devastated when Vincent died suddenly in 1989.

In the 60's, Alan had group shows in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Connecticut. He had a well-received one-man exhibition at Pace Gallery and Stratford, CT. In the early through mid 60's he did mostly large paintings, having moved away from expressionistic brush strokes into color field lines and squares.

In 1966, he persuaded his real estate developer father-in-law to purchase the historic Tiffany factory at 333 Park Avenue South to convert into loft spaces for artists. Attracting an array of luminaries, Alan created and managed one of Manhattan's first live/work buildings. This landmark building with its laundry list of luminary residents, visitors and events (i.e., a Rolling Stones party) became Alan's "factory" and folded into his art.

In 1968, Alan's son, David, was born and he began to teach at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.

Alan went into his mature work in the 1970's called "the transition series." These were Asian-inspired "landscapes" of split two-color flat works with one color transition descending from above, with a corresponding color transition ascending from below. The pressure of opposing colors energizes along the central axis and creates a light. This light creates a third color that the eyes automatically mix. Each color exists inseparably and a creates a "glow." Although the paintings may look simplistic the colors must be matched to precision or no go - no glow.

So elaborate was this process that Alan made blueprints out of pencil, termed "studies" and watercolors on paper called "washes" to indicate where the horizon would appear. In 1977, the Phillips Museum, cosponsored with the University of Iowa Museum of Art, organized "Washes and Drawings", a solo exhibition that opened at the Phillips Collection Gallery in Washington DC. The show traveled to the Iowa Museum of Art, the North Carolina Art Museum and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

In the 80's, Vincent was selling Alan's work in Japan, but Alan's painting had slowed due to problems with his hands and his wife's health. After Vincent died in 1989, Alan sold his NYC studio and returned to Cleveland to take care of his teenage son and move his MS-stricken wife into a full-care nursing home.

In the 90's, Alan started to "recycle" some of his older work. He cut pieces out of his big paintings and washes and mounted them inside small acrylic cubes and clear box frames. In 1998, he purchased a storage space large enough for him to use as a studio and resume work. Alan passed away suddenly on January 1, 2000 from a sepsis infection.

Alan's solo exhibitions included the Pace Gallery in New York City, Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, Isetan Galleries in Tokyo, the New York Cultural Center Museum, Barbara Fiedler Gallery in Washington and the Iowa, Fort Wayne, North Carolina and Houston Museums of Art.

Selected group shows included the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, Larry Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, CT and Pace Gallery in Boston and?New York, Cleveland Museum and galleries throughout the United States, Europe and the Far East.

The artist had been reviewed in Art News, Arts Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the New York Post, the Village Voice and Art International.

Fenton is listed in Who's Who: In The World, In America, In the East, In Arts and Antiques and In American Art, as well as in the Blue Book of Great Britain, Dictionary of International Biography and Dictionary of American Artists.

His bio also appears in the Gallery of Art Magazine published by the Library of Congress, Catalogue 875-153646.Phillips Collection Catalogue "Alan Fenton", published 1977, and Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, Catalogue published 1977.

The following information is from Danielle Fenton, daughter of the artist from

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