Avel de Knight

american artist

Critical Acclaim

Lowery S. Sims, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980

Excerpt from introduction to the catalog for a solo exhibition by the artist titled Mask and Mirage, Gallery 62, National Urban League, New York City, written by Sims, Associate Curator of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In our world of pristine, hard-edged materialism to encounter an artist of such unabashedly romantic temperament as Avel de Knight is a palliative experience. When persuaded to divulge the secret dreams that spark the “nether-world” landscapes of his work, de Knight rather matter-of-factly reveals his romance with the Past—from which one may glean the most pleasurable of memories—and his preoccupation with the Future—which is idealized in its yet unrealized state. For him the Present is but a time and space for which one can reminisce and search for Ideal.
Frank Martin, I.P. Stanback Museum & Planetarium

Excerpt by Martin, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the I.P. Stanback Museum & Planetarium, South Carolina State University, from St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press in Association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1998, pp. 135–136.

The surreal lyrical paintings of Avel de Knight evoke an imaginary atmospheric world populated by figurative images that allude to a romantic and deeply poetic sensibility. He as a product of the Ecole de Beaux-Arts and the Academic de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, and his works were clearly influenced by the nineteenth-century French symbolist School. …de Knight’s images were produced in a range of media, including oils, watercolors, gouache and casein. In this employment of all these media he used a subtlety of expression to explore the complex visual relations he created…
John Felder, Art World, 1977

Excerpt from a review by John Felder of a solo exhibition by the artist titled Mirage, at the Babcock Galleries, NYC.

Thomas Wolf notwithstanding. It is great to be home again—especially if in that homecoming one returns triumphant with the well-nourished fruits of his absence. It has been four years since New York has been enlivened by a one-man showing of the work of Avel de Knight. During this time, de Knight, formerly an instructor in painting at The Brooklyn Museum, created a series of paintings which he calls Mirage comprised of twenty-eight paintings. Mirage is now on view at the Babcock Gallery, 805 Madison Avenue. Of casein, a water based medium, most of the paintings in Mirage are characterized by luminous, horizontal bands, each of different hue, serving as a background stabilizer for the buoyancy of the foreground symbolic imagery. De Knight invites the viewer to revel in the combination of African, Oriental and Western Imagery, while remaining detached. No proselytizer, he plays on the significance of each one’s bearing on our esthetic consciousness, without badgering us about the primacy of one over the other.
Val Spaulding, Black Art: an International Quarterly

Excerpt from an interview with the artist with the editor. Appeared in vol. 4, no. 1.

A quiet man in whom one senses a soft-hued tumult of emotion beyond time and space. …Avel de Knight is a painter whose pyramids and profiles and swirling distances come together in works which command viewer participation. …In 1961, the Department of State requested de Knight to do a cultural exchange tour in the Soviet Union. The travel and experiences expanded his ability to channel his inherent sensibilities into cultural areas new to him. …Fortunate are the young artists who come under the guidance of Avel de Knight. In 1973, he was selected Academician by the National Academy of Design and Fine Arts, and presently, he teaches drawing and painting there. He suggests that in addition to studying technique, the beginning artist should “go out and buy large quantities of self-discipline and self-sacrifice and store them away for future use.”
Karl Lunde, Arts Magazine, Nov. 1977

Critique by Karl Lunde, Art Historian, of a solo exhibition by the artist at the Babcock Galleries, New York City.

At a time when many black artists were concerned with social protest or establishing themselves within the accepted categories of abstraction or pop art or neo-dadaism, Avel de Knight chose a harder, more solitary path as a painter working within the context of the Academy, where he has won innumerable prizes over the last twenty years and is very much admired by artists. In the relatively unappreciated art form of watercolor, dealing in mysticism and subtlety, he slowly emerged as one of the most important symbolist painters, unrelated even to the latent symbolism of the recent Romantic Realists such as Leonid, Berman, and Tchelitchew.

At his October exhibition at Babcock Galleries his aristocratic and elegant paintings are seen at the zenith of achievement. In them he refers to many of the themes of the Symbolists of the turn of the century—Egypt, the lotus, the kiss, the moon, radiance, mist, revelations, Pegasus, the rainbow—and employs their self-aware isolating compositions, their tendency to sacrifice the whole to the details, and a certain number of oddities and mythological bric-a-brac, but in a unique and modernist revision.

They are spiritual paintings and his landscape is the landscape of the “beyond,” a desert without horizons, where sky and sand merge, where clouds congeal into images and riders appear in the sunset dust. Forms swell into clarity and the world is iridescent and vague. In his paintings, mauve shadows transform ordinary subjects into a land of magic where shells and flowers are metamorphosed into men and women.

What are the images in this nether world and landscape? They are angels of light and angels of memory, or prophets aspiring to an ideal world: self-portraits of the artist in his role as dreamer and magician, painted with philosophical concern for purity and idealism.

In an expanse of water or earth, solid objects defy the laws of gravity and soar before your eyes into a boundless space. Upward movement from the base of the frame through stratifications of limitless changing color becomes the theme for most of Avel de Knight’s paintings. The symbol of this upward striving, the mystery and order of the universe, is expressed in the image of the pyramid. Through montage and ambiguous space the pyramid thrusts its simple form, putting order to a landscape in a process of change, misty, bubbling, formless, and shimmering. Against a landscape too bright for the eyes to see, the images of dark brown, smooth-skinned, sensuous, idealized nudes or disembodied heads contrast the inner mystery and solitude of man with the outer mystery of light and space. The pyramid is the definition for the beginning and the end: a clear form that is also the ultimate mystery, just as pure form is the ultimate mystery, particularly to an artist. His pyramid is Mons Salvat, the mountain of salvation of the occult.

The paintings’ shapes—round like a mandala, arched like an altar, stratified like an ascensio—conspire to rivet one’s attention on the mystery. Resurrected figures are in the process of fulfilling their destinies and winged messengers are bringing the word of truth, armed with angular helmets of light which they wear like crowns of thorns. On their dusky blushing faces one sees small symbols tattooed like stitching, the artist literally drawing upon himself, upon his own body, sometimes in conjunction with spears or profiles that have cutting edges.

Shells often moved by the waves of life form into images of Venus Rising, not from the shells but made of shells, the spiral nautilus tossed into being by the forces of nature, the movements of the earth. The diminished sun, its reflection perceived on the moon, or the veiled sun, or the rainbow which is sunlight filtered through water: the filtered sun is a metaphor for the source of life. De Knight’s theme tends to be that of creation of order out of chaos, of the ideal out of the imperfect. It is inspirational, meditative, but not moralistic.

His painting of The Herald is a form of self-portrait: the artist, born from the shell and the water, holds the transparent universe on the tip of his fingers, conjuring the real world out of thin air. Floating insubstantially, pointing upward to his spiritual aspirations and with the other hand downward to the source of his creation and his material birth, greeting Aeolus who breathed life into him from roses with a kiss, the artist-herald remains inward, unknowable, sensuous, dreaming, and aloof.

These mirages in Avel de Knight’s paintings seem to be saying what the apparition in Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony said: “I am joyful and light of heart! I reveal to men dazzling prospects with paradises in the clouds and distant felicities. I fill their hearts with the eternal follies, plans for happiness, projects for the future, dreams of glory, declarations of love and virtuous resolutions. I urge them to embark on perilous travels and vast undertakings. …I search for new perfumes, bigger flowers, unknown pleasures.”

De Knight has the hallucinatory color of one who has apocalyptic visions: iridescent, pearl-like, golden, crystal, blinding light—the color of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the color of angels’ wings, an intense radiation. His symbolism is all of a piece, in color, in content, in composition, in technique, suited to his poetic truth and not an adopted attitude. He is related to artists tike Gustave Moreau in modes of thought but not in style.

His paintings are world-weary, autumnal, anticipating rebirth. They have a fragile powdery golden dust, a golden sand, a bloom over everything. In sunset and autumn, the time of day and time of year that closes everything in a golden haze, the eleventh hour, we see images holding their breath in a stillness that adds to their urgency.

These surprising works seem created out of man’s most ancient desires, translated into a reality closed to the light and noise of this present world. For a long time the secret of the pyramid has slept. Avel de Knight brings this image back to us with works which share its mystery of perfection, mathematical order, and endurance.