Perhaps art critic Henry McBride said it best: “Theodore has the gift for painting.” In fact, when Theodore Czebotar (1915-1996) burst onto the New York art scene in 1936, he created, The New Yorker reported with obvious delight, “something of a sensation in artistic circles here.” His originality, exuberance and, Art News noted, a “combination of reserve and passion,” brought him the kind of attention a young painter could only dream of then. That he had an intriguing, complex and captivating personality was icing on the artistic cake. At once shy, introspective, headstrong and opinionated, Czebotar was bound from the beginning to a deeply personal artistic vision that would broach no compromise.
Largely self-taught, Czebotar honed his early skills during extensive travels in the west when he left his Racine, Wisconsin home to hop trains and hitchhike the length of the American west coast. So poor he once spent four months in a Hobo camp in Denver, the budding artist traded sketches for food and found shelter in obliging farm fields and cemeteries.
In the fall of 1936, Czebotar turned the sketches from his wanderings as well as images of his family life into watercolors and oils as well as ink, graphite, conté and gouache works on paper. In a stroke of good fortune, his work caught the attention of prominent American Regionalist John Steuart Curry, who recommended Czebotar to his own agent, Maynard Walker, a highly regarded New York gallery owner and the impresario of the American Regionalist movement. Embraced by Walker, Czebotar’s work debuted at his first one-man show on December 20, 1937. For the next decade his work was shown at noted galleries and museums across the country including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Albany Institute of History and Art, the Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Czebotar eventually relocated to New York City and finally to Fishkill, New York, purchasing the small home/studio of his friend and fellow artist, Joe Jones. In the rural enclave 60 miles north of Manhattan, Czebotar found the isolation and solitude he craved. Although he continued to visit the city and remained acutely aware of artistic trends, Czebotar eventually withdrew from the art world himself. Like his friend William Saroyan, the celebrated playwright and author, Czebotar came to believe that art and commerce should not mix. Away from the demands of a fickle public, Czebotar kept his own counsel, painting late into the night.
Beginning in the 1950s, Czebotar made an annual trek west to the state of Washington with his Dutch wife, Els Snapper (an artist in her own right who specialized in cut-paper collage). Camping in the wilds of the rugged Olympic Peninsula, Czebotar sketched everyday, wandering alone for hours through shorelines misted by constant rain. Mesmerized by the aboriginal tenor of the remote location, he filled endless notebooks with sketches of the darkened sea and of the driftwood that littered the coast in great mounds. Painted in final form back in the quiet of the Fishkill studio, these became the signature expression of the mature artist’s captivating talent, his final muse.
Czebotar insisted that the Olympic Peninsula works were not an abstract reduction of what he saw but exact representations of actual scenes. He did not title any of these paintings and–perhaps in an act of rebellion against what was expected and assumed–he only occasionally signed these and other works.
After Czebotar’s death in 1996, patrons, friends and family members joined forces to shine a light on the exceptional work he deliberately kept from view. It’s difficult to know how he would react to this effort; normally affable, he never-the-less could turn the request for a painting into an uncomfortable exchange. More than a few were met with the sting of his stony silence if they dared express an interest in purchasing one of his works.
Nonetheless, in a era overflowing with crazes and contrivances, the time is ripe to rediscover this gifted American modernist. No longer hidden, his works can finally take center stage and a new audience can take pleasure in an uncommon vision rendered with quiet confidence for more than 60 years.