Jean Xceron, Greek by birth, came to the United States when he was fourteen years old. For the next six years he lived and worked with relatives in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and New York City. In 1910, determined to be an artist, he moved to Washington, D.C., and enrolled in classes at the Corcoran School of Art. At the Corcoran, where the curriculum focused on the traditional academic practice of drawing from plaster casts, Xceron perfected his skills as a draftsman. He first encountered modernism when, in 1916, two fellow students arranged an exhibition of avant-garde paintings borrowed from Alfred Stieglitz. The show made a deep impression on Xceron, whose own appreciation for flat color and expressive distortion paralleled the work being done by others.
In 1920, Xceron moved to New York and became friends with Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, and Joseph Stella. He exhibited in the New York Independents' exhibitions in 1921 and 1922. In New York, Xceron studied Céanne and read as much as possible about new artistic movements abroad. Xceron was finally able to travel to Paris in 1927. There he began writing reviews of the latest in art for the Boston Evening Transcript and the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. His articles on Jean Hélion, Hans Arp, John Graham, Theo Van Doesburg, and other artists showed his increasingly sophisticated understanding of recent art. About the same time, his own painting underwent a dramatic transition. As a writer, he was quickly accepted into the Parisian art world as one of the few critics sympathetic to modern art; but few realized that Xceron was an accomplished painter as well. Soon, however, members of the Parisian Greek community became aware of Xceron's talents, and Christian Zervos, editor of the influential magazine Cahiers d'Art, arranged a solo exhibition at the Galèrie de France in 1931. Visitors to this first exhibition saw an artist who was working his way through Cubism. Still-life and figural motifs remained prominent, but the artist was striving to capture rhythmic and fluid movement rather than solid form. Over the next several years, Xceron moved away from his figural foundations, introducing at first gridlike structural patterns and, by the mid 1930s, planar arrangements of severe Constructivist purity.
When Xceron returned to New York in 1935 for an exhibition at the Garland Gallery, he was among the inner circle of Abstraction-Création and other leading Parisian art groups. Moreover, he had achieved some reputation. He again visited New York in 1937 for a show at Nierendorf Gallery. Although planning only a visit, his move proved permanent. Xceron soon joined the American Abstract Artists, who welcomed him as a leading Parisian artist. Despite his reputation, however, he fared little better commercially than did his new colleagues. He was hired by the WPA Federal Art Project and executed an abstract mural for the chapel at Riker's Island Penitentiary. In 1939 he began working for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, where he remained for the rest of his career.
Portrait No. 61 andPortrait No. 38, both of 1932, represent midway points in Xceron's artistic development. Created several years after his move to Paris, they reflect Xceron's simultaneous commitment to a tactile surface and the rhythmic movement of line and form. By the early thirties, Xceron was fully indoctrinated into the aesthetics of De Stijl, but had not yet accepted the geometric formulation of spatial balance that would shape his work during the mid 1930s. The muted palette of soft gray tones in the portraits had not yet yielded to the vibrant, almost optical color that became his hallmark during the geometric phase of his work. By the late 1930s, Xceron's paintings took on striking similarities to Kandinsky's work of the mid 1920s, and works like Watercolor #308 (1947) show parallels with the paintings of Rudolf Bauer that played so prominent a role in the exhibitions Hilla Rebay presented at the Guggenheim Foundation and later at the at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. This connection with Rebay meant that Xceron never became closely involved with the inner circle of the American Abstract Artists. They, for the most part, rejected the mystical notions of art propounded by the influential baroness.(1)
1. The anti-Rebay stance taken by several members of the American Abstract Artists is described in greater detail in Hananiah Harari's catalogue entry.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)