The objects in this still life are candidly imperfect: all the bananas have spots; the apples are mottled or appear to have bruises. Still, their colors are vibrant and the table is replete. More of Kallem’s attention has been devoted to less-than-perfect reflections, in ghostly shades upon a table or in the copper jug. Reflected in the jug, it appears that we see the painter in silhouette, with light coming in from a window over his right shoulder.
About the Artist: Born in Philadelphia to immigrant parents, Kallem learned to paint from his father Morris, a portraitist (his brother was the sculptor Herbert Kallem). He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. At some point during the 1920s the family moved to New York where Henry set up and likely lived in a studio. He became friends with modernist artists who have come to be called the “28th Street” group because they gathered at the Henry and David Rothman Frame Shop at that location. Like many other artists, Kallem’s subject matter during the Great Depression became more explicitly political; his paintings included “The Sweatshop,” “Subway Construction,” and “Mill Town”—the latter appearing in a 1939 show at the Federal Art Gallery with NDG artists Harold Baumbach, Bena Frank, and James Guy. Starting in 1938 he was part of a five-person group that called themselves the “New York Realists”: Kallem, Max Frankel, Herbert Kallem, Morris Neuwirth, and Morris Shulman. He also joined a working group of artists encouraging closer cooperation with the American Labor Party. During World War II Kallem worked as an aircraft factory toolmaker, then returned to painting. In a nationwide 1947 competition, his “Country Tenement” was awarded first prize and prompted controversy due to this mainstreaming of abstract art. The controversy also may have been due to its gritty content, for Kallem said, “My idea was to show how I felt upon seeing this scene one evening in the country—all the people crowded into one building with all that space around”(“Prize”). His postwar work moved in the direction of formal abstraction and landscapes, the two not necessarily separate. In 1955, a review called his paintings “subtle, quiet affairs, in which he achieves movement and depth through relationships of graded tones and colors. The approach seems free and easy, but there is a lot more to his work than first meets the eye” (Driscoll). 2 works at Portland Museum of Art. 3 more images at FAP.
Sources Consulted: Edgar Driscoll, Jr., “Copley Society Presents Pleasing Members’ Show,” Boston Globe 9 Jan. 1955: 39; “Prize Art Satirizes the Housing Shortage,” New York Evening Post 30 Sept. 1945: 5