Gallery Artists > Henry Casselli Biography :

Henry Casselli (b. 1946)  Artworks >>

A currently touring retrospective of the art of Henry Casselli is an especially significant milestone in his career. When the New Orleans Museum of Art was founded in 1910, it relied upon the citys independent art organizations to sponsor its exhibition programs. Among them was the Art Association of New Orleans, which has remained active to the present. In 1964 the Art Association recognized Cassellis youthful talent by awarding him a scholarship, his first important public acknowledgement, enabling him to gain the kind of professional art instruction that would sustain his earliest ambitions to become an artist. Thus, after thirty-six years, the faith placed in him by the Art Association has been amply vindicated; Henry Cassellis career has come full circle with this, his first major retrospective exhibition. Cassellis life and art intersect inexorably with that of New Orleans. Born in the racially mixed Ninth Ward near the French Quarter, he has a firm grasp of the realities that permeate the daily experiences of ordinary people, particularly in that section of the city. His work has taken him far afield, such as his involvement with the NASA "Artistry in Space" project, but his attachment to his roots in New Orleans remains at the heart of Cassellis abiding concern as a painter whose primary focus is fixed on the qualities that he finds in his encounter with the life around him. These concerns for the human experience are essential to his work and form its dominant character. Casselli began his studies in New Orleans at the McCrady School of Fine and Applied Arts in 1964. John McCrady (1911-1968) was an influence on Cassellis direction, certainly; but, McCradys principal function as a teacher was largely to affirm the rightness of Cassellis natural inclinations. As early as his second year at the McCrady School, Cassellis mentor was confident enough to invite him to join the faculty as an assistant instructor. Casselli matured at the McCrady School through sheer application to work and, as he says, from learning from "every piece of art Ive ever seen," which included reproductions he found in books. The war in Vietnam escalated in the early years of the Johnson Administration, and Casselli found himself drawn into the conflict even as he was beginning to flourish at the McCrady School. While it is not unusual for the military to convert barbers in civilian life into bakers, the Marine Corps, to its credit, recognized Cassellis gifts. He was duly assigned the position of "combat artist." This was not a "rear echelon" dispensation, however. Casselli was sent to Vietnam, and immediately saw action in the massive Tet Offensive launched by the Viet Cong. As he recalls, "Within three days of my arrival, I was knee-deep in war. I had to be a Marine first just to survive." Somehow, he managed to summon the will to commit himself to sketching what he witnessed of the war, the "hell and the unspeakable horrors of Vietnam," as he says. Many of these drawings (above: Young Men Growing Old) are remarkable for their quality of a gritty intensity, utterly devoid of any inclination toward academic finesse. Looking at them, one feels not only "knee-deep in war," but also knee-deep in the mud of Vietnam and the anguish of the combatants. The sense of immediacy in Cassellis combat drawings and paintings is what distinguishes them as works of art; moreover, as documents of a momentous period of United States history, they are of lasting importance. Both of these aspects would emerge again in 1980, when he was invited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to serve as one of its official artists, with the assignment to record the preparations for Americas first Space Shuttle launch. His Vietnam drawings in the United States Marine Corps Museum collection were part of the impetus for NASAs overture, since it was looking for an artist who had prove

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