After graduation, Christenberry was invited to join the faculty, to reach drawing and design, and it was during this period chat he discovered Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the spring of 1961, Christenberry moved to New York City. He remained there for a year, worked eight different jobs, and immersed himself in the art world. Although he describes this year as “a dry spell” in which he did not produce any artwork, he did manage to meet Bella Fishko, founder of Forum Gallery, and Walker Evans, who at the time was working at Fortune magazine. Christenberry and Evans became lifelong friends and, years later, they would travel back to Alabama together to visit some of the places Evans had photographed in 1936.
Returning to his native South in 1962, Christenberry accepted a reaching position at Memphis State University and began creating three-dimensional constructions using signs and found objects. His work was now profoundly affected by the sense of place and “the smell of that landscape” that he felt had been so well expressed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Bound up in Christenberry’s interest in place was a related issue: his abhorrence of racism and violence. That year, in Memphis, he exhibited at a faculty show two large paintings, both titled Hate, which used images of the Ku Klux Klan. He was subsequently reprimanded by the dean, who had received numerous complaints about the subject matter of the paintings.
“Some people have told me that this subject is not the proper concern of an artist or art,” Christenberry said later. “On the contrary, I hold the position that there are times when an artist muse examine and reveal such
strange and secret brutality.”
[I]n Memphis, he exhibited at a faculty show two large paintings, both titled Hate, which used images of the Ku Klux Klan. He was subsequently reprimanded by the dean, who had received numerous complaints about the subject matter of the paintings.
Not long after the robbery, Christenberry dreamed of strange, pointed, three-dimensional, triangular-shaped objects, heavily colored and layered with signs and paint. The dream was so vivid that he felt compelled to create a series of monuments, which will be included in an exhibition. Viewers were able to walk through an area of “Dream Buildings'” ranging from four to nine feet high and similar in shape to both a church steeple and the cone-shaped hat of a Klansman. Christenberry’s Tenant House series of paintings, photographs, and studies were also part of the “Early Years” exhibit.
Christenberry continues co receive both local and national acclaim. In May 1997, he was honored with the Distinguished Artist Award from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. In Alabama, his works are in the permanent collections of the Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile museums of art; nationally, his art is in the Morris Museum of Art, the Phillips Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of American Art.
The “Early Years” exhibition presents paintings and constructions from a crucial period in the artist’s development. For years, many of these canvases were largely forgotten in Christenberry’s attic. A few were exhibited in 1982 and were subsequently purchased by Richard Belger. The Belger Family Foundation later sponsored the framing, conservation, and photography for the exhibition’s catalogue.
This article was previously published in Alabama Heritage Issue #49, Summer 1998.
Susan Sipple Elliott is the assistant curator of painting, sculpture, and works on paper at the Birmingham Museum of Art.