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Big man, big legacy: Artwork of 'Big Al' Carter comes to ASU

portrait of Allen "Big Al" Carter painting

The late Allen "Big Al" Carter was classically trained, but the artist presented himself as an outsider to the fine arts world, someone who was just “trying stuff” and “messing around.”
Photo by: D.A. Peterson

June 25, 2015

An artist who refused labels, Allen "Big Al" Carter fused styles and invented techniques to share his vision with the world.

More than 80 of his powerful paintings, sculptures, drawings and assemblages are on view this summer at the ASU Art Museum, thanks to Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Dean Steven J. Tepper.

Tepper first met Allen “Big Al” Carter in 1992, when Tepper commissioned the artist to create a mural for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s 200th anniversary.

“I knew, from the beginning, that I was in the presence of an epic creative force whose work would leave a huge legacy,” Tepper said. Standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall, “Al had a big laugh, a big personality, a big imagination, a big heart and immense talent.”

Over the course of the next decade and a half years, Tepper visited Carter’s studio in Virginia every chance he got, “enveloping myself in more than 10,000 works of art, crammed into a 750-square-foot house,” Tepper said. The two men became friends.

After Carter died of complications from diabetes in 2008, his daughters allowed Tepper, who was then the associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, to curate the first posthumous exhibition of their father’s life’s work. The show opened at the Curb Center in 2010.

Now Tepper is bringing Carter’s unique vision to ASU’s Tempe campus. Featuring more than 80 pieces, “Big Al: Larger Than Life” opened June 6 at the ASU Art Museum, with additional works to be displayed in Dixie Gammage Hall, which houses the dean’s office, later in the summer.

“I am honored to share [this exhibition] with our community,” Tepper said. "Allen Carter was a prolific painter whose life and work represents the very best ideals that we are advancing at the Herberger Institute.”

“While Big Al was classically trained,” Tepper explained, “he was constantly fusing styles and media and inventing techniques. He was an artist-teacher, an artist-citizen and an artist-community builder. His work drew powerfully from his own experiences but was always deeply connected to exploring and investigating central issues of our times — poverty, inequality, suffering and family.”

As Tepper writes in an essay that accompanies the show, Carter presented himself as an outsider to the fine arts world, someone who was just “trying stuff,” “messing around” and “having fun.” But Carter was also someone who had earned his BFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, pursued graduate work at American University, received critical acclaim from critics in Washington and New York, and exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery of Art, both in Washington, D.C.; the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond; and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Carter refused labels of any kind, Tepper notes, but was keenly aware of technique and had a firm grasp of artistic tradition. His influences included James McNeill Whistler, Henri Matisse, Robert Rauschenberg, Elijah Pierce, Sam Gilliam and artists from Black Mountain College, including Josef Albers. He worked in a wide variety of media: painting, drawing, murals, printmaking, sculpture and photography, as well as in multimedia constructions.

Growing up in the public-housing complexes of Virginia in the ‘50s, Carter was driven by a passion to draw everything he saw. It was not a passion his parents encouraged, Carter told The Washington Post in 2006, but “I was gifted in art, so I never stopped. There weren’t any gifted and talented programs back when I was coming up. So they all just thought I was weird.”

Carter remained true to the beat of his own dream, and to art, for the rest of his life. Not interested in prestigious dealers or conventional ideas of success, he made his living teaching art in Virginia’s public schools for decades. He also declined to date most of his work, partly because he was bad with dates, partly because he liked to continue working on the pieces, and partly because, as Tepper writes, “He did not want his life set down in a neat chronology or simple narrative.”

As Carter himself put it, “My art is my freedom.”

“Big Al: Larger Than Life” runs June 6-Aug. 22 at the ASU Art Museum. It was curated by Dana and Steven J. Tepper and designed by Stephen Johnson, chief preparator at the ASU Art Museum. All works in the exhibition are on loan from Flora Stone and Cecilia Carter. The exhibition is supported by the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and by the Evelyn Smith Exhibition Fund. 

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