Compulsive Painter Defied Stylistic Trends

Allen "Big Al" Carter, here in 2006, painted obsessively, but was never fully comfortable in the world of art galleries. (By David Peterson -- The Washington Post Magazine)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Allen D. "Big Al" Carter, an immensely productive artist who defied stylistic trends and commercial expectations to pursue his singular vision on no one's terms but his own, died Dec. 18 of complications from diabetes at Virginia Hospital Center. He was 61 and lived in Alexandria.

Mr. Carter had exhibited his works widely since the 1970s, often receiving ecstatic reviews from critics, but he was never fully comfortable with the world of art galleries and patrons. Instead, he spent 30 years teaching in alternative schools in Arlington County while compulsively drawing and painting at home.

His work is in the permanent collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and, during the past three years, was featured in museum exhibitions in North Carolina and Minnesota. He was also a photographer early in his career, and his photographs of elderly relatives in rural Virginia were featured at the Alexandria Black History Museum in 2007.

Mr. Carter sold some of his artwork to friends and collectors, but he was reluctant to part with much of it. Working feverishly at all hours of the day and night, he amassed a cache of thousands of paintings, drawings and collages that varied from wall-size murals to miniature watercolors that could fit in the palm of his hand. Most of his art has never been seen in public.

"He is a particular type of Washington artist," Mary Battiata wrote in The Washington Post Magazine in 2006, "someone who was understood by peers to have the promise to make it in New York, but who for one reason or another -- temperament, taste, fear, arrogance or some combination -- decided to stay here and fashion a different, quieter career and life."

Mr. Carter stood 6 feet 3 inches, weighed 340 pounds and possessed a gregarious, larger-than-life personality that made him an unforgettable character to many who knew him. He was known to one and all -- including himself -- as "Big Al" or just "Big."

He was sometimes perceived as an unschooled "outsider" artist, but in fact he had a solid education in art history and technique.

"Carter's art is protean, large-hearted, never prissy," Washington Post critic Paul Richard wrote of a 1985 exhibition at a local gallery. "Warmth pours from the walls. To walk into the gallery is to accept Big Al's embrace."

A 1990 New York Times review said his paintings "suggest boundless, uncontrollable freedom . . . [a] complex world of reality, dream and art."

Despite such acclaim, Mr. Carter did not allow his artwork to be shown in the country's art capital, New York, where he could have found greater renown and remuneration. He thought the commissions charged by art galleries were too high and broke with his longtime Washington gallery more than five years ago.

Much to the annoyance of curators and collectors, Mr. Carter did not date his paintings and offered only vague hints at when they were made. He painted on canvas, TV trays, lampshades, boat rudders and home-movie screens, and incorporated musical instruments, brushes, wood and other objects into works. He often used house paint and rummaged through trash bins behind art stores for half-used tubes of oil and acrylic paint.

He marched freely across the borderlines of artistic styles, combining abstraction and swirls of pure energy with recognizable landscapes and portraits. His strong lines reminded some viewers of modern-art pioneer Georges Rouault. Other critics likened his multimedia constructions to those of Robert Rauschenberg, but Mr. Carter thought such comparisons slighted his originality.

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