July 15, 1935 – October 30, 2019
In the alpha and in the omega,
coming in a world without end
we humbly ask:
How do you measure a Life?
Do you measure
inch by inch,
foot by foot, or
yard by yard?
Carrie-May Weems 2019
A widely-respected artist, educator, and community activist from Oakland, CA.
Brooklyn-born, Bedford Stuyvesant District 1935, Arthur Monroe attended Boys High and spent his formative years in New York City. He grew up in the city, where his close friends Max Roach, Amiri Baraka, Charles Lloyd, Harvey Tristan Cropper, and Charlie “Bird” Parker who encouraged him “to know his axe;” that is, to know and celebrate his talent as a painter. He took this advice to heart, making art his lifelong passion. Arthur Monroe immersed himself in the exciting milieu of Manhattan’s East Village. He had a studio facing Willem De Kooning's. He hung around the Cedar Street Bar, where he knew some of the most acclaimed Abstract Expressionists, including De Kooning, Norman Lewis, Franz Klein and Jay DeFeo.
The young Arthur Monroe felt a need to examine non-European sources of visual art and left New York to travel in search of them in Mexico, particularly the sources inherent in the cultures of the Mayans, Zapotecans, Michteans, and Olmecans. He wished to become involved intimately with cultures that offered spiritual, philosophic and aesthetic viewpoints different from his background in the mainstream art world of New York.
However, Arthur Monroe remained committed to his Abstract Expressionist roots. They have continually provided him with an approach to express himself in his search for new visual truths. He may spend as much as three years on a painting, engaging with it in an interior dialogue and anguishing over each stage of its development. He is unable to paint anything that isn't an expression of a laboriously-evolved visual turth. Unlike many artists since the 1960s, Monroe eschews drawings as an executional expedient, feeling that this will only reflect what comes off the top of the mind superficially. Initial ideas become extensively transformed as inner truths struggle to be realized.
Nothing is clear ahead of time; Arthur Monroe works more as a scientist asking a myriad of questions before he finds his hypothesis. Many painters bypass this process because they don't even know that it exists. An artist learns from mistakes, as if the stone knows more about the sculpture than the sculptor himself. Arthur Monroe faces his materials as a challenge; the more he handles them, the more he appreciates what they might do.
Visual innovations are a by-product of the same laborious process of Monroe's involvement with the medium. A finished painting is unique unto itself and never serves as a prototype for linearly-serialized visual statements. As in the live/work spaces for artists and helped develop the first state-wide conference of works to gain cooperation in stabilizing black artists. Arthur was a speaker at the First International Ecocity Conference and has served on the Steering Committee for all of the International Ecocity Conferences. As in the purest era of Abstract Expressionism, extraneous concerns such as ideological stances never dictate the outcome of a painting.
Arthur Monroe remains enchanted by the Abstract Expressionist penchant for large-scale work. He observes that while European Modernist art before World War II was monumental in concept, it wasn't always large in scale. He was initially attracted to American Abstract Expressionistic paintings that had the potential to make their impact much greater on the viewer by altering the scale of the work. Monroe continues to find that the space between the painting and the viewer becomes more charged because of the enlarged forms, colors, and brushwork.
Since Arthur Monroe left New York, he has immersed himself in an investigation of non-European cultures extending from Nigeria to the Amazon. He has taken his cue as an artist from T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes, who said you really can't write poems until you learn to think in another language. Monroe remains the prototypical underground artist who believes, as Hughes did, that you really don't understand yourself, your culture, or your art until you understand what is in the person who has the least. Monroe also believes that this applies to the art scene, with each art movement being an important link and none being more important than another.
Mr. Monroe moved to the California Bay Area in the 1950s following his service in the Korean War. He was a part of the region’s abstract expressionist art scene and communed with the Beat Generation of writers, musicians, poets, and painters in North Beach. It was there he became a close friend to art collector Dr. Reidar Wennesland. As Dr. Wennesland collected works from Beat Generation artists, Mr. Monroe’s paintings were distinguished as the only pieces by an African American artist. When Dr. Wennesland moved his art to his homeland of Norway, it became the largest collection of Beat Generation Art outside of the United States. Dr. Wennesland’s collection is currently housed in two locations in Oslo and Christensen.
Mr. Monroe moved to Oakland in 1976, a widely-respected artist, educator, and community activist, where he lived, worked, and painted for the next 43 years. He worked at the Oakland Museum of California for 35 years as a chief registrar, taking great care and pride in his role of tending to significant art and history collections. Mr. Monroe was a professor of African American studies at the University of Berkeley and San Jose State College.
During this time, Mr. Monroe moved into the Oakland Cannery on San Leonardo Street in East Oakland, a space he converted from an industrial warehouse into the first legal live-work space for artists in the city. Mr. Monroe worked in this pioneering space for the rest of his life and advocated for the creation and protection of similar spaces in the Bay Area with his son, Alistair, who manages the family estate and is an inner-city, community-based, cultural arts producer, Alistair founded the North Beach Jazz Festival in San Francisco and Oakland’s newest cultural arts festival FESTAC. He is family to Pier 23 Café San Francisco and Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur CA. He works to enrich and beautify urban environments through humanitarian and education platforms. Working with a wide variety of neighborhoods, Alistair inherited the creative process through community arts organizations.
Mr. Monroe’s work expresses profound beauty, truth, innovation, and passion, remaining committed to his abstract expressionist roots and Oakland’s arts community. His personal correspondence and papers have been donated to the Smithsonian Institute of American Archives for research and exhibition with materials from Evangeline Montgomery and Mary Lovelace O’Neal. Further, his art has been added to the personal collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.