“Turn not from gloomy madness.”

probst-february-christ.jpg

Here’s a painting by a guy who dared to paint Jesus Christ. Joachim Probst was his name, and he did it in the 1950s.

Probst chose what was then, as it is now, the most controversial, outside-the-mainstream subject imaginable for serious art. It’s a vagary of the post-war Weltanschauung, and a sublime irony as well, that in a big-business, big-media art world given over almost entirely to shock and irony, nothing is more shocking than an image that dominated Western art for 2,000 years. You want to snicker, Saatchi-like, at the masses as they howl before your perpetrated outrage? Then out-Saatchi Saatchi. Skip the eviscerated sharks in aspic. Skip the Virgin smeared in elephant crap, and just show them Jesus. Not Piss Jesus, not Eviscerated Elephant Crap Jesus. Just the man himself, straight up, portrayed by someone who believes or is terrified.

Mel Gibson will tell you the same thing. Well, not exactly. I don’t think his intent was to snicker at the masses. But he created a monster.

Back to Joachim Probst who seems to have been a legitimate Greenwich Village madman. Here is his brief autobiography:

“I was born September 1, 1913, in New York City. Self-taught. Through my endeavor to seek self-esteem, I became a misanthrope with a firm hand on delusion. This brilliance soon introduced me into poverty, and with so fearful a future granted me, I coined and struck this phrase, ‘Art is the stand against decay.’ And with this in mind, I entered my paradise of immortality. And with this paradise came my hell. And in hell I called on Satan.

O noble Son of God
‘Consider my madness.
I am a lunatic without an asylum,
Even a cripple without a crutch,
Surely the angels must weep for me.’

I feared, I trembled, and I painted. I stood in dark places (clothed in black) calling, ‘Would’st that I could take a sure step in a sure direction.’ Alas, Satan spoke. ‘God thou shalt never know, guilt is thy name. Art thou shalt have, best be thy lot an instrument to uphold the faith, Art thou shalt have. Sing thee Christ forever. Will is woe, woe is thy will, change “me” to “I,” brevity is thy purity—Seek the pact, turn not from gloomy madness. Despair is thy mother.’”—From an article in Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture, University of Illinois, 1959.

In the catalog for an exhibit of Probst’s work at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1962, the Rt. Rev. James A. Pike, Bishop of California, wrote:

Joachim Probst is one of the few contemporary artists who has recklessly committed himself to deal with the ultimate symbols themselves; the Christ, the Mother, King David…and Ahab. These are some of the figures he dares to paint.

“Christ painter, go away,” was the epithet hurled at Probst by some of the Greenwich Viallage habitues who paint. Our Cathedral church again pushes the lesser over and makes room for the Christ painter who uses the contemporary idiom that few others can handle with any but non-objective work. This artist with unique defining power comes among us. His Christ will cause many of us to tremble as we are confronted by Him.

Greenwich Village hasn’t changed much from the place Pike describes. And his description of Probst is very powerful, I think. Few, indeed, can deliver these images, can handle this truth in paint–Christ, King David, Ahab.

My friend Paul Weingarten, a painter, would see Probst in the Village back in the ’60s. He never spoke to him. Few people did.

So, the Christ painter. Irony trumps irony, and we see through a glass clearly. Some tremble.

Painting: February Christ by Joachim Probst

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49 Responses to ““Turn not from gloomy madness.””

  1. mrschili Says:

    Ah, yes; the ineffable. Perhaps this is one of the things about art that both intrigues and intimidates me: I can grasp the ineffable in texts (as oxymoronic as that may sound), but have less confidence when doing so with paintings, drawings or sculptures.

    Though my education allows me to speak most authoritatively about the whale hunter, I recognize that the subjects mentioned in the piece – Christ, the Mother, Kind David, Ahab – all have meaning far beyond the words that are used to tell their stories. Artists, whether they work with words or paints, feel compelled to figure out a way to represent these unspeakable things, be they are represented by the Christ, Ahab, the Creature or any other physical thing that transcends its outlines. It’s that “reach exceeding the grasp” thing again, and we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

    Sometimes we get it right for ourselves, sometimes we get it right for others and sometimes, in rare strokes of (accidental?) masterpiece, we get it right for both. THAT, I think, is why we continue to try to express the ineffable. When we DO get it right, we ARE able to turn from gloomy madness and experience a connectedness with ourselves and the Universe that we spend our entire existence seeking.

  2. Birdie Says:

    “Christ painter, go away”

    That right there tells you the man had some kind of connection to the best part of the source – the part that spits out those bits of truth that make your fingers bleed as you type/paint/think. I don’t know that madness isn’t a gift. In my most mad moments, and in the overwhelming malevolent black pitch I wandered the past months, I have felt something grab me, something that I only feel in these moments, and it gives me pieces of my own identity I never see otherwise. Knowledge, the translation of it, it all comes with such a price.

    Not sure that made any sense, too hard to put into words. I guess I just want to say I admire the madman in anyone who has the guts to pull Christ’s/Ahab’s/etc’s soul out in the open.

  3. Todd Says:

    That is an amazing painting. What a story.

  4. colleen Says:

    It’s very haunting and yet I want to look. I think of the crucifixion. The painter reminds me of some of the mystics we read about in my satsang.

    I’m still wondering if the artist in Greenich Village is still doing mosaics on the lamp posts.

  5. Pearl Says:

    Interesting story. Painting are usually better I find with some frame of historical personal context.

  6. Isabella McFarlin Says:

    Yes, Probst was mad. He and my parents, Irving Fiske (playwright) and Barbara Hall Fiske (painter and cartoonist) were close friends– they tried to help him and believed him a genius. He seems to have had some kind of fixation on my mother, and would burst into our farmhouse in Vermont from time to time during the 1950s, threatening my brother and me, and once (allegedly) trying to throw a cat into a fire. He also threatened, and this I remember, to burn down our barn. My parents and he had probably a more complex relationship than I can ever know, but it was no fun to fear his sudden appearances in my childhood.
    Whether he was a good painter or not, I really cannot say. My mother is a far better one and unfortunately, she is at present little known!

  7. Interesting Feedback « Waiting for Cassowary Says:

    […] this month, I wrote about Joachim Probst, a strange and wonderful painter. I described him as legitimately mad. The following showed up in […]

  8. Jack Probst's daughter Says:

    Joachim’s Probst’s daughter says..

    I expect anyone interested enough in this artist..
    To contact me ASAP for some straight talk..
    lexingtonave37@yahoo.com

    Harriet Hay

  9. Jack Probst's daughter Says:

    Joachim Probst’s daughter says..

    Please

  10. Penny Holmes (Human) Says:

    Are you related to Ahab ? I met him in Maine in the Summer of 1977, we were consellors at Dr (?) Johnsons summer camp. I have wondered so often as what happened to him.

  11. David Says:

    I purchased a piece of art this weekend that is signed by Probst. What is the best way of going about having it appraised, or to find recent sales of his work?

  12. Arleen Says:

    I have an oil painting titled “Motif” by Probst. It is framed by Artists shop on Christopher St and the date 1966 is on the back. The painting is signed by Probst. Is this painting worth anything?

  13. Probst's daughter Says:

    Arleen..
    Undoubtedly the oil painting Motif by Probst dated 1966 ..
    Is worth something..

    I’d do just about anything to have it..

    Yet beauty is in the eye of the beholder..
    Currently my fathers work (the ordinary stuff) in circulation..
    Doesn’t appear to be fetching high prices..
    Like it once did back in the old days..
    But I could be mistaken..

    The man was prolific & out the the thousands of pieces he did..
    Some were not as good as others..

    Why not advertise the piece on EBay..
    HH

  14. Arleen Says:

    Thank you for your response regarding my painting “Motif”. Someone had given this painting to me years ago and I had it packed away meaning to find out more about the painting and the painter. We just recently moved out of state and while unpacking I found the painting. Once I get settled, I will try advertising on EBay as you suggested.

  15. Simone Sheppard Says:

    I knew Probst back in Greenwich Village in the late 60s and 70s, a close friend, a dear man and it disturbs me to hear him called a ‘madman’. I have several paintings, some of which he dedicated to me and my family. My connection was with Richard Campbell who opened a studio in Manhatten and ran the longest one man art show known then in New York. He carried only Jack’s paintings and non other for over a year. My name has changed but not the fond memories of time spent at his studio or in restaurants in the 14th St. area and village.

  16. Probst's daughter Says:

    To Simone Sheppard..
    Encouraged to reply when I found your comment added here..
    Concerning my father, Joachim Probst..
    You stated you knew him.. Well I didn’t..
    Probst dropped out of his childrens lives almost from their beginning..
    Anyway, I occasionally check the various sites were he’s mentioned..
    I too was taken aback by the comment describing Probst as a madman.. That was a widely held belief in those days..
    Poverty probably did a lot of the talking for him..
    You said you met with JP socially..
    From that vantage point would you care to tell me something about him..
    I was born in 1951 & during the 60’s & 70’s..
    My mother (a Greenwich Village local) was out of his life..
    lexingtonave37@yahoo.com

  17. S.Koltnow Says:

    Having just read this review,
    I wanted to comment that, as a child, I knew Probst. His paintings were sold in my parent’s art gallery, in the village.
    Probst was a formidable figure,but unfailingly kind and gentle. He often borrowed money from my father, and sometimes paid it back. I have a piano music book that Probst gave me, with a message and his signature, which I still cherish. HIs paintings are the realities of his thinking, and are remarkable for their strength. A madman – no; a man true to himself, certainly.

    • Valerie Stevenson Says:

      I am wondering if you know anything about the artist NAIR. I have found 2 pieces with Koltnow Gallery on the back that were my parents and am looking for information on the artist.

  18. S.Koltnow Says:

    To Arlene,
    given the location of the”artist’s shop, I am almost certain, that your painting was framed in my parent’s shop
    ( which had been on Sheridan Square for years, but was later moved to Christopher street.

  19. carlos Says:

    I have Madonna and child painting signed in the front and with the date 1960. I fell in love with it when I bought at the age of 19. I walk in to my home everyday and wonder at it. I didn’t know and don’t know about the painter and wonder if Joachim is the person behind this imagry that impales my every day. Looking for some direction.

    Carlos

  20. Joachim's daughter Says:

    To Carlos..
    You’ve come to the right place.. I’m the artists daughter..
    Altho I’m not in the business of buying or selling my father’s work..
    I can tell you The Madonna & Child was a motif Probst often painted..
    I’m sure it’s quite breathtaking..
    Why not set your piece off with another Probst painting..
    So would you describe the piece you have in terms of it’s color..
    How long you’ve had it & where you came upon it..
    I’ve already responded to your email sent yesterday to me..
    So let’s hear from you..
    Harriet Hay
    lexingtonave37@yahoo.com

    All I can say is I’ve answered the email you sent me

  21. Rick Says:

    This dates back a bit. There is some objection to my referring to Probst as a “mad man”. Understandable. I did so for effect based on his own characterization of what he called his madness. Of course, I realize that he was a great artist who lived by a solitary code and calling. I didn’t mean to offend–if anything I mean to dismiss a term that is often hurled at visionaries.

    RM

  22. Julia Says:

    I am looking for information regarding The Artists Shop, ( 9 Christopher Street, Chelsea) I also have two prints/etchings which were framed there, but can not recognize the signatures.
    Thanks for any feedback.

  23. Ross Lewis Says:

    Acquired an original Joachim Probst ink drawing/wash (signed/dated 1946) Absolutely wonderful. Not a crucifiction, but elements with a figure in tattered clothing, possibly Christ or self portrait. Thanx HH, Ross

    p.s. Colleen, lampost mosaic artist IS still around, see him often in E. Village.

  24. Rick Says:

    I’m so happy that this post gets input so steadily. Julia, I have no info that would be helpful to you, but hopefully others will respond.

    I want, finally, to address my use of the word “madman”. I hope I have not offended anyone–I am using Probst’s own words. It is not meant to be derogatory or to refer to any specific emotional state or malady. It is a term that is often applied to creative geniuses who make their own way. Perhaps quote marks is what I should have used.

    Thanks,
    Rick

  25. Probst's daughter Says:

    Look Rick ease your mind..
    If anyone’d be offended by such a remark it’d be me..
    But hey I’m not.. I’m really flattered in fact..
    How do I get a picture of myself up here..
    I’m really & truly Probst’s best work..
    I am the art..
    Harriet Hay

    lexingtonave37@yahoo.com

  26. Savya Lee Says:

    Hello

  27. Probst's daughter.. Says:

    Hi Savya..
    Thanx for breaking the stalemate..
    I was starting to get a complex..
    Harriet

  28. Savya Lee Says:

    This message is for Harriet and also Isabella McFarlin–My hello was an experiment to see if my computer was working. I had sent a message earlier about Irving and Barbara Fiske but only my name appeared. However I found my message on a blog (wordpress.com) I did forget to say that my name, in Village days, was Carol Allen. I was amazed and impressed to learn all the Fiskes had done since the forties. Also wondered if Barbara was still alive. Harriet, if my computer is still working, I will send you an email. My address has changed.

  29. JOACHIM PROBST'S daughter Says:

    SAVYA LEE..
    So it appears I’m to expect an email from you..
    That’ll suit me fine & the sooner the better..
    Did try writing you last month but my note returned undelived..
    I know now your address has changed..
    When you can please drop me a line..
    It’ll be nice to start up a correspondence again..
    Though I have more to ask than to tell..
    HARRIET

    lexingtonave37@yahoo.com

  30. rich Says:

    does anyone know how to contact Richard Campbell??

  31. PROBST'S daughter Says:

    Identify yourself Rich..

  32. SEED of PROBST Says:

    This board hasn’t seen any action since I posted my last remark..
    It’s been over 4 months & it’s hard not to notice..
    Must be something I said or the way in which it was perceived..
    Far be it from me to wanna stop the flow of queries & comments..
    Please keep your posts coming & do it outta appreciation for Probst..
    Be curious & ask questions this board will come alive again..
    If need be I will excuse myself I’ve said all I really have to say..
    It was my objective to locate people who knew my father..
    For me it’s not all about the Art..

    Harriet Hay
    lexingtonave37@yahoo.com

  33. Wade Reynolds Says:

    Can you put me in touch with S Koltnow or get my email to her. I too sold through the Koltnow Gallery and Frame Shop as ‘Al’ and then Wade Reynolds. As a matter of fact I re-designed and re-built the interior for them at one point. After her mother died I could not locate her number, and would love to re-establish contact.

  34. Richard Says:

    Interesting subject! I was researching a painting with an “artist shop” 9 christopher st. Marha K. Phillips tag on the rear, because the artist, like so many signed his/her name worse than Doctors’ do, when I stumbled across all of your writings. Well, Thanks, You all have unknowingly helped me narrow this painting down to New York, and in the 50’s or 60’s. I did find myself wondering why, you, the artist, Probst, referred to your father as Probst, was this for the people asking the questions or was this because you did not know him well. Also, if anyone has some info on my paintings signature, i.e. the daughter of the artist shop owners, heres what is looks like, maybe you are familiar with this particuliar artist, anyway here it is, ” F. itsdlifg” <<<<<see what I'm up against, oh brother, this may take some time. Bye Richard

  35. Jackie Says:

    I just bought a Probst painting, it is very detailed with a lot of religious themes going on. It is about 27″ by 38″, and depicts a woman with long brownish blond hair holding a dark image. There are all types of angels, christ images, and clouds swirling about her. It is signed on the back of the wooden stretcher. Any idea of its value?

  36. forrest johnson Says:

    harriet i knew jack in fifties. my church showed his work in 1960, the bronx. we helped get the work to jim pike. jack rewarded me with the bat christ one of his finest. i loved the guy f j

  37. Rick Says:

    Hello everyone.

    I am so glad that this post has enabled a discussion about one of my favorite painters. Keep it going.

    I would like to tell you about a book I wrote–an epic poem actually–that was just published by Seven Towers in Dublin, Ireland. It is called Huncke. It is a round of tales stemming from a memorial reading for Beat progenitor Herbert Huncke. The point of telling you is that Canto Six is titled “The Studio of Probst”. In it, Joachim Probst shines as a kind of savior of art. We visit his studio accompanied by a couple of sympathetic characters that follow Jack from the Cedar Tavern, where a bit of a comedy takes place involving the New York School.

    Here is a blog with a lot of info on the book: http://www.hunckepoem.wordpress.com

  38. Harriet Hay Says:

    Thanx alot Rick I live a hop, skip & a jump from Frenchtown..

  39. Eileen Palmer Says:

    Hello Rick.

    I am doing a paper on Franz Kline’s painting Probst1 and am citing your blog. I’m not quite sure how to give you roper credit- may I have you last name, so I can put it into my bibliography?
    Thanks much

    Eileen Palmer

  40. Lisa Marie Says:

    My father has a Probst painting he would like to know some info on. He gave me the info, see if I can remember any of it. It is Motif #42 (I think) Black Madonna. I have searched the internet over and can’t find anythig on this painting.

  41. Peter Eller Says:

    Glad to see so passionate a dialog. I am an appraiser currenlty working on a collection of 8 Probst paintings. If you would like an appraisal please contact me at http://www.peterellerart.com Thanks.

  42. Simple Shadow Says:

    Hello everyone,
    Is this blog still alive?
    My father knew Joachim Probst in the ’50s in New York.
    He bought six of his paintings and helped him sell more.
    We have letters, notes, reviews and christmas wishes dating up to the mid 60’s…

  43. Josh Says:

    My family has two small works by Probst done in black ink, it looks like, depicting some figures with something written over them. We also have a painting by Probst, which depicts only a pair of ballet slippers. At least my family always referred to them as being ballet slippers, and they definitely look like some kind of footwear… There’s no question, however, that this painting is by Jack Probst, as it was given to my grandmother as a gift from the artist himself.

  44. L Gregory Says:

    My parents had an antique shop on Christopher St. in the 40s and 50s; they were good friends of Martha Philips who had the frame shop at 9 Christopher that is mentioned by several contributors to this page. Jack Probst (as people referred to him) was a standard fixture in their shop. I was just a little kid but I remember him as being a very tall man who wore a beret. I also seem to remember him carrying a little girl with blond hair — but i thought her name was Kristie…this was the very early 50s so it must have been Harriet and i mis-remembered the name. He seemed to be a very doting father but, as with many great painters, the obsession to paint leaves room for little else. We have one of his paintings–it’s very large of Mary Magdalen. I’m surprised he hasn’t attained a much higher status among the painters of his time…as i recall, Polly Bergen and Rod Steiger were collectors of his work.

    • Nick Says:

      My Mom also had an antique shop a couple of doors up(west) from the Artist’s Shop. I knew Martha Phillips & her niece Christine. I was a little kid(8 or 10) & Martha would let me run the Shop’s cash register…it had a big ‘crank-handle’ you’d have to wind around to open the cash drawer. I, too, knew Jack. He was in the Shop quite a lot. He’d make frames & do odd jobs around the place. I use to hang out w/him when ever he was there. I don’t remember him wearing a “beret”, but he usually wore a dark Navy watch-cap & often an eye patch. He also sported a full-red-beard. He had great stories & kept me entertained. He would talk about his exploits in sports. From what he told me he played ‘semi-pro’ basketball. One story I remember: a team he was playing for beat the ‘House of David’! He said they beat them “…so bad they(the House of David) should have been ordered to shave their beards off!” I also remember going to Jack’s ‘studio’ to get something for Martha. I recall dozens & dozens of paintings in various stages of being completed. Jack & I would often toss a baseball out in front of the Artist’s Shop…he had a good arm & I never doubted his stories of being an athlete.
      I also have a Mary Magdalene portrait. It was initially painted for Martha in 1955. Martha had about 20 small, 3″ by 4″ ink drawings done by Jack on her dining room wall. They were all religious in theme & very detailed.
      Interesting comments above. In all the time I spent around Jack I never witnessed any “madness”…I don’t even recall him ever getting mad! He was entirely into his art, & occasionally just tossing a ball around!

      Regards

  45. Lisa Reinhold Says:

    I have a painting “MOTIF” The Silver Madonna , can anyone tell me about it

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