His Work Is a Riot of Color That Crist Delmonico Will Never See
02/08/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
Crist Delmonico, a hefty six-footer who looks as if he might enjoy his namesake steaks, is standing over a drafting board in his Morristown, N.J., studio, talking about his painting in progress. Divine Angels in Close Circle is one of his idiosyncratic abstract works—a swirl of red and gold spray paint overlaid with a careful confusion of linear webs and crayoned circles. "Art theory says dark colors should be put down first, but for my initial layer," Delmonico says, savoring the colors as he rattles them off, "I used pink, orange, yellow and red—all the sunrise, sunset, summertime and sunshine colors. Beautiful!" Then he turns his sunglasses toward his visitor. "Let's be up-front, though," he says. "What I visualize and what you see will always be two different things."
Although it seems impossible, given the precision of his creations, Delmonico, 31, is completely blind. He is also fast becoming a notable figure in the art world. His works illustrate textbook covers, are featured on posters and are collected by universities and corporations. Last spring he had his first one-man show, at New York's Academy of Sciences, and two of his pieces will be traveling all this year in the Minnesota Museum's exhibit Art of the Eye. Of his unique style, art historian Francis O'Connor says, with a touch of asperity, "Delmonico operating in pure isolation can tell us more than some artists who can see. He hasn't been looking at American art for the last 20 years—and that's a great blessing."
Delmonico, whose forebears include the famous 19th-century New York restaurateurs, grew up in Morristown with his father, a real-estate agent. His parents were divorced when he was two, and as a child he was plagued by glaucoma. When he was 14, however, a cataract operation resulted in hemorrhaging and blindness. Four years later, at the Perkins Institute for the Blind near Boston, his life was dramatically changed again, this time by teacher Chester Hall. "He was convinced a person without eyesight could do two-dimensional art," Crist remembers. Using tacks, tape and stencils, Hall taught Delmonico to draw by feel. "It was important to invent the technique," says Crist, "but what was truly revolutionary was Chefs vision that it could be done." Delmonico went on to earn his B.A. in psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. Then, unable to find a job as a family counselor, he decided to paint full time.
Crist bristles at the suggestion that his handicap is a factor in the appeal of his works, which are priced up to $6,000. "I've wrestled with that for 10 years," he says. "My art stands on its own merit. People have purchased my work unaware of my lack of vision." He does get help though: Since 1978 he has been living with commercial artist Debi Post, 30. "Debi is a resource as eyes," he says. "I'll say to her, 'This is what I want. Does it look this way?' " He receives additional feedback from a variety of friends—"photographers, accountants, chiropractors and Jersey Bell employees," he says. "I can also be very stubborn and execute a piece purely on my own notion." He paints between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., "the quietest hours," sleeps mornings and spends most afternoons working for community projects, including a local soup kitchen.
Turning back to his drafting board, Delmonico plants two metal tacks along-side the paper, one on the upper left edge, the other midway down the right side. He positions a strip of wood molding between them, feels two circles he has previously drawn and, with a stubby blue pencil, slashes a line between them. "I always have two pencils of the same color," he notes, "one sharp and one dull so I can make lines of different thicknesses." Moving his tacks slightly, he makes another deft stroke, working more and more quickly. "I like to get a real rhythm to it," says Delmonico, who plays guitar. "Some mornings I wake up and think of using blue-green-gray, 1-2-3, just like a jazz chord. I rely on my color memory." He spends about six weeks on each work, allowing intuition to tell him when he is finished. "It's like dancing or romance," Delmonico says. "There are ebbs and flows, crescendos. Ultimately it feels good long enough, and it's got to walk away on its own two feet."