David Brickman Special to The Times Union
Section: SHOW,  Page: H1

Date: Sunday, January 11, 1987

When she was 16, Betty Warren was faced with a decision. She had just been offered a scholarship to study ballet at a major dance academy, but her father, noted illustrator Jack Warren, was opposed - he wanted his daughter to become an artist.

The significant factor here is the foresight the 16-year-old Warren had in making her choice. She knew that a dancer's career would be very strenuous and rather short. She wanted to embark on a career that would last her lifetime - and afford her some time to go out with boys.

Forty-five years later, this most celebrated of the Albany area's contemporary artists is being honored with a 40-year retrospective of her work, featuring 49 paintings and drawings in an exhiibition which opens today at the Albany Institute of History & Art.

And Warren shows no sign of slowing down the tremendously productive pace she has maintained throughout these four decades as an artist and educator.

Born in New York City, Warren was educated there at the National Academy of Design and in the summers at Cape Cod with Henry Hensche. She was also exposed as a child to countless artists and writers through her father, who maintained a studio in New York.

Warren came to Albany early in her career by way of Kinderhook, where her first solo show drew the attention of people at the AIHA, who eventually persuaded her to come there to teach. Thus began a special relationship between the artists and the institute, and a significant secondary career for the artist as a teacher; both involvements endure.

By anyone's reckoning, the art of Betty Warren would be described as traditional, even academic; most of us can picture some of her sensitive charcoal sketches of the elderly that have accompanied The Times Union's annual Christmas Fund articles nearly every year since 1958. But the style and size of these illustrations does nothing to convey the solid presence and, especially, the intense color of much of Warren's art.

Nationally known as a portraitist, Warren prefers to call herself "a painter of people" and she brings to this occupation a degree of passion and persistence that no amount of training could instill.

While many artists of her generation indulged themselves in the investigation of color for its own sake through abstraction, Warren has devoted herself to the mastery of color to express the inner spirit of her sitters. When she talks about the people she loves to paint, a light comes into Warren's eyes.

It is with this attitude that a successful and satisfying career has been forged of traditional subject matter and technique put to the service of a clear, consistent personal vision.

Warren has painted many commissioned portraits, but now does only a few a year and only for sitters with whom she can develop a rapport, an energetic exchange.

She considers formery Albany Institute director Norman Rice to have been her most memorable sitter, "because he gave so much of himself to that posing." Another favorite sitter, named Nonie, has posed for Warren countless times, resulting in a unique relationship that transcends other aspects of their lives in a deeply shared collaboration.

Numerous portraits of Nonie, as well as that of Norman Rice, are included in the retrospective. In addition to portraits, Warren paints still lifes and an occasional landscape, but for her there is nothing to replace the presence of another human being.

Far from signalling the end of her career, Warren's 40- year retrospective finds her anticipating an even richer future, with ideas for experimentation in untried techniques, plans to do more sculpting, "even fewer commissioned portraits" to take up her creative time.

Now that the cold weather is here, Warren and her husband of 27 years, attorney Jake Herzog, are preparing to return to their winter home in Mexico, where she concentrates mainly on portraying the Mexican people, the children especially.

She will return to Albany in the spring and in summer will conduct workshops at her school in Malden Bridge, near Nassau. Students have been coming there summers since 1964 to learn the solid techniques that Warren believes are fundamental to all figurative art, and it is likely she will never stop teaching them. "I love to watch people develop," she says, "it's so exciting!"

However, Warren's greatest enthusiasm will undoubtedly be reserved for the thing she does best, the painting of people.

"Now," she says, "I want to get more of the person in the painting, to work with the sitter and, as a duo, to create something that is true."