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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Exhibition catalogue cover, "The Color of Seasons: Nature and Abstraction in the Paintings of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein"

I have two more exhibition catalogues to report on. The first, with an essay by Jeffrey Katzin, accompanied the show of Kenneth Noland entitled "Noland: Flares."  This show was held during the spring and summer of 2020 at Pace in New York (I reviewed it at that time). The second catalogue is entitled "The Color of Seasons: Nature and Abstraction in the Paintings of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein." This catalogue was intended to accompany a show of two somewhat younger artists that was to be held at Galatea in Boston from April 1 to 26, 2020, but was cancelled due to the pandemic. This catalogue includes an opening statement signed by the two artists jointly, essays by each, plus a third essay by Brian George.


Practical v. Lyrical


The first catalogue concerns itself more with practical matters as it documents how different these later works by Noland are from his earlier ones.  The second is more of a spiritual excursion into the similarities and differences between a representational painter and an abstract one.  I shall simply quote excerpts from the two catalogues, in hopes that readers may want to further pursue their knowledge of these works and artists by themselves.  When I was working on Time magazine, we used to call this kind of article a "quotepiece."


From Jeffrey Katzin, "Kenneth Noland: Flares 1990-1995"


"Throughout his early career, Noland concentrated on what he termed 'one-shot painting,' a process of 'making a picture quickly, [putting] everything down [at] once, and without it being modified or re-worked, and letting it stand….'


"Beginning in 1987, the artist turned to works consisting of two to four shaped canvases grouped closely together on the wall.  In  most cases the canvases were separated or bordered by thin strips of Plexiglas. This general approach resulted in three series: the Doors (1987-91), the Flares (1990-96), and the Flows (1994-96). The Flares, of which Noland completed at least seventy, are distinct for featuring curved  canvases that may touch each other at only one or two points. They represented a markedly different direction in Noland's work, but the Flares also reflect experience and concerns that had motivated the artist for decades. They were born out of the uninterrupted current of his intuition.


"Noland had found his way into his one-shot painting by responding to his materials, and it was a different set of material conditions that led him toward the new approach.  By 1979 he agreed to conceive a work of art that would be integrated into the Wiesner Building, which I. M. Pei was designing for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  As the building was finally reaching completion in 1985, Noland contributed a five-story mural stretching from the structure's central atrium out to its entrance, consisting of strips of color placed in the interstices between gray wall panels…. While Noland initially worried that this architectural commission would be a distraction from his more central pursuits, by 1987 he was at work on the Doors and in an interview with Avis Berman noted that 'These new pictures…they're like made versions of that wall….'


"In Noland's prior work, moving quickly safeguarded intuition and expression against conceptualization and second-guessing, and it jump-started conviction by demanding decisiveness….That Noland employed a durational process not only for his mural at MIT but also for his later multiple-panel paintings shows that he came to embrace this sort of approach, not just out of necessity but as a means to expand his practice.  He was able to 'maintain the attention' and 'contact' with his work over longer and less concentrated periods, likely more confident than ever in his focus and in the strength of his intuition.  The mural gave him this confidence, the Doors provided an avenue to exercise it further, and the Flares show it at its full power…."


From "The Color of Seasons: Nature and Abstraction in the Paintings of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein."


Joint statement by the two artists:


"As painters, we approach nature from seemingly opposite directions, across the line that is supposed to divide abstraction from realism. Carolyn enters the forest with paints and watercolor notebook in her fanny pack and a folding stool on her back.  She records in images and words the hidden treasures that she finds. In a studio, Philip finds form, rich texture, and emotive color as he creates vibrant abstract canvases.


"Though the seasons of nature inspire both of us, Carolyn finds her inspiration within in the living forest.   Through distillation and interpretation she moves in her paintings from realism toward abstraction.  For Philip, as form and color emerge, he finds nature revealed within, drawing inspiration from ancient Chinese landscape painting and the rich achievements of 20th century abstract painters.


"Both of us search until we find that living vibration, the pulse of life, clearly heard emanating from beneath the layers of paint before solidifying into form.  Hung together in pairs, our paintings converge and contrast, evoking nature in its many interpretations – and creating a vibrant dialogue of form, color and emotional impact."


From Carolyn Newberger, "Summer eyes and winter eyes"


"I first went into the forest in spring, and found a morel mushroom on my path. Before that, on casual walks in the woods, my gaze was indeterminate, generalized.  I'd look at the trees, maybe notice the brook at the bottom of a hill, a boulder here and there, but nothing focused or specific.


"But on that June morning, the morning of the morel, my relationship with the forest changed.  From that moment on, I became a seeker of detail. As I walked, my eyes scanned the forest floor in search of another mushroom, and then, through that opened lens, my awareness and observation shifted from the general to the specific…"


From Philip Gerstein,  "Find  your Passion (Form Follows Color)"


"My own work is always positive – even when tumultuous, it is never negative or violent – there is quite enough of that in the world at large. I have developed a very good eye for color and seeing painterly relationships, and I do not repeat myself – it is not necessary! – each painting of mine is on its own new color schema – so each goes its own unique path and insists on being all it can be before it is complete. Only in this way will my  work stay fresh and offer new discoveries even  after many viewings.


"This creative practice of discovering the painting while making it, allows me to work in several modes of abstraction, at the same time.  Done right, that by itself can bring a wild diversity of excitement and a deeper level of commitment to the renewal of art through direct communication with spirit, which I believe color abstraction is best able to achieve and sustain."


From Brian George, "Parallel Paths that Intersect: Notes on 'The Color of Seasons: Nature and Abstraction in the Paintings of Carolyn Newberger and Philip Gerstein'"


"…..The centrality of dialogue – of an 'I Thou' relationship between the artist and nature, between the artist and his painting, between the artist and all of those forces that exist beyond either her knowledge or control—is, I think, the key factor that joins Gerstein's work to Neuberger's….


"With Neuberger's work, what first struck me was an almost spooky sense of being watched.   Not only were her eyes and ears wide open during her excursions into the forest; the mushrooms and lichens and trees that she discovered were also watching her, and through her paintings, me.  So too with Gerstein's work. As I study one of his paintings, I can never tell if I am reenacting the process of Gerstein producing a painting or of the painting painting Gerstein.


"In the writing of this essay, I too have been subject to the shadowy machinations of some process of which I am no more than a part.  A few months back, Gerstein had asked me if I would be interested in writing something for this exhibit… Coincidentally …my daughter E. told me of the recent research into mycorrhizal fungal networks. I was fascinated to learn of the existence of these living internet-type structures.


"I had been asking myself, 'How does Gerstein's work connect with Newberger's?' I had certainly observed the parallel nature of their paths, but I was not at all sure yet where or how these intersected. The fungi helped to crystalize my half-formed intuitions…the 'wood-wide web' presented me with a metaphor for the relationship between the artists in this show…


"One artist may cultivate a close physical relationship with Nature….Another artist, in his studio, may make his psyche into a field….If the efforts of these artists are much less separate than they seem,…their alchemy may nonetheless require one more element...and you, the 'viewer,' may in some way be essential to this process…"

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