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On the Paintings of John Havens Thornton

John Thornton, Boston studio, circa. 1967

"John Havens Thornton: A Survey of Paintings Spanning 50 years, 1964-2014"
Amstel Gallery New York inside The Yard, Flatiron,  234 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10001
Curated by Laetitia Lina and Gregory de la Haba
Extended Through May 30th.

By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, APR 2016

A note from the curator:

    The retrospective - spanning fifty years of paintings by American artist John Havens Thornton (b.1933) - marks the first important show in New York since being included in the Whitney Museum’s “Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting” in 1967. The roster of artists from that year's exhibition reads a compilation of names synonymous with stunning achievement in American art including William de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Edward Ruscha, Andrew Wyeth, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Robert Indiana, Georgia O'Keeffe, and others.

     Born to American parents in Mexico City in 1933, Thornton graduated Princeton in 1955 along with classmate Frank Stella (also in the 1967 Whitney show). While at Princeton, Thornton studied methods of abstract expressionism under the renowned William Seitz, the first Princeton Professor awarded a PhD in modern art-writing who penned some of the earliest major texts on Abstract Expressionism and eventually became an influential curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  But it wasn't until the 1960s when Thornton abandoned the splashy and gestural emotionalism of the Ab-Ex movement and sought a more subtle and minimalist approach to painting that his own voice as artist began to emerge.  It is from this pivotal moment in the early 1960's that Laetitia Lina and I begin focus on Thornton's lifelong career dedicated to pictorial expression.

Laetitia Lina & de la Haba @ Thornton's  

    I first met the reclusive artist last summer while on assignment for Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art. Co-curator Laetitia Lina heard of him through a childhood friend and we decided one day to visit the small New England fishing village of New Bedford, MA., were he keeps his studio and meet the man who turned his back on the art world just as it was starting to turn an eye on him in the 1960's. Thornton had moved here in 1983 with his wife, the painter Pat Coomey Thornton, and their two young children after a number of years in Boston as teacher of painting and art theory at the Massachusetts College of Art. In a 19th century stable once belonging a prominent New England whaling family, the artist himself converted into comfortable home for family and place to work. Originally built in 1834, Thornton's art-making sanctum predates by seven years from when Herman Melville first stepped aboard the New Bedford whaler Acushnet. I couldn't help but compare both men (celebrated writer to unknown painter, artist to whaler) and feel Thornton and Melville having a similar breath of certitude during their early pursuit of creative freedom and artistic expression because as we talked about art and life and feasted on fresh salad with cranberries and walnuts, ham and chocolate chip cookies, an awareness to the extreme distances (and sacrifices) such convictions have carried men the world over and over time immemorial was made evident and as tangible as the two hundred year old setts the car drove over on our way out the historic port city epitomized in Moby Dick.  

   A few weeks later Laeitita and I were visiting with the artist once more to start sifting through 50 years worth of paintings for exhibition back in New York. The urge to curate a show for Thornton after the first trip was too strong to ignore. It had to be.  For each room in the artist's home held a different decade's worth of work, paintings neatly stacked, labeled and piled high and as spectacular offering from the art gods of paintings never before seen, one man's vision never properly extolled. We felt compelled to change that. The beautifully old, charming New Bedford home where horses once lived and used to cart whale oil from harbor to market now a perfectly preserved time capsule to creative expression, a repository of artistic vision and triumph.  As we foraged through his collection seeking prime examples from each decade with John reminiscing of past shows, teachers and people in his life, his ever mindful gaze seemed to say: "After family, art is all that matters."  And while photographing work and home, there seemed to exhisit an interesting visual dichotomy about Thornton's habitat: the unkempt and overgrown garden outside compared to the artist's cleaned brushes and immaculate palette inside: well kept tools of the trade as testimony to a lifelong, binding commitment to one's dream and self preservation –and telltale sign to that which matters most with the passing of time.

Whitehot Magazine is pleased to publish Jeffrey Grunthaner's article on John Havens Thornton: A Survey of Paintings Spanning 50 years, 1964-2014

Enjoy, Gregory de la Haba

 
John Havens Thornton, "Couple"

On the Paintings of John Havens Thornton

John Havens Thornton is known less for his work than for the artists he's exhibited with. In 1967, at an exhibition organized by the Whitney, titled "Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting," he showed alongside William de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler and other luminaries of the time. But he turned his back on the art world, no doubt sensing that his work was being misunderstood. His prolific inquest into the significance of space, the mysteriousness of the fact that anything "is there" at all, has to this day yielded so many fruits that one can't help but feel he made the right choice.

Thornton has had to confront the inevitable compromises that attend making works that don't conform to commercial logic. The show I saw of his paintings was mounted in an office building—a retrospective that, in the most unostentatious way possible, took up four floors, even making use of the stairwells. Against the duress imposed by such an off-site exhibition, the openness, unevenness, and vibrancy of Thornton's paintings created a stark, almost inglorious counterpoint to the glossy and grid-like architecture of the building.

Thornton @ The Yard, Fifth Avenue

Are Thornton's works humorous? They might be. If they are, I think we might not see it because we've yet to shake loose the bias that any painting that looks abstract is to be taken more seriously than ones which depict figures; as though the expressiveness liberating paint and pigment from figuration has to confine itself to high seriousness. Play is also expressive; and one can play quite seriously, even if the workaday world (represented by the building where Thornton exhibited) bifurcates play into the "productive" and the "non-productive."

Viewing Thornton's works, what I recall is the indifference of the office workers to the show. I felt like a spy in their company, because I hadn't come to confine myself to a cubicle. Far from adorning the workplace, like items of decoration, Thornton's paintings seemed utterly alien to it. There was a kind of wayward energy to them that the Yard, a storied office space, wasn't structured to accommodate.

John Havens Thornton, "Together" (1968)

Thornton's paintings are generally called "minimalist," as this was the generation he grew into as an artist, and which he turned his back on (also as an artist). One might wonder what would inspire Thornton's decision to abscond from the art world just when Minimalism was getting hot. In my opinion, the answer is quite clear: Thornton's paintings, however reductive, are not minimalist. To continue on the path he was headed would have betrayed his efforts. Foolhardy or not, his independence has at least guarded him from critical misunderstanding.

Consider the case of Frank Stella, a "minimalist" painter who was a classmate of Thornton's at Princeton. If discussed at all, it is to Stella that Thornton is generally compared—mainly because they've showed together rather than any underlying affinity in their work. Stella's trajectory, as seems quite obvious in retrospect, was to make the canvas an object, to transcend the materiality of paint and pigment by making the whole presence of a picture—its area, depth of field, and composition—a thing-like structure that viewers can take into their attention as they do any product of design: an impersonal gestalt of shape, surface, and volume.

John Havens Thornton, "Standing Tree"

Thornton's work, by contrast, trembles furtively under our gaze. Eschewing the logic of design and what eventually came to be Stella's additive, lego-like garishness—often confused with assemblage—Thornton's canvases evidence the fading out of the figures he portrays. An Eliotic cowboy, a "hollow man" literally empty but for the bright brushstrokes that delineate him; key-like sentinels composed of warm segmented lines; a beachball weirdly subsumed by the empty space surrounding it—these are everywhere on the verge of being annihilated by the objective limits presented by the canvas's dimensions and texture. Thornton doesn't favor the concept, an invisible idea that speaks through an arrangement of objects or figures, but rather demonstrates the inefficacy of paint and pigment to render something wholly substantial and objective: a painting separated from the subjectivity of the viewer.

John Havens Thornton, "Blue Grid"

Thornton paints "transcendence" in two senses: as what is non-subjective, and as the limits of intellection—the unknown that becomes known while still remaining unknown. His work has more in common with Forrest Bess and Hilma af Klint than with Frank Stella. The fact that he's been able to maintain a comparatively solitary practice is testament to this.

For all the theorizing that underlies them, Stella's works are much more suited to a corporate ambience than Thornton's, whose modest-sized, oil-on-canvas works are ill-suited to the pace of corporate life. Unlike Klint and Bess, there's an emotional fluency available to Thornton that can be misconstrued as niavity. I think the fact that Thornton can include "cute" in the range of his art is meritorious, especially when one considers the economy of means he puts to use.

The difficulty intrinsic to Thornton's artistry is the degree of freedom it permits from reference to fact. Pursuing an inward image abstracted from any concrete reference, subjectivity can elide into meaninglessness, and subject-matter likewise suffer, becoming trivial despite pretences to sublimity, a noematic irrelevance corresponding to a noetic nothingness. Thornton generally manages to sidestep this polarization by melding painterly brushwork with the infinite potential of space to congeal around any shape. His brick-like fields of color blur at the edges, as though rippling with some elusive secret. Whatever in his work is accidental, or unforeseen, is quietly incorporated into the greater spatial logic of horizontality and verticality provided by the rectilinear area of stretched canvas.

John Havens Thornton, "Sunset Towers I"

Thornton doesn't paint grids, but paints works that could become grid-like, if only the tactility of the painter's hand wasn't so evident. That vibrancy of Thornton's line emerges like a hypnagogic vision. "Vinny's Ball" (1987), a figurative painting, illustrates both what is typical and atypical about Thornton's vision. At first blush, the painting looks like a detail from a de Chirico. A beach ball is neatly placed alongside a box. Both objects preserve their customary utility (storage, play). What's uncanny about them is the intensity of the space they share in relation to one another. This relation is not painted exactly; what's portrayed are the objects. But in this portrayal, the felt relation between box, ball, and beach sand itself takes on the characteristics of an object. Thornton has reified the distance between them, crystallizing the nothingness that typically separates beings from each other. This creates a landscape of total closure, a lunar still life.

When this translates into Thornton's more "minimalist" pieces, such as "Fidelity" (1982), we have rather the lack of any distinguishable "foreground" as against a "background." The entirety of the painting, in this case lattice-like, construes an objective presence, as though a composition created by paint and pigment could give way to sculpture. Here, the sinuosity and directness of Thornton's line is like the body: an animal rhythm that discovers itself against a universal background. Perhaps symbolic, "Fidelity's" positive space can be viewed as the numinosity that underlies the question of being, suggesting that the answer to why anything exists at all, why anything "is there," lies in a grey area just below the threshold of awareness.

Portrait of Thornton in his library. 

John Havens Thornton's work uses the vocabulary of Minimalism, but his grammar is metaphysical. His paintings are part of a greater structure—one that tends to reduces itself to a single recursive aspect or detail. The tension of irresolution is a guiding force in Thornton’s work. This being so, his works bear a decided incompleteness as you move from one to another. An individual painting might seem stilted, fragmentary, or profound; but such are are the follies that ensnare the visionary's ascent. WM

 

Jeffrey Grunthaner

Jeff Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, The Clauduis App, Emergency INDEX, Imperial Matters, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere. His chap book THE TTTROUBLE WWITH SUUNDAAYS was published by Louffa Press in 2014.

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