Neil Welliver: Paintings and Woodcuts, 1967-2000
January 17 to March 3, 2019
Tibor de Nagy, New York, New York
By DAVID AMBROSE February, 2019
NW: You like that?
DA: Rembrandt? Yes.
NW: I prefer Hals.
DA: Really? Why?
NW: Because he never gave up his stroke.
- In a 1986 conversation with the author in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The current exhibition of Neil Welliver (1929 -2005) at Tibor de Nagy proves itself to be, not unlike its maker, a little bit difficult. The twenty-five works in this mini-retrospective exhibition were made between 1967 and 2000 in and around Lincolnville, Maine. The show aspires to be an immersive look at one of the preeminent landscape painter’s of the twentieth century; like diving off a rocky ledge into a deep pool to cool off from a summer hike. What one gets in actuality is the equivalent to a long march across some unfamiliar terrain. It leads to a stream where one takes off his or her shoes and socks, toes the water and goes about prospecting for a few of the nuggets that line the gallery walls.
The show takes us on this journey from the immediacy of his small, muscular, allover, plein air studies through the more analytical approach of his scripted or written large-scale studio works. It is within these large-scale studio landscapes that Welliver established his reputation. His success proves to be problematic because many of the finest examples of his work have been dispensed into private collections and institutions. What is left here is a group that while instructive– and on more than one occasion, hauntingly beautiful–doesn’t always rise to the level one is accustomed to seeing from Welliver at the height of his powers.
When it comes to the subject of landscape, few inlanders have relied more on water to play such a major role in the descriptive power of their work than Welliver. From clouds to mud cracks, snow squalls to ice flows, water is always present in some form or another; replenishing the land. But the confluence of waterways does not stop there. It also leaches into his very practice as viscous paint literally flows from the tip of his brush; fusing vision to the surface of the canvas. In fact, looking at a Welliver is very much like studying a body of water. On the surface sits reflection; both in rendering and pictorial thought. Against the surface resides the transparency of his alla prima, wet-into-wet painting technique that spills across the canvas like the bloody, gray viscera from a carcass of a splayed ox by Rembrandt.
Welliver had resisted showing his studies up until the late 1980s. They were a private act. The large-scale studio works were produced from selected small plein air studies – places of power–which were then transcribed into an abstract syntax; first by using the generations-old fresco cartoon technique of spolvero. After creating a generalized cartoon, the drawing was perforated and tacked to the canvas. A transfer drawing was then pounced with a sack of charcoal powder over the perforations leaving a stippled, meandering line or track. After drawing over the dot matrix, Welliver would begin painting at the top upper left corner moving across and down the canvas to the bottom right as if composing a letter; top to bottom, over and out.
One gets a taste of both as one enters the gallery; private and public; exterior and interior; small scale and large scale. On a wall just above the front desk sits one of the densest and most alien works in the show, Study for Frozen Spring (n.d.), a six-inch square study with lumpy edges that virtually embeds itself into the wall like a meteorite. Across the gallery from it, inches become feet with Bear Hole (1991), a masterful six-foot square studio painting where a runlet cascades down from that upper left feeding a larger stream. A series of fallen tree trunks and limbs marches across the center, over and around exposed rocks. A group of the bare branches triangulates like a naturally formed easel balancing out the composition in a lovely piece of picture making.
In truth, the only holes one sees in a Welliver are referred to by his titles. The interwoven brushstrokes of his surfaces allow for no dead patches or inward escape. One reads across the surface and then out. The idea of a window opening upon a landscape has been replaced by an invisible force field; one that separates viewer from painter.There is a distance to detail. Specificity is rendered at a painter’s distance. Move in too close and the painting dissolves before your eyes into a seriesof indecipherable marks.
Welliver had learned the democracy of the square –its balance, stability and order – as a student and teaching assistant of Josef Albers at Yale. It became his favored format. He employed it to distance himself from any preconceived notions that attached themselves to the idea of landscape.He did not, however, inherit Albers trust of color manufacturers. He worked with a limited palette of eight colors that read like types of Maine tourmaline: black, white, red, blue, and green (with the addition of two yellows – cadmium and lemon). He was a blender on the palette, but a placer on his canvases. Like Frans Hals, he too had a masterful touch and he never gave up his stroke.
Up until the early 70s, Welliver had incorporated the figure, both nude and clothed, in his landscapes and a selection of these are included in the exhibition. In the large-scale studio painting, Washcloth (1967), a female bather is submerged in a thigh-high pool of water. To the left of the figure, a dazzling array of brushstrokes, streaks and runs frames her like the foliated marginalia of an illuminated manuscript page. The model’s mint colored flesh,the result of midday sunlight penetrating leaves, calls to mind a Renaissance altarpiece by Domenico Veneziano or Piero Della Francesca; the cleansing water now acting as nature’s baptism. One could argue that the essence the figure never left Welliver’s work. It’s there in the application of paint to the branches of a tree or in a melting snow bank. The color changes, but the forms carry you back to mankind. In the small, plein air study, Polly’s Place (1982), spiritual rebirth is replaced by physical passing. The painting is a marker of sorts, like a cross or coffin on a marsh in a Caspar David Friedrich, to honor Welliver’s first wife Polly who predeceased him. The density of the woven painterly syntax gives one the sense that if one removed so much as a single brushstroke the whole composition would collapse under its own weight. In the haunting Shadow on Frankfort Barren (1982), bulging rocks escape a melting blanket of snow like tombstones on a hill in nature’s graveyard. Once again, like a Friedrich, but without being wrapped in clerical vestments and faith guided eyes of German Romanticism.
The show is supported by a group of masterfully made woodcuts that unfortunately act like ghostly reminders of better paintings. One lone working contour drawing for an adjacent woodcut, Study for New Dams in Meadow (1984), is a prime example of Welliver’s approach to drawing the landscape. It reads a little like the pulsing spikes and dips of the line of an electrocardiogram; one drawn from nature. You see with Welliver, the static flatline of the horizon and the illusions that attach to it were never his calling. Nature is alive. Hopefully, a proper museum retrospective will come along in the near future to keep his vision alive, too. But until that time, I suggest you roll up your sleeves and the cuffs of your pants, step in that stream and start sifting this exhibition for some of the gems it has offer. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author