The Magazine

Passion in Abstract

Robert Natkin has licked Vermeer, taken on the establishment, and won.

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ROBERT NATKIN IS A PAST master of American painting, a national treasure in his mid-seventies who is still inventing new ways to paint while enjoying his position at the pinnacle.

He is one of the world's most distinguished artists; his story over the last half century is American art's story. Natkin is an abstract painter of epiphanies, revelations, and glimpses of heaven. While a Raphael or Titian is stuck portraying prophets or saints in the act of having visions, Natkin can paint the actual visions. Hand-crafted visions are his stock in trade. His best works are multilayered abstractions reaching back towards infinity, mysterious shapes bathed in gentle luminous mists--"all-over vibratos of light," Natkin calls them; poignantly inviting paintings you would love to step into--joyful childhood dreams temporarily granted by the artist-magician to all comers, the tiredest and most middle-aged not excluded. His best paintings arrive on the scene "trailing clouds of glory," like Wordsworth's newborn babe. He is not an abstract painter like Klee or de Kooning or Gorky or Kline or Cy Twombly, where draftsmanship is crucial. He is a painter like Matisse or Rothko or Pollack or Gerhard Richter, a colorist above all.

He is also an intensely emotional, brilliant, witty, vulgar, affectionate man who is in love with art as if he and art were teenagers in the very first throes, a young/old man in sneakers and jeans who prowls his territory in a wound-up, 19-year-old jock crouch, wisecracking and hugging people and grinning and waving his arms and telling stories and (not infrequently) weeping for a moment over something that is movingly lovely. His entire outsized personality comes out in his paintings and makes them not merely beautiful, but gripping, and often lovable, and sometimes shaking.

His painting from the early 1980s called Ascension is representative of the best things he has done. It's 40 inches wide by 60 tall, in acrylic paints on paper; parts have been done with brushes and parts are "suspended veils of color" (Peter Fuller's apt phrase) created with paint-soaked rags and sponges. At the center, a vivid-yellow mist stretches backwards indefinitely, towards the dawn of time or birth of the universe; it trails off at the edges into paler yellows and yellow-flavored blues, greens, and oranges. But Natkin's paintings always have structure, are never mere color fields or misty veils. This one has a pyramid of stacked-up squarish shapes on the lower right. On the upper left, other solid shapes (warm red and cerulean blue) break through the mist; and there is a brilliant green edge tied neatly around the whole ensemble.

Many Natkins resemble one another, yet each is distinct--because Natkin has an unlimited ability to invent new color-chords and harmonies, and his mists and mysterious shapes seem to be created by the underlying color-chord--the color somehow generates the form, as if the paintings were electronic computer-screen images dancing to music. For the past four years or so, I have been fascinated nearly every day by a soft yellow-green cloud and a mesmerizing sky-blue streak on a medium-sized Natkin in my home. (Soft greens and blues rarely get their proper innings in abstract painting.) The picture is roughly 40 inches wide by 30 tall, acrylics on paper; undated and untitled, but probably painted within the last decade. We own it because Natkin traded paintings with me--a typically generous gesture; otherwise, I could never have afforded one of his pieces. The cloud and the streak both take place against a soft orange mist, which seems to be whispering secrets just out of hearing.

Late last year, Natkin was the lead act in a show called "Face to Face: An exhibition of faces and portraits including recent paintings by Robert Natkin" at the David Findlay Jr., New York gallery. Those Natkins were a departure--colorful expressionist portraits vaguely suggesting Jacques Villon. No artist who exhibits at a major Manhattan gallery, and strikes out in new directions in his seventies, is doing badly. But there is more to this story than good news.

Natkin was born in 1930. He reached fruit-bearing age and made a name for himself among the color-field painters and second-wave abstract expressionists of the late 1950s and early '60s. He has been celebrated and lionized to a degree that turns ordinary painters a vivid green with envy. He has had dozens of solo exhibits. His paintings are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney, the Pompidou, the Brooklyn Museum, and many others. He is one of the gods of modern American art, and (behold!) here is the coffee-table book to prove it: Robert Natkin by Peter Fuller, published by Harry Abrams, nearly 12 inches wide by 11 high, reproductions of the artist's mature work and juvenilia included, plus interview with artist, end-paper photo of artist glaring significantly, photo of artist's beat-up brushes lying exhausted in a pan--the lot; weight one ton. (Approximate.) This is the American artist's dream. Just one small flaw: The book was published in 1941 and has long been out of print. The Art Establishment that made Natkin also betrayed him.

Nowadays he is doing well. He has had a number of successful recent shows. But where are the retrospectives at MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Met? This is an important artist, who has proved himself over the long haul! But recall how the left, starting in the 1970s, turned viciously against liberalism and tried to claw it to death. Stalin turned against the Old Bolsheviks. The American left's leaders were no Stalins; they merely gave the Democratic party's steering wheel a hard jerk, drove off in a new direction, and invited anyone who didn't like it to get lost.

But for artists, things were more complicated--as usual. The Art Establishment is a wholly owned subsidiary of the left. When the left turned against liberalism, the Art Establishment turned against art. Natkin's work was no longer of interest. The Establishment disdained art for art's sake as much as the Soviet commissars had. The Establishment insisted that art must have a message and serve the revolution. It had no time for pure artists like Natkin, who had always been a faithful leftist, and still is. In the years when Natkin should have been climbing to the summit of American art, his career was sliding backwards.

And in this case conservative Republicans offered no refuge. They were busy with politics and had no interest, by and large, in founding galleries or sponsoring artists or endowing museums. Some conservatives were worse than uninterested; they insisted that art had to be figurative and realist, or it didn't count. As if the whole 20th century, one of the most glorious in art history, had been one long mortifying mistake.

But the worst is over and Natkin has come back strong. His career is a story about how generous America can be, and how careless; and how ambivalent it remains about fine art.

The history of Natkin's childhood and the emergence and development of his art has been told before. I will only note that, although his childhood was unhappy, in many respects he had the perfect father, the perfect boyhood, and the perfect young-manhood to make an artist. He was born in Chicago; his father was a vaudeville dancer. Nearly all artists have fathers who are more respectable than the average painter. An occasional artist is the son of another artist. But what could be more liberating (a word I hate, but there it is) than a father who has almost no respectability at all? In such a case, you could do any damned thing you wanted with your life! And Natkin did.

His father hoped that his son Bobby would follow (literally) in his footsteps and become a dancer. Natkin speaks often and fondly of the dance training he received at age 15 from a quartet of black tapdancers called the Step Brothers. He did not become a dancer but he did learn something crucial, the skill that most distinguishes the talented amateur from the real thing: He learned how to put his whole self into an act of art. He is proud of having walked up to a favorite Vermeer in the Frick in 1959 and, when the guard wasn't looking, licked it. He reads a painting with all his senses, pours his whole self into the process, and does likewise when he makes a painting.

Growing up in Chicago, life was cramped, noisy, distraught, but varied, colorful, and densely packed. He might have been unhappy, but he was not bored. The 1930s were a remarkable decade for American visual culture: The movies were exploding with glitz and glamour, cars and airplanes and airships and radio sets and comic books demanded attention, picture newsmagazines were catching on, color film and photo-publishing were coming in. For Natkin, art grows out of entertainment, and whatever else you might say about the American 1930s, they were entertaining.

As a teenager Natkin loved Paul Klee: "There was magic in Klee's color," he says, "and it was very close to theater lights." He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. During the late 1940s and early '50s he was a teenager in the process of turning into a young artist--perfect years for such a transition. He was moved by the Pollock explosion of August 1949: Life ran a feature story headlined "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?" The answer was no; de Kooning was greater, and so was Stuart Davis--but Life didn't know that, and this piece was a big deal. In 1951, de Kooning himself won a major award in Chicago; Natkin was in the right place at the right time to be impressed. He graduated from the Art Institute in 1952; in 1959, he settled in New York, a confirmed de Kooning lover, but he was much inspired by other painters too, including such onetime big wheels as Philip Guston.

His first proto-mature paintings, in the 1950s and early '60s, are a mélange: portraits (vaguely Modigliani-like); disorganized collage-like abstractions; a gorgeous watercolor ("They are Singing in Olive Land," 1963) that remains one of the most beautiful images he has ever made. Beginning in the late '60s, he painted stripes--large canvases full of vivid verticals, suggesting either abstract picket fences (keep out!) or shower curtains (why not come in?). Natkin calls these striped pictures the "Apollo" paintings--he has given a name to each of his mature styles--and he continued to paint them for many decades. Meanwhile, he had arrived in 1968 at his mature manner, mysterious forms bathed in supernatural mist.

At first he used soft bright colors, in the "Field mouse" series. Starting in 1974, a pastel-grayish mist took over in the enchanting and seductive "Bath" paintings. In 1977, his most characteristic manner emerges in the "Bern" and "Hitchcock" series. These are the paintings where Natkin invents one lovely, striking color-chord after another; paintings you can gaze at for hours; paintings you can look at carefully day after day for years, and be refreshed and inspired every time. Natkin has continued to invent new modes, but returns repeatedly to this characteristic style that suits him perfectly.

It all goes back to a working-class Jewish home in the '30s, to the privation, cramped quarters, screaming matches, and live-in relatives, to Hebrew school memories he still resents and ponders, to the glittering silver screen and the boundless blue future. Those memories are disappearing, dissolving into the universe like a touch of watercolor in the ocean. But Natkin is an artist who figured out what he had it in him to do, and then he did it, with no compromises, and without caring what anyone else said or thought. He is a hero.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and member of the board of the National Endowment for the Arts.