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
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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.