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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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.