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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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.