The eminent abstract painter Robert Natkin died on April 20 in Danbury, Connecticut, aged 79. The Metropolitan, Guggenheim, Whitney, and Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hirschhorn in Washington all own Natkin paintings. In one sense, he was a magnificent survival of the New York School of abstract expressionism, an emissary from the fertile plains of the postwar era to the hard-baked artistic desert of today. But Natkin was no mere survival, because his art continued to grow throughout his career. His last paintings are his best.
Formally, there was little change over the decades: Misty, delicate grids of color surround contrasting rectangles, circles, bent lines, or blobs that stand out like sudden inspirations just emerged from a colorful fog of thought. (Often he created his mists using a sponge wrapped in textured cloth.) His overlapping color-screens are each as nuanced and mobile as sheets of cloth in a mild, fragrant breeze. Sometimes the gaps in the many-layered mist (like stacks of delicate window screening) interfere; sometimes they coincide, giving you a view deep into the painting and revealing the strange incandescence at its core. Natkin’s color thinking grew stronger and more striking throughout his life until he achieved (at his best) sublime color chords, often built around peaches and light magentas or an arresting deep, cool green: Natkin green. He worked steadily, mainly in acrylics, until (in the last few years of his life) he was no longer able to paint. His work is, in fact, a lesson in the power of acrylics: He exploits their translucence to make deep, glowing color pools; their short drying-times make it natural for him to build his mesmerizing mists out of many superimposed layers that remain distinct.
Natkin was born in Chicago in 1930. As a child and teenager he was fascinated by art (naturally, his parents discouraged him) and by the movies: He’d take in a movie every day if he could. In 1957 he married the painter Judith Dolnick. Two years later they moved to New York and, in 1970, to Redding, Connecticut, where there was space for a rambling, fine studio. He spent the rest of his life there. He was born a Jew and became one of the many self-described “Jewish atheists.” But the letters he stitched together to make the text of his Peter Fuller Memorial Lecture in 1992 refer often to religious and spiritual questions. He told Jewish jokes and stories and quoted the odd piece of rabbinic wisdom all his life.
He reached artistic maturity in the late 1960s, when he began to paint his glowing mists. During the seventies his characteristic foreground shapes step forward into the limelight. In 1981, Abrams published one of their two-ton specials about his work, a book with critical essays, an interview, a biography, and photographs of nearly 200 Natkin paintings. It sealed his elevation to the rank of grand master.
After the 1970s, however, the art world lost interest in Robert Natkin. Not surprising, considering that it had been set upon by thugs bent on eviscerating it and converting the bloody remains into a neo-Soviet propaganda instrument. Politically, Natkin was always a cheerful and genial leftist; but he was an artist, not a commissar, and his fall from favor was inevitable as the art establishment of the 1980 and ’90s (paced by the grim recurring plague of the Whitney Biennial) took on the interesting persona of a rock-throwing mob of deinstitutionalized psychotics. But it’s wonderful to record that Natkin made a comeback, starting in the late 1990s. He had several marvelous shows at galleries in Manhattan and elsewhere around the country. Robert Natkin shows us that abstract expressionism is the Stradivarius of modern styles, capable of transcendent loveliness in the hands of a master who will impose his will on the instrument. Its range is not as great as the grand piano of figurative art, but it can be nearly as powerful and more lyrical.
I had the privilege of knowing him towards the end of his life. We exchanged paintings—a common transaction among artists, but a movingly generous gesture on the part of a legendary virtuoso trading with a much younger unknown. Generosity in the deepest sense is the essence of his achievement. He had the gift of ungrudging enthusiasm—of realizing and filling out his own large personality to the edges, of entering fully into other people’s art and ideas. Most of us live our lives within a couple of clicks up or down of the emotional volume control. But Natkin went straight to the limits: In his introduction to the published version of the Fuller Memorial Lecture, Roger Scruton writes of the lecture itself that “the audience was captivated, [Natkin] visibly identified with every object and idea he presented.”
Intelligent, passionate enthusiasm, the sunlight of the soul, is one of God’s rarest gifts. It made Robert Natkin a blessing to everyone who knew him, and makes his art as bright and warm and alive as a bonfire on a cold night.
David Gelernter, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and regular contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being.