Ahab in Maine
Neil Welliver’s memorial exhibition at Alexandre Gallery

NEIL WELLIVER (1929 - 2005) WILL BE GREATLY MISSED. Cadres of young painters emulating his pan-optic blend of abstraction and reality testify to his impact on the unfolding story of American landscape painting. A memorial exhibition opening today at Alexandre Gallery presents large-scale paintings from the late 1970s and mid-1980s, plus a generous selection of plein air oil studies and recent prints—aquatints, etchings and woodcuts—produced in collaboration with Welliver’s long-time master printmaker Shigenitsu Tsukaguchi.

Old Windfall by Neil Welliver (1981-82), 90x120

An exile from Modernism despite attraction to its freedoms, Welliver put the conventions of abstract expressionism to the work of depiction. Compelled by what Henry James termed “the solidity of specification,” he honored the same perceptual concerns that occupied great American masters from the beginning. Unblinking, almost clinical in its detachment, his painting asserts the fecundity of the phenomenal world without sentimentality or romanticism. But his objectivity does not obscure the pictorial cunning and stamina of his combat with untamed disorder.

Landscape painting is a work of fiction: the accumulation of things chosen—colors, contrasts, shapes, masses, lines—amid the result of things discarded. Beginning outdoors, Welliver completed his paintings in the studio after a rigorous series of manual steps (no projection shortcuts) that translated a small plein air study first to a large drawing, then to the canvas, altering it along the way. As Welliver told John Ashberry in 1985: “I am not interested in ‘painting from nature.’ I’m not interested in that at all.”

What did interest him? Welliver came to prominence in the 1960s as a painter seeking “a new paradigm for representation,” as the gallery states. But the man was ultimately compelled by more than pressures of style. Theory is transient; post-expressionist models explain the painter’s choice of method, the flattened motifs, but sidestep the living heart of his work: the passion that animates it after the stylistic moment is past.

Reading his obituary, you marvel that the sorrow of living did not kill him before this. In the 1970’s a studio fire destroyed much of his work; an infant daughter died in her crib and his wife died shortly afterward. Later, one son was murdered in Thailand and another died in unspecified circumstances. To bury one child is an insupportable grief; to bury three is a descent into the abyss. What, then, made this un-Providential world worth representing?

The answer brings us closer to Herman Melville than to Clement Greenberg. Nature, summarized and embodied in the Maine woodland, was Welliver’s White Whale, the protean thing that makes visible the facelessness of God and the inscrutability of existence. Nothing comfortable or picturesque exists in his unconcerned wilderness. Welliver turns the concentrated labor of painting into confrontation with the terrible beauty of insensate natural forces; unblinking, he refuses to look away. (“Terrible is earth,” cried Ahab, but despite all, “no retreat through me.”) Blasted trees, dense vegetation, glacial deposits, rushing streams and rivers—all are analogous to Melville’s “great shroud of the sea.” Nature, stark and wild, rolls now as it did thousands of years ago, amputating lives like limbs.

“Old Windfall” (1981-82), a dazzling map of a swath of second growth forest, defies the confusions of raw nature. An intricate weft and weave of light and shadow sets the eye bounding through a welter of growth and decay to the tight mesh of trees that obscures everything beyond middle distance. Fairfield Porter’s dictum that modern painting disallows foreground and background is technically obeyed in Welliver’s habit of working methodically and diagonally from one corner to another. But his drawing observes perspectival courtesies and warm tones dominate only in the foreground. One’s eye does the rest, pushing smaller trees back where we know they belong.

Pattern is the primary ordering element in “Blueberries in Fissures” (1983). A blueberry barren, yellow-green and orange shot through with magenta, runs in rivulets down the cracked face of a glacial boulder like blood from a wound. The height and curve of the rock is suggested by calligraphic pines clinging to the crest of a pitiless habitat.

Welliver’s prints here are a compelling window into his artistry. More intimate in size and necessarily serene in surface, they convey a tenderness toward his motifs that is often overwhelmed by the epic quality of heroic sized paintings. The luminous, absorbent white of fine paper, softer than the cool reflective light of his paintings, is particularly receptive to his purposes, blotting up brush strokes and further harmonizing a random variety of shapes.

“Stump” (2000), a moss and lichen-covered tree stub rooted among ferns and bracken, is heart-stopping. A riot of forms, the woodcut required 27 hand-carved blocks, 30 colors and 4 years to complete. Equally beautiful is the austere black and white woodcut “Islands--Allagash” (1990). Simplicity of means belies the genius of the image, bisected by the light of the moon.

What did the painter think about while he worked surrounded by wilderness? “My loved ones—the important things.”

Welliver confessed to unconcern for “the rituals of immortality.” Nevertheless, on what would have been his 76th birthday, a memorial service was held in a small Episcopal church in Belfast, Maine, named after Margaret of Antioch. One of the most beloved saints in the Middle Ages, Margaret’s was one of the voices Joan of Arc believed she heard. That is a small, anecdotal correspondence that seems just right, somehow. Neil Welliver’s own voice as a painter quickened generations of students and will continue to be heard when the noise of more celebrated contemporaries has stilled.

“Neil Welliver: A Memorial Exhibition” at Alexandre Gallery (41 East 57th Street, 212-755-2828).

This essay first appeared in The New York Sun on September 8, 2005.

Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey

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