Into our modern era the job of color in painting was to articulate the visible world, which it did anew with eye-opening freshness and authority in the hands of the Impressionists, only to have their successors advance the case that color could be shorn of its descriptive function and employed expressively, to embody feelings not otherwise visible. Thus liberated, emphatic personalized color provided, during the past century, the engine that drove the Brucke and Blaue Reiter expressionists in Germany, the Fauves in France, and, following World War II, the Post Painterly Abstractionists of the New York School. What the latter gave us—what Rothko and Still and Newman and Hofmann, Frankenthaler and Louis, Noland and Olitski and Stella, gave to the art of our time—were pictures as visually arresting and emotionally moving as any produced by moderns and modernists alike since the middle of the 19th Century.
Postmodern sensibilities that germinated in the 1970s haven’t generally endorsed the value judgments guiding that synopsis of color picture history. Disillusioned by the failed promises of the previous decade—a reaction quickly transferred to 20th Century modernism generally—they’ve opted more for cultural deconstruction and critique, for irony, and for detached, anti-aesthetic interest than for quality and conviction. From such a position, the tradition extending from Matisse to Stella, say, is seen less as a pictorial achievement than a decorative art historical sidebar, an assessment echoing a concern that was initially voiced decades before, most notably by Marcel Duchamp, who, in the face of the Fauves and Cubists, declared the new art mere visual pleasure—in a word, retinal. As a corrective, he called for art to restore ideas to itself, the implication being that it would otherwise devolve to comprise objects lacking meaningful content, objects, that is, which were indistinguishable from ordinary things in the world, things that could only nominally be considered art, like bottle racks or bicycle wheels, for instance, instead of the real McCoy, like the things in museums. And so was born conceptual art—art that equates content with ideas.
Conceptualism’s critique notwithstanding, the colorist equation of content with feeling continued to figure prominently—as it had figured prominently since the late 1940s—across our visual culture’s increasingly pluralistic stage during the later 1960s and the 1970s. Which is when the three painters presented here—Ronnie Landfield, Sandi Slone, and Darryl Hughto—were coming into their early maturity. Each was fully schooled in modernism, and each absorbed from the start the ways and means of Post Painterly Abstraction, in particular its primary emphasis on a personal and expressive use of color, but also its techniques of paint application, staining and pouring among them, methods of getting paint from the can or tube and onto the canvas that minimized paint’s physicality on the one hand and indulged it on the other, but in either case suppressed the gestural handling of it in order to allow color its maximum impact. Each has now been painting for more than four decades, and each has in the process periodically made ambitiously large pictures, as well as pictures that are frankly and unapologetically beautiful, candid in celebrating color as a vehicle of emotional content, intuitively smart in structuring its deployment to assure the content’s credibility. Regularly inspired by their modernist past, yet at the same time unburdened by it, each has also looked periodically to nature, not in opposition to abstraction, which was the charge presented against painting nature in the 1950s, but as a resource for enriching it.
In that context, here is Ronnie Landfield:
My inspiration has been my conviction that modern painting is fueled by the combination of tradition and the realities of modern life. Spirituality and feeling are the basic subjects of my work. They are depictions of intuitive expressions using color as language and the landscape…as a metaphor for the arena of life. The revelation of a primal image that delivers an immediate response in the viewer is my goal.Here, Sandi Slone:
The recent works do not describe nature. They attempt to imitate the processes of nature in the way they are made, relying on the fluidity of chance and rigorous control that is rooted in exploring the unexpected and the unknown.And here, Darryl Hughto:
My absolute favorite motif is the imaginary landscape, usually just consisting of a horizon, sky above and land or sea below, maybe a blob or two on the horizon reading as islands or clouds. With this format I am the most free with color and paint handling. It puts more pressure on the color, and the simplicity of the drawing allows the viewer to relax and just feel it. I can have my cake, as I had it when I was totally geometric and painting diamonds, and eat it too, great savory hunks of paint swimming in buckets of puddles and pours.Ronnie Landfield’s signature paintings generally comprise stained fields of light-breathing color bordered by a single color geometric band along the lower framing edge and sometimes one or two additional bands rising along the sides of the picture. The bands represent a formal element he first employed in minimalist paintings of the 1960s in response to Donald Judd’s quarrel with painting’s inherent spatiality and part-by-part relationships—his claim being that painting was flawed by illusion, that it wasn’t its literal self—so Ronnie Landfield added the bands as a way of reminding us of painting’s flatness. All of which probably sounds kind of academic, even a little preposterous from the distance of nearly half a century, but such were the issues informing critical discourse at the time—they were immediate, they felt genuinely urgent, and they occasionally found their way into the studio, just as their counterparts do today.
|Ronnie Landfield, For John Keats, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 81 x 93 inches.|
|Ronnie Landfield, Joseph’s Coat, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 88 x 81 inches.|
|Ronnie Landfield, The Deluge, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 inches.|
|Ronnie Landfield, On the Threshold, 2008, 44 x 29.5 inches.|
|Ronnie Landfield, Blue Wall, 2010, 44.5 x 53 inches.|
|Sandi Slone, Tiger Eye, 1976, oil and acrylic on canvas, 69 x 80 inches.|
|Sandi Slone, Rasputin, 1984, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 inches.|
|Sandi Slone, Fire Wave, 1990, oil, acrylic and sand on canvas, 60 x 126 inches.|
|Sandi Slone, Sky, Field, Lips, 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 inches diameter .|
|Sandi Slone, Vast, 2011, oil and acrylic on canvas, 18 x 14 inches.|
|Darryl Hughto, Saint Gingerbread, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 78 inches diagonal.|
|Darryl Hughto, Radiance, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 58 x 81.5 inches|
|Darryl Hughto, Pillar Point, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 52.5 x 68.5 inches.|
|Darryl Hughto, Great Spruce Head Island Sunrise, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 57 x 47 inches.|
|Darryl Hughto, Cherry Island, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 29 x 36 inches.|
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.