Artist friend Jon Imber died on April 17, yielding finally to ALS but painting valiantly and brilliantly to the end, a source of wonder and inspiration. I had the privilege of knowing him since the later 1970s, of showing his work at the Rose Art Museum at that time, and of writing about his achievement at the time of a major exhibition of his paintings at Boston University in 1999. That essay is here reproduced.
What I first liked in Guston was the image, now what I like is the paint*I first saw Jon Imber’s paintings in 1978 in the small Somerville studio he occupied at the time, and I decided pretty quickly to include half a dozen of them in a group show of area artists that took place at the Rose Art Museum at the end of that year. The pictures were impressive in size and scale, indicating a large ambition, and they were dominated by the human figure, leaving no doubt about their vehicle of expression. It was their narrative content, however, that I found compelling, even haunting: A father on all fours carries his son on his back, a mother and her two children pose for a family snapshot, a young man creeps into the bed of his sleeping lover, or reads the morning paper while eating a piece of toast, or stares at two freshly opened cans of paint.
The situations are conventional enough, but they are unconventionally presented. The figures look anxious and uncomfortable, they leer and grimace, their bodies awkwardly entangle one another, and their anatomies become suddenly exaggerated, appearing to have been shaped in response not to sight but to feeling. Incongruously, they are also naked, stripped and exposed like the barren landscapes and unadorned interiors they are made to occupy, causing both the spaces and the figures to seem equally forlorn, equally vulnerable. Yet, because they are so large in relation to the worlds they inhabit and so blunt in their nakedness -- so monumentally human -- the figures also assume an uncanny strength, as though, however common the activities they engage, they transform those activities to the level of timeless rituals, to a level of experience we all share.
As Jon is the first to acknowledge, the ambition signaled by the early figure paintings evolved from the combined lessons of the Italian Renaissance and the New York School under the guidance of his teacher at Boston University, Philip Guston: “The size came from New York and me wanting to be a modern painter; I liked the way Guston had made a big statement that changed the art world, and I wanted to do something like that. Before Guston I wasn’t too aware of art prior to Van Gogh and Gauguin and Cezanne, but Guston loved to talk about the Renaissance, and he got me there, to the forms and spaces, the order and symmetry, the monumentality of the Florentine Renaissance, of Giotto, Masaccio, and Piero.” From Guston, too, came advice regarding the subject matter of those paintings: “One specific thing that Guston said was, ‘Paint what’s most important to you, paint what you care about, get to whatever it is that’s going to sustain you for a lifetime as a painter.’ That was my introduction to personal content, and as soon as I looked for it, there it was: My friends and family, my father, my mother, my girl friend, my own life.”
So the young man in the pictures, the one climbing into bed, or reading the paper, or looking at the cans of paint, is the artist himself, the leitmotif within the program of figurative personal content he explored into the mid-1980s when he showed a series of landscape paintings having in them no figures at all. While the landscapes extended Jon’s practice of working in a large format and developing his canvases with the aid of drawings entirely within the studio, their shift in subject matter was nonetheless puzzling. Where did the landscape come from? Where had the figure gone? And what had become of personal content? What puzzled me most, however – and also surprised me – was the extent to which the new paintings caused the older paintings to look different, as though, intentionally or otherwise, the two bodies of work constituted a radical critique of one another that probed beyond issues of subject matter alone. The landscapes, for instance, seemed to offer more paint and surface incident, more material pleasures, making the figure paintings appear workmanlike and matter-of-fact, their pigments employed first and last in order to get the job done. They also seemed more tightly and consciously structured, with clusters of rocks and trees and flowers dispersed as compositional anchors, with light and color selectively heightened to guide us rhythmically from foreground to middle distance to deep space.
By comparison, the compositions and spaces of the earlier pictures look unpredictably intuitive, crammed in one moment, accommodating in the next, as if the figures within them had alone determined their configuration. What the new landscapes forced upon me, in other words, was a new awareness of the formal properties of the figure paintings, formal properties I hadn’t much thought about in my initial and highly positive response to them, for I had focused my attention – or they had focused my attention – on their narrative and personal content, not on the way they were put together. But while I may have experienced a momentary regret on seeing the landscapes replace the figures – it sometimes happens when you follow and support an artist’s work for a while that you become presumptuous, you expect the artist to follow your vision instead of his own – I felt no need to choose between the two bodies of work, for I felt they were equally strong, equally ambitious, equally convincing. The significance of any comparison between them lay elsewhere: New art possessing quality always makes you see older art differently.
As indicated, the 1985 landscapes were developed in the studio with the aid of drawings produced on site. Since 1990, when Jon began spending five or six months a year in Stonington, Maine, nearly all of them have been executed plein-air, one at a time, in three or four hour sessions, and that practice has deepened his relationship with nature and made the paintings increasingly loose and spontaneous. “I quit after three or four hours, after the light has changed. If I don’t like it the next day, I wipe it out; otherwise I try to make it a one-shot painting, which I guess I learned from Abstract Expressionism, because the best paintings by Guston or Pollock or any of those guys feel like they were done in one shot. Painters up in Maine talk about the beauties of nature, but I generally can’t stand them. I feel as though I’m in a battle with nature trying to find myself within it, figure out what’s going on between me and the landscape, so I seem to be drawn to a tangle of trees or a situation that’s kind of a mess that I have to sort out. Nature’s not a very comfortable place.”
A tangle of trees, a mess, an uncomfortable place. While they bear no resemblance to the figure paintings I first saw in his studio, Jon’s landscapes of the past decade nonetheless remind me of them – of those tangled arms and legs, those messy personal relationships, those uncomfortably barren and unadorned spaces – as though, two decades later, he’s come full circle. The fact that the human figure in the form of his wife or son has occasionally appeared in the landscapes encourages the same thought, but that’s clearly not the case. “I don’t feel very sure of myself anymore, not as though I’m on fire in the studio, which is how I felt 15 or 20 years ago. Now painting is like tackling something, as though it’s gotten harder than it used to be.” I can imagine it has, for any genuine passion grows increasingly complex with time, and I’m grateful the challenge here is his, not mine; but equally I’m grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed from the beginning what meeting the challenge has wrought, which is the making of a painter.
* Quotes from the artist are from an interview that took place in his studio in March 1999.