Editor's note: The following essay is a catalogue segment for the exhibition See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters, on view September 26, 2013 - January 26, 2014 at the National Academy Museum. The essay was published December 13, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the National Academy Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the National Academy Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
"Neil Welliver" in See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters. exh. cat., New York: The National Academy Museum, 2013, 74-82
by Bruce Weber
Neil Welliver was an uncompromising and sometimes pugnacious individual who, for the last few decades of his life, lived as something of a hermit on the coast of Maine. With his close-cropped hair, clipped mustache, khaki field shirts, and cheek often pouched with chewing tobacco, he looked, in the words of the journalist Tom Long, "more like a big-game hunter than an artist." Yet, at the time of his death in 2005, Welliver was generally regarded as the dean of American landscape painting.
Over the course of a career exploring, among other things, the relationship between paint and optical perception, he created paintings that achieve a remarkable balance between abstraction and representation. In a 1981 interview published in the newsletter of the Artists' Choice Museum, Welliver remarked, "My painting is very closely related to the way I live. I live in the woods in fact. I develop a large part of my own resources and so on in terms of the basic needs of my life and I consider that all very private. When my paintings are 'finished' I have no interest in them at all. I really couldn't care less. The paintings for me are residual . . . they are in fact 'tracks in the snow', behind me."
The artist was born in 1929 in the lumber town of Millville, Pennsylvania, and there, from a young age, developed a deep appreciation and love of nature. At nineteen, he entered the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now part of the University of the Arts), where his teachers included the watercolorist Wilmot Emerton Heitland (1891-1969). Welliver recalled that Heitland encouraged students to create "academized [Winslow] Homers." While attending the school, he saw watercolors by John Marin (1870-1953) on exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and produced works inspired by his more modern example.
After graduating from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, Welliver saw a group of paintings by Josef Albers and set about trying to figure out how he created his squares of color (fig. 47). A friend encouraged him to visit Albers, who had moved on from Black Mountain College to the Yale University Art School, where he served as chairman of the Department of Design. Welliver embarked for New Haven, bringing along a roll of his drawings and a group of sculptures in the hope of convincing Albers to admit him to the school. In the end, as the art writer Eve Medoff reported, "something about the searching, questioning spirit of the interviewee engaged [Albers's] interest" and he was admitted to the Graduate School of Fine Arts.
Welliver attended the Yale graduate school from 1953 to 1955, studying abstract painting and color theory with Albers, who offered his students a unified way of looking at and thinking about the world. He advanced the ideals of simplicity, lightness, clarity, leanness, transparency, and balance. Lifelong, Welliver would consider Albers his greatest influence, the mentor who provided him with the necessary skills to pursue his personal lines of inquiry. He called Albers an "incredibly good teacher," who gave him "a broad and substantial base in the perception of color and the way color changes in different contexts." Welliver used the exercises he was given in class as springboards to creating paintings of his own (fig. 48). Color-change exercises inspired him to explore the relativity of color. Other exercises dealt with light value (the quality of light or dark in color) and intensity (the brightness or dullness of color). In another Albers exercise, students were asked to get one color to look like two, and to get two different colors to look like one. Albers actually demonstrated how color interactions worked, and he posed provocative problems in perception. He taught that color was dependent on the effect produced by adjacent colors as well as the quantity of color: a small color field behaves very differently from a large one.
Although Albers drew heavily on his own theories, he was eager for students to have the benefit of diverse thought. He brought the Abstract Expressionist James Brooks (1906-1992) to Yale as a visiting critic. Welliver was impressed by Brooks's painterly brushwork, which "seemed to point a way toward fluidity." He also found himself drawn to the work of de Kooning, Pollock, and Franz Kline. "The thing about Pollock that excited me," Welliver later said, "is accepting the physical fact of the canvas . . . Acknowledging the fact of the painting. Pollock's aggression about the fact of the painting ... I feel I come much more from that than I do from anywhere else."
Through the decade of the fifties, Welliver struggled to find his own direction. He admitted trying "all of the obvious aspects of modern painting that I had never been introduced to." These trials included a group of color-field paintings that so impressed his teacher Conrad Marca-Relli (1913-2000) that he wanted to bring them to the attention of Eleanor Ward of the Stable Gallery. Welliver resisted this help, however, because he knew he was "ready to change." He now sought to be "inclusive rather than reductive [while retaining] the vigor and intensity of Abstract Expressionism."  He quickly went on to produce a series of quasi-expressionistic paintings influenced by de Kooning. Welliver introduced the figure into his work, stretching and distorting it (fig. 49). He created works based on "cartoons, drawings from nature, art history, anything. My paintings were loose, wild, takeoffs on historical painting. I even redid [El Greco's 1586] The Burial of Count Orgaz."
In 1955, Albers hired Welliver to teach basic design at Yale. The protégé built on what he had learned from the master, emphasizing the "idea that painting had to work as paint and form, not merely as image." In 1966, he was hired to develop the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania and would serve as chairman of the school until his retirement in 1989.
In 1959, Welliver decided to focus on painting nudes in landscapes. His initial paintings in this vein were rough and primitive, and in 1962, following his visit that summer to Maine, he decided to paint the subject from direct observation. Throughout the 1960s, he returned to Maine for the summer months and there created large- scale paintings of nudes bathing in local streams and ponds (fig. 50), as well as pictures of his sons canoeing, rowing on the river, and tramping through the forest. He brought female models to Maine so they could pose for him outdoors. He considered the figures in his paintings to be part of nature, and he sought to integrate them pictorially with surrounding elements. Welliver admitted that it was "the form, working through it quickly, that I'm after." The artist later considered his paintings of female nudes as "part of a . . . kind of . . . free flowing, erotic impulse . . . "
In the early 1970s, Welliver began to concentrate on pure landscapes (fig. 51), abandoning the figure because of the "unbelievable focus" it required and the futility he felt in trying to successfully integrate it into an outdoor setting without its becoming the center of interest?an "unnatural intruder," as Welliver authority Frank Goodyear wittily called it. Welliver himself admitted that he "stopped painting people abruptly when it became clear to me that people are just a part of nature?at the same time, they are a distraction. They are so specific and so much a point of focus for myself as well as viewers; I am more interested in developing a structural organism."
The art critic Peter Schjeldahl acknowledged Welliver's change of direction and recognized that the "shift in subject matter [to pure landscape] seems to correspond with an increased mastery and confidence in the artist's ability to compose and vitalize a picture. The sensuality is still there, but now it assumes its proper place as an impulse informing the painting's technique . . . It hinges on a kind of compensatory relationship between free, 'open' brushwork and a carefully thought-out choice and application of color. Its effect is that of a lively, shaggy surface which is, however, perfectly knitted and flat."
The transition to figureless landscape painting accompanied Welliver's 1971 move to Lincolnville, Maine, on Penobscot Bay, near the mid-point of the state's Atlantic coastline. The artist made the move because he felt it to be essential for him to live in Maine year-round, so that he could verify the details of his landscapes as he expanded plein-air studies into full-scale paintings. He commuted hundreds of miles twice a week to teach in Philadelphia. In the early 1980s, however, Welliver reduced his teaching load by arranging for Paul Georges and Paul Resika to split classes with him, two days of every other week. Resika and he met in the summer of 1973 when Resika was teaching at The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, to which Welliver was invited as a guest lecturer. Georges and he may have become friendly through their mutual involvement with Artists' Choice. Welliver's paintings were included in the organization's ambitious exhibition Figurative Realist Art, which was on view at six galleries along 57th Street in New York during the fall of 1979. Welliver also served briefly on the institution's board of advisors, and the Artists' Choice Newsletter published an interview with the artist in their issue of March-April 1981.
With the need for commuting reduced, Welliver settled on the 106-acre farm he had acquired in 1963. A long, rambling house adjoined a large barn, which served him as his studio. The house was entirely self-sufficient, off the grid, its electricity generated by windmills. There was a large organic garden for produce and domestic fowl for additional food. The artist and art writer Andrew Morgan commented in 1980 that Welliver's "farm and his woods suggest simplicity, environmental preservation, natural beauty, cultivation, awesome wilderness and painstaking management."
He worked hard to preserve his property's natural character and over time acquired an additional 1,500 acres of land, property networked by ravines and featuring hills, flatlands, and ponds. He would remain there until May 2004, when declining health necessitated a move to a less demanding home perched above the Ducktrap River. Through the years he also traveled to other parts of Maine, including the wilderness areas near the Canadian border.
Records of the ebb and flow of nature's cycles, Welliver's landscapes have a quiet, even lonely character. He pictures the landscape from close-up and at mid-range, as well as from a panoramic distance (plates 75, 79). The latter works always have strong focal points and emphatic horizon lines, with distant forms less sharply depicted than those nearer. He sought in his landscapes to distill a characteristic aspect of the terrain of Maine through the filter of his own perception. As Frank Goodyear pointed out,"Welliver's landscapes embody a sense of Maine, always filtered through the artist's mind." Even when he painted intimate and enclosed spaces, in which darkness encroached on the subject, his work manages to retain the unspoiled and resplendent air of the region.
The artist never deliberately set out in search of a particular place to paint. He far preferred to stumble upon a spot of interest. He would walk straight into the thick of the forest for anywhere from one to five miles, opening himself to inspiration. He would hike with a pack containing binoculars, spyglass, water jugs, toilet tissue, turpentine cans, rags, brushes, two-foot square canvases or sheets of paper, tubes of color, and a portable easel. He believed that if "you go in [the woods] and just set yourself down and take a view of it, there's a kind of a convention involved . . . [T]hat doesn't interest me. I like to go in and walk around it and all sides and through it and really get a hold of the place and then go back, and make a little sketch from one point of view, and then another, and so on and finally decide how and from where I'm going to paint the area." It was critical, he felt, to take "the time to look at something again and again and again and again and again." Above all, he sought out what he called "places of power." He said: "If you give yourself to a place, you begin to feel its power . . . For me, these places are often nondescript corners, small things, not the big 19th century vistas of the Hudson River School . . . "
Welliver's subjects include scenes of deep woods dappled with light, views across bodies of water to distant prospects, and rocky hills (plates 76). He also painted marshes, barrens (plate 77), rocks, dry stream and riverbeds that had recently overflowed with high water (plate 78), flowage (plate 79), the base of waterfalls (illus. 108), deadfall, and the dried-out skeletons of drowned trees. His works usually include the element of water (ponds, cascades, pools, brooks, and freshets), and he made many drawings of water in an effort to learn how to render it accurately. Above all, however, Welliver preferred winter landscapes (fig. 52), despite the rigors of working outdoors during that season in Maine. He was fascinated by the crystalline light and the changing color relationships created by fallen snow.
Success and Maturity
The artist began to achieve critical and commercial success for his landscapes in the mid-1970s. By the end of the decade, he had developed his mature method and style. He was most interested in capturing the ephemerality of a given moment and, with it, the energy flow of light through space. Welliver's lyrical explanation of his experience of painting in nature is worth quoting in full:
"I am considerably more interested in the moment than in location. There are intervals in one's life and mind when everything is, for a second, real and clear . . . They [the intervals] are not entirely visual but rather encompass one's entire psychology. The air is crystalline; its direction is absolute; light falls with astounding clarity; every object sits in its designated space or moves with incredible precision; every gesture is right; the mind functions free of distraction. To paint, for me, is to build a construct with an exact parallel to these experiences. The color reaches its ultimate pitch; the forms are utterly one; the materials are entirely dematerialized. A muteness settles over the canvas, and that moment of which I spoke is present again."
In 1983, Welliver recalled a visit to him in Maine from Paul Resika. What stood out to him were the differences in their aesthetic point of view: "I remember one time Paul Resika was here and I showed him a brook that is a sea of boulders. He walked in and said, 'A feast of planes.' A feast of planes. For me there were no planes at all. Instead, I was seeing a great energy flow of light, fragments of light whistling along the brook and back through the total volume we were looking into. The idea of immediately focusing on the object and its planes?I wasn't seeing that at all. I was looking at something extremely obscure, not light in the normal sense, light bathing objects, but light in the air, flashing and moving like a flow of energy through space. That interests me greatly. That's what my paintings are about."
Albers influenced Welliver's general approach and compositional strategy. Above all, he followed Albers's example in using his eyes to see what was before him and to develop a structure-based art. Like his teacher, he favored the square format, which provided a perfect grid for the geometric underpinnings of his compositions. The square format allowed him to keep the space shallow, and it reinforced the abstract reading of shapes on the surface. Many of Welliver's works focus on a section of nature and are crowded with an enormous amount of visual information. The eye passes over the surface, not knowing where to stop or linger. Instead, it takes in the overall pattern of elements. Welliver's pictorial field is highly structured. As Goodyear notes, he saw "the world in terms of structures; vertical and horizontal divisions, bands and quadrants, symmetrical or asymmetrical, creating dynamic equilibriums like the painter Piet Mondrian, of unequal but equivalent oppositions."
Welliver was interested in depicting color where the light is in the middle range, with contrasts reduced to a minimum. This, he found, was when light was at its brightest and richest. It was the condition in which one was able to see the "very small differences in the relationship between greens, [and notice] that some are darker and some are brighter and some are bluer and some are greener. To be able to see these relationships and paint them and so on is central to my interests."
After deciding on the spot he wanted to paint, Welliver would make a number of studies before moving on to do a large canvas in his studio. He painted each study in three sessions of about three hours. He chose one of them to translate into large scale?and might also use the other sketches as further guides. Depending on the site and the weather conditions, he might paint from the vantage point of a canoe or while wearing snowshoes or cross-country skies. He favored making paintings that are eight feet square. His belief was that a canvas on this scale would seduce a viewer into feeling he could walk into the landscape. For him, eight feet seemed "enough and much bigger doesn't add anything to it. I hope the viewer is sucked in there as into a vacuum."
On a sheet of thin brown paper, the artist made a full-scale charcoal drawing based on the study he selected. In the manner of a Renaissance fresco painter he pricked each line of the drawing with tiny holes. Then he tacked the drawing to the large primed canvas and transferred the linear outlines to the surface by "pouncing" the drawing's surface with a soft bag of finely powdered charcoal, the pin pricks allowing the charcoal through to the canvas and thereby creating the desired outline. Next, Welliver would seal and stabilize the charcoal outline by spraying the drawing with a synthetic varnish. This large-scale drawing established the size of the painting and the position (more or less) of each element. Once the lines were present, he laid down the oil paint following a similarly disciplined approach. He would move methodically, inch by inch, wet on wet, diagonally down and across from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of the canvas. He found this approach "very helpful because when you reach the bottom you're finished." Welliver painted steadily from between four to seven hours a day in his studio. In this way, he completed the eight- foot paintings in a month to six weeks.
The Element of Abstraction
Neil Welliver never tried to copy the color or appearance of what he had seen outdoors. Instead, he would "make things up as I go along . . . It's very abstract in that sense." He likened his working method to that of Willem de Kooning, feeling that "I look very hard then I make it up as I go along." The artist's approach also descended directly from that of the Abstract Expressionists in its large scale and emotional intensity. It was indebted in particular to the all-over compositions of Jackson Pollock. Indeed, the art critic Robert Hughes credited Welliver with reinvigorating Abstract Expressionism by reengaging the landscape, and he felt that "If Pollocks can look like brambles, brambles reserve the right to look like Pollocks."
Abstract Expressionism also influenced Welliver to develop an active, all-over brush stroke, and to apply pigment in a spirited, staccato manner. His surfaces are rich and creamy, made up of a combination of dabs and linear strokes of paint that have a smooth, almost tapestry-like evenness. The overall lavishness of the painted surface led the artist and critic Harriet Shorr to remark that Welliver's works are" about painting more than they are about subject." It is an observation that relates directly to Welliver's own comment: "my interest in painting lies in the fact of the painting, and I think that's why sometimes people find the big paintings uncomfortable. Because they, in fact, perceive the space, sense it, and at the same time are repelled by the aggression of the painting, of the pigment, of the fact of the picture, its size."
In contrast to the likes of Pollock, Welliver actually painted slowly and painstakingly. Yet he wanted to create the impression that his pictures were executed quickly. He related that he constantly fused "wet paint into wet paint and it's one of the reasons why I paint the paintings in sections, so that I can lock one wet area into another. When it's finished they look like they are painted very rapidly because anyone who paints, when they see wet fluid paint, assumes that it was done very, very rapidly."
In terms of color, Welliver adjusted the lower colors in relation to what happened on top. It was the practice he had learned from Albers?making his color choices by determining how they interacted optically, thereby producing the desired degree of intensity. He used an extremely limited palette consisting of permalba white, ivory black, cadmium red scarlet, manganese blue, ultramarine blue, lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, and talens green light. He eliminated completely the earth colors, because "there is a luminosity I'm after . . . If I want a green earth, I'm much more inclined to make that from manganese blue and black and cadmium yellow with a touch of red, which creates a color that is its equivalent but, for me, livelier." Welliver also liked to mix new colors into areas of dry paint, so that the "color is immediately seen in relationship to the other colors." The colors that appear in his finished paintings are very different from those found in his studies, as he tried to "parallel that [color] in the study, achieve the same intensity or meaning as the color used in the study by using another color, a different color."
Like some other painters of the Maine landscape, Welliver was attracted to the clear and flat character of Maine light, and he freely admitted that it was "one of the things which keeps me there . . . when it's clear you can look at any distance, miles often, and you can see elements almost as if they were like ten or fifteen feet away." It was a neutral clarity perfectly suited to a painter for whom both the natural landscape and its presentation in paint were of equal stature in nature. It enabled his reinvention of representation in the rich context created by abstraction, Albers, and Abstract Expressionism.
About the author
Bruce Weber is the National Academy Museum's Senior Curator of 19th and Early 20th Century Art. He is curator of the exhibition See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters.
About the exhibition
See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters is on view September 26, 2013 through January 26, 2014 at the National Academy Museum. The National Academy Museum's website says:
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was published in Resource Library on December 13, 2013 with permission of the author and the National Academy Museum, which was granted to TFAO on December 12, 2103. The essay comprises pages 74 through 82 of the catalogue for the exhibition. Footnotes and images referenced in the text were not provided by the Museum.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Michelle Kiefer of the National Academy Museum & School for her help concerning permission for publishing the essay.
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