Tuesday, March 1st, 2005

Nathan Oliveira: Recent Paintings

DC Moore Gallery
724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street
New York NY 10019

March 8 to April 9, 2005

A version of this review appeared in the New York Sun, March 17, 2005

Nathan Oliveira Nude Standing on a Rock 2005 oil, alkyd and cold wax medium on polyester canvas, 50 x 42 inches Courtesy DC Moore Gallery
Nathan Oliveira, Nude Standing on a Rock 2005 oil, alkyd and cold wax medium on polyester canvas, 50 x 42 inches Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

The assured brushstrokes, iconic figures, and radiantly red backgrounds of Nathan Oliveira’s latest paintings suggest that, after five decades of exhibiting, the artist has found a kind of spiritual centeredness. His recent paintings, currently at DC Moore Gallery, have the luscious brushstrokes and otherworldly imagery we’ve come to expect, but also a new economy of description.

Most of the 10 medium-sized and large paintings depict single figures in a deep, indefinite reddish-orange space; some of these human forms are silhouetted by bright backgrounds, others burn with an inner light. Their authoritative outlines rely on the barest modeling to enhance sensations of weight and gesture. On close inspection, the backgrounds turn out not to be voids at all, but environments fashioned of drizzled washes of pigment, or discreet or agitated strokes of paint, all subtly responding to the figures’ gestures.

Mr. Oliveira’s journey has been a long one; his art and his career have had a complicated trajectory since the expressionist paintings that brought him fame just a few years out of art school. Born in Oakland in 1928, Mr. Oliveira experienced firsthand the vital postwar art scene of San Francisco. Solo exhibitions of works by most major New York School painters — as well as Beckmann, Kokoschka, and Munch — appeared in city museums. Clyfford Stilltaught at the California School of Fine Arts, where Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt dropped in as visiting teachers.

It was a providential glimpse of a Rembrandt portrait, however, that determined the teen-age Oliveira’s particular interests in painting. In art school he benefited especially from a summer class with Beckmann, whose convictions about art (and dislike of abstract painting) deeply impressed the young student. Mr. Oliveira was heavily influenced by Bay Area Figurative Painting, and especially by his friend Richard Diebenkorn.

From the start, however, his canvases showed an anxious soulfulness quite unlike those of his older colleagues. The ragged, often scratchy textures of his images, along with his evocatively empty backgrounds, lent his early paintings an especially desolate quality. Increasingly, his work began to stand apart, too, for an interest in traditional styles and subjects that harkened back to Munch, Goya, and other masters.

In the 1960s, when Mr. Oliveira’s meteoric success precipitated a kind of painter’s block,

He turned to other mediums. The evocative line and texture and rich, contrasting tonalities of his monotypes make them some of his most striking images. When Mr. Oliveira returned to painting, some of the first efforts suffered from a self-conscious technique and stilted imagery, but he regained his stride when his subject matter turned to universal themes of transformation and transcendence. These depictions of masked individuals, of monolithic figures/columns (“stelae,” as the artist calls them), and of enormous, spread wings are among the themes that have occupied the artist in the decades since.

In the self-contained worlds of his recent works at DC Moore, indications of movement abound. In three canvases, individuals balance on strange, rocking-chair-style arcs. In two others, pairs of figures resolutely advance towards the viewer, their perfect symmetry imparting a kind of surreal expectation. Improbably, a nude man in another canvas sports ice skates; here, as elsewhere, the composition is enlivened by small, strategically placed notes of intense color.

Mr. Oliveira’s virtuosic use of texture is particularly apparent in “Nude Standing on a Rock” (2005). Blended tones beautifully convey the illumination of a woman’s columnar form. Broad slashes of paint fill the background with virtually the same color, but textures instantly differentiate environment and figure. The artist bluntly described the details of face and feet with a large brush, but so agile is his touch that the scene seems delicate — tender, even.

An unintended consequence of his skill with a brush is that, even though the artist’s images remain in your mind, their facture no longer does. A personal, fluent language of outlines and textures has replaced the anxious scrabbling and scratching of earlier years. Without this urgency, the intimations of the transcendental can seem a bit sanguine, his means of getting there all too expedient.

The dozen watercolors in the exhibition, however, have no such difficulty. Oil paint necessarily involves laboring with materials. By comparison, watercolor is all response — and on paper Mr. Oliveira responds to a model’s pose with an exhilarating, almost careless, directness. The thin paper buckles, making the pigments puddle uncontrollably, but even so, in a watercolor like “Imi 72” (1989), the artist commands the whole surface with an immediacy of intent not always apparent in his recent paintings.

Here, the dark lunge of a leg turns lighter, continuing into the model’s illuminated back, then barely darkens as its momentum slows in the head’s rounding mass. The contour of these forms become an exquisitely articulated journey — the glide to hip, then the sweep up the back, then the resolution in the head — extending the full width of the paper, giving the image breadth, weight, even a sense of interior scale.

You can’t expect this spontaneity of technique in an oil painting. But some artists have communicated in oils the same immediacy of perception — think of Giacometti, who in his own, highly stylized paintings sought a hierarchy of rhythms that would establish head on body, body on chair, and finally chair within the world delimited by a canvas. No object became real until its rhythmic energy gave it reason to be.

Giacometti triumphed, not in the description of mysterious scenes, but in the unlocking of the mysteries of the observed world. That, too, is a part of the tradition of painting.