There is a Season: Julian Hatton’s Figural Painting Gives Way to Abstraction
Julian Hatton: New Seasons at Elizabeth Harris
April 2 to May 9, 2015
529 West 20th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 463 9666
Julian Hatton’s painting seems to have been focused for some time on the contention that abstraction, if allowed to breathe in a deeper pictorial space, can maintain visual opulence without drifting too far from its essentially two-dimensional syntax. Among a generation of artists who matured on this side of painting’s pluralist expansion, where each painter’s style, look and touch was far more varied than that of their canonic New York School predecessors, Hatton held to a loose figurative scaffold based on landscape elements both perceived and imagined. Though the iconography in this recent work remains readable — each painting’s horizon is still easy to find — there is, in newer panels such as trouble and scrim (both 2015), a softening of the edges and a swelling of forms that now shimmer behind translucent washes instead of bending, as they once did, into each other’s space. From an optimal distance — coerced from the viewer by the five-foot spread of their frames — their reconfigured cohesion seems to rely less on drawing and more on a spontaneous manipulation of hue and texture.
The resulting airiness is a clear departure from his earlier work, which is reprised in this exhibition by trio (2012-13), an example of his harder-edged shapes, apparently reconstituted during the painting’s many stages of development so as not to diminish the careful co-ordinating of its unique structural invention. To drift from the success of this method is risky, for what’s been so appealing about Hatton’s work until now has been precisely its interconnected complexity. The changes seen in this exhibition may be attributed in some measure to his establishing a new studio in upstate New York. Like Bonnard in the south of France, Ellsworth Kelly in Chatham or de Kooning in East Hampton, a move from city to country will, for reasons not always linked to the landscape itself, reset a painter’s perspective.
A clue to the path taken in this shift between the earlier compositions and these newer, cloudier apparitions may be found in imprint (2014-15), a five-foot-square panel representing the artist’s trials at keeping the structure fixed tighter to the surface. Here, a familiarity with Hatton’s elevated horizon line helps the viewer read the ghost of a landscape that still exists despite the missing diagonals and story-book trees of his earlier work — elements that had once supported Hatton’s penchant for excavating spatial illusion with little cost to a lively surface. Imprint marks the change as its simplified shapes are not immediately recognizable as landscape elements. They also seem unusually tolerant of each other’s position in the composition.
And yet warbler (2014-15), to my eye the most adventurous of the newer canvases in the show, still owes something to the lexicon of the earlier work, though here it seems Hatton’s method has turned to a new and pronounced improvisation. warbler’s surface remains in an agitated state. Not a single section of color is truly resolved. Edges are ragged and makeshift. Translucency dominates. There is even a gestural coarseness replacing what was once a controlled chaos of endlessly suggestive shapes. The color alone in Warbler provides the link to earlier work, being mostly middle tones of contingent primary and secondary hues.
For anyone who has followed Hatton’s work these many years, an effort to catch up to where he is now will require diligence, which I believe is a fair expectation for him to make as his paintings have always appealed to a visually smart audience. Because his abundant inventiveness had constituted as near a legible pictorial language as created by any painter in recent memory, encountering its contraction will demand a real and unavoidable learning curve. The fact that Warbler takes pride of place on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue seems more than a hint that he is unlikely to turn back. Hatton is a painter whose strength had always been his ability to develop variations on a theme. The construction of an intelligent, readable and teasingly ambiguous pictorial image, even in this new looser style, still speaks to a continuity of vision.
Hatton has never been a painter fixated on concocting a new look, and there is no indication here of chasing novelty, nor is there any hint of applying arbitrary effects to avoid comparison with contemporaries. From the beginning his work has been a conscious adaptation of landscape elements knit tightly into compositions that owed a great deal of their cohesion to those compositional properties that as any instructor knows are maddeningly difficult to formulate verbally but can be appreciated in its many variations from the mature Nicolas Poussin to the early Richard Diebenkorn. As art fairs continue to hawk brightly colored things apparently meant for the simpler aim of accessorizing the expansive blank walls that once provided inexpensive working space for New York’s artists, it gives one hope to watch a painter keep to self-imposed limitations, not in spite of, but because there is more than enough room within a rectangle of canvas to address a thoughtful and historically aware sensibility.