Jill Nathanson: Light Phrase Organized by Berry Campbell Gallery

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JILL NATHANSON LIGHT PHRASE


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JILL NATHANSON LIGHT PHRASE JANUARY 7 - FEBRUARY 6, 2021

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PARTICLES, POURS AND BRIGHT WAVEFORMS: JILL NATHANSON’S RECENT WORK BY CHRISTINA KEE

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ill Nathanson’s new paintings powerfully showcase the results of a career-long commitment to pure abstraction, and more specifically to an ongoing exploration, through transparent and translucent planes, into color in its most charged and changeable form. For the past decade Nathanson has been composing paintings that are at once inviting and dissonantly challenging from “veils” of transparent acrylic pours, in which clear-hued areas of color push, expand and overlap one another. It is a visual mode that both emphasizes and negates the implications of the gesture; the works are clearly done by hand, usually on an outstretched-arm scale, but in their reliance on clear open planes they remind with a near-platonic sensibility that the essential components of abstraction (color and measurable form)

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exist prior to and beyond an artist’s controlling hand. Nathanson’s works can be read as positioned between what can be materially created by the palette and pour, and what exists as given constants—the spectrum vibrations that we see and feel as pure color energies. Through the past decade of work Nathanson has established a relationship to color and form that is both expert and improvisatory. Despite the bold assertiveness of her new paintings they feel finely calibrated, and evince the peculiar inverse relationship specific to works resulting from focused forms of study: the more subtle the action, the greater the impact. The works on view in Light Phrase suggest the attainment of a pictorial and emotional range in which the slightest alteration in shade or inflection of edge carries clear visual consequence. The subtly innovative compositions and color relationships that these works present feel authentic and new, and speak of the workings of an entire inner universe. A distinctive aspect of many of these new works is a dynamic compositional structure loosely reminiscent of a “sine” curve. Built from a series of transparent disc-anddrape forms, this rhythmic wave stretches from one corner of the painting to the other, alternately ascending and diving, energizing the picture plane and physically evoking sensations of speed and distance. It is a masterful and original means of fully elucidating the visual concerns Nathanson has been exploring for years, and coherently bringing unexpected color relations—even opposites—into proximity and play. In Sparkshift the “sine” curve boldly appears amidst a richly modulated spectrum that runs from red through to


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a violet-inflected rose. The compositional fluidity of the work initially obscures the fact that this structure is made not from a continuous wave-shaped mark, but from a balance of only five intermittently intersecting planes. As in a musical round, or a relay race, the completion of the whole is dependent on a successive action, on one part leading to the next. The sharp double-touch of the blue central form with the rose toward the bottom of the canvas is a crucial link of the painting’s lower central curve, for example, but is only completed by the plane of warm gold that deftly eclipses both, sweeping the eye upwards to the painting’s right-most apex. The pictorial energy generated by the wave pushes up against all edges of the painting, conveying an expansive sense of scale and alluding also, perhaps, to the notion of infinity implicit in the echo of a geometric waveform. Some of the most compelling moments of Nathanson’s works continue to occur in transition passages where one transparent plane overlaps another. The resulting area is quite literally nameless in color; through the artist’s skilled handling the transitional area takes its unmuddied color through the superimposition of two separate and distinctly pigmented planes. In Light Wrestle, one of Nathanson’s most exciting works to date, these passages occur at regular intervals, and are even complicated by areas of triple overlap towards the upper right of the painting. Simply looking carefully, meditating perhaps, on these language-defying passages is an effective way of accessing the richness of this work: there is the darker tone towards the center, for example, where a soft wine-colored pour co-exists with a delicate green, then the same green

encountering the tangerine on the left in a columnar shape of unnamable hue. At right a complimentary deep orange and azure blue are joined improbably and—when one is paying proper attention, spectacularly. Nathanson remembers being introduced to the idea of color as a vibrational entity, beyond nameable attribute, first as a Bennington College student in conversations with Kenneth Noland. From her early education and inclination towards Color Field, through to her current interest in more recent and associatively layered abstraction, Nathanson has deepened this sensory understanding. In 2010 Nathanson happened on using theatre-lighting gels in a series of collages, and began exploring the effects of their transparent interactions. Although Nathanson no longer works with gels, the material reference they make to the additive process of mixing color with lightwaves (in contrast to the subtractive process at play in pigmented color mixing, where certain spectrum colors are absorbed by the material) is still of interest to the current work, which so clearly incorporates an expanded view of color as an active, de-materialized force. When speaking of her work Nathanson often frames the discussion around the excitement of color-related discoveries specific to individual paintings. “I’ve been learning that color behaves differently when it is shaped by a curved edge than when it is up against a straight edge,” Nathanson said on a recent studio visit. By way of elaboration, she made reference to the way waves, or streaming particles, might hit and bounce off of a surface like a wall, versus how they might be deflected off of a rounded form. The idea of color carrying specific


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momentum based on the shape in which it is expressed is an intriguing one, and relevant to the viewing of Nathanson’s work that so skillfully moves the eye at varying speeds over the entire painting. Particle behavior might also be intuited in the passages of overlapping color, which, like some quantum entity, are absolutely two things at the same time—playing, like Nathanson’s vision of painting itself, between matter and energy. The matter part of this equation—the “stuff” of painting—remains throughout these color explorations all-important, and it is crucial that this current series exist in pigment and in paint, not, for example, as a lightbox or projection. It is through the physicality of the poured textures and the touch visible in areas of brushwork that we can re-imagine the making of the painting, which in Nathanson’s case is a sustained investment in the creation of a contained and internally coherent statement within the flatness of the picture plane. There is a remarkable specificity to the distinct “spaces,” both actual and associative, presented in these recent works, from the gorgeous and steeply pitched intensity of Octaves Red, to the coolly sloping fields of Only a Friend. Despite the entirely non-referential mode in which Nathanson works, devoid of illusionism or symbolism, she conveys a host of complex thematic associations through the experience of viewing, engaging the psychological and spiritual potentialities of a unifying field of vision. There is a progression of experience that occurs in the viewing of each of these recent paintings. Following the impact of the initial viewing, prolonged looking evokes a sense of “seeking” or uncertainty that keeps the eye

moving before a final sense of resolution materializes. This elusive sensation might be related to the one-to-the-next composition of the “sine” paintings, where each color plane plays a specific role in completing the waveform. By extension, the separate color components of Nathanson’s paintings can all be understood as parts adding up through slow connection to a multivalent whole. When these delicate relationships are intuited, Nathanson’s painting feel like worlds seen in the process of their own completion. Light Measure exemplifies the sense of interconnectedness and completion felt throughout this new series. The softest orange and pale veiled blue are here mediated by directionally opposite green and violet forms that lead the eye both upwards and downwards, and through layers of compressed space before settling, perhaps, on a stable, radial reading of the work. The sensation is not unlike witnessing a sunrise. As with so many of Nathanson’s new works, Light Measure allows for associations quite rare to pure abstraction: warmth, gentleness, and the quiet optimism of the first seen light.


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JILL NATHANSON

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n her reduction of painting to its physical essence, Jill Nathanson belongs to the Color Field legacy, but her immersive and sensual paintings stand in a category of their own. Consisting of unusual hues of overlapping layers of variable translucency, they create emotionally nuanced experiences with yet enough tension to engage our contemplation. Eschewing the gestural impulsiveness of Abstract Expressionism, Nathanson employs a systematic, multistep process. She starts with sheets of translucent color—files she makes and prints from the computer—which she overlays to produce new colors, cutting and combining until she finds relationships that spark the visual responses she seeks. She then scales up her studies for transference to finished works. This use of modelli (preliminary studies) brings to mind the tradition of disegno, drawings as an externalization of internal ideas that stretch back to old masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci—even though Nathanson “draws” with scissors and collage. One could also link her art to the opposing convention of colorito, a term usually applied to 16th-century Venetian painting in which color is employed in a dominant manner, for sensual expressive purposes and as an important compositional element. In her laser focus on the physical act of painting, and her employment of a wide array of uncommon hues, she brings to mind the work of Titian and glazing traditions. However, instead of oil viscosity, she achieves her results with a thick polymer that was developed in association with the custom lab at Golden Artist Colors. Her paint medium looks milky-white when wet, even after she adds pigment to it. She must do endless tests to reach exactly the right

hue, saturation, and degree of transparency for her paint applications. As she states: “There is no room for error.” For Nathanson, the creating of a painting is a balancing act that entails editing and adjustments. She works on large wood panels covered with gesso, over which the paint runs and flows freely. It is thus necessary for her to tape the edges of her shapes. She must also carefully control the paint by lifting and tilting the heavy panels with rhythmic movements that require intense concentration and physical stamina. Each color takes a day to dry, an aspect of her art that is not obvious due to the fluidity of her orchestrations. Musical analogies can be readily made to her harmonies and intervals of color and form—it is not surprising that she is very involved in classical music (this can at least in part be attributed to the legacy of her mother, a classical pianist whose music Nathanson heard in the background throughout her youth). Nathanson does not seek to describe her works in her titles, but to choose words or phrases that make looking an active process. Nathanson describes her aim as “color desire,” a quality of being, between open-endedness and finality. Bringing her paintings to this point of irresolution and wanting more, she allows us, as viewers, to be part of each work. She states: “I want the person looking to be engaged in seeking certain color qualities that the painting’s wholeness requires but that are less evident.” This process compels the viewer emotionally and intellectually, bringing many resonances into our conscious and subconscious. In their tension and flow, Nathanson’s works mirror human movements and often brings to mind the dances of Isadora Duncan or Kandinsky’s piano keys causing


“vibrations in the soul.” We experience water, in its buoyancy, light, immersion, and depth in a visceral way in much of this work. The weightless ephemerality in her work creates a soothing and calming sensation that could even have a property of healing. Often the elements repel and attract, creating an interactive field of energy and matter that unites the physical world with the qualities of light and form that are the essential language of art. The organic and transcendent come together. The art historian and critic, Karen Wilkin, who has covered Nathanson’s work throughout her career, notes: “Nathanson’s color—pale citrusy oranges and yellows, tender greens, transparent blues, and odd mauves—seems at once evocative of the natural world and synthetic . . . adding to the complexity of her pictures. Like the fluctuating, expansive space suggested by her elegantly varied paint handling, surface inflections, and color relationships, this conceptual contradiction keeps us a little off balance, suggesting yet another layer of allusion even as the specificity of that allusion escapes us, like an imperfect memory or a rapidly disappearing dream image.” In many of her works, Nathanson adds small areas of oil paint to her surfaces. These visible traces of the artist’s hand counter the autonomous quality of the poured veils, suggesting Nathanson’s wish to mediate the universality of her work with a more personal experience. These patches, acknowledging the painting as itself, also serve as points of rest and reference for the viewer, reminding us of our own humanity. The surfaces themselves are also not as uniform as they first appear, raising questions of the interaction between the optical and conceptual. This can be related to the disegno and colorito debate. At the same time, the

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variations in surface emulsions—including streaks and air bubbles—create a complexity that calls for us to find our own resolutions. A number of years ago, Nathanson found an interesting similarity between pictorial unity and ideas of the Kabbalah. In the studies she was undertaking, she learned that Kabbalah-influenced prayer practices in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries involved visualizing colors representing the different parts of God, which the praying subject strived to unify. We could extrapolate this idea to our own search to integrate the many parts of ourselves, for which Nathanson’s paintings can serve as a catalyst and mediator. Nathanson grew up in New York City. After she graduated from the High School of Music and Art, she went on to


Bennington College, Vermont, attending when it was at the center of Color Field Abstraction. There, she studied with Sophia Healy and received instruction from Kenneth Noland and Larry Poons, who helped her to avoid composing with dark and light tones, giving pure color a significant role in structuring her art. She graduated from Bennington in 1976, and received her MFA from Hunter College, City College of New York, in 1982. At a symposium organized by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, she showed her work to the British sculptor Anthony Caro, who invited her to participate in the first Triangle Workshop, a two-week residency program for artists based in America and internationally. From the workshop, Nathanson was the first United States artist selected to display her art at the Triangle Center Gallery; this exhibition, held in 1982, was also Nathanson’s first solo show. After living in Boston from 1982 to 1986, she returned to New York, where she currently lives. In 2015, Nathanson was one of six artists in Confronting the Canvas: Women of Abstraction at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida, curated by Jaime DeSimone, an exhibition focused on new, experimental approaches to the process of painting. The other participants were Keltie Ferris, Maya Hayuk, Fran O’Neill, Jackie Saccoccio, and Anke Weyer. Subsequent to the Triangle show, Nathanson has had one-artist exhibitions at many venues, including Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York; June Kelly Gallery, New York; Messineo Art Projects/Wyman Contemporary, New York; Ethan Cohen Fine Art, New York; Hunter College, New York; Roanoke College, Virginia; the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art; the Slifka Center, Yale University, New

Haven, Connecticut; and the Derfner Judaica Museum, New York. She has also participated in numerous group exhibitions at locales such as Bennington College, Vermont; Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina; Lori Bookstein Fine Arts, New York; the National Academy Museum, New York; Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York; Stamford Museum, Connecticut; Danforth Museum, Framingham, Massachusetts; the Painting Center, New York; Galerie Maria Louise Wirth, Zürich, Switzerland; and Gallery One, Toronto, Canada. Nathanson’s work is included in the collections of Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina; Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida; Agnes Etherington Art Center, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario; Hines Industrial, Boston; Maimonides Hospital, Brooklyn, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska; and Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. Nathanson’s art has been addressed in ARTnews, Arts magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, the New York Observer, Huffington Post, The Hudson Review, Partisan Review, The New Criterion, and The New York Times.

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ABOUT BERRY CAMPBELL GALLERY Christine Berry and Martha Campbell have many parallels in their backgrounds and interests. Both studied art history in college, began their careers in the museum world, and later worked together at a major gallery in midtown Manhattan. Most importantly, however, Berry and Campbell share a curatorial vision. Both art dealers have developed a strong emphasis on research and networking with artists and scholars. They decided to work together, opening Berry Campbell Gallery in 2013 in the heart of New York’s Chelsea art district, at 530 West 24th Street on the ground floor. In 2015, the gallery expanded, doubling its size with an additional 2,000 square feet of exhibition space. Highlighting a selection of postwar and contemporary artists, the gallery fulfills an important gap in the art world, revealing a depth within American modernism that is just beginning to be understood, encompassing the many artists who were left behind due to race, gender, or geography-beyond such legendary figures as Pollock and de Kooning. Since its inception, the gallery has been especially instrumental in giving women artists long overdue consideration, an effort that museums have only just begun to take up, such as in the 2016 traveling exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism, curated by University of Denver professor Gwen F. Chanzit. This show featured work by Perle Fine and Judith Godwin, both represented by Berry Campbell, along with that of Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell. In 2019, Berry Campbell’s exhibition, Yvonne Thomas: Windows and Variations (Paintings 1963 - 1965) was reviewed by Roberta Smith for the New York Times, in which Smith wrote that Thomas, “... kept her hand in, adding a fresh directness of touch, and the results give her a place in the still-emerging saga of postwar American abstraction.” In addition to Perle Fine, Judith Godwin and Yvonne Thomas, artists whose work is represented by the gallery include Edward Avedisian, Walter Darby Bannard, Stanley Boxer, Dan Christensen, Eric Dever, John Goodyear, Ken Greenleaf, Raymond Hendler, Ida Kohlmeyer, Jill Nathanson, John Opper, Stephen Pace, Charlotte Park, William Perehudoff, Ann Purcell, Mike Solomon, Syd Solomon, Albert Stadler, Susan Vecsey, James Walsh, Joyce Weinstein, Frank Wimberley, Larry Zox, and Edward Zutrau. The gallery has helped promote many of these artists’ careers in museum shows including that of Bannard at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (2018-19); Syd Solomon, in a traveling museum show which culminates at the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota and has been extended through 2021; Stephen Pace at The McCutchan Art Center/ Pace Galleries at the University of Southern Indiana (2018) and at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (2019); Vecsey and Mike Solomon at the Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina (2017 and 2019, respectively); and Eric Dever at the Suffolk Community College, Riverhead, New York (2020). In an April 3, 2020 New York Times review of Berry Campbell’s exhibition of Ida Kohlmeyer’s Cloistered paintings, Roberta Smith stated: “These paintings stunningly sum up a moment when Minimalism was giving way to or being complicated by something more emotionally challenging and implicitly feminine and feminist. They could hang in any museum.” Collaboration is an important aspect of the gallery. With the widened inquiries and understandings that have resulted from their ongoing discussions about the art world canon, the dealers feel a continual sense of excitement in the discoveries of artists and research still to be made. Berry Campbell is located in the heart of the Chelsea Art District at 530 West 24th Street, Ground Floor, New York, NY 10011. For further information, contact us at 212.924.2178, info@berrycampbell.com or www.berrycampbell.com. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm or by appointment.


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