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Karl Schrag: Memories and Premonitions

Karl Schrag, Vanishing Day, Oil on canvas, 1990. Courtesy of the Syracuse University Art Collection.

The life’s work of painter, printmaker, draftsman, and teacher Karl Schrag (1912-1995) is well represented in the Mitchell Gallery’s new exhibition, Karl Schrag: Memories and Premonitions on view August 28 through October 16. Schrag described his own artistic philosophy as seeking to capture “the idea behind the specific.” His art is notable not for its realism but for its emotional honesty; it distills the subject to its necessary forms and elements and how the artist experiences them. This is not so much a reductive process as it is a process of refinement, and the product is the emotion of the artist as much as it is a rendering of the subject.

A classical background prepared Schrag for this process of constant reinvention. Born in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1912, Schrag attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva, Switzerland. After completing this education, mostly in painting, he moved to Paris in 1933 where he studied under Roger Bissière of the Académie Ranson. Here Schrag became infatuated with light, color, and the space they occupy, qualities that became hallmarks of his drawings, paintings, and later his prints. Bissière, recognizing Schrag’s natural talent and fearing he would be stifled at the Académie, encouraged Schrag to leave

Paris to paint on his own. Schrag thrived under self-imposed discipline in Brussels, and it was in his two years here that he held his first individual exhibition at the Galeries Arenberg.

originally located in Paris and re-located to the New School in New York. Hayter’s artistic ideology, that printmaking (and any medium) was a means to achieve art rather than the focus of it, appealed directly to Schrag’s own, and Schrag flourished in this environment; he ultimately became director of Atelier 17 when Hayter returned to Paris and concurrently taught at Cooper Union. Schrag’s technique changed greatly in his time at Atelier 17. Due to both Hayter’s tutelage and his own conviction that the process and the medium are secondary to the product, Schrag began experimenting with printmaking. He worked in etching, engraving, lithography, monotype, and aquatint, and would offset double prints, creating a depth and movement that was impossible in a single run. His technique often became the primary subject of discussion of his work, a discussion Schrag abhorred; he would not have the product overlooked for analysis of its production.

Karl Schrag, Rain and the Sea, Engraving, aquatint, and soft-ground etching on wove paper, 1946. Courtesy of the Syracuse University Art Collection.

His time in Brussels, however productive, was not to last. Due to mounting political tensions in Germany, Schrag and his brother, Paul, decided to move to New York in 1938. Here Schrag, who has previously focused on painting and drawing, took up printmaking in earnest at the Art Students League. Schrag discovered a natural affinity for printmaking, as he put it, “The decisiveness of engraving and etching has imposed upon me the need for clear choices in the development of all my work.” Printmaking forced him to conceive of a work as a whole from the outset and his prints, such as Rain and the Sea, capture this precise energy. In 1945, Schrag moved on to Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17, an experimental printmaking workshop

During this time Schrag was often compared to the Expressionists due to his vivid palate and his fascination with light, a comparison he found inaccurate, if not somewhat offensive. Disagreeing with this assessment, he wrote, “It seems to me that the Expressionists had very little differentiation in their approach to their different themes –the description of the vulgar, the holy, the gentle and the cruel– all were subjected to the same violent method” and what their art “most strongly expressed was the artist’s general mood and less the unique emotions arising from the different themes.” The object could not become subject to or mitigated by the artist’s mind; art must reflect reality. To capture this liminal space between reality and perception Schrag worked tirelessly, not honing his craft but allowing it to evolve. He wrote, “Style develops naturally.” It is the result of necessity rather than intention, and the artist must be willing to adjust to meet

the ever-changing requirements of muse and self. In his own writing, Schrag evokes the idealism of the romantics and transcendentalists, and his art suggests a deeper feeling, a knowing, that moves beyond what Emerson would call “the solid angularity of facts.” Schrag’s muse was most often, and compellingly, nature. While his paintings, prints, and drawings depict landscapes, they are neither marked by the realism nor suggestive of the manifest destiny that defines the early American landscape. Instead, Schrag’s landscapes seek to capture something

The artist’s responsibility, then, is not only to the subject, but to his own idea of the subject. As he described this understanding, “The fusion of the artist’s thinking and feeling with the theme that inspires him-so that the artist and his subject are present in the work equally alive and with equal strength—is and will remain one of the most moving and meaningful elements of art.” This is immediately visible in Schrag’s natural scenes. In addition to the trees, water, and waves, there is equally present the blowing gusts of wind, the heat of the resplendent sun, and the otherworldly quiet of the encroaching night.

Schrag found inspiration in the ethereality of nature and the kinship he found with it. The artist’s soul, he felt, is inextricably linked to nature, and that link, when realized, is the work of art itself. The potency of the object is a recurrent theme in Schrag’s writings and the consistent theoretical principal behind his work, but it alone cannot fully explain his work. Combined with the innate power in the Karl Schrag, Autumn Wind and Stars, 1988, color lithograph. Courtesy of the Syracuse University Art Collection. essence of an object is the artist’s more than a mountain, a lake, or a own reaction to it. The perception is no promise; they capture a feeling that less valid than the object, and the space eludes the literal depiction, as in Autumn that art depicts is thus not only the object Wind and Stars. As Schrag put it, “The but feeling of it and from it; the viewer outward appearance of nature is but the sees Karl Schrag in the work as much as shell of a deeper and richer inside world the depicted scene. In Evening Fragrance that I wish to understand.” of Gardens, the vivid bouquet is presented Understanding the essence of the subject in a palate of absolutes. Schrag’s title becomes the subject of the art itself. It is illuminates the work; it is not a something deeper, more profound, and particular garden, but a knowledge of all this essence is unavailable through a gardens gained from the scent of a superficial rendering of the subject. particular flower.

Karl Schrag, Evening Fragrance of Gardens, etching, 1963. Courtesy of the Syracuse University Art Collection.

The print, painting, or drawing becomes that space between what is seen and what simply is that suggests some sort of universality of truth, though Schrag himself seems to consciously avoid the word. Art, for Schrag, defines the unknown without limiting or mitigating it, and imparts that same happy ambiguity to the viewer, that he or she might feel the scene as the artist has. Ever present is Keats’ notion of negative capability – that feeling of contentment with the unknown, the indefinable, and the night. Karl Schrag’s legacy is one of incredible production, technical innovation, and mastery of diverse media. It too is an affirmation and redefinition of the space art occupies, that space

between artist and muse that exists for an eternal moment that can be captured only by its feeling. Schrag wrote, “The walls which are supposed to exist between our thinking and our feeling do not exist in reality… it is impossible to disentangle the knot which binds the heart and mind together at all times. Seeing, feeling and thinking are all combined in my work as they are in myself.” This collection of Schrag’s work, on loan from the Syracuse University Art Collection, displays the perception, visions, and interpretations of reality expressed by Schrag in a distinctive voice of a career that spanned over 60 years. Tim May, July 8, 2013

Karl Schrag: Memories & Premonitions  

Essay by Tim May

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