New York Times - March 1983

Something Beyond Seeing

by Helen A. Harrison

In this 1978 study of American visionary painters, the art historian Abraham A. Davidson described them as “poets of the inner mind,” whose achievement was the manifestation of a realm beyond reality. Tracing this trend from 1800 to 1950, he deplored the lack of the visionary impulse in contemporary art, stating that, in the last few decades, “the painters considered leaders and most influential, those who have attracted the most critical attention, have produced an art that is not only nonvisionary but antivisionary.”

`Recently, however, there has been a reawakening of the visionary sensibility among members of the avant-garde, as subjectivity, expressionism and eccentricity have begun to reassert themselves in painting. While we may quibble with the baldness of Dr. Davidson’s assertion that “in the 1950’s visionary painting came to an end in America,” we cannot deny that the emotional and romantic qualities so strongly felt in art of this type were distinctly out of favor in the era of Op, Minimalism and color field abstraction.

“Painting From the Mind’s Eye,” the current exhibition at the Hillwood Art Gallery of Long Island University’s C.W. Post Center in Brookville, is an effort to identify a resurgent inner-directed art and to establish context for it by juxtaposition with two of recent history’s most celebrated visionary painters, the American Albert Pinkham Ryder and the Frenchman Odilon Redon. while the show succeeds admirably in convincing us that the impulse is alive and well, it is less persuasive in its implication that the selected contemporary artists are spiritually linked to their distinguished predecessors.

The token inclusion of one work each by Ryder and Redon is hardly sufficient to establish their relevance as precursors. In Ryder’s case especially, the chosen example, apparently an early work, gives only the merest hint of the mystery and psychological drama with which he imbued his fantastic scenes of ghostly horsemen and moonlit seas Redon’s “Le Temps” is, by contrast, more ephemeral and luminous, suggesting a dream inhabited by archetypal figures and conveying an aura of relevance despite its figurative theme.

Inspired by nature, or by the myths and legends that provided appropriate subject matter, both artists created imagery that is identifiable in spite of being subjective and symbolic. The contemporary canvases, on the other had, are for the most part nonobjective and intensely private in their imagery, resisting the literary interpretation that was cornerstone of both European Symbolism and the American visionary tradition before Abstract Expressionism.

One wishes that, since the case for historical continuity has been stated, it could have been more firmly established. Arthur Dove, Marsen Hartley, William Baziotes and a few other exemplars are indeed mentioned in the probing catalogue essay by Judith K. Van Wagner, director of the Hillwood Gallery and organizer of the exhibition, but by excluding them and others, such as Morris Graes and Arshile Gorky, from the show itself, she creates a conceptual void between the past, represented by Ryder and Redon, and the present trend toward exploring in her words “regions beyond conscious knowledge and experience.”

Most of the 10 contemporary artists she has singled out for detailed examination a united by their renunciation of objective imagery. Some have developed obsessive motifs, often ambiguous in their associations, often ominous and even bizarre. Max Coyer’s repeated cone shape, looming in the foreground of his lusciously textured canvases, threatens to engulf its surroundings and possibly even the viewer in a rigid vortex, tightly controlled by no less powerful for being held in check.

The toothlike lozenges roughly painted and precariously balanced by Paul Brown crowd against the surface of the works like serried ranks of tombstones Giant shrouded forms dominate the compositions of Nancy Brett; with titles like “Union’ and “Sisters,” they evoke rituals of bonding that seem all the more primal for being acted out by lumpen ciphers.

Bill Jensen’s imagery seems derived from seed pods, or at least allusive to some organic origin. Quite sculptural in the modeling and endowed with vibrance achieved by luminous underpainting exposed by scraping, these pods are among the show’ most monumental presences, despite their small size. n fact, as Mrs. Van Wager points out, many of the works on view are deceptive in scale, possessing a grandeur unrelated to their physical dimensions.

The issue – the question of a works’s psychological and emotional impact that transcends the visual information it presents – is a central one for the visionary artist. There must be something beyond seeing, something compelling and fascination to which the viewer responds, just as the artist is fascinated and compelled by the need to give form to his or her obsessions.

In many of the works, including those of Harriet Korman, Louise Fishman, Jill Baroff and Thomas Nozkowski, there is a palpable animation underlying the energy evident in their execution. surface seem to sell with contained power. Canvases throb and swirl with a living force that ha no tangible counterpart in the imagery itself.

The show’s weakest work, those by Don Nelson and Guy goodwin’s “into the City.” are the most concrete in their relation to objective reality. Mr. Goodwin’s “Fog sound,” so thematically reminiscent of Dove’s 1920 painting, “Fog Horns,” is more successful n part because its subject exists only in a nonvisual dimension, where imagination and invention have free rein.