Essay by Mary Ann Caws for the brochure Jon Schueler’s Song, at The Lobby Gallery, 499 Park Avenue, New York, July 7, 2012-January 4, 2013
Looking at these large paintings by Jon Schueler (1916-1992), you might believe that Claude Monet’s water lilies in the Orangerie had been miraculously reinterpreted in terms of sky, and transported to the walls of 499 Park Avenue, imparting an unexpected radiance to its dark walls.
“I found every passion in the sky.” In The Sound of Sleat (edited from his journals and letters by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau in 1999) Schueler writes of the way his World War II experiences as a navigator In the US Army Air Force found their way into his paintings to produce a kind of “war sky.” The best testimony to his life and work, this memoir recounts his childhood in Wisconsin and war years, his postwar California training with Clyfford Still and Richard Diebenkorn, and his East Coast association with the Abstract Expressionists and the Leo Castelli Gallery. We read of his impassioned living and working in Mallaig, Scotland (1957-58 and 1970-75) and his subsequent annual visits to this fishing village, separated from the Isle of Skye by the Sound of Sleat.
We keep thinking of the sky in these paintings, for although it is never a question of seeing or living only in upward flight, each of these works triumphs, by its own power of convergence and color, over any flatness. In Changes: Red, Blues and Light, (1982) for example, we have a strong sense of the way the various forms weave in and out, moving back and forth through white clouds and edging their way into our own space, now transformed by all this light and motion.
Such light! And yet none of these five works from between 1978 and 1985 were actually painted in his intimate Mallaig studio, but in his large, 4000 square foot New York loft (acquired in 1976) that provided the opportunity for the breadth and scope of four of the paintings. And, in a sense, all these works, like the fifth, could be part of the series entitled The Search (1981), which were painted in the huge and high University of Edinburgh gallery where they were to be exhibited. Jon Schueler’s ongoing search is self-reflective as he seeks the myriad ways in which colors can break through all impediments--as if these walls were to go skyward. We might imagine the remembered Blue Skies of Long Past Adventures (1984) entering our own present. This sense of immediacy relates to the principal thing Jon Schueler learned from Clyfford Still-- that is, the moral responsibility of the person painting: to deeply affect the viewer.
Strangely enough, these northern skies also seem to incorporate the 1973 memory of Moroccan dryness in Desert, 1 (1978-80) -- the earliest of these paintings so beautifully displayed. Look at the great red swaths coming at us over the blue streak at the base. In New York, Schueler writes of the conflict and conversation between the land, the sky, and the waterscape: “Blue patches showing, red thoughts…” and then, from Maine, in the same summer of 1962, “Red is my color of memory.” He muses back on painting reds in Scotland in 1957-58, and on the reflections of red cloud on red sea. “I took the red of rage with me to Scotland …Rage red in my heart….” The reds invade and invigorate the very stuff of Desert I, and later, that of Blue Skies of Long Past Adventures. In an uncanny way, the mad enthusiasm Jon Schueler felt for the Scottish sea and sky and their emotional power reaches us as we stand in this very building, a quintessential part of the New York cityscape. Even when he is painting In New York, Schueler dreams of the north, and looking upwards in the canyons of the streets, he strikes a balance between city and sea, between the west and the east coast of America, and between America and the Scotland for which he so passionately cares.
“I had wanted to live in one of my paintings,” says Schueler. Yes, despite the distance they imply, and, often, their great size, they feel dwelled in. The force of this painter’s mental and physical gestures--through the motion back and forth of the colors and shapes---fully occupies each space. And often, we sense a kind of joyousness, along with the depth of the rage. “I’m painting the dream of nature, not nature itself," he said. The power of his work comes from that dream.
This is a sky song indeed: the paintings sing aloud or quietly. Such works of art never sit still, and their dynamism provokes our own dynamic response. In answering the force of these openings of the imagination, in summoning our most vital intensity against whatever darkness they and we encounter, we move, remembering them, into the light of the street outside.
© Mary Ann Caws, New York, 2012
Essay by Phyllis Braff for the catalogue Jon Schueler: The Mallaig Years, 1970-75, David Findlay Jr Gallery, September 5-29, 2012
Many artists envision ideal circumstance that could potentially facilitate and spur their creative and aesthetic inspirations. Both Jon Schueler’s paintings and extensive memoir1 suggest that his visions and dreams were especially ambitious. While Schueler first visited the Scottish village of Mallaig in the winter of 1957-58, he returned in 1970 to pursue what proved to be a five-year period of concentrated painting in this scenic hamlet in the Western Highlands. He long fantasized about the potential impact that experiencing churning atmospheric conditions might have on his approach to art. Two decades of exhibiting as a participant within the prevailing avant-garde of Abstract Expressionism had deepened Schueler’s questions about relating pigment to both external and subjective experiences. He believed that under powerful climatic circumstances he could explore these issues… possibly even realizing an important breakthrough.
The resulting canvases are often turbulent with energy. Some are vibrant; others are somber. Some paintings project a single dominant color while others project a wide field of action. All of Schueler’s works align with and contribute to the sensibilities of an era when artists and their audiences were increasingly questioning the line separating abstraction from nature. In 1975, the year Schueler returned to New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art presented Landscapes, Interior and Exterior: Avery, Rothko and Schueler. The exhibition implied that Avery processed an image based on observation, that Rothko worked from an internal route, and that Schueler blended both approaches. Many of the Mallaig paintings were included in the presentation.
Schueler’s blending of nature and abstraction during this Scottish Highland period embraces and builds on a rich art vocabulary. One or more floating abstract shapes appearing on a painterly field often relates to the artist’s studio translation of configurations adjacent to Mallaig, particularly the island of Eigg in the watery stretch known as the Sound of Sleat that runs between the mainland and the Isle of Skye and beyond. The sense of non-referential forms constructing the surface is also strong in the pale Jane Series, II, and in the gray toned Sky Near Rhum, II, even though the paintings are distillations of direct experiences.
Surfaces projecting constant pigment motion are another carryover from the sensibilities associated with Abstract Expressionism. Rippling motion activates the ephemeral Sun Leaving, III, for example, while pulsating movement in the golden yellows of the large vertical Sun Leaving, IX seems to parallel the unpredictability of nature. Schueler spoke of his attempts to convey “the skies in visible motion” when recorded by a documentary film crew in his Mallaig studio.2
Schueler also developed the Mallaig canvases with a keen mastery of abstraction’s visual tensions. This is especially notable in color juxtapositions. Whisper, with its parallel bands of warm and cool tones, is one example; another is Reflection: Red and Blue, which features a horizontal purple rectangular form gaining resonance from the surrounding red field. Powerful, too, is the tension generated by the tipping yellow shape suspended against parallel sections of lavender and gray in Fantasy: Light Near Rhum. In a number of canvases, including Red Sun, I, Schueler also tests the pull between multiple readings created by a disc shape that can be either cosmic symbol or geometric compositional component.
Abstraction’s embrace of minimal color definitions, an approach that requires the eye to adjust and accommodate chromatic changes, is especially well suited to Schueler’s explorations of atmospheric phenomena. The dusty toned Reflection: Red Sun and the paler Reflection: Shadow and Light, I both mesmerize as they slowly reveal their forms and as these forms seem to change characteristics.
There were compelling subjective thoughts fueling Schueler’s search for the artist’s role in what he considered “the mysteries of the skies”3 In his memoirs he writes of his childhood sensitivity to Wisconsin sky phenomena, and he recalls the strong emotions associated with his flight time as a B-17 navigator based in England during World War II. Both navigator and bombardier flew in the Plexiglas nose of the B-17, “as though suspended in the sky.”4
Another contributing factor was Schueler’s awareness of J. M. W. Turner’s interest in making pigment achieve ephemeral cosmic effects. During Schueler’s California art school years, his respected teacher, Clyfford Still, had brought Turner’s work to the attention of students. A decade later, Schueler visited this art in London. He explored ambitious techniques such as multiple layers of colored glazes while in Mallaig, and this aspect of his research into maximum luminosity may have been influenced in part by the 19th century master.
Schueler’s interests went well beyond presenting an impression of nature’s luminosity, however, and were directed toward probing cognitive issues, memory, psychology and a range of personal factors. He humanized nature in a very direct manner and expanded possibilities for the subconscious to become part of a painting. The Mallaig paintings are significant in the way Schueler processes content generated by external sensations--blending this content with the complexities of late 20th century abstraction.
©Phyllis Braff, New York, 2012
1Jon Schueler’s manuscript was edited by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau and published under the title The Sound of Sleat: A Painter’s Life in 1999 by Picador USA, New York.
2Jon Schueler: An Artist and his Vision, Films of Scotland, 1972.
4Schueler, The Sound of Sleat, op.cit., p. 296.
Essay for The New Criterion, November 2010, pp 46-47
Jon Schueler (1916-1992), the American painter, was often grouped with the second generation artists of Abstract Expression, although - as this new show of his paintings from the mid-fifties (October 6-28 at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art) makes clear - his body of work really is much broader in its affiliations. If anything, his painting reaches back to Monet and the French Impressionists, while it leans toward the mystical realism of J.M.W. Turner, who would become a lasting influence on Schueler during his last prolific decades, when he lived part-time in Scotland and often painted visions of the sea and sky in eerie contention.
I first became acquainted with Schueler, the man and artist, in the early seventies, when I saw a one-man show in Edinburgh. A tightly coiled, thin man with a goatee and intense eyes, Schueler seemed willing and able to discuss every aspect of his painting, its influences, and the directions it was going. I learned from him that he had apprenticed himself to Clyfford Still (1904-1980) after the war (in which he served on bombing raids over Europe as a navigator, sitting in one of those plexiglass noses typical of the B-17s). Still was, of course, a leading figure among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Not surprisingly, Schueler's earliest paintings often looked a bit like Still's, with their zigzag lightning bolts, their vivid displays of color, and palette-knife gestures that gave to the paintings a thickly textured aura.
In the mid-fifties, Leo Castelli discovered Schueler. He was a visionary dealer with a keen nose for talent, and he would eventually represent many of the prominent painters of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. He offered Schueler, then 40 but hardly well known, the first one-man show at his new gallery on East 77thStreet in 1957. The fifteen paintings in this show are from this original exhibition and a second one in 1959, and they include such striking canvases as Summer: Martha's Vineyard (1957), an evocative canvas where shimmering purples mingle with yellows, with some earthy tones that might be the soft hills of the Vineyard. There is also a patch of blue that forms a far horizon - the point toward which the eye is ultimately drawn.
Another painting that impressed me is The First Snow Cloud (1958), where bold slanting strokes are dabbed on (representing clouds, perhaps), with dark purples in the upper left of the canvas bleeding into lighter shades, with a touch of yellow here and there to give a hint of sunlight to an otherwise somber picture at the tipping point between seasons. At the bottom the colors in the sky are mirrored in a horizontal layer of paint that may represent the sea.
Schueler was, foremost, a painter of nature, drawn by seascapes and cloudscape that become emblems of spiritual or psychological states, with each image representing a paysage moralisé - to borrow a phrase from an Auden poem by that title. That is, no seascape or landscape in his painting is simply itself; it gestures in directions, seeking to inspire, to terrify and, mainly, to seize viewers, drawing them into a psychological state.
As evident from this assortment of paintings, the artist was trying to find himself in these years with Castelli, searching for a subject and manner that would embody his vision. One sees the beginnings of the mature painter emerging in such paintings as Winter Storm (1958), where chunks of reality seem to hang in perilous approximation, and where the eye is drawn into a vortex, as the broad swathes of maroon and pinks usher the eye toward a distant blue center. Space is the subject, and how the textures of land and sky form a kind of mind/body split: one should note the bottom horizontal layer, the base upon which the more vertical and massive representations of sky are set. This layer is often present in these paintings as a point of departure.
Again, it seems that Turner - the English painter of inchoate vision -- is beginning to exert a pull, effecting a transformation that will continue, as Schueler visits and later moves to Mallaig, a coastal town in Scotland, and finds in the damp, dizzying skies of that intense seascape the ideal symbol of his own search for meaning. And it would a misnomer to call such work "abstract." Even in the mid-fifties, Schueler resisted the notion of abstraction and wished to distance himself from, for example, Mark Rothko.
In 1957, he wrote a revelatory letter to Jon I.H. Baur, at the Whitney Museum (which had bought one of his paintings from Castelli) to argue against classifying him with the Abstract Expressionist group. Here is an excerpt from that letter:
I think that if there is one single word that is going to be troublesome, it is going to be "abstract." The word has had too many specific connotations in regard to art - and still does. I personally am trying to "make real" my vision rather than trying to abstract nature, and I think that there is a big difference. I am interested in reality - in the reality of my vision - not realism on the one hand, nor abstraction on the other. As regards painting - the thinking about painting, the use of paint, the search for the image and the truth in the painting - I have been trying to move from abstract to real, from symbol to fact.
As Schueler seems to have understood, the movement from symbol to fact is never quite possible. A brushstroke of paint cannot be otherwise than symbolic, in obvious ways. That is, it never becomes the thing it represents, and so it gestures beyond itself, as do images and symbols by their very nature.
And so we get a major painting by Schueler such as Snow Cloud and Blue Sky (1958), where we can see that the artist is really looking at something: a seascape that gives us a small patch of blue sky contending mightily with red and black clouds, perhaps the snow clouds of the title. It's a vision of contrarieties, with various states or moods in opposition. It's a scene of struggle, and it's abstract only in that viewers of the canvas will find themselves mirrored, caught and swirled in the energetic strokes of the brush, unable to break free of a thrash of energies represented in short strokes of the brush. There is a thin line to suggest terra firma, as ever, in gradations of blue, red, and black, but it's quite a dark strip of earth, even frightening, and merges with water (in any case), so one could not stand there. The viewer has to concede the dominating sky, entering the drama of Schueler's contesting moods.
Sometimes, with thickenings of paint and short strokes, the paintings of Jon Schueler in this period become quite surreal in affect, as with Evening I (1957), where one almost seems to drift in the atmosphere of Monet, with his famous lily ponds that always appear to gesture to so much more than material realities. Monet sought to frame the shifting effects of light, air, and water, much in contrast to the Cubists, who dismissed him and sought more permanent and stable forms. During the Castelli years in particular and in pictures such as Evening I, the Monet influence seems to predominate, as a writer noted in Life (December 2, 1957). "Old master's Modern Heirs" is fascinating to read, half a century later. As the unsigned article observes, any number of painters, including Jon Schueler, had begun to repossess Monet in the mid-fifties. While working close to nature, these painters (Hyde Solomon and Sam Francis were two others mentioned along with Schueler) sought to create landscapes with a pulse of brushstrokes or thick smears of paint from the palette knife that represent an effort to simulate the actual motion of nature, that sense of becoming.
Jon Schueler was a student of this process, the process of becoming. His landscapes - seascapes, mostly, during the later decades - seem perpetually alive, with churning colors, with a clash of moods, with spectacular drama on every canvas. It's as though he did not wish to drift in directions taken by such contemporaries as Rauschenberg or Johns or Warhol. Pop Art had no appeal for him, as he had set his feet on a clear path now. As one might have expected, he and Leo Castelli would, in the late fifties, part ways. Castelli would be drawn to more and more to painters affiliated with movement from Pop Art to Neo-Dada and Neo-expressionism. Schueler would go his own way, exploring a vision of Turner, making sublime images of sea and sky.
© Jay Parini
Essay by Diana Ewer for the catalogue Jon Schueler: The New York Years, 1975-1981 at David Findlay Jr Gallery, 724 Fifth Ave, New York, January 8-31, 2015
For the American painter Jon Schueler (1916-92) the sky held all things. An all-consuming passion, it inspired a lifetime of painting landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes. By the mid 1970s the artist was increasingly concerned with the sky as the only appropriate visual metaphor for exploring mood and memory.
The inner dimension of Schueler's painting pulsates through his New York works on view at the David Findlay Jr Gallery. "Like windows in the walls" 1, the skyscapes seek to unveil deep emotional responses. As our eyes move from canvas to canvas, we feel compelled to follow the artist's wistful, yet empowered brushstrokes that pull us in, through layers of light and shadow, through the sky to infinity. Participation is inevitable.
Increasingly disillusioned with the commercial emphasis of the art scene and the advent of Pop Art, in 1970 Schueler left New York, where for two decades before he had actively exhibited within the prevailing vanguard of Abstract Expressionism. He embarked on a five-year period of painting in Mallaig, a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. Stimulated by the turbulent weather conditions and surrendering to the isolation, Schueler refined his artistic focus with compelling clarity: "Here I can see the drama of nature changed and compressed. Lands form, seas disappear, worlds fragment, colors merge or give birth to burning shapes, mountain snows show emerald green. Or, for a moment, life stops still when the gales pause and the sky clears after long days of careening sound and horizontal rain or snow. The sky: Father, Mother, Mistress, and the lonely mystery of endless love. Each moment of light or night is as complex as all life." 2
A keen correspondent, Schueler nurtured ties with New York supporters throughout his years away. Renewed interest in his work was, in part, facilitated by the enthusiastic response of the art dealer Ben Heller who visited the Mallaig studio in 1974 and then placed paintings in significant American collections. Along with financial stability, this period brought two seminal museum shows, both in 1975: a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a three-person exhibition, "Landscapes, Interior and Exterior: Avery, Rothko, and Schueler" at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
This curatorial and commercial recognition provided Schueler with the necessary momentum to return to New York in 1975. However, Scotland remained an important touchstone, the artist recognizing the necessity of keeping the two locations in deliberate counterpoint. His dream of"flowing back and forth between the two places I loved and the two tensions which were so much a part of my being" 3 would be realized through the annual summer vacations taken in Scotland.
Working high up in loft studios - briefly on Jones Street in Greenwich Village, then from 1977 in Chelsea - the sky pressing in through every window, gave Schueler an invigorated creative perspective. These studio interiors provided him with a transformative space that enabled him to get "inside the space. My nose right up against the canvas, losing sight of the edges, of the limitations, trying to feel the lack of boundary, even as the boundary forms the limitless space." 4 Thrilled by the possibility of painting larger canvases again, he knew that he had finally found a scale, one that could take in the smallest and the most expansive, equal to the range of his memories of the sky and the ambition of his artistic vision.
The skyscapes on view here represent new dimensions, delicately sought during a period of great inner strength, and undoubtedly marked by his marriage to his life partner Magda Salvesen in 1976. Encouraging meditation and wide open to interpretation, they are infused with light and lyricism. Poised between polarities, these paintings refuse firm boundaries between abstraction and realism, artifice and nature, the inner world and outer world, the past and present, the personal and universal.
The creative oppositions shaping Schueler's skyscapes were present long before he became a painter. Flying as a navigator on bombing missions during World War II - sitting in the Plexiglass-nose of a B-17 bomber - he found a beauty in the skies equal to their horror:"There in combat and before, the sky held all things, life and death and fear and joy and love. It held the incredible beauty of nature." 5
"To Paula: The New Year's Grey" 1976 captures the essence of a sky rich in melancholic emptiness. We search for reference points on the horizon, but any attempt is stalled by a restless fluidity in the layering of paint. A visual metaphor for the layering of memory, the predominant color - battleship grey - evokes a sense of longing in endless loop. The title suggests a deeply personal painting, but its appeal is universal.
Despite the enduring influence of Abstract Expressionism - particularly of Clyfford Still (1904-80), his teacher at the California School of Fine Arts - Schueler remained foremost a painter of nature. The work entitled "Abstraction" 1978, possibly a playful misnomer on the part of Schueler, does point to his continual engagement with ongoing art historical discourses. He certainly upheld a commitment to the importance of truth in art through a singular vision. However, unlike the Abstract Expressionists, he would never deny his influences, which were diverse and included literary and musical (especially jazz) figures as well as visual artists.
Schueler embraced many painters, but frequently turned to the later work of JMW Turner. Inspired by a recent trip to Morocco, "Desert Blues" 1978 radiates a warm pulsating energy, the intensity of light behind dissolutions of form becoming an expression of something far beyond the physical. Like Turner, Schueler sought to push "further into nature"6, while remaining cognizant of his human limitations.
The New York paintings (1975 - 1981) retain an immense power today. Recognizing himself that this was a period of great inner strength, Schueler wrote, "Before, my paintings seemed to me to speak of the violence of motion and emotion. Now that motion is still there but quiet and invisible half the time." 7 It was always his intention to return to New York; the city's creative energy and intellectual stimulation were a very necessary part of his being. With raw emotions tempered and his artistic vision fully formed following the Mallaig Years of 1970-75, Schueler balanced the contraries running through these skyscapes, allowing them to move effortlessly between nature and abstraction, reality and memory, past and present. These New York years would underpin an audacious exhibition in Scotland, held during the summer of 1981 at the Talbot Rice Art Center. Within the towering walls of the gallery itself, Schueler painted a series of expansive skyscapes (the two largest 18 feet in length) while spectators looked on from the floor above. The artist entitled the show "The Search" laying bare his passion for the sky as the supreme metaphor for the subtle and complex rhythms of mood and memory.
© Diana Ewer, New York, November 2014
1Whitney Balliett, Profiles, City Voices: Jon Schueler and Magda Salvesen, The New Yorker, February 25, 1985, p. 36
2Whitney Museum of American Art, Jon Schueler, exhibition brochure, April 24 - May 25, 1975
3Ed. Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau, The Sound of Sleat: A Painter's Life, 1999, Picador USA, New York, p. 354
4Ed. Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau, op. cit., p. 280
5Ed. Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau, op. cit., p. 296
6Ed. Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau, op. cit., p. 223. Schueler wrote of Turner, "When I saw the Turners through the years and compared them with other work, it has seemed to me that he went further into nature … in paint than any other painter. He, the stylist of incredible facility, did most to break down style, to destroy it, to find the possibility of paint talking as paint, as an extension of the most immediate perception and sensibility, so that it became most like nature … This is what I would like my paintings to be."
7Ed. Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau, op. cit., p. 202