Volume 20, Number 45 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 3 - 9, 2010
THE PAINTINGS OF ROBERT SWAIN: 1967-2010
Through Nov. 13
At the Hunter College Times Square Gallery
MFA Building (450 W. 41st St. btw. 9th and 10th Aves.)
Gallery hours: Tues.-Sat. from 1-6 p.m.
Visit www.robertswainnyc.com and www.hunter.cuny.edu/art/galleries
Images courtesy of the artist.
“Untitled, Park Circle,” above; “8x8,” below.
Tribeca artist’s retrospective offers many “Sensations”
Color, as a form of energy, ‘stimulates our perceptual processes’
BY SHANE McADAMS
Since 1965, New York painter Robert Swain has fed off the energy of Downtown New York — making work that has evolved along with the neighborhood itself. The results of his decades-long painterly investigation is captured in “Visual Sensations.” The retrospective is currently on view at the Times Square Gallery at Hunter College, where he has taught art since 1968.
The show opens with some of Swain’s largest, earliest works. As the years progress, the scale of his output becomes increasingly less monumental — an incremental trend reflecting that of the New York art scene in general (works tended to be larger in the days when one could squat in an unheated loft in Tribeca).
Of the 1960s bohemian scene, he recalls, “The loft space was a haven that provided incentive to make large-scale work. That has changed as rents have risen and artists have been driven out of the city to smaller and smaller studios.”
Swain asserts that it is incumbent on the cultural leaders in New York to recreate the environment that allowed him and others to make large, experimental works the in the 60s and 70s without the pressures of high rents.
The freedom Swain gained from those early years in New York City is palpable in his work. Covering nearly a half-century, the paintings in this survey capture his abiding interest in the emotional potential of color. For Swain — as stated in the Artist Statement section of his website (www.robertswainnyc.com) — “Color is a form of energy derived from the electromagnetic spectrum that stimulates our perceptual processes and is instrumental in conveying emotions.”
Swain first began to cultivate this perspective in the color-bleached, culturally barren terrain of southern Texas. The relative absence of pop culture and television prompted him to go on long walks through the countryside, observing the subtle variations of ambient light as the sun traced across the sky into the evening. During these moments of observation and contemplation, the sunlight and color planted seeds for more intense and analytical experiences down the road (further refined when his family moved to Washington, DC — which gave him access to the works of modern masters and led to his absorption of the various iconographies that dominated Western Europe).
That newfound admiration led him to travel throughout Europe and eventually back to the United States — where he would resolve his own issues with color and form. This period was instrumental in shifting Swain’s thinking about color as an element working in the service of a larger composition to an autonomous one with the capability to create emotion and expressiveness on its own. Swain discovered allies — Paul Cezanne’s proto-cubist paintings and Mark Rothko’s pulsating, luminous canvases. But perhaps his most fortuitous and defining experience came just after graduating college and moving to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he studied with American cubist Karl Knaths. There, Swain was introduced to the work of Kandinsky and Klee.
According to Swain, “Kandinsky showed that there was a logic behind non-representational art which was and is, as profound as any representational painting. The grammar of this process was meticulously illustrated in Paul Klee’s “Pedagogical Sketchbook” — the structural metamorphosis that governed non-representational logic.”
Since that epiphanic post-graduate summer, Swain has spent the majority of time making paintings in his loft in Tribeca, living the quintessential dream as a New York artist.
Though the grid appears to be Swain’s preferred compositional idiom, he occasionally looks to other schemes and forms such as the circle or the array to make color sing. The chromatic dynamism that occurs between Swain’s colors demands that his work be seen from multiple vantages.
Take, for instance, two very different paintings: “8 x 8 x 5A 4A 117/B 117B X-4A” (1999 - 2001) and “Untitled, Part Circle” (1971). The titles alone speak to conceptual variation in the work.
“8 x8” is a composition of 22 squares situated on an implied grid, broken into quadrants. The right side of the work is dominated by two large, deeply colored squares — one bright purple and the other deep green. Their intensity is only mitigated by the tonal softness of the smaller grids-within-grids on the left side of the canvas. The more natural, tonal hues on the left provide the painting something of a calming, natural presence, while the wall of deep opaque color on the right feel concrete and non-objective all the way.
In contrast to this very suggestive grid-based work, where the effect is rigorously constructed by Swain’s discriminated color decisions, “Untitled, Part Circle” works more on a rule-based scheme. This dazzling painting features an array of gradated color around a fixed centerpoint. This work has an entirely different feel because the composition appears to be guided by a strict chromatic progression, rooting the work in the natural objective universe.
Other fascinating examples of Swain’s chromatically generous paintings fill out the retrospective at Hunter — where the spacious galleries help viewers get the distance they need to truly appreciate the work. The largest of the grids in the first gallery transform as the viewer steps away from them. Without space, these paintings appear to be highly technical geometric abstractions. But from ten feet or so, they begin to soften — and their colors blend. With even more distance, these larger works become atmospheric and meditative, even perhaps suggesting a pixilated image.
Though based in abstraction, Swain’s work anticipates the use of pixilated imagery that eventually emerges with digital imaging software in the 1970s and 80s — MRIs, CT scans and DNA sequencing. These paintings, then, bridge the transition from modernism’s hermeticism to popular culture’s egalitarian inclusivity. How we read and process media is more relevant than ever, and Swain’s paintings trace its evolution with the objectivity of someone who has experienced the transition firsthand. Seeing Downtown evolve over the past five decades qualifies Swain to tell his story in the language of paint.