"The Art of Nathan Oliveira," Aug. 26-Nov. 30, 2003, at the Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, Wa. 98402
"Nathan Oliveira: Recent Paintings and Monotypes," Sept. 20-Nov. 1, 2003, at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20009
Suppose, for just a moment, that you are in a painting class. You sit behind a blank canvas, oil paints and brushes at the ready. The instructor walks in and surveys the assembled students. "Today," she says, "I want you to paint mystery." And with that she walks out of the classroom, leaving you to decipher her instruction.
What would you do? A particularly clever art student would do this: He would take a Nathan Oliveira painting, perhaps Standing Man with Stick, For Manolete, or Standing Man with Hands in Belt, into the instructor's office and show it to her. "I can not paint mystery better than this," he would say, and he would be right.
Fortunately for that clever art student, it's easy to find Oliveira's work right now. A retrospective of the Bay Area master that originated at the San Jose (Calif.) Museum of Art (where I saw it) last year is now at the Tacoma (Wash.) Art Museum. (Unfortunately, Oliveira's best and most important painting, the Museum of Modern Art's Standing Man with Stick, was in the San Jose show but is not in Tacoma.) The exhibition has previously appeared at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, N.Y., the Palm Springs Desert Museum, and the Orange County Museum. A hoped-for stop at the National Academy of Design in New York City fell through.
And for those of us in the D.C. area, the Marsha Mateyka Gallery recently showed Oliveira's new paintings and new monotypes.
Oliveira's best work, his figurative work, invites both the eye and the mind to wander. These paintings provoke questions -- who is this, where is he, what is he doing and why -- but give no answers. To enjoy these paintings a viewer must be comfortable knowing that they cannot be solved, that no museum wall-text can explain what is going on in them, that the only way to enjoy them is to look at them and to lose yourself in ambiguity. There is a temptation to see a certain Goldwater conservatism in these early Oliveiras: one man, liberty, individualism victorious! But that's not quite right -- these paintings are too stark to evoke thoughts of triumph. Instead of seeing the power of one man, these paintings make me wonder if one man has power.
Over and over again, Oliveira shows us a person, alone, suspended against a streaked haze. These figures are rarely tied to anything more substantial than a chair; instead they hover against an abstract background. The canvases are marked with brushwork, but the figures are the product of hands-on exertion: They are pinched, rubbed, molded, knifed, scratched out and scratched in. If there is individual triumph here, it is of the action-painter type, the creator conquering his canvas, his paints, his subject.
In Standing Man with Stick, a painting on my short list for Favorite American Painting of the Century, Oliveira squeezed paint directly onto the canvas and then molded the figure with his fingers, with the stick end of the brush, and with a knife. Out of the head of the figure trails a strange white flame, and beneath the flame Oliveira scraped the butt of the brush into the paint, a more concentrated version of Henri Matisse's similar scratches in Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Landsberg. (Led by Richard Diebenkorn, the Bay Area painters were fans of Matisse.) All the physical gusto that clearly went into Standing Man with Stick imbues the figure with a certain heroism of the Steve McQueen sort. But this figure is alone. Heroism is a response to something and there's nothing for this figure to respond to.
Occasionally Oliveira goes out of his way to show us that nothing matters but that figure: In Nineteen Twenty-Nine, he paints a seated woman wearing an enveloping fur. But because she is seated she must sit on something, so Oliveira paints a stool for her -- kind of. Oliveira is not much interested in the stool -- the painting is about the figure -- so he only gets around to painting one leg of the stool. The result is a figure that is semi-suspended, weighted down by the thick fur but floating above a semi-stool.
Oliveira made his best figures between 1957 and 1970. Throughout the 1950s and '60s he was hot: Oliveira was 24 when Life magazine featured him as a printmaker and placed his work on a page next to Otto Dix and Pablo Picasso, and he was 29 when he was selected for inclusion in MoMA's landmark "New Images of Man" show. Throughout the '60s he was included in significant contemporary art exhibitions all over the country.
But in the late '60s Oliveira stopped painting the figure as much, either against backdrops or on theatrical stages. Good God, why? For whatever reason, Oliveira left the figure and turned to. . . jumping salmon, wild dogs, bird heads, antlers and other assorted fauna that should be painted rarely, if at all. Many of these paintings are as painful as the early figurative work is inspiring. While the early figurative works draw you in and then keeps your eye and mind engaged, these later works are facile and uninteresting.
The exception to the post-1970 mediocrity is Oliveira's Windhover series, a series of four paintings (soon to include a fifth, according to Peter Selz' exhibition catalog) in which Oliveira re-discovered his mystery-making mojo. These canvases, 15-to-30 feet long, recall flight, ribbons of light and the presence of a higher power. No wonder that Oliveira hopes they eventually are permanently shown in a Rothko Chapel-like secular structure on the Stanford University campus (where Oliveira taught for over 30 years).
It is because of what Oliveira painted after the 1960s that his place in art history is so unsettled. For me, Oliveira's best figures are as good as anything created by most of his figure-painting contemporaries, by Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff in California, by Philip Guston in New York, by Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon in Europe. (Oliveira has always been difficult to include in any particular group of artists. Yes, he was in the Bay Area with Diebenkorn, Park and Bischoff, but Oliveira's paintings were never as rich or lushly painted as theirs. His painted figures most closely fit into a European tradition, with Dubuffet, Bacon and Alberto Giacometti.)
But those antlers should be in a two-star hunting lodge somewhere in Manitoba and therein lies the uncertainty with contextualizing Oliveira. He made great paintings, just not enough of them to be remembered as one of the Greats.
The retrospective now in Tacoma -- curated by Selz, whose first show as a MoMA curator was "New Images of Man" -- dips too deeply into Oliveira's mediocre work, the stage paintings, the hunting lodge work and gives us nowhere near enough figurative painting. In San Jose, the first arrangements of paintings were all of figurative works and they were powerful. With each step past the figures Oliveira looks less and less great. If we're still talking about Nathan Oliveira in 50 years it will be because the figurative paintings continue to provoke our imagination, because the Windhovers age well, and that's it.
The show at Marsha Mateyka is split between figurative paintings and monotypes. The figurative paintings, while not Oliveira's best by any stretch, far outshine the Santa Fe-inspired monotypes, which look like they should be hanging above a booth in a Coyote Caf-style eatery in Atlanta or Minneapolis. (I should note that Oliveira made fine prints early in his career, especially between 1952 and 1960, and there are strong examples of them in the retrospective.)
There is a haunting quality to the paintings at Mateyka. They are the end. Where there were once solitary figures, now there are two people, joined in an ambulatory embrace. The figures appear to be walking into the sunset. Oliveira is 75.
"Life moves out of a red flare of dreams, Into a common light of common hours, Until old age bring the red flare again," wrote Yeats. The show at Mateyka is the red flare of old age, burning without the intensity of the early mysteries but with the flickering knowledge that Oliveira is revisiting, for some of the last times, what he did best.