The New Criterion
Painting, one of the most solitary of occupations, only goes on so long as there's a community of artists that supports the individual's work; and when an artist who has meant something to other artists dies, the community gathers together to commiserate and commemorate. Although I didn't know Gretna Campbell, I know many of her friends, and agree with them that her death this past summer at the age of sixty-five was a considerable loss to the community-a loss that elicited too little attention in the press. Sixty-five isn't young; but for an artist it isn't old, either.
Campbell was the subject of two shows in New York during November, as well as a memorial service at a Quaker meeting house downtown. At the Ingber Gallery with which Campbell had been associated for fifteen years, were gathered together the turbulently lyrical works (landscapes and studio nudes) of the last fifteen months of her life. At the New York Studio School, where Campbell had first taught in the school's halcyon days in the early seventies, a show called "Early and Late" juxtaposed this later work, full of agitated brushwork, with the delicate, more systematically abstracted landscapes of the Fifties, the first decade of Campbell's career. The Studio School show, beautifully chosen by Louis Finkelstein (who was Campbell's husband and is a painter of kindred sensibility), gave a strong sense of the trajectory of the career. Among the very earliest works, from 1949-50 were a group of self-consciously antiquarian paintings, much influenced by the crisp form-sense of trajectory painting, of women sitting in rural settings. These gave no hint of the changeableness of nature which was to become one of Campbell's central ideas; but they were interesting nonetheless for establishing a motif-the figure in the landscape. soon enough the figure itself was to disappear from Campbell's out-of-doors; and yet isn't the figure always there, as the intelligence of the artist who sees with us and guides us through the natural world?
At "Early and Late" the robustness of Campbell's later work was contrasted with the thinner, clearer manner of the landscape paintings of the mid-Fifties, full of olive groves and, to quote the title of one painting, the Remembrance of Provence. The canvases of the Fifties, quite rich in color are often built up out of a narrow, longish, rather regular brushstroke that Campbell certainly saw as an evocation of Cezanne. To us, though, these strokes, adding up to a delicate, mobile tracery suggest not Cezanne but the mood of modern art in the years after World War II. There are connections between Campbell's style in this work and the hand in the abstract ink drawings of Nicolas de Stael, in the early Philip Guston abstractions, in the paintings of Joan Mitchell. Period style, when honestly achieved, can express a period mood. Of course this Fifties style of Campbell's is connected to Cubism, but to a Cubism that's been released from Cubism's tight architectural structure. In Campbell's Fifties landscapes there's a tendency to let things give way at the corners and the sides. She leaves the image a bit incomplete, as an Abstract Expressionist might, and the very irresolution of the pictures yields a melancholy dimension, perhaps because the artist is so conscious of the completeness of nature, which she can neither encompass nor deny.
The later work is wonderfully artful; Campbell's technique is subtler, more richly nuanced. Also, as she becomes thoroughly loyal to nature-and therefore more involved with traditional questions of representation-she finds herself taking on a new, difficult relation to the history of modern art. If for Monet landscape painting, an improvisation before nature, signified the ultimate revolt against museum art, at the hand of an artist such as Campbell painting a landscape turns out to be an act committed within tradition and in confirmation of tradition. Campbell's squarish formats, and her fondness for motifs that are boxed in by hedges, orchards, shrubs, streams-all this suggests a sense that options aren't infinite, that there are limits to what a person can comprehend. In a catalogue essay Finkelstein describes the working-up of the paintings from squared-off drawings, how Campbell prepared herself for the ultimate assault of paint strokes, the creation of a rich, interesting, agitated surface. Campbell uses paint in a variety of ways-brushing, scraping, scratching, drawing. The focus and emphasis shift inch by inch. Campbell doesn't see the parts of the landscape fitting neatly together, as they do in a Marquet or a Morandi. Here structure is found within perception rather than imposed upon perception. The odd, unbalanced that Campbell finds between a tree and a house and a distant hill are closest in feeling to Constable and perhaps some other English landscape painters. There's also something English about Campbell's hedges, roses, twisting vines. In the shape of Campbell's career the late paintings are a triumph of honesty, of directness. Memorable are the wrenching, unbalanced interactions of green and purple; the turmoil of high keyed colors resolving but never quite resolving into peculiar grays. Campbell's rhythm is uneven, romantically unpredictable, with large sweeping movements leading into quick, jumpy ones. For her nature is a drunken dance to music by Brahms, with dancers in costumes of rose and purple, olive and gray.
At Ingber, I was particularly interested in a painting of a cemetery in Stillwater, New Jersey. It was difficult not to feel in the choice of motif something more autobiographical, or at least more overtly emblematic, than is the case in most of Campbell's work. The light here-an eerie, tarnished, golden yellow-is disarming and even tragic, with something of a seventeenth century Dutchman's sense of landscape as a cosmic mood poem.
At Gretna Campbell's memorial service several of Campbell's ex-students spoke of the artist as a teacher, of her influence. From the people I know who knew Campbell of a person who is strong, intelligent, assertive. She was buried on the coast of Maine, near Cranberry Island, where for years she'd had a summer home and gone out on her bicycle each day to look for the motif. Her intelligence, her vital place in the art life of the city, were all perfectly natural for a painter of landscape-which is historically the product of a highly sophisticated urban consciousness. In Finkelstein's catalogue essay there's a considerable effort to look clearly at the loss and to do justice to the work. (Writing his essay in the midst of the current art scene, Finkelstein would have had good cause to ask himself, "If I don't give Campbell her due, who will?') "Each year," he observes, "her language became more sure, more supple, more venturesome. Her color opened up, and also her space, pulling the viewer's attention from close at hand, the 'entry' into depth and back again to the surface. She was still discovering the resources of this taut space and newly vibrant color during her final illness." It's always so easy to talk about how bad the times are. Gretna Campbell is one of the ones we will think of when we think about how good the times have been.
The New York Sun
June 10, 2004
Gretna Campbell's plein-air paintings are a gracious antidote to sham solemnities around town. They are on display in New York for the first time in eight years. It is a welcome event. Concentrating on work from the 1970s and ‘80s, the exhibition features landscapes of the Maine coast, rural New Jersey and the south of France.
Ms. Campbell came of age among a generation of painters respectful of the achievements of Abstract Expressionism but confident that depictions of the natural world remained timely and significant. She was a realist in the best sense, faithful to the physical pulse of what she observed yet not subservient to appearances.
The apparent spontaneity of the work belies the rigorous studio preparation that preceded outdoor painting. Ms. Campbell drew on site, mapping details of the locale: the juncture of planes, the nodal points of her composition. Transferred to canvas, this initial linear schema was painted over in the studio with broad expanses of color chosen for chromatic interaction with the final paint layers improvised on the spot.
The pleasure of her work is in the variety and complexity of its color and the lush, textural weave of brushstrokes. Details of the local scene—a rocky shoreline, the slope of a field or angle of a trellis—are the raw material for a pictorial architecture built on the reciprocal effects of one color upon another. She worked boldly with brush and palette knife but the result is fastidious and transparent. The gestural energy of action painting enlivens an intimate sympathy for natural settings.
Specific shapes are loosely rendered while the sense of light and air is vividly realized. A snow bank resonates with touches of blue, delicate pinks and ochres. That distant haze, where sky and hill tops meet, reveals gentle modulations of viridian, cerulean, violet and yellow. Along the Banks of Cranberry Cove (1984) is a riveting dance of variegated greens interknit with supporting mauves, tender browns and golds. The eye has work to do in these subtle, sophisticated paintings.
“Gretna Campbell” (1922 - 1987) at Tibor de Nagy (724 Fifth Aveune, 212.262.5050)
The favorite places were where the eye could roam down corridors of light and shade, where trees arched to make tunnels of foliage ribbed with dark branches, or where a tangle of bushes or piled rocks rose in complicated parapets between where she stood and the distance, the open window of the painting where the eye could soar. One favorite was the domesticated chaos of old orchards, chicken runs, overgrown gardens with their sticks and posts and a house somewhere in the middle distance. Water drew her: a creek crossed and recrossed by fallen branches, a pond ringed by trees and their symmetrical reflections, the vigorous meeting of sea and land. Wherever she worked the scale of her images brought us back to her observing presence. She was there, not 'taken out of herself 'as they say, by distance, immensity, nature's otherness, but the opposite-put into herself-vividly and authentically put into herself by her exploration.
Her subject was the place and how her eye could move in it. It was in the discovery of movement, of how eye and mind gauged interval and distance, how it found specific tempi in contrasts of scale, in overlappings and unfoldings, in diagonal rushings and slicings, in zig zags, hesitations and releases and moments when distance seemed to warp and draw near. And it was in this movement that the places she painted, nameless corners of the world, places for her to stand, became memorable. Places became in picture after picture, a kind of dancing, tender and sturdy, light, yielding, yet with a half-concealed formality that sometimes was so sharp and so uncompromising that we were snapped by it into a heightened attentiveness.
In these pictures, that we got to know in a succession of shows-Gretna was what Van Gogh called a painting locomotive-there came over in richness and generosity her love for the painting act itself. She brushed the paint with quite extraordinary vigour, quickly and confidently organizing large surfaces in hatchings and dabs driven always by her reading of the landscape space. Her hand stormed, but there was never anything chaotic or scrambling about her painting. Those surprising shots of pure color that punctuate the canvas, often delivered with a flick of the palette knife, are like grace notes, perfectly pitched, perfectly timed, electrifying. She knew exactly what she was doing. Painting was her instrument and she played it as though it, the canvas, the colored substance under her hand, were extensions of herself.
This is her gift to us, what we are left with.