Boston will never be an art capital. It blew its chance to become one by malignantly neglecting the Boston Expressionists in the 1940s and ’50s. Had Boston museums lavished the kind of attention on them that New York museums devoted to the young painters of post-war abstraction, it would have signaled to the world that the city was a supportive home for artists working in a modern mode, and perhaps it might have become a creative enclave in its own right. Instead, the museums clung to the Belle Époque until after its last artists were dead, by which time the handful of sophisticated collectors who didn’t think Jews repulsive were following the exciting developments in New York.
But while the Boston Expressionists made little headway in the museums, their impact upon the education of painting in the area was total. Hyman Bloom taught at Wellesley and Harvard. Karl Zerbe was one of my teacher’s teachers at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (“Zerbe used to put turpentine in his encaustics,” my teacher once related to me. “It finally killed him, but the paintings looked terrific.”) David Aronson joined and directed the infant art department at Boston University; it was natural for the department to invite Philip Guston onto the faculty in the 1970s, when he was exploring his own version of expressionism. One of Guston’s students, Jon Imber, taught at Harvard for over twenty-five years. For several successive decades Boston had a wealth of artist-instructors who acknowledged tradition while pursuing a modernist expression of ineffable truths.
The institutional benefits for new artists persisted even into recent times. During my covering of Boston’s visual art from the mid-2000s until my flight from the city this year, it was apparent that anyone who studied painting at Boston University genuinely learned to paint and safe to assume that anyone local who had genuinely learned to paint had studied at Boston University. This was due to the astute leadership of the erstwhile BU painting professor John Walker, who deftly bore the standards set by the aforementioned examples.
Walker is enjoying a reverent installation of his work in the main hall of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.1 The museums of Maine, in acute contrast to those of Massachusetts, have an unbroken history of taking their state’s artists seriously, and Walker has had a presence there ever since a stint at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1989. The exhibition’s guest curator is Katherine French, who for a long time ran the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Massachusetts. The Danforth is excepted from the above criticisms, as it collected the Boston Expressionists attentively. French kept tabs on Massachusetts artists and mounted a triumphant retrospective of Jon Imber shortly before his heartbreaking death of ALS and her retirement to northern Vermont. Both, in their respective ways, have proved irreplaceable.
As for Walker, the Ogunquit show is masterly, and it’s no wonder that students emerged from his tuition with such abilities (I gave two of them their first reviews, both glowing). Recent renovations to the museum include an expansive glass wall that opens to a view of the cliffs lining Perkins Cove and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. It’s a seascape with which no artist would want to compete, but Walker’s paintings hold up to the grandeur.
If Guston was labeled an Abstract Expressionist for his nonobjective takes on Monet, Walker could fairly be described as an Abstract Romanticist for his nonobjective takes on John Constable, to whose paintings Walker was introduced as a child in Birmingham, England. In the catalogue, French describes his training at the Birmingham School of Art in the late 1950s as “rigorously traditional” and tells of the artist’s profound confusion upon discovering a Malevich canvas that impressed him by capturing all the emotion that he had experienced regarding Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride. Early on he realized that technique did not amount to feeling.
A typical Walker evinces broad knowledge of the mechanics of oil painting and the sort of juicy application that we associate with a lover of the medium. As befitting a Romanticist approach, it is composed intuitively, in defiance of strategy but not wisdom. It evokes the spirit of nature at the expense of its exact appearance, yet the interactions between the weather and heavenly bodies remain recognizable.
Pemaquid #21 (2016) scans as the full moon reflecting on the sea. That reflection is nevertheless elongated beyond expectations and divided into an imprecise herringbone pattern. A round chunk of ocean claimed by the sky indicates that the viewer is not really looking at water at all. The pattern repeats at a larger scale and lower contrast, black upon blue, across the lower four-fifths of the picture, invoking the rise, drag, and fall of waves though looking nothing like them. Fire and Tide, a similar picture dated 2011–14, positions two sharp cuts of pale green terminating in scarlet tips upon a heavily abstracted sea. Bands of orange and teal march across the canvas in rough rhythm, under a tripartite sky that is morning in one portion and night in the other two.
These images extrapolate from Walker’s home in South Bristol, a Maine coastal town that he selected for its access to charmless vistas. His exploration of the flats turned up a locale that his family took to calling “Smelly Cove,” regularly littered with trash and tidal detritus. The best of Maine scenery is comparable to anything else in the United States, of course. But the chief problem to the artist, pace the rigorous traditionalists, is not what you can depict, but what you can turn into art. Doing right by the feeling of a place may finally mean doing wrong to the view. A picturesque scene that wants to assert its identity interferes with a process like Walker’s. Better to hang shapes on humble memories, for years if necessary, until the feelings coalesce into a statement with an identity of its own.
Returning to Constable, Walker too is a practitioner of the small-scale plein air study. The wrinkle is that they are abstractions, though worked up in Smelly Cove onto bingo cards acquired when Walker purchased a former community center for a studio. He has painted hundreds of them, and dozens grace the exhibition. They represent a smart habit for students to emulate, as they remind the artist to scale the mark so as to preserve energies that are easy to capture on a small rectangle but hard to enact on a large one. An astute selection of them, courtesy of French, makes clear how they influence the dynamism of the bigger works, such as an untitled oil from 2007 with its urgent pile of limpid white gestures on subfusc layers beneath.
Walker’s successors are unquestionably competent and accomplished, but gutsy art-making of the kind Walker practices seems to have departed Boston University with him in 2015. Just as positional play ended the Romantic era of chess in the later nineteenth century, positional art, likewise driven by analysis and strategy, is replacing the Romantic attitudes established by Aronson, Bloom, and Zerbe. Boston’s institutions are returning to their default spiritual state of insular condescension. But now New York is hardly any better. To the hinterlands we romantics flee.