On ViewAlexandre Gallery
January 14–February 18, 2023
The selection of works in the Neil Welliver show currently on view at Alexandre Gallery’s Lower East Side location offers a cross-section of the artist’s output in painting and printmaking between 1974 and his death in 2005. Four large landscape paintings (each about eight feet square) anchor the show, with four smaller paintings and seven prints rounding it out. Taken together, two prints from the early 2000s—the dense, verdant woodcut Stump (2000) and the loosely rendered aquatint Trees Reflected on Ice (2002)—ably demonstrate the range of Welliver’s landscape style. The former work abounds with naturalistic detail; the latter, predominantly gray, is like a sketch, capturing the distant fleeting light of a setting winter sun.
Welliver’s influences and technique are well known. As a young painter in the late 1950s, Pollock’s openness, de Kooning’s fluidity, and the resonance of abstraction with naturalism central to the work of both artists were formative. Welliver moved to northern Maine in the sixties to paint the landscape. He worked with a palette of eight colors, none of them earth tones, on small scale studies and oil sketches painted en plein air. Later he’d transfer full size drawings to canvas with a pouncing wheel and charcoal before executing the painting from top left to bottom right. His method was deliberate but not systematic. At each stage he allowed himself the liberties of intuition and imagination, altering his depiction of the landscape to better reflect his experience of nature: an expansive, immersive vision.
Welliver is quoted on one of the gallery walls contrasting his work with that of Courbet and Bierstadt—he likens it instead to de Kooning’s. The comparison is instructive. Courbet spread and scraped oil paint with a palette knife to imitate the tactile appearance of natural processes; Bierstadt rendered landscape with an exactitude impossible to eyesight. Like the 1970s de Kooning, Welliver’s brushstrokes are fluid and flowing. Forms emerge from patterns of relatively autonomous, atomized marks. It was said of Cézanne that each brushstroke in his paintings had its own perspective. Welliver’s mark-making offers simultaneously more and less than that. Taken individually, the lines and daubs that make up pictures like Beaver Dam (n.d.) and Prospect Brook (1978) offer little as description, but by repetition and accumulation begin to cohere as recognizable landscape phenomena. “Every time I touch the canvas,” Welliver said in a 1980 documentary showing him at work, “I make a form.”
The impact of Abstract Expressionism, particularly the example of Pollock, emerges in Welliver’s work in a variety of ways. Like Pollock, he often organized a composition around a rhythmic patterning of light and dark, as in Old Avalanche (1982) and Birches (2005), with shallow pictorial space woven closely to the surface. Another shared quality is the tension between stasis and motion. In large forest interiors like Cascade (1974) and Prospect Brook especially, the frozen moment gives way to a deluge of visual detail so vast and varied as to seem inexhaustible: spots of light flicker on the faces of boulders, pure white highlights flash on the surface of water, and vegetation abounds in brittle pines, beds of fern, encroaching moss, and leaves that seem to float free of trees. Rendered with equal intensity, the accumulation of these details yields an active, energized surface.
Welliver’s interest in abstraction extended beyond the organization of his pictures and their surface particularities. By the artist’s own admission, his paintings were about invisible phenomena—light, air, and energy—as much, if not more, than the precise representation of nature. These elements inform both the virtual openness of his otherwise densely packed forest interiors and their crisp, crystalline quality. A unified flow of energy is palpable in Prospect Brook, for example, where light describes the curving edges of stone slabs smoothed by the course of water, their overall formation echoing the trajectory of the stream that flows through and across them. The sense of time one encounters in this work is glacial in scale, reflecting the artist’s ambition, as he told Rudy Burckhardt in a late seventies interview, to create an art based upon “affection for the natural and physical world to the point that the act of painting parallels directly the life and growth processes of that being painted.” The variety of works in Alexandre’s current exhibition shows the extent to which Welliver single-mindedly pursued and achieved this aim.