This exhibition, which includes 11 large-scale paintings Nathan Oliveira (1928- 2010) made during his last months, pays testimony to a remarkable career. They are the centerpiece among 49 works on view, spanning the years 1959 to 2010. These late paintings, heated revisions of Oliveira’s mysteriously solitary, abstracted figures, are significant for their fresh vision and subtle changes in content. The gallery rightfully states that these paintings “represent a profound and moving chapter to Oliveira’s distinguished career as a painter.” But coming on the heels of recent, more focused exhibitions of historic works — Nathan Oliveira: Drawings, 1960-2010 at DC Moore in New York and Masks, Monoprints, and Lithographs, at Smith Andersen Editions in Palo Alto — Berggruen’s “condensed survey” of historic drawings, sculptures, and monotypes seems scattershot. Admittedly, satisfying the high expectations raised by a memorial to a celebrated artist of this stature is a difficult task.
Nevertheless, this exhibition offers a great opportunity to see stellar examples of work from the artist’s 50-year career. Among them are an early, languorous nude in ink with a riveting gaze; delicate drawings with transparent washes and pencil that speak of Rodin’s early influence; a riveting 1985 painting of a head; compelling masks; and extraordinary monotypes and sculptures. Three breathtakingly luminous “sites” in monotype and the painterly bronze Yucatan Sequence Three (1983) are exhibition standouts. Their imaginary terrains are dotted with small relics mysteriously implying a human presence. They speak eloquently of Oliveira’s remarkable ability to render his pictorial vision as a painter in diverse media.
Still, it’s the late paintings that stand out. They represent a resurrection after his long hiatus from painting, when prepared canvases stood blank in the studio for years. It is not, however, the artist’s first renewal. Oliveira—who was catapulted to national acclaim as the youngest painter featured in the 1959 New Images of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Peter Selz—abandoned painting for close to five years after creating one of the highlights of his career, the lyrical 1962 Spring Nude, which resides at the Oakland Art Museum.
In contrast to the turbulent, gestural slabs of paint in earlier figurative paintings, Spring Nude has a smoother surface with its dramatic figure reduced to a shadowy archetype. She is positioned close to the frame of the canvas as a way to compel you to see the figure as a reflection of your own humanity. In this regard, it is the seminal work for the artist’s 2010 paintings, and it would have made a meaningful inclusion in this show. Its incandescent palette — of dusky oranges, reds, purples and golds — has a kinship to works by Edvard Munch or Emil Nolde. It is a reminder that Oliveira’s paintings, while forever linked to the Bay Area Figurative Movement are, in fact, rooted in European Expressionism.
In the interim period, before returning to painting evocative figures and hauntingly barren stages in the early 1970s, Oliveira focused on drawing, lithography and monotype. For the latter, he reinvented sequential processes, often revising ghost images left on a plate after a printing in order to “privately pursue elements of time.” His luminescent monotypes contributed mightily to expanding the very definition of what a print might be. In fact, according to Robert Conway who is preparing Nathan Oliveira: In the Company of His Heroes, a catalogue raisonné of 1500 prints, monotypes, and monoprints, “Oliveira’s achievements as a painter, sculptor and draughtsman are enough to earn him his place in the history of modern American art. His career as a printmaker, however, elevates him beyond the boundaries of the present, for Nathan Oliveira is arguably one of the half-dozen most important printmakers in the last five centuries of western art.”
In Oliveira’s extraordinary Tauromaquia series in monotype from the 1970s, he created 100 variations, paraphrasing a single print by Goya. While the Stanford Professor Emeritus Paul Berg references the series in his warm remembrance in the memorial exhibition’s catalogue, the gallery missed a great opportunity by not including examples in this exhibition – or, at the very least, including a few examples in the catalog. Oliveira’s sequential structures are unique contributions that, along with decades of his “restatements” of solitary figures in changing, mystical light, allow the viewer to look deeper into the nature of change.
Later events in Oliveira’s life, including a heart valve replacement in 2004 and his wife Mona’s diagnosis with cancer in 2005, precipitated another hiatus from painting. After her death the following year, when he could no longer go into his studio to paint, his son Joe enticed him to work with clay and wax as he had done in a series of compelling sculptures during the 1980s. Oliveira created a stunning series of seven masks primarily as a response to the Iraq war that spoke of grief. Cast in bronze, the masks became foils for dramatic revisions in intensely colored patinas. A collector of ritual-based, ethnographic masks, he had continually explored their form in iconic prints, drawings, and paintings since the 1960s. Yet the body of bronze masks was dramatically different. His unique patinas for the same mask form could vary from solemn silver to pungent green or appear as if they were in a state of decomposition. Seen as a whole, Oliveira’s masks are unprecedented bodies of work. Their slim representation in this condensed survey also represents another missed opportunity to highlight the artist’s extraordinary variations.
The larger-than-life scale of Oliveira’s late paintings on the gallery’s first floor belie the fact that he returned to painting tethered to an oxygen tank and hobbled by pulmonary fibrosis, diabetes and other health issues. Clearly, late works by artists with physical infirmities inspire and are compelling when there are advances. Consider the 100 intensely colored gouaches depicting figures with transfixed gazes that were created in a burst of creative energy by Oliveira’s colleague David Park during his last ten weeks. Or consider those great unraveling ribbons in the late works by Willem De Kooning who had dementia. Like De Kooning’s late works, Oliveira’s 2010 paintings show a definite evolution towards a more reductive approach.
In Runner there is a thick firestorm of golds, cadmiums and reds that surround a clearly post-911 figure. Oliveira began the work by recycling a canvas with the same kind of crusty environments seen in his 2001 exhibition at Berggruen. In contrast, a thinner burnt orange field enlivens the witty and textural self-portrait, Bowler. There is a dramatic shift in Standing Figure, which emerges from a similar environment. Golden ochre strokes define some protruding bone, yet much remains undefined. Tonal areas are sufficient to magically convey a palpable and vulnerable presence.
In the early 1970s, Oliveira painted spectral, luminescent figures that disappeared almost entirely into shimmering, pearlescent backgrounds, like some mystical fog on a beach. Beginning with the attenuated Figure (2010) whose shadowy arms reach skyward off the canvas, there is a different form of disappearance implied in the most powerful late figures, which are more spirit than corporeal and undoubtedly poised as contemplations of mortality.
They seem to merge into their dark environments, which alone could be lovely minimalist paintings. Interspersed with raised striations, they are layered with veil after veil of transparent washes. Like Rothko’s dark, throbbing color fields, they have a surprising luminosity and an intimation of the spiritual. Some of the late figures are barely grounded in space by spare details, like the small yellow triangle that keeps the shadowy Figure With Arm Up (2010), from dematerializing into the embers of its background. Given its uncommon beauty and the context of the artist’s life, it evokes the German poet Rainer-Maria Rilke’s lines from his Duino Elegies: It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth. .Strange/ To see all that was once in place, floating so loosely in space. The slumped Figure With Arm Up has a raised elbow and knee askew, a stance that evokes Michelangelo’s unfinished marble of a dying slave in the Musée du Louvre. The poet/playwright James Schevill once observed that Oliveira’s stances reveal how our bodies control how we operate in the world. Whether one sees resignation, resiliency, or resistance in the stance of Figure With Arm Up, it is a compelling emblem of the artist’s last work.
Oliveira’s finest late paintings are magisterial, poignant and profound. In these works, the artist created his own remarkable tribute — one that elicits a great sense of longing for a more comprehensive view of his work.
Nathan Oliveira: “A Memorial Exhibition” @ John Berggruen Gallery through October 22, 2011
About the author:
Independent curator Signe Mayfield served as curator at the Palo Alto Art Center from 1989 to 2011. There, she mounted exhibitions featuring the art and collections of the San Francisco Bay Area, ranging from Nathan Oliveira: The Painter’s Bronzes to Windows to the Mind: Selected Books from Stanford Special Collections.