“There is never a question of what to paint, but only how to paint.”
Like the paintings of Matisse, the paintings of John Meyer (1943-2002) appear to be simple and effortless. Smoothly painted squares of black beside smoothly painted squares of white hover off the wall, inscrutable in their silence. Easy, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. Borrowed from private collections or retrieved from years of storage in Switzerland, the 13 diptychs on view constitute an extraordinary, and not to be missed, offering. Meyer’s death at 58 cut short an important career that was gaining significant international attention. His work continues to resonate within contemporary painting practices. Born of rigorous attention to every aspect of painting’s construction, the salient impulse of his work is the belief that form privileges the optical. In Meyer’s hands, the visual and the physical are inseparable.
Meyer’s paintings exist in the world of real things. Unencumbered by specific narratives or ideologies, each painting functions as a catalyst for the potential exchange of energy between the work and the receptive viewer who encounters it. This exchange is a sensual and felt experience even though, like Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, and Joseph Marioni’s work, it is indefinable. In a 1990 interview with John Caldwell, then chief curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA, Meyer stated, “I don’t look at painting as a vessel for ideas, or an abstraction of those ideas, but as an object without either characteristic.” The meaning of the work is in its energy, the cumulative energy that accrues from Meyer’s investment in the discerning choices and manipulation of his materials.
Spanning 12 years from 1989 to 2001, the paintings represent the pinnacle of Meyer’s craft. Carpenter, chemist, and painter, Meyer deeply believed the facture of painting is painting. His work began in the lumberyard. Selecting walnut, oak, or redwood, he would mill and plane cradles and stretchers. The concentration and effort paid at this elemental stage was the platform upon which he layered the subsequent stages of cooking gesso from 15th Century recipes to grinding his own pigments to making egg tempera from scratch. Using rollers, he would then unfurl skins of pigment across classically cradled panels creating flawless shields of color.
Juxtaposing black and white in untitled diptychs from 1991, 1996 and 2001 Meyer positioned small to medium sized squares of white next to equally sized squares of black. There is nothing to encounter but the wall, the panels and their shadows. But we also encounter ourselves as we notice ourselves noticing — seeing how the paint behaves when rolled, scraped, or brushed across a surface. We observe ourselves perceiving the responsiveness of every visible aspect of the painting. We observe how the blacks deepen, sucking up light as we move closer to the panels, or how light softens white to subtle creams as it moves across the room. Everything alters as we move.
Three small diptychs, untitled (gray/gray), 2001, untitled (green/black), 1996, and untitled #6 (blue/white), 1994, are efficient, reductive statements of paint’s richness and luminosity. But the astonishingly beautiful untitled diptych (Liberty), 2000, is perhaps the most eloquent and absorbing work in the show. Oil on gessoed, back-braced redwood panels, measuring 31 x 31 inches each with an overall dimension of 31 x 63 inches the work is a winged sail of cold beauty. Observing the work as a whole, the left panel offers up its deep marine blue at a glacial pace as the blindingly white panel on the right puts us out to sea on a craft of paint. Standing before its slow disclosures of mass and light we experience the flux and constant transitions of life that only paint can reveal.
John Meyer: “Diptychs” @ George Lawson through June 13, 2015.
About the Author:
Julia Couzens is a Sacramento-based artist and writer whose work has been widely shown, most recently at the di Rosa Preserve. Her drawings and hybrid objects are in museum and public collections throughout the U.S. These include the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts; Berkeley Art Museum; Oakland Museum; Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina; and Yale University. She lives and works on Merritt Island in the Sacramento River delta.