Published  02/06/2006

Jon Schueler: A Painter of Our Time

Jon Schueler: A Painter of Our Time

ACA Galleries, New York
21 January-18 February 2006
Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh
26 January-11 March 2006 The American Expressionist painter Jon Schueler (1916-92) was recently the subject of growing interest on both sides of the Atlantic. When he died in New York City in August 1992, aged 75, he had a considerable following, which recalled his status in the 1950s and 1970s. For a significant period, he was one of Leo Castelli's stable, showing important early exhibitions there in 1957 and again in 1959. In fact, Schueler comprised the first one-man show at Castelli's new 4 East 77th Street gallery. Critics, however, invariably misinterpreted his work, for example, Life Magazine (December 2, 1957) proposed that Schueler was one of a new generation of painters inspired by the work of the once-scorned painter Claude Monet. Schueler was no doubt glad of such publicity, but he would surely have preferred to have been linked art historically with JMW Turner. Schueler often referred to Turner's vision, and his encounter with the massive body of Turner's work at the British Museum (19,300 works) in London was pivotal:

When I saw the Turners through the years and compared them with other work, it seemed to me that he went further into nature and further into the sensation of nature in paint than any other painter. He, the stylist of incredible facility, did the most to break down style, to destroy it, to find the possibility of paint talking as paint, as an extension of the most immediate perception and sensibility, so that it became most like nature. This is what I would like my paintings to be.1

A compelling photograph of Schueler, in Life, in front of a key work of the 1950s, 'The Lake', showed him in the role as artist as celebrity, a role that an artist of Schueler's sensibility found impossible to maintain.

Jon Schueler was a voracious reader (he particularly admired the Australian author Patrick White). He was also an accomplished and skilful letter writer and diarist. Castelli included Schueler's 'In the Wild Garden' in a show in November 1957. The curator and art historian JH Baur, in New York as Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, included Schueler in his key exhibition there. He also described Schueler's work in the accompanying catalogue, in his seminal article entitled 'Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art'. Later in 1975, Baur organised a show of Schueler's work at the Whitney. In terms of recognition, Schueler's work received positive press, notably in the The New York Times (20 November 1957) when he was only 41; it was pivotal to his career. But, true to his nature, Jon Schueler was already absent from the very scene and recognition that most artists would have aspired to. Indeed, Schueler travelled, that autumn, to the remote and unlikely destination of Mallaig, a tiny village in western Scotland. Castelli and others had to contact him via a manual telephone exchange, on the remote Scottish coastline. Later, in July 1959, Schueler reflected on the significance of this move:

I went to Scotland to think about [death] along with everything else. I wanted to watch the Devil come to me there. I felt that I could face him more surely and recognise him for what he is. The city is too full, perhaps too full of wonderful things, wonderful temptations disguised as necessities, too full of necessities disguised as life. I wanted to go to the mountain and to meet my own thoughts, and to meet God and to meet the Devil and see his face and tell him to go to Hell. The confusion of my life had been yearly compounded for 40 years. A north wind blowing off the sea promised clarity. I wanted to live in the middle of one of my paintings for a year. I wanted to be in one spot and watch the painting change. I saw clouds menacing my mind's eye, and the rain shafts or the mist obliterating horizons and forming new forms with the clouds and landmasses blending with the sea. I chose northern Scotland as my cathedral, because for my needs at that moment, it seemed the only church that would do.2

As interest in his work was humming in Manhattan, Schueler leased a cottage in Mallaig for the winter months and through to the spring. In doing so, he took a lease also on the immeasurable solitude of the place, and the compelling beauty of the surrounding skies, in the winter dark. Back in New York, Castelli had been mostly successful, selling work both there and to Germany. In Mallaig, Schueler recorded his feeling of desolation, not always inspired by the long nights and wild weather. There he worked relentlessly, and by March 1958 could dispatch no less than 45 paintings from Scotland to Castelli. Exhausted, he then moved on to work for a while in Paris. Paintings done in Mallaig have a dramatic force but this lyrical quality is still sustained in the works from France, calmer and less powerful. While in France recently, the author and critic Diane Cousineau managed to track down an important work, which Schueler had executed for the community of Les Prêtres Passionistes at Clamart in 1958, before departing. This superb and greatly treasured painting now hangs in the parish hall of St Lez - St Giles, Thiais. It testifies particularly to the spirituality in Schueler's work, and it might be said, therefore, in his mind.

Jon Schueler had said at the time, in a letter to Castelli, 'I have no telephone, but there is a Passioniste order of priests across the way - they are good friends of mine - have a telephone - and will take a message for me. I have just finished a large painting, which I painted for their chapel. It is about the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and will hang above the altar (this is a gift, of course)'.

When he planned to return to New York at the end of 1958, as his friends warned him, the enthusiasm that had developed in the previous year had already waned. Castelli did his best to put a good light on the situation, telling him that he had sold no less than four more paintings. Schueler himself observed that, 'the safest place to paint was New York, but there are no snow clouds'. Despite some misunderstandings over prices of paintings of a genuine kind, Castelli and Schueler remained in friendly contact. Castelli included Schueler's 'October' in his 1958 group show, which also included works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and four others. Schueler at last planned his return trip to New York, leaving Europe, a couple of months later, in January 1959. Castelli mounted another show of Schueler's French paintings in April 1959, and although a number of works sold, the show did not sell significantly well. Schueler, intuitive as ever, realised then that Castelli's interest could not be sustained. Later, another New York gallery gave him a show, including both Mallaig and Paris works, but only a single, small painting sold. Luckily, Schueler was able to teach at the Yale Summer School. Some time later, he made determined efforts to find a new gallery, but without success.

In 1959, he was commissioned by the Uris Buildings Corporation in New York to carry out a 64 by 12 foot mural to go in the Colgate-Palmolive building at 300 Park Avenue, an extremely unusual event at that time. Murals were not much in vogue and the best architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, felt that their buildings were themselves works of art. Unfortunately, despite a superb presentation of substantial working studies, the corporate decision was negative. The studies 'Time Has Three Suns' (1959) were shown by ACA Galleries this year. They related to Schueler's experiences of nature and sky. In an interview with Magda Salvesen, BH Friedman recalled:

The 'Time Has Three Suns' studies come directly after Jon's return from France where his paintings contained a luminosity and a glow of radiant light not found previously. The studies were very closely related, although I'm sure Jon saw huge differences among them. There's this exciting flow of energy - you start with one thing, then move on and make changes, perhaps like variations on a theme in jazz. They are all good - museum quality, as they say. Other very beautiful paintings from 1959 and 1960 are related to the sun imagery of the six studies - although none has the same long, horizontal format or deals with the passage of the sun during three periods of the day within the same painting.3

On a later journey back in Scotland in June 1970, Schueler had a fearful and life-changing experience on the Sound of Sleat (when normally there would have been long days and light nights). The intensity of this experience forced him in terms of his complete identity to confront and recognise the extent to which death had played a central role in his life. He referred to the psychologically searing and destructive capacity of the sky on that June night and decided that his work 'must be a search and a requiem'. That was partly for his lost mother, who died when Schueler was only six months old; the maternal deprivation and absence haunted him all his life.

The vision was intensely real, yet it was the most powerful abstraction - nature a cold, stately presence, remote and unconcerned, beyond man's definitions, his identifications, his attempts at understanding, oblivious to his emotion. Man could only be irrelevant in the face of this implacable event, this dark and light of eternal death. Everything about the Sound of Sleat that I might have remembered, every colour, shape or form, the identity of sky, land or water was destroyed and replaced by those events that I can only call the unearthly light, the dark, dark, rich beyond the black, the mass of grey, and the deep shimmering of a streak below, a presence more powerful, more beautiful, more seductive, more real than man's fantasies of poetry or joy or the damnation of his days.4

The sense of loss in infancy was made all the worse for him through his wartime experience as the navigating officer of a B-17 bomber. Here, he was incarcerated, in a womb-like navigator's compartment below the pilot's, and while he himself survived, he witnessed through the observation panel friends dying in the fullness of youth, parachutes not opening, others were burnt to oblivion.

Schueler was destined to live on for many years, with a new and fulfilling companion, Magda Salvesen, art historian and author, who joined him in 1971. But ever since that experience at Mallaig, on a black June night, his date with death was inscribed, and seemingly never far off. With Magda, he managed to harness the sense of loss, and survive all vicissitudes for two productive and climacteric decades.

Such a remarkable career as Jon Schueler achieved is also profoundly middle-American in its resilience and in his independent-mindedness. Born himself in Milwaukee in the shadow of World War I he lived a painter's life to the full. We can understand later how he chose to be away from the hubris of New York in a wintry Scotland, which some might have thought almost masochistic, but at least to be tempting fate, just at the time when Leo Castelli was helping him to the pinnacle of New York School success to all the Manhattan dreams of an artist.

After the difficult 1960s, Schueler's career was somewhat redeemed in 1975 by the one-man show he was given at the Whitney. By 1970, and for the last two decades of his life, his paintings had evolved again, showing a more resolved, less tempestuous awareness of natural elements. The Whitney show revealed the beginnings of this tendency. Schueler had returned to the wellspring of his total inspiration, the skies of Mallaig, now at last together with Magda, his muse and companion. He painted a whole series of masterworks: these sprang, perhaps, from his Expressionist antecedents, but contained so much more poetic and elemental meaning, drawn from the experience of life and death, imbued still with memories of wartime conflict, but now resolved. JH Baur's appraisal of Schueler's work is probably the most succinct:

Jon Schueler has walked a difficult path between opposites. His paintings look abstract but are not. The character of the Scottish coast, where he lives, speaks through these poetic canvasses with remarkable clarity and exactness. One has only to compare them with the Highland skies to understand how true the paintings are to the light, the atmosphere and the dramatic spirit of the place. And yet these are basically abstract pictures, not unrelated to the work of Mark Rothko or some of Clyfford Still's big canvasses. They have that kind of largeness, mystery and power. They strike a more precarious balance between observation and abstract form than do most paintings that try to wed the two – such as those of Milton Avery or Georgia O'Keeffe, to name at random artists who have succeeded in their own way. Schueler's solution is more difficult because it is less obvious. He risks more by deliberately exploring a narrow area where nothing is secure, where everything is changing, evanescent, and evocative. We see his paintings one minute as clouds and sea and islands, the next as swirling arrangements of pure colour and light.5

Accordingly, these New York and Edinburgh exhibitions in 2006 remind us now of the continuing and growing importance of Schueler; of his remarkable commitment and development as a mature painter, abstract, yet inspired by natural phenomena. Late works are often a major disappointment, but in Schueler's case, they represent a hard-won personal vindication. The new awareness comes when this planet, these astral phenomena, are subject to a new phase of global observation and concern. The sublime is with us, as never before, and in many guises. Since the historical marker of Schueler's outstanding talent, the 1975 Whitney show, there has not been any major Schueler exhibition. Institutionally, the time is now ripe for such an important retrospective.

Dr Janet McKenzie   

1. Nordland G, Ingleby R. Jon Schueler, To the North. London: Merrell, 2002: 32.
2. Banks R. Introduction. In: Salvesen M, Cousineau D (eds). Jon Schueler, Sound of Sleat: A Painter's Life. New York: Picador, 1999: 62-63.
3. Jon Schueler (1916-1992), Time Has Three Suns. New York: ACA Galleries, 2006: 6.
4. Norland G, Ingleby R. Op cit: 88.
5. Ibid: 35-36.

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