Art of Harry Nadler



A story Harry told me that he felt was a metaphor for his life and work was about his "golden bird." One day, when he was eight, he was walking home from school, a dangerous task for a Jewish boy in East Los Angeles in the '30s. He carried a painting he had made in school. He had to walk through a dark tunnel and was afraid. His painting of a beautiful, golden bird, radiating tropical colors, shone in the dark and he lost all his fear. The image of beauty, flight, darkness, and the power of his own image-making, stayed with him his whole life.

He discovered a kind of freedom in school; he graduated when he was 16, went to art school, supported himself as an illustrator for a newspaper; then discovered a wide new world of literature and fine arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. He earned a B.A. and an M.A., and his talent as an artist manifested itself in teaching assistantships and in painting awards and early shows. His affinity for European painting was strong, and he yearned to go to New York and immerse himself in the museums and in the current work being done by the abstract expressionists.

Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Spain in 1960, Harry fulfilled his dream of traveling to Europe and studying Goya's Disasters of War at the Prado. His commitment to finding a visual language to express his deep ethical concerns began at this time. He produced a series of works dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and called the Buchenwald Landscapes and exhibited this body of work at the end of his year in Spain. He agonized over it, feeling that the imagery was too literal. He was searching for something--a formal instrument that reached a meaning beyond the obvious horror of the subject matter.

On his return to the United States, he relocated to New York City, believing that his artistic roots lay there. He first made a living by teaching extension courses, while studying great paintings in the city's museums, participating in the current art world and developing his own work.

Between 1961 and 1965, Harry made paintings of strange spaces filled with autobiographical objects. The poetry of Wallace Stevens powerfully affected him especially. For Harry, the activity of painting was a way of connecting separate realities. The work of imagination, metaphor, or "seeming" as Stevens described it, takes place in the gap between disparate elements, making connections of meaning on a deeper level. In this gap, he struggled to formulate with precision his understanding of his tools: his materials, his knowledge of philosophy and art history, his religious tradition, his life experience. In this gap, he lived with the anxiety of knowing, with faith in a process larger than himself. And he worked. Geometry became a way of speaking about ultimate purity, wholeness, relatedness; the sensuous material of paint and the particular way he combined those materials became a way of expressing the quality of his own experience.

He named a painting series Description Without Place, in honor of Stevens. In this series, windows and boxes hold images of experience (painted objects, that both separate and merge the spaces of the painting. He combines images of crucifixion and blackness, with the vitality of life in both object and color. The breaking of edges and boundaries, merging the spatial and the temporal, continued throughout his life.

In 1965, he was offered a teaching position at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. There he began his series, Homage to Ingres, shown in New York City in 1969, followed by a sports series and collages, based on biomorphic forms. At this period, his explorations were about weaving the space and creating the ambiguity of figure and ground.

In 1971, Harry took a job at the University of New Mexico, with the intention of working into a part-time situation and maintaining a house and studio in Amagansett, New York. He continued cutting up images (derived from his Ingres paintings) and made a lithograph based on this work at the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque. During this period, he also worked on new grid paintings, moving from biomorphic forms to an emphasis on the field of light and space in a more abstract way. He showed his New Mexico paintings in New York City in 1974. These luminous works were followed by very dark paintings using similar imagery.

In 1975, he turned his canvases on the diagonal and began a series of diamond paintings, applying black and white and then gray paint. He was always involved with the mystical Cabalistic symbolism of "white fire/black fire." His imagery became involved in ambiguity between two- and three-dimensional space. In 1976, after spending the summer in Amagansett, he began a new series of diamond paintings called Ocean Rhythms. Searching for the quality of the ocean without representing it literally, he used waves of motion to create that field/space that was his formal concern. In 1977, he continued the same diamond format, but became interested in more symbolic and calligraphic imagery, still attentive to the creation of that flat field. In late 1977-78, he returned to the square format; the imagery became pictographic, and one of his old concerns reemerged: the issue of edges and the center. This was the beginning of the Labyrinth Series. He became more involved in the richness of the surface, and moved into color to create a dark luminosity. At this time, he remarked, in characteristic humor, that the labyrinth was a metaphor for his life; he didn't know where he was going. He showed these works in 1979 in New York City and was much stimulated by the response.

In 1980, his format changed to the vertical and his medium to egg tempera on rice paper stretched onto canvas. This enabled him to layer transparent colors, finding a new way to achieve the luminosity for which he strived. He joined the vertical panels to make triptychs, again in a desire for transcendent feeling. When he came to the end of this series, he suddenly needed to go back to creating color that emerged from the dark. He began a series of large square, dark works, with a labyrinthine field of glowing, colored objects, again indicating an ambiguous two- and three- dimensional feeling, all this painted in thick encaustic. In the spring of 1981, when he shipped these paintings to his dealer in New York City, they were summarily rejected. This was a great blow to him, though he went through with his show of the earlier triptychs that fall.

The next period of time was difficult as he tried to work out a new direction. He did many works on paper, struggling with format and different media. He painted two black-and-white paintings in the Geometer's Dream series, had a show at Pennsylvania State University, and went to Europe for the summer. Upon returning, he worked on three series simultaneously: a new Italian Journey series, started in small format in Italy with elongated horizontal format (as in the 15th-century predella panel painting in Siena); the Geometer's Dream series; and on the Magic Square series. In the summer of 1983, he started another series of paintings with the elongated format of the Italian Journey group, calling it Tuscan Notes. He was focused as in the Magic Square series, on the brushstrokes. That created a wall-like quality, while the geometry gave the illusion of three- dimensionality.

During this transition time, he came to the golden rectangle and color emerged as a vehicle for the luminosity he wanted. A trip to San Francisco triggered his childhood memories, and while studying Cézanne paintings recently (he had seen the great Cézanne show in Houston), he painted his King's Chamber (Golden Bird) series. His continued occupation with edges and boundaries (which dictated formats) emerged in the works with their brilliant gold, slightly 3-D center, moving to the edge flatter and darker in value. The brilliance of color led him to the idea of luminosity shining from beneath/behind geometric forms and surface. A summer in Amagansett (1984) strengthened this idea. He made the format vertical again, created a color field, laid in the geometric structure that carried the movement and the symbols of ideal form, and used flat grays as atmospheric areas that united the space. He also experimented with mixing pigment with rabbit-skin glue to create this "color-space" ground.

At this time, his longing to bring together his early work about the Holocaust resulted in his starting a notebook of ideas about sacred space in memory of the Holocaust victims. His reading of Martin Buber and the Cabalah, inspired him to begin to create the triptych, The Gates of Light. This triptych was created by making a field of orange with pigment and glue, laying over it a geometric structure based on the golden rectangle, then building up the color. This created the shining of light from within, temporal movement--like musical form--across the space, and the purity of form out of this geometry. This was to be the first of four triptychs for this sacred space.

On sabbatical in Amagansett in 1985, he worked on this and the Amagansett series, struggling to put all these ideas together. This continued into 1986. He had taken a two-week trip to Jerusalem and was greatly affected by it. He carried the idea of "gestalt-free" space, making three paintings with rubbed orange ground through which his geometric line moved. He painted two commissioned triptychs called Broken Circles. They continued the idea of the colored ground as field over which he laid his geometric structure and then applied ares of grays to break the boundaries of the linear forms. At the same time, he began the second triptych for his sacred space project, Night Kingdom. These paintings were created with luminous dark red grounds, with areas built up with reds, purples, and blacks.

In 1987, he received a grant from the Israeli government to spend a month at Mishkenot Sha'nanim (Center for Humanities) in Jerusalem. This was a life-long desire of his, and he planned to work on the third and fourth triptych. The experience was intense visually, emotionally, and spirituality. He came home with small works and began to make anew series. He was back to the same issue of how to convey deep feelings and insights in abstract form. In Jerusalem, he had taken photographs of the holes in the ramparts of the Old City and, as he studied these, his geometry and these intense experiences came together in the Jerusalem series. His format had elongated to a rectangle based on the square root of the number five, and these forms elicited his old themes of gates, windows, and entrances. He produced an extensive series that he showed at the Museum of New Mexico, and then as a show in Santa Fe in the fall of 1988. He was also working on a commission of two paintings (Blue Seraphs, I and II). The color field had change to blue.

In 1989 and 1990, he worked on several series simultaneously. All of them bore the mark of a kind of spiritual transformation in the face of his terminal illness. The Sightings series was a group of small square paintings layered over and over with veils of white upon his geometric structure that had begun to take the form of broken arcs. His series Broken Vessels became larger in size and vertically elongated; the imagery was a continuation of his exploration of mystical ideas from readings in the Cabalah. During his radiation treatments, he worked on smaller paintings. Two golden rectangles were put together to make a 20 x 24 format. These were made of cut-out forms of rice paper pasted to linen in layers with colored glue pigments. This series was called Iron and Silk, coming out of his study of Tai Chi and carried the meaning of the warrior. His enormous courage is manifested in these paintings. The last two groups of paintings that he made were the Night Studio and Cycladic series. The Night Studio series evolved out of his continuing search for a way to bring together his desire for formal purity (the geometry of the golden mean) and the power of his own psychic content. He chose for subject matter what he loved most: his sanctuary, his studio, and the objects of his life and his death. He embedded these in the geometry he created to symbolize a larger psychic meaning. They were daring, revealing, and a surprise to him, but he accepted them into his family of work. He finished them as he was preparing for a long-anticipated trip to Greece, an event that brought him great joy. To prepare for this he began a new series, the Cycladic paintings, in the studio, and later spent many hours in the light of the Greek Islands exploring these ideas in his notebooks:

"I'm beginning to imagine the kind of paintings I would like to do. Encaustic whites to create the sense of whitewashed stone, then somewhere in the paintings, slivers of color, strange plains of blue, indigo, red oxide, gray, gray-green, Naples yellow."

The hardest part of letting go of his life was letting go of his work not finished. Until a few days before he died, he was drawing in his journal (no more words), painting in his notebook of new ideas. We will all miss that energy, courage, gentleness and vision.

Helen Sturges Nadler
Albuquerque, NM
June 1991