Art of Harry Nadler


The first one-man show for a painter who appears to be very promising. Nadler works with large canvases compartmentalized into rectangular areas which are further segmented and disjoined in his smaller forms... The total effect is that of a partite series of moving, unfolding elements in multiple patterns, often harsh in form while soft in aspect. The accidental combinations these patterns fall into recall something of the contemporary music of Cage.

Harvey Stahl, review of Dorsky Gallery exhibition,
Arts Magazine, June 1966

The canvases of Harry Nadler have been likened to the early abstracts of Mondrian. But the similarities are outweighed by the differences. Mr. Nadler's geometry is jauntier, his brushwork closest to Cezanne's and, besides he imposes his frequently sweet colors on a grid, of which the intersections and certain lines are emphasized in black. The artist, transforming the underlying structure into rhomboids, diamonds, circles and, sometimes, solid figures, arrives at shimmering rectangular masses.

Vivian Raynor, review of Gruenebaum Gallery
exhibition, The New York Times, September 25, 1981

Nadler strikes a balance between the effects of light, as it reveals color in nature, and the reduction of physical forms to pure line... The order of Nadler's labyrinthe constructs mitigated by infinite shadings of rich colors or gray tones that add an element of changeling mystery to these otherwise peaceful reflections. Nadler's continuing romance with experiment in his chosen mode does not admit dry cerebralism; each picture shows the conviction of a felt response.

Ellen Schwartz, review of Gruenbaum Gallery exhibition,
Art News, LXXVII, May, 1979


Harry Nadler and I were colleagues at the University of New Mexico in the late 1970s, when I was chairman of the Art Department (a position in which Harry later served with distinction) and he was a senior professor of painting. To be able to have as a colleague someone of such large cultivation and refinement, learning and intelligence, comes only rarely and often never at all. It did not take long to realize that he was, morally and ethically speaking, a very substantial fellow without, I hasten to add, being preachy or self-righteous about it (though he could sometimes be stern). He was soft-spoken (and very well-spoken too) and, as it used to be said of a person's behavior, always correct. Beneath his gentleness and politesse, though, was a steely sense of what was right and proper which he did not hesitate to express when he felt the occasion demanded it. Even without speaking he conveyed it by his bearing, his carriage and expression, and in particular by his piercingly steady look.

Something else I particularly remember about Harry was how much his studio mattered to him. He spoke of it always with a reverence and solemn respect that, even as an artist's son, I had never heard before and found curiously moving. His studio was the realm in which transactions that mattered most to him took place, not only where he physically made his art, but where he most closely approached the thoughts, ideas, and feelings that fueled and guided his artistic undertaking. Harry had a nearly religious belief in the sanctity of the artistic calling that made his studio a kind of sacred space-- he called it his "sanctuary"-- in which the "crystalline" (also his word) New Mexico light that filled it was not only a practical necessity but a metaphor for the spiritual and even mystical illumination--what he called "an interior state of clarity"-- that he sought there.

Harry was an abstract painter, not because taste or fashion dictated that he should be (he paid little attention to either), not because the formal problems of painting interested him in themselves. Abstraction, geometric abstraction, was for him, as it was for other artists of his time whose concerns he shared, the best way of expressing, and, in the distillative and reductive process of its making, the best way at the same time of experiencing inner things and essential meanings. There was something ascetic, even austere, about Harry. The mystical, the magical, the occult, and the esoteric interested him deeply as did the cabala and numerology--whatever gave access to the hidden order and meaning of reality. It was what made geometric abstraction congenial to him, and made of the pictorial space he created by it and imaginatively occupied a "meditation space" (again, his words) in which he could experience such things with clarity and immediacy, but by which they could be expressed, could be made available so far as possible in the same way to the minds and feeling of others.

This does not mean that Harry was unworldly. His worldliness manifested itself artistically by a love of paint, of the means, methods, and often sheer messiness and accidents of the painting process. The physical act of painting was as important for him, and as revelatory, as geometric form. In his large triptychs--traditionally the highest form of religious painting, as he knew he was able to join the earthiness of the painting process, preserved in feelingly brushed an palpably worked surfaces, with the purity of invention and ideation into intensely powerful wholes that were simultaneously mystical and existential, impeccably right and bearing at the same time, mediating the traces and touches of human imperfection. His wife, Helen Nadler, put it perfectly: geometry was a way of "speaking about ultimate purity," she wrote, while the means and materials of painting were "a way of expressing the quality of his own experience."

A very clear memory I have of Harry Nadler is of a time in New York when we took time out from a tedious academic meeting to visit some art galleries. At one of them was a Mondrian exhibition that included unfinished paintings, ones in which the masking tape used to plot their compositional order was still in place. Harry was deeply absorbed by them. What interested him was what they revealed of Mondrian's working process, that the seemingly absolute perfection of Mondrian's finished paintings, some of the grandest monuments of the tradition of geometric abstraction in which Harry worked, was arrived at by just those changes of mind, uncertainties, hesitations, and doubts, all those qualities off human sensibility, that Harry himself experienced. But most of all, their unfinished or suspended states allowed him to peer behind and beneath their finished surface. Many years later, Harry told of walking on the ramparts of the walls of the old city of Jerusalem and being attracted by the slits that penetrated them, by their shapes, which he photographed for use in his paintings, but more by the possibility they afforded of seeing through and beyond the substance of the walls themselves. In that sense, they resembled what had earlier excited him about what he could see, not in, but through Mondrian's unfinished paintings. They both stood for, and to a large extent were, the kind of experience that was the heart and soul of Harry's artistic enterprise. And perhaps it was the lifelong yearning and searching for the meaning and existence of that experience that explained, and caused, what anyone who knew him must always remember; the steady, penetrative fixity of his eyes.

Harry's paintings of the late 1970s and early 1980s were breakthroughs to a new authority of form that permeated everything that came after them. Mondrian's inspirational presence is clear in them, but they are no Mondrians. Mondrian's painting are icons, object of mediation. Harry's paintings, with their physically worked surfaces that bore the traces of the artist's presence and given titles such as Labyrinth, Inscape, Moon Grammar, are meant to be felt expressively, and to be imaginatively and almost bodily entered (at times with the help of inward thrusting orthogaonals and planes that open like doors) and their meanings read in an alphabet and grammar of cryptic marks.

Harry was an explorer. He dreaded sameness and falling into repetitiveness and formula, no matter how successful the formula might be. But change was never random or arbitrary. His art over all has a sort of respirant harmonic rhythm, his paintings becoming now smaller and then larger in size, inward, then outward, moving in the scale and direction of their vision, and then contracting again. The paintings that followed the Labyrinths and landscapes and others inspired by Mondrian, grouped in series he called Geometer's Dream, Amagansett, and Untitled, are significantly larger (as large as seven feet in their largest dimension) and in reach, containing as they do only parts, segments, of larger geometric forms that can seem, for such is the extent of their reach, like trajectories traced in cosmic space or, as in the Amagansett painting, on vast oceanic surfaces. Then, in his last paintings, the Jerusalem Series and the movingly titled Broken Vessels, lie a last inhalation, the size becomes smaller and forms more self contained within the boundaries of more intimate pictorial space.

HARRY NADLER: Paintings from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s
Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.
Southhampton, 2005

Mr. Cikovsky is the former Senior Curator of American and British Painting of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.