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Thirsty took a moment to look back and consider how the past is often prologue to the future. The object of our exploration was clearly subjective and yet quite forceful. We turned our spotlight on the 1989 Whitney Museum of American Art Nocturnal Visions in Contemporary Painting Exhibition held at the Equitable Center in New York as the subject of our investigation. The Exhibition ran from April 12 to June 14, 1989 and contained a Who’s Who of great contemporary artists including Alex Katz, April Gornik, Eric Fischl, Georgia Marsh, Ross Bleckner, Edward Ruscha and many, many more. It was a moment in time. A theme in counterpoint to the realities of life. And, in Thirsty’s view, worthy of a retrospective look through the lens of almost twenty years.

"One" (1986) April Gornik
(click to enlarge)

Thirsty thought the best way to conduct this inquiry was to contact some of those who participated in the Exhibition and reached out to four of the key participants for their thoughts. In addition, Thirsty also decided to let the words of the day from an essay in the Exhibition brochure speak for themselves.

Thirsty tracked down Susan Lubowsky Talbott, who was credited with organizing the Noctural Visions in Contemporary Painting Exhibition. Today, she is the Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Musuem of Art - the oldest public art museum in America.

Susan Lubowsky Talbott: “The subject of the nocturne with its sense of mystery, beauty and even foreboding is one that has long intrigued artists…Through the nocturne, artists today can reconcile romantic nostalgia with the harshness of modern life to depict worlds both real and imagined, brutal and sublime.”

And, from the Whitney Nocturnal Exhibition brochure, written by Susan Lubowsky (Talbott):

“By darkening the soul one is enlightened.” – St. John of the Cross

“Many contemporary artists are rejecting the trends of the last three decades that focused on the conceptualization and deconstruction of the art object and often subsumed it in rhetoric, the media, and the marketplace. Instead, they are evoking earlier aesthetic traditions. In an effort to restore the magic of art, these painters are looking back to the nocturne, that sublime order of the nineteenth-century Romantic landscape, and redefining it in a contemporary context. By focusing on the nocturne, they can present enigmatic terrains where mood overwhelms realism. Through the veil of night, hard edges are blurred and the crepuscular images of Romanticism once again emerge.”

“Today, such romanticized subject matter has again found its way into the critical mainstream along with the very act of easel painting itself. In this climate of nostalgia, the nocturne has come to represent a contemporary expression of poetic and introspective visions.”

“The darkened soul, as envisioned by St. John of the Cross, is a concept that well suits the nocturne. If enlightenment is to be achieved through the pain of introspection, the nocturne is a path to that goal. By obfuscating reality, night provokes the extraordinary visions of a preconscious dream – visions that signaled transcendence for the Romantics and a release from binding aesthetic dogma for contemporary painters. Through the nocturne, artists today can reconcile romantic nostalgia with the harshness of modern life to depict worlds both real and imagined, brutal and sublime.”

Alex Katz, who had his first one-person show in 1954, saw the relevance of the Exhibition in terms of issues in art.

"Reflex" (1985) Georgia Marsh
(click to enlarge)

Alex Katz: “I guess it was a reaction to up front painting… I started making nocturnal landscapes then. “Wet Evening” (1986) was the first successful painting of that series. Its home is now in the Valencia Institute of Modern Art in Valencia, Spain. I like the way my painting was exhibited. It was in a cross light that made the painting easy to see. It took me twenty years to get to that painting. Once I saw it, it was easy to do it. My only problem was that it should have been 12x12 feet.”

April Gornik, whose painting “One” (1986) appeared on the Whitney brochure to the Exhibition, had a more pragmatic assessment.

April Gornik: "And, of course, there is the idea that the nocturne, a moonlit landscape or even a night cityscape has a certain kind of romanticism that's particular and it must have seemed to fit into their [the Whitney's] concept."

Thirsty: Is there a way to characterize the artists who participated in the Exhibition as a group or a movement?

April Gornik: "I don't think so because frankly the whole feeling of the art world then was that is was coming out of a kind of pluralism that a lot of people were alarmed at and some people were enthusiastic about. There was a resurgence of new image and imagery being used in art, thanks in part to the Whitney's earlier show "New Image Painting", that started happening in the late 70's, early 80's. That use of images began to be bandied about as movements like neo-expressionism, but it was in a broader sense, I think, just a general reassessment of the use of imagery in modern art.”

Georgia Marsh, whose painting “Reflex” (1985) captured the essence of the Exhibition, saw it more as an artistic, poetic statement against the specific issues of the day.

Georgia Marsh: “There is no work without context. We are all immersed in our historical moment. In the early eighties, the cultural clock began to spin backwards…There was something deeply elegiac in the air at that moment. It felt like the dark ages had come to an enlightened, progressive, creative America. I think that people of sensibility felt very embattled and the resisters took up their positions in the dark.”

From our perspective, the genius of the Whitney Exhibition was its poignant reminder of the majesty of nature in a turbulent world that man mistakenly believes he can control. The darkness of the late 1980’s seems an eerie precursor to the times we are about to enter. Revisiting the hypnotic romanticism of the nocturne is indeed a fine elixir for the soul in moments of emotional darkness. We have high praise for the foresight, insight and diligence of that long ago Whitney Exhibition – relevant yesterday and even more so today.




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