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Jill Nathanson experiments with the ‘potential of color’

June 27, 2016 // by Jaime DeSimone

Jill Nathanson's paintings seem to glow from an inner light. She has developed an unusual technique of pouring polymer gels of hand-crafted oils and acrylics into elegant, fluid paintings on panel. In preparation for Confronting the Canvas: Women of Abstraction, Nathanson answered a few questions about her work and her process.

Jill Nathanson Portrait Confronting the Canvas members preview b
Jill Nathanson attends the Confronting the Canvas members' preview. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

Describe your approach to your approach to painting.

I approach the painting as a vital field of color energies, yet my paintings are made of shapes, strongly contrasting colors, edges of all kinds. They are made of parts and are not at all continuous fields of energy. I've never wanted to do reduced paintings of misty quasi-monochromes. I work with tension between colors and among shapes, engaging with all kinds of painting relations, so my approach to painting has always been full of contradictions. In the last few years, I found a way to embrace contradiction through illogical layers of transparent color, letting color energies construct the painting while all kinds of shapes and incidents just overlap and build up color. I think of my paintings as fields, but I doubt that that's what others see.

Transparent and opaque paint have always been part of my work; it's a contrast so basic to painting, and now it's the kind of picture field I make. I develop the paintings from studies made from transparent plastic color sheets. The painting itself is done very slowly, staying close to the study at the start but often changing along the way. I pour the color onto a wood panel following the shapes of the study, but the thick plastic pours introduce pictorial forces different from the study's machined plastic sheets. Each color is mixed and tested, its edges are taped, the color is poured and then it takes a day to dry. I paint the layers, guided by the study, and then play the opaque elements against the color “field” and pictorial space as it has developed.

How did you develop this unusual approach to abstraction?

I developed this approach by painting for years, always with an experimental attitude. I use the basic elements of painting to try to discover new ways of seeing, or to clarify and elaborate a visual response to seeing the world. I don't think it's about making an elegant picture or an expressive gesture. Around 2010, I was working on an odd project: trying to paint the biblical days of Creation with no images. I felt that Creation out of nothing has something in common with abstract painting, and I was also excited about a new translation of the Genesis story. I wanted light to be the medium: color as light. Even though, in the narrative, light is created on the first day, I felt that light had to be the basic force in each of the days. I began using colored gels that are used for theatrical lighting, trying to create the narrative through color, which I hoped would act as light. I worked on that project for a couple of years, feeling satisfied only with parts, but I became very interested in things I saw, working with the gels. I phoned Mark Golden of Golden Artist Colors and asked him how I could use acrylic paint to resemble the plastic gels. He sent me some samples of new pouring mediums, and I worked experimentally for months. The Genesis work allowed me to engage with chaos more than ever before; working with the colored gels brought a lot of freedom into my work and led me to technical experiments with paint. 

Jill Nathanson Confronting the Canvas members preview c
Members view Jill Nathanson's work in Confronting the Canvas. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

What ideas do you explore in your work?

Most of the ideas in my work are really not concepts but qualities of experience that I hope my paintings will transmit. Some ideas, things that interest me, are so basic to my work that I hardly think of them consciously at this point. If they seem to disappear for a while, they return.

I think that color in painting can transmit kinds of experience because it's energy, but only if it's treated as such by the artist. The painting is a visual field and a field of energy in motion rather than a composition or design balancing shapes, though shapes and design can't be entirely ignored as my paintings are full of them. I think of the field of energy as strongly immaterial while the painting is clearly very material: plastic paint on a stiff support. Material and immaterial is a contradiction in the work; a mini-paradox, I hope.

I read with excitement about subatomic particles and quantum theory, but I know almost nothing about these areas. I think of the vast and the microscopic. I assume there's much we don't yet know about the energies that make up all we see and what we are.

Since finding a process that allows me to engage with chance and illogic, I've found a way to use shape and composition that seems to follow the color forces rather than contain them. A painting that's based on color invites the viewer to engage with the painting in an open, contemplative, dynamic way.

I feel the potential of color in painting to be just extraordinary.

I think that the heavy, poured colors in my paintings pull the viewer across the painting through the color relationships. I call this pulling across “color desire,” and it's basic to how I think of color and how I determine the structure of my paintings. I don't think of empathy in terms of emotions but more as psychic mirroring of movement and dynamics which might be experienced through the body, as well as eyes and mind.

We can experience color in paintings in ways that mirror states of flow and tension in our bodies and certainly both flow and tension are connected to feelings, concepts, character, and social relationships. Colors (as parts of light) can be treated as unstable in paintings, and that instability, can engage with our re-balancing in our own bodies, psychic forces and desires. We project unity and stability, but we're all in dynamic imbalance.

I think painting is a public and private viewing affair; a place for us to experience our intimate and public selves and our feelings of belonging both in nature and in the highly unnatural environments in which we live. Longings, aspirations, and a sense of contradiction can feel private and unresolved but they tend to be shared. This is the kind of experience painting has to offer now, and as an artist it's a thrill to have the chance to show work in public, in a museum setting, where the work can be public in this way.

Jackie Saccoccio looks at Jill Nathanson Fluid Measure d
Confronting the Canvas artist Jackie Saccoccio views Jill Nathanson's Fluid Measure. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

Describe one painting in Confronting the Canvas.

Fluid Measure has four uneven, rounded color quadrants that overlap in a sort of pinwheel arrangement. I did a lot of color studies before deciding on these colors. The overlaps create one kind of space, but each color has its own depth as well as its special color radiance coming towards the viewer. The overlaps create darker colors, which are murky and hard to define. I'm especially interested in these overlap colors in planning the painting. There are other layers of color that have been poured, that build some of these areas, and there are small, opaque marks that add weight to a section, intensify color and control the visual flow. These small marks set up a dialogue with the bigger areas and introduce a different kind of edge and intensity. I really wanted the painting to be a horizontal, to pull the eye from the center to the perimeters across the painting, but it's more surprising and unstable as a vertical.

Describe your color palette.

I've been painting for so long that so many colors and color combinations bore me. I do a lot of color studies to find new relationships. I don't really expect to come up with new colors, but the overlaps, sequences, and juxtapositions of colors, especially how colors impact one another, can be thrilling. Since I use thick fluids, I can vary the color saturation a lot, playing unsaturated against intense colors. Most of the colors I use are transparent; there's no white in them, and often they are built up in layers, with colors coming through irregularly.

I'm more conscious of the colors and color combinations that I want to avoid more than the ones I want to use. The color combination should cause me to feel something in seeing the whole, a resonant sensation in moving towards color unity. The colors need to influence one another a lot for this to work.

I probably use more secondary and tertiary colors than primaries. These seem more unstable, impacted more by the colors around them. I use a lot of fairly bright, common colors in these works but often layered and in unusual combinations.

I focus on where the color is placed in relation to other colors. Is it far away from the colors that will most enliven it or nearby? How far do you need to go across the picture for some harmony?

I want different areas of the painting to have different kinds of color light and color pulse.

What meaning do your titles convey?

The titles are meant to identify the paintings while leading away from any image, helping the viewer to have a fresh visual experience of the colored fluids and their relations. I don't think the paintings are meaningless, but I want the viewer to have an experience, not find images, so I need titles that are very open. I've recently used a few titles that refer to the paintings as if they were musical instruments.

Jill Nathanson Talks at Confronting the Canvas Members Preview e
Jill Nathanson talks with guests at the Confronting the Canvas members' preview. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

What does abstraction mean to you?

It's a pretty layered term; it has a few meanings for me. It's most obviously painting that doesn't have an image or specific subject. It comes out of the elements of painting and the painter's own history of engagement with painting. Abstract painting has been around for over on hundred years now, so an abstract painter deals with the history of abstraction, but also, like any painter, she thinks about the whole history of painting. (A lot of representational painting now is very abstract in ways, because representational painters are also thinking of past abstract painters.)

Because abstract painting comes out of no thing, it risks being nothing and often is nothing more than empty style: just painting without subject matter. I'm so bored by or disgusted by so much abstraction, and this drives me to reject a lot of possibilities.

Abstraction in painting is the abstract relations between the visual elements. The focus of abstract painting is generally to intensify or redefine the relations between the visual elements. In art school language, these might be listed as line, shape, color, tone, volume, space. But I like to think of the visual elements as the raw visual data that our eyes/minds perceive and manage when we scan the world, before language-based concepts kick in. (Part of art training is to learn to see without our familiar concepts.) This is what the painter uses and seeks to reinvigorate, maybe re-enchant. I think that abstract painting can remind us of spiritual, mysterious qualities of experience, but it's important to avoid painting spiritual or mysterious images.

Who if any abstract painters have influenced your work?

So many painters have influenced me, and I'm always looking at other work with interest. Even painters whose work I dislike have inspired me to avoid what they do.

I started out as a painter immersed in the world of color field painting. I loved Barnet Newman and Hans Hofmann (already a contradiction) and was inspired by works of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis. As I sought my own path, I came to love Hilma Af Klint, Arshile Gorky, early Richard Serra, Piet Mondrian, Alma Thomas, and others. In the last decade, I've been strongly influenced by the illogical, contradiction-oozing paintings of Tom Nozkowski. I'm also influenced by painters who are my friends such as Harriet Korman and Cora Cohen. And Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne are still touchstones and will always be.

When I was a student at Bennington College in the 1970s and also as a very young artist, Kenneth Noland and Larry Poons visited my studio a couple of times as visiting artists, and these visits were important and helpful. Ken spoke to me of colors vibrating at their edges with one another. Larry encouraged me to open up to mistakes and chance occurrences in painting and to get beyond using the brush. Later in the 1980s, the British sculptor Anthony Caro developed a workshop called Triangle to bring abstract artists together to learn from and influence one another. So there are influences that come from looking at other art, and then there are influences that come from conversations in the studio.

How much do these influences guide you?

At this point, I'm more excited about trusting my own instincts. It's a relief to feel that the influences are less pertinent and I'm painting out of my own ideas. I feel I'm working off of paintings I did in the past that couldn't quite come off because some insight was still missing. Also, the acrylic medium I use has different qualities and demands, and I've ended up so involved with experimenting with that. Still, I always look at the art I love and there's a lot of art that sets some sort of standard for what I expect from my work.

I look at a lot of painting, old masters, modern, and Contemporary more than I ever did before, thinking of standards. But then I think and feel myself in my own time, working with gooey plastic on big boards, painting years after painting has been considered highly serious and then utterly silly, decorative, zombie, systematic. I've lived through stripe paintings seeming transcendent and stripe paintings being laughed at as expensive beach blankets. Responding in my work to all the negative glosses on painting over four decades, always believing that there's so much more to be discovered painting abstractly, has made me a different artist from the painters from whom I learned. 

Jill Nathanson places translucent color sheets in studio f
In her studio, Jill Nathanson uses plastic gels to explore potential color relationships. Image courtesy of Michael R. Chisolm.

How do you see the paintings in relation to your body?

I think my work impacts the body by mirroring tension and flow that we experience, like walking near flowing water. But I'm not only interested in flow but in tension also, essential to being human.

When I make the paintings, I pour the color onto the panel, which is horizontal on the floor, and then I lift it and tilt it so the color flows. I think we feel the pours as having a physical weight. But the edges have been taped, so the pours are also constrained. The overlaps also work against the looseness of the pours, but the edges have pushed/pulled edges and shapes. Color weaves its way through both flow and edges. The color relations also carry tension or harmony/flow. I like the painting to have a quality of inner tension and release; perhaps I'm thinking of deep muscles and perhaps the painting is a kind of complex body with flow and release of energies throughout. Sometimes the paintings have real gesture in them, like a gesture done with a brush, but usually the qualities of bodily movements are more in the weights and flow of color.

Do you see yourself as an action painter? Are you continuing the tradition of abstract expressionism?

Starting out as a painter in the Color Field milieu, I learned that Abstract Expressionism was to be avoided. It wasn't really abstract, I was told; it was “squashed representation” (Barnett Newman was considered Color Field, I think).  I rejected this bias decades ago, but I have never seen myself as working in the tradition of action painting, even when my process is very physically demanding. I've always wanted my work to carry feeling however, or, rather to transmit feeling. I think the painting transmits feeling more by its mode of visual unity than by gesture or mood. The engaged viewer experiences the light energies in a painting, the visual action that brings the painting together in his/her eyes. In the tradition that is simply painting, this experience is full of feeling. My own ideas about how feeling is transmitted involve “color desire”: how color and everything else related-- shape line, expanse, space, etc.--“draw” the viewer through the painting, searching for unity.

My paintings are quite physical to make but they're sort of pseudo-spontaneous. Each color is taped off before pouring. Each color dries before the next is applied. The movement comes from the relationships that ultimately coalesce, not the process, even though there is chance and free flow of materials in the process. Even so, when I use a brush, I want the gesture to carry energy, to be something that one follows with energy.

Jill Nathanson pours polymer in studio g
Jill Nathanson pours liquid polymer color to create a transparent shape in An Idea of a Manatee. Image courtesy of Michael R. Chisolm.

Is there anything specific to say about women and abstraction?

Abstraction really requires a modest, searching approach these days. The simple grand gestures were done already. The early abstractionists, as well as the founders of the New York School and Color Field painting, worked experimenting until they discovered their way. The art world called these artists, mostly males, great geniuses, and they became myths, which often wreaked havoc on their lives and sometimes on the work. In more recent decades, the “ambition” to be the next important painter, usually by coming up with the next “style,” has tended to be a male game; I'm not sure why. But over the last forty years, women have been painting wonderful abstract paintings, without the myth, as have many men.

In the past decade, there have been a lot of women painting powerful works at a modest scale, which have been recognized within the art community as better than much of the larger work getting more art-market star acclaim. Some of this smaller work has been debunking the art star modern master mythos and has felt especially honest and fresh. (Mary Heilmann is a well-known instance.)

I think some women painting abstractly came of age with some really exciting and/but somewhat ironic women mentors. The irony has had to do with the art star mythos, which women see with a knowing laugh. There's been a lot of serious painting done in a quiet way that has kind of cleared the air and cleared a path for larger work.

The younger women painting big and powerful paintings have a bit of a wry smile as they turn to working on the scale of the New York School. Right now, some women (and men of color, who share the wry perspective) are doing especially strong painting, deeply engaged with the meaty painting issues that make for exciting painting. Enough time has passed and enough serious work has been done for painters to work large again without the tired myths. I think this is a new time in abstract painting, after irony, cynicism, appropriation, and other ideas have just worn away, and women are there with the ambition to make things new. It might not be totally sincere, it may be impure or hybrid, but it's incredibly experimental and strong. And there are women, especially in this show, who are taking their experimental work with paint to a new level.

Are your paintings gendered?

I don't know. In some ways they are, in some ways not. I follow my physical sensations, and these are a woman's, but I don't like to think in terms of images, so I'd prefer not to think about how my paintings might relate to my body. I don't mind beauty, but I hope I stay away from prettiness. I don't think accepting beautiful color makes the work gendered female, but maybe there are some things I allow in my work that most male artists would not.

What, if any, is the role of women in contemporary art?

I think I answered this above. For the first time in decades, serious abstraction that doesn't hide behind a defensive stylistic attitude is acceptable, and a number of women have embraced this opportunity and are working with brilliance and power.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I don't think in terms of feminism much these days, though I did when I was young.  At this point I feel that so many political terms have caused rifts in our social fabric, and I tend to look for a common language whenever I can. But I have benefitted from the feminists working in the art world, so I must say that I am very grateful. I think the Guerrilla Girls made a difference in the art world that's really been for the good.

What is your next project? How do you prepare for your next project?

I don't want to make bigger paintings than those in the show just to make bigger paintings, but I think that I can discover more on a larger scale. I'm not sure, but this is what I'll be trying next. I prepare by doing studies, and when I come up with a study of relationships that need to go bigger, that's when I'll go there. 

Jill Nathanson tilts canvas in studio h
Jill Nathanson tilts the canvas. Image courtesy of Michael R. Chisolm.

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