A Tribute to Charles Seliger (1926-2009)

On the man

Nobody on Charles’s block in Pelham knew he was totally unlike the rest of them. Wearing a sport coat and a bow tie, he’d enter and leave his house like anyone else, but if his neighbors cared to look (or stayed up late enough), they’d notice his light was on deep into the night, either in his tiny studio at the top of the stairs or in his bedroom, as he kept easels in each place. He didn’t want anyone on that ordinary block in Pelham to know he was anything but one of them, though ultimately he was as mortal as us all.

Charles Seliger in 2003 at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY.

There was a work ethic to Charles that burned through all pretension of elitism, despite the fact he was acknowledged as a unique and key figure in postwar American painting.

"Exaltation" (1990). Acrylic on canvas, 16" × 12". Signed and dated. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Left alone to raise his two sons after his wife’s untimely death, he chose to keep a steady job (hence the late nights at the easel), and when he and Lenore began their marriage he left all of that unchanged; though in her he found the ultimate companion and archivist extraordinaire, something about her he surely must not have foreseen. For Charles, the work came first, and appearances hardly mattered to him at all. So his work was known much more intimately than Charles himself was, and that’s the way he planned it—and what a rich harvest of paintings he’s left to us! What a mind-boggling trove of drawings, hardly seen by anyone! His legacy is primarily his work, of course, but it’s also his quiet, determined attention to every detail of his life—his reading, and careful note-taking on the books he studied, his measured and concise recounting of stories of his days starting out as an artist with Peggy Guggenheim and his friendships with Feininger and Tobey—and many others too numerous and famous to mention—all these qualities made Charles a man of great depth and exquisite grace.

On the work

The issue of the scale of Charles’s work must be addressed head on. He famously stated that he wanted to “tear the skin from life, and peering closely, paint what I see”. To do so, he had to pull the viewer into a world smaller than herself, into a simulacrum of the subatomic, into the visceral, into what he called “articulated space”. His rejection of the use of physically large formats precisely enabled him to achieve a vastness of near infinite proportions. From his paintings inspired by insects (perversely larger than the usual size in his canon) to his rhapsodic late works that speak to the condition of inchoate states of matter, it’s been about “peering closely”. He once told me, regarding his dedication to his unique working methods and images and in answer to any rhetorical question about concentrating one’s efforts: “I’m digging straight down.” That’s where he knew he would find all the territory he would ever need.

I wish he were still digging right now. He’s left us too soon. I miss him so much already, and it’s only begun.

—James Siena

I only met Charles Seliger on one occasion. It happened in the afternoon at the Rosenfeld Gallery during his exhibition, maybe four years ago. He was a kind, gentle, and generous man, full of spirit and a precision of insight. Our conversation was filled with a warmth as if we had known each other for many years. I was surprised to discover that he had read my criticism. The works in the exhibition were utterly personal and without pretension. I admired the intimacy of scale in Seliger's work, and found it an antidote to the notion that abstract expressionism is defined according to scale. The expressive content in his work mattered—both as material and as a quest for something real, a transcendence moving through the interstices of worldly immanence. I understand that his forms evolve spontaneously over time and literally became the surface. The surface in Seliger's paintings carries the remnants of a process that will eventually evolve towards an all-over lightness. Often the layering of color within this process goes beyond description. It is as if to say that space does not exist unless it is created. Indeed, Seliger created a marvelous, rhythmic, indulgent, yet levitating space. This kind of action in art not only defines the artist, but further defines the rarefied sense of being within a culture—the human trace that belongs both somewhere and elsewhere. Seliger was possessed with the gift to understand art as a reality capable of transmission. His art is always on the verge of sending a message—that energy and benevolence co-exist in the inner-depths, somewhere at the crossover point between the human heart and mind. 

—Robert C. Morgan

Contributors

James Siena

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.

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