JON SCHUELER 1975 1981, The New York Yearsby Mary Ann Caws
David Findlay Jr. Gallery | January 8 – 31, 2015
After studying with the great and eccentric Clyfford Still at the California School of the Arts, exhibiting with the Abstract Expressionists in New York, and having endured stints of teaching on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Jon Schueler left New York in 1970 for the isolation and particular weather of the Scottish Highlands. Painting and musing in a place as remote as remote gets, Mallaig, a fishing village near the Isle of Skye (where my ancestors lived in other times), gave him—and now gives us—a remarkable view of his sky, his sea, his land. Back in his New York Studios, on Jones Street, and then in Chelsea, he remembered what he has now, retrospectively, offered us.
Let me say before venturing further, it wasn’t that I had not seen skyscapes and waterscapes and landscapes of Jon Schueler before. Indeed, I had first fallen in love with them—after several viewings, over a space of years—in catalogues and in his New York gallery in Chelsea, where I had felt surrounded and drawn in by the paintings. And then, previously at this same David Findlay Jr. Gallery, during a 2010 showing of his work of The Castelli Years 1955–1959, I remember quite clearly two of his yellow paintings, one called “La Mer” (1958), a painting made during a brief stay in France, merging sky and sea, and the other, a blazing “Indian Yellow” (1958), about illumination, pure and simple, this one sent to Castelli for Schueler’s one-person exhibition in 1959.
Indeed, they were in my mind and I was preparing to write about them (for a publication Lindsay Blair and I are preparing, on “Signing the Sky,” and hoping to publish in 2016 ... ). Ah, but this time, upon our first venture into the gallery, we saw, my husband and I—just behind a wall, a part of a painting, whose entirety then became a miraculous entity. This was “North to Ornsay” (1979), with its extraordinary orange rushing across the middle of the painting from the middle to the right side, as if it weren’t cut off, but wanted to be continuing. Above it, the grey melts or melds into the greenish-grey at the top, echoing a small swath of green on the left and the expansive swath of green supporting that orange rush. At the bottom of this canvas, how moving to see a tiny drip of paint, never removed. The remains of making are everywhere, if you know how to look: one hair from a paintbrush here, one mark of a strong brush thrust there—these ongoing works speak to observers as if to include them.
Everywhere here, we are included. In the various layers so clear in “Desert Blues” of 1978, the reds deep and light and the green somewhat murky are surrounded by a brighter green above and below it, with the dullish red holding it all up.
The loveliest layering imaginable in all shades of lavender spills from side to side laterally dividing the canvas in “Grey Sound” (1976), while separate hues of grey float from side to side, with light cloudiness backing it all up in “To Paula: The New Year’s Grey,” also from 1976.
The longer you look at “Over Skye” of 1979 with its remarkable pinkish-red curves and curls, the more the top and right side take over from the calmer rest, and suggest—as Magda Salvesen put it—“something you can’t quite see.”
But much is complicatedly visible, particularly in “A Point Just Outside the Range of One’s Vision” of 1980, with its great surge of colors here and there in a sort of rolling of cloudbursts—on the right a pink traveling toward a yellow-orange, a bright yellow splotch taking over the scene on the left side, echoing a fainter one in the upper right. All of a sudden, a purple patch in the lower corner just beneath appears, one that you might not have noticed before.
Of all the engrossing paintings here, the one that really knocks you over if you look long enough—and perhaps long before that, is “The Sound of Sleat” (1980), the title also given to Schueler’s autobiography/biography edited by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau in 1999. The Sleat is the body of water between Mallaig and the Isle of Skye, and the painting has its own kind of magic, watery and full, with its upper light of active clouds drawing up the layers below in drifts of cloudy white bursting up from the mauve grounding, with its little puffs of yellow, with a pink smudge here and there, and small bits of blue darting in. Sea and sky and land are present here, at once merging and separate, like life and art. This masterpiece says all that could be said or painted to represent Schueler’s extraordinary vision, of Scotland. He painted there to enter into nature, and now, with him, we enter also.
ContributorMary Ann Caws
MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.