Publication: The Sunday Herald
Jon Schueler ‘Cross Currents – the Fifties & Seventies’
Jon Schueler ‘The Sixties and Eighties’
Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery
British Retrospective Exhibition
City Art Centre
Although the name of the American painter Jon Schueler is not exactly household currency, the reputation of this gifted and overlooked artist is set to receive a major boost in the coming months. Recently, two solo shows dedicated to the artist’s work have opened in New York, while a third has just ended its run in Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery. A fourth exhibition in the capital’s City Art Centre is scheduled for next summer. Importantly, all of these shows reflect Schueler’s long-standing connection with Scotland.
Schueler, who died in 1992, was a member of the second generation of the New York School – the first generation included such revered names as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman while Schueler’s peers included Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg and Joan Mitchell.
Although the New York School can be broadly described as Abstract Expressionist, it was defined not so much by a style but by a geographical and social focus – many of the artists were based in the city and knew each other as friends and acquaintances. Schueler was unusual in his decision to break the mould established by other New York artists and follow his heart. So, in September 1957 Schueler set sail for the UK and his final destination of the fishing port of Mallaig. This was not Schuler’s first trip to Scotland – in November 1942 as a First Lieutenant navigator in the US Army Air Force he had landed in Prestwick after a stormy crossing from Newfoundland.
Perhaps the mysterious quality in the combination of sky, weather and light visible while airborne was instrumental in developing his career as a painter. Certainly, his determination to re-visit Scotland was a passion based on an artistic obsession – part of a journey Schueler felt he had to make in his pursuit of the sublime and the infinite. This quality of emotional integrity – to search above all for the truth – had been implanted in Schueler by his highly influential and respected teacher, the painter Clyfford Still.
The American critic, Irving Sandler, who has written the definitive study of the New York School has his own theory about Schueler’s decision to partially abandon his New York career: “Jon was one of the most romantic people – both temperamentally and artistically - I have ever met,” he says. Sandler believes that Schueler found in Mallaig a physical landscape which matched the artist’s psychic one: “I don’t know of an other artists who have done what Jon did – to invent a pictorial landscape based on his own inner necessities and then to look for it in reality. It’s a curious space, inhabiting the same internal and external landscape.” In his journals, Schueler described the same impulse: “I want Scotland to live inside my paintings,” he wrote.
Schuler’s first sojourn in Mallaig was brief (he left for Paris in the spring of 1958). However, taking into account the considerable body of work on display in Scotland and the U.S. it is clear that, even years later, the artist’s work continued to be deeply informed by his Scottish experience. Some are explicit references to Scotland such as ‘Red Felt in Sound’ or ‘Sleat Veil,’ painted in Connecticut in 1968 and 1969 respectively, while others are merely suggestive in mood, tone and colour.
Schueler’s next major stay in Scotland had an air of permanence. In 1970 he rented an old schoolhouse at Romasaig, near Mallaig and this was to become his permanent base for the next five years. During this period, in a burst of intense creative energy, Schueler completed around six hundred oils and watercolours and finished several series of lithographic prints. During this period he exhibited the fruits of his labours at the Mallaig Village Hall, the Richard Demarco Gallery and, in 1973, at Edinburgh College of Art.
Schueler continued to visit Scotland at regular intervals and in 1976 he married Magda Salvesen, who after Schueler’s death has been the driving force in establishing his reputation at the forefront of American painting.
Over the years Schueler’s work evolved and although nature and light were always fundamental the density and subtlety of the paintings changed – the later works are characterised by looser, freer and larger brushstrokes with flatter areas of colour while earlier works are more layered, often with every inch of the canvas displaying minute shifts in tone and colour. However what remains consistent is Schueler’s vision as a poet of nature. Like his great hero J.M.W. Turner, who famously had himself strapped to the mast of a ship during a storm, Schueler craved the closeness of the elements as an essential psychological complement to his work.
The current flurry of activity seems set to rehabilitate the artist’s name. Such reappraisals are important and they pose taxing questions not least of which is the direction Schuler’s work would have taken had he not visited Scotland. “It’s an impossible to question to answer” says Sandler. What is certain, however, is that Schueler’s work was all the more powerful for his Scottish experience and, in turn, this country’s artistic climate has been made richer through his passion for Scotland’s changing light and moods.
* ‘Jon Schueler – To The North’ by Richard Ingleby and Gerald Nordland is available from Merrell Publishers, price £25.00