Known for his ethereal and abstracted paintings of the sky, Berry Campbell has curated an exhibition of rarely before seen figurative works from the 1960s. Many of these paintings have not been on view since an exhibition at the Maryland Institute, Baltimore in 1967. Schueler himself described these paintings as “woman emerging from landscape” and as we call them “women in the sky.”
When Jon Schueler arrived in New York in August of 1951, he initially resided in the studio of Clyfford Still, with whom he had recently studied at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. In New York, Schueler quickly became part of the downtown art scene. His circle of friends included Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt (who he had known in California), Raymond Parker, and Barnett Newman. Frequenting the Cedar Bar, becoming part of the Club, and imbibing the heady and adventurous spirit of the time, he created large-scale canvases, rendered gesturally with the palette knife. These were shown at the historic Stable Gallery, run by Eleanor Ward, in 1954 and at Leo Castelli’s brand new gallery in 1957 (Schueler’s was the first solo show at the gallery). Along with such artists as Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, and James Brooks, Schueler became known as one of the most prominent figures in the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, who expanded abstraction in new directions, often embracing the natural world.
A turning point in Schueler’s life and art occurred in September of 1957, when he sailed for Scotland, setting up a studio in Mallaig, a small fishing village on the west coast, across from the Isle of Skye. Although Schueler had been to Scotland while serving in World War II—he was a B17 navigator, flying missions primarily over France and Germany—the catalyst for his choice had been the descriptions by a woman with whom he had a romantic relationship during the war. She had planted strong visual images “of shapes and colors” in his mind that he felt driven to pursue.1 What he wanted was “to try to understand something about nature under certain terms,” with a desire of “literally overcoming nature, getting beyond it . . . anything but accepting it.”2 In Mallaig, the sky alone became the vehicle for Schueler’s artistic journey; he discovered that for him nature was the sky and everything in life itself. A chronicle of Schueler’s experience in Mallaig is contained in The Sound of Sleat, the exhilarating narrative of his life from 1957 to 1979, edited and published after his death.3 Described in its introduction by the artist’s friend, the novelist Russell Banks, as “A Portrait of the Imagination of an American Artist,” the book is a “collage” of letters and journal entries in chronological order, yet often doubling back into memories and stories of the past (Schueler, who received a Masters in English literature from the University of Wisconsin, at one point planned to be a writer). Of his experience in Mallaig, Schueler wrote:
I studied the Mallaig sky so intently, and I found in its con-vulsive movement and change and drama such a con-centration of activity that it became all skies and even the idea of all nature to me . . . Time was there and motion was there—lands forming, seas disappearing, worlds fragmenting, colors emerging or giving birth to burning shapes, mountain snows showing . . . . I had created it—the sky and country—before I had ever left the US . . . I knew that I wanted to be living in the picture day by day, looking out to sea from the same vantage point so that the sea and sky would be there looming large as they do when looked at from across and into the edge of the land. I wanted a strip of land on the horizon so that I could watch the movement of the sky across it and study its disappearances when the sky merged with the sea.4
Schueler’s sky paintings, varying from vortexes of life and death in the balance to horizontals, intensified in their stillness, are today his best-known works.
Creating paintings cited for their resonances with those of Milton Avery, Rothko, and Willem de Kooning (Schueler would be featured in an exhibition with Avery and Rothko at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1975), Schueler participated in the dialectic interchange that characterized the art of the mid-twentieth century. At the same time, he was a romantic, a man whose art and sensibility can be seen as aligned with traditions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romanticism. It makes sense that when Still brought a portfolio of images of paintings by J.M.W. Turner to class in San Francisco, Schueler was over-whelmed and responded viscerally. He also felt an affinity with the intensity and passion in Still’s art. Schueler recalled his reaction when Still hung four of his huge paintings on the walls of his studio: “I had never seen anything like them before. Powerful images. Blood reds, scarred browns, and blacks. A flash of color. Bumps and scourges, tensely violent, like the surface of life. I didn’t know if I liked them. I was breathless with the experience.”5
The group of paintings of the female figure that Schueler created from 1962 to 1967, featured in this exhibition, surfaced initially from his scenes of Scottish skies. In December of 1957, he wrote in a journal entry of planning to depict “woman emerging from the landscape.”6 Working out his ideas in The Sound of Sleat, he mused that for him “man” was a moral force in nature as opposed to “woman,” representing “birth, earth, lust, heat, anger, sensual, evil, flesh, beauty, hope, love, comfort (?).”7 Whether conditioned by the long connection in art between women and nature or not, this link was natural to Schueler, probably because he had long wrestled with nature to probe the meaning of human existence. What he sought was to capture “sensual man of moral nature painting woman.”8 However, he did not pursue this subject until the summer of 1962, when he started a couple canvases with the figure as a basis.9 Among these was Red Snow Cloud and Blue Sky. Here an organic process seems to be taking place in which the female form has begun to materialize from inchoate nature; the artist used his brush with a sensitivity as if more to feel the subject than observe it.
Later in the summer, while on a trip to Stonington, Maine, Schueler came to the realization that he wanted to give his full attention to painting women. He described how this occurred: “I have always thought that because of my nature theme, there was nothing for me to paint in New York. Now I realize that Woman is in New York, and I can paint that with as much passion as I painted about the sky in Scotland.”10 Schueler based his images on a range of women in his life, including one or two with whom he had relationships—in particular Mary, to whom he was married briefly. Other subjects were models who passed through his studio. Nonetheless, the paintings are not of specific individuals, but means for Schueler to wrestle with his feelings about women. He wrote at one point of painting Mary “yet embracing the struggle of freeing myself from her.”11 In Mary: Reclining Nude, Schueler drew on the long tradition of reclining nudes in art, from Titian forward. Yet rather than inviting the viewer with her gaze, she tilts her head in repose; her body is in a relaxed position with her open legs providing the work’s foreground. The viewer’s eye is directed around the canvas by energetic, but thin areas of brushwork contrasted by dark paint marks creating the breasts and head. Here, and in other paintings, Schueler envisioned the figure through a landscape lens. In a journal entry in The Sound of Sleat on January 3, 1963, he wrote of a time when Mary returned to the studio after having been out. He asked “What’s happened to you, baby? You seem so small.” The entry continues: “I had lived with the Mary image on the canvas throughout the afternoon—the fantasy image, expanding as in a dream from the nearness of my eyes to her body the night before. Breasts like mountains, belly massive, thighs huge plains of flesh, a landscape red, autumn yellows, confused and convulsive.”12
Like de Kooning, Schueler used the painting process to express emotion and resolve contradictions. In 1964, he observed: “women, I make women so much a part of my life. I love them, need them, and am cursed by them. Now that I paint them, I need them all the more—although through the painting I am separate from them even as I am drawn to them.”13 Instead of the broken lines, slashing, fierce brushwork, and harsh color contrasts in de Kooning’s paintings, Schueler used sensuous contours and oil colors in both hot and cool hues, which he kept pure yet applied with soft transitions and areas of luminous translucency. His paintings express pleasure rather than anger. Schueler acknowledged using the touch of his brush as a means of feeling the “exhilaration and power” of love.14 At the same time, with the distancing of paint and canvas, he could “avoid getting caught in the honeycomb of sentimentality and guilt and abrasion—which is probably life and without which I could not paint.”15 In Sonia, Purple Hills and Blue Sky (1964), the soft movements of the artist’s brush seem to lovingly enunciate parts of the figure, which he arranged with the upward movement toward the spiritual zone in a landscape. Lemon and cadmium yellows denote sunlight falling between Sonia’s breasts, and her hair flows from the apex of the figure with water-like movement. In the painting, Sonia has become monumental with a mountain-like solidity, but her expression is private and meditative. She appears calm and restful although remote. At the same time, Schueler’s images can be related to the sexual revolution of the era, a time of new openness about issues of women’s health, physiognomy, and sexuality.
In other works of 1964, Schueler’s figures are more fully suffused into landscapes. In Sketch: Landscape and Figures, the raised knee of the woman breaks the suggestion of a horizon line and patches of color imply changing depths and heights. In Phyllis, we see the figure from below. Her form has become constellation-like, submerged into the radiant atmosphere of a heaven-like sky. The figure became even more elusive in Schueler’s images of 1965 and 1966, as he gradually pushed it back into the sky. A few glimmers of weightless figural form are present in Woman and Blue Sky (1965). In The Soft Brenda (1966), the curvature of one breast is among the few elements that distinguish figure from ground, as Schueler conveyed his response to the subject with painterly spontaneity. In Schueler’s works on paper depicting women, he often similarly turned figural form into compositional design, either simplifying a subject to a few sensitively drawn lines in crayon, as in Nude Study, II (1966) or exploiting the innate features of his mediums to create a dynamic allover surface, as in Woman Study (1966).