Walk into the Nancy Tokar Miller retrospective at Etherton Gallery and you enter a world of light, color and beauty.
Forty years' worth.
For four decades the prolific Tokar Miller, who died a year ago at the age of 73, was one of Tucson's best painters. A single gallery is not nearly enough to hold her best works, and her grand posthumous retrospective spills over from Etherton into the Temple Gallery.
Tokar Miller's paintings were inspired by the far-off places she visited—Morocco, Spain, Cambodia, Japan—on trips with her husband, Walter Miller. But she always reduced the architecture and landscape of a site to its simplest forms, rendering the locales she loved as near-abstractions.
In "Reef Pools," 2011, she turns Hawaiian lagoons into spare turquoise ovals. In "Essaouira," 2001 a Moroccan balcony overlooking the Atlantic becomes a calligraphy of dancing black lines. The water and reflected trees in a garden pool in Spain ("Inner Garden," 1996) metamorphose into alternating color fields of blue and green.
Tokar Miller kept her acrylic paints so liquid they're almost translucent on the canvas; even so, her colors are ravishing. Brilliant yellows pigment her sunny skies and even seas (see the beautiful "Klong Series, Waterway IV," 1992), but she conjured twilight equally well with muted blues and grays. "Night Music," 1995, to cite one among many, is a pure joy, a symphony of shimmering midnight blues and deep green shadows.
"Molokai, Yellow" and "Molokai, Rose," acrylics on paper from 2012, both picture a single Hawaiian patch of the Pacific, with rocks close to shore and land masses stretched across the horizon. But their atmospherics vary, with differing colors suggesting the differences triggered by variations in humidity and time of day. "Yellow" captures the filtered sunlight of a damp afternoon by the ocean, and the hazy "Rose" turns the scene toward dusk.
The exhibition travels across time, demonstrating how consistently good Tokar Miller was from her earliest years as a painter. (She got her MFA at the UA in 1971.) The earliest paintings, from the 1970s, find her in a stage of almost pure abstraction.
The title of 1973's "Temple Bell," a large acrylic on canvas, signals her lifelong preoccupation with the serene and the spiritual. But she renders those concepts in a work that is all radiant color and light, with nary a prayer bell to be seen. A swathe of golden ochre flows out over almost all of its 63 by 60 inches, and a rich bloody maroon bleeds into the gold at upper right.
Her Zen aesthetic owes as much to the spareness of Asian art as to the simplicity of western modernism. She loved Asia, visiting temples in Cambodia and returning again and again to Japan, and by the 1980s, she was moving closer toward an abstracted representation of the places that moved her.
"Treasure House" from 1984 is a sea painting that stretches out into a long narrow horizontal. The water is black and the sky shifts from white to gray to charcoal to gold. A piece of architecture on the yellow-ochre beach—the Treasure House, perhaps? —is a latticework of quick bold strokes of black paint that resemble nothing so much as an Asian ink drawing. An unexpected, but wholly Tokarian, dash of red shoots out across the golden sands.
In the 1990s, inspired by Islamic gardens in Spain and architecture in Morocco, she tended even more toward simplified representation. Her small paintings of Moorish arches at the Temple, each drenched in different colors, show her fascination with the lure of what lies beyond the doorway. The magisterial paintings "Inner Garden" and "Essaouira" from this period show her at her apogee. They're so splendid and so sure they look as though they painted themselves, but a nearby collection of small studies shows how hard Tokar Miller worked to puzzle out her colors and compositions.
The last decade of Tokar Miller's life was beset by recurring illness, and the artist found new things to paint in the periods of good health in between the pain. Discovering the beauties of the nearby, she painted the sand cranes that alight en masse on Arizona's Willcox Playa in January. And, ever the California girl entranced by water, she delighted in the unexpected ponds in Tucson's Agua Caliente Park. She made of these palm-shaded waters works that matched the depths of her paintings of Spain's Islamic pools.
In her final years, she even made it to Hawaii, and in 2011 she had an exhibition at Pima Community College of gorgeous paintings that paid homage to what she had loved and painted all her life: brilliant yellow skies and radiant turquoise seas.