Defining Ideas

Two exhibitions ending Sunday at the UA Museum of Art show off works displaying serious self-discipline

It was a monsoon day, back in early-'80s Tucson.

A storm had flooded the streets, and a double rainbow curved over Speedway Boulevard. The rain clouds were still colored that peculiar electric green that charges the sky after a thunderstorm, and Speedway itself was so wet that it glistened. The nearby buildings were reflected in its sheen.

Painter Tom Blackwell happened to be around for this blessed event, and he recorded it on film with his camera. When he went to turn it into "Double Rainbow, Tucson," a photorealist painting from 1983, he carefully reproduced all of the natural beauty that his photo had captured: the yellow, orange and blue of the rainbow's arch, the sky's green, the street's glitter.

But he didn't stop at nature's glories.

He also meticulously copied the storefronts lining Speedway, and lettered in their signs with assiduous accuracy. Morning Star Traders, read one. Chez Josef Boutique, said another. Nor did Blackwell leave out the station wagon sailing down the road, nor the sedan parked at the hairdresser's. And he was careful to include the telephone wires and the poles that pierced the sky.

A romantic painter would have weeded out this ugly machinery of modern life. Not Blackwell. Everything's in there in his painting, the showstopper in the small exhibition American Photorealists at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. He painted the natural and the artificial, the beautiful and the mundane, and gave each as much--or as little--value as the other. The telephone pole gets the same attention as the rainbow.

As curator Susannah Maurer wrote in her exhibition notes, photorealist paintings recorded the "world in all its variety and details, everything being equal."

Photorealism broke out in the late-1960s, a time when the art world had navigated decades of -isms that did everything but depict the world as it was. Abstract expressionism, minimalism and conceptualism celebrated form, line and color, and they alternately honored passionate expression and cool cerebralism. What they most emphatically did not do was replicate the lineaments of the modern world, or the people in it.

That job had long since been consigned to photography, which by then dominated advertising, photo magazines and tabloid papers, and had finally come around to being seen as a fine art. Blackwell and the other photorealists were painters, very good painters, in fact, who hit upon the ironic idea of making paintings that looked like photos and did what photography did. Instead of using film and photo paper, they deployed oils and canvas, but their paintings started out as photos, and they transferred their images to the canvas via mechanical means.

They had to have superb painting skills to conjure up, say, their hyperrealistic wet streets or shiny cars, but they took care to hide their artist's hand. The paintings are as flat as photos; the brush strokes are uniform, barely visible. No exuberant layerings of paint, no digging into the crevices of pigment. Quite a few of the exhibition's examples are actually prints on paper, and these are all meticulously, painfully, drawn.

Robert Bechtle's "'68 Nova," a 1972 lithograph on paper, is the most severe of the works. He's depicted a butt-ugly modern apartment complex, all beige and straight-edged. The homely Nova of the title is parked just outside of its basement garage. If Blackwell tempered Tucson's mundane trappings with the splendors of the monsoon, Bechtle gives us no such reprieve. No hint of nature intrudes. His monotonous building takes up the whole picture plane; it blocks out the sky, and not a single shrub relives its monotony.

Bechtle defiantly luxuriates in the dullness of his subject. This deadly apartment building is the backdrop to our lives, the dull cityscape that we see every day but don't really see. He's a stern taskmaster who forces us to look.

The other works take a little more pleasure in the objects in our world. Vehicles turned out to be a favorite of the photorealists, and John Salt's "Desert Wreck," a 1957 litho, magnifies the front end of a bashed-in Pontiac. Blackwell pays homage to the motorcycle in "Triumph Trumpet," a litho that in its hyperrealism--the motorcycle is backed by a block of houses and leafing trees--approaches sensory overload.

Richard McLean went for the pastoral in "Miss Paulo's 45," a 1972 oil on canvas that pictures a proud farming couple posing on their spread, an "American Gothic" for the snapshot age. Audrey Flack captured the gleaming painted plaster of a church madonna in "Macarena of Miracles," a litho circa 1971.

Interestingly, Ben Schonzeit edges almost accidentally toward abstraction in "Tangerine Sugar," from 1972. He's gone a little loose for a photorealist. The luscious fruit has been sliced in two and skinned, and it explodes in a million strokes of orange and yellow.

Still, the adjoining show Abstract: Variations, another of the short summer shows drawn from the permanent collection, proves hands-down that abstractionists have more fun. The photorealists are tethered to their scrupulous vision of reality, and even Schonzeit had to painstakingly paint each and every juicy tangerine drop. But as chief curator Lisa Fischman puts it in her exhibition notes, the abstract painters can do what they want, in work that's "flexible, fabulously variable and open to boundless interpretation."

Her selection of paintings is a lively lot, full of exuberant brushstrokes and broad swathes of colors. John Maul, once upon a time a Tucson Citizen arts reporter, painted a cheerful "Laughter in New Mexico" in 1952; he's etched rectangles and arches and squares into its thick pink paint. Grace Hartigan's 1953 "Black Still Life" is thick and brushy, scraped and layered, and only loosely related to the potted plants on a table that inspired it. Likewise, Carl Heldt's 1985 "Knuckle Bones" seems to have gotten its start in a pile of bones, but Heldt has transformed them into a rhythmic composition of undulating shapes, colored in pale and pretty pinks and yellows.

Italian artist Marino Marini offers up 10 lithos on paper that are a pure pleasure. "From Color to Form," a portfolio from 1969, is loose, lively and wonderful. Simplified human figures and horses--stick figures, really--cavort through planes of fuchsia and rose. Green spheres tumble down over yellow crescents, and orange triangles dance with blues.

To be sure, there is also Josef Albers and his small rigid geometries of colored squares carefully juxtaposed and superimposed and counterposed. His "Ten Variations," a portfolio from 1967, is a series of eight homages to the square, their colors as meticulously planned out as in any photorealist work. (A famous design professor, Albers developed a tedious art-education system that was used in colleges nationwide and had hapless students, including me, endlessly making endless squares in endless colors.) Intellectual and rigorous though they be, Albers' works have an austere beauty all their own.

Early critics attacked the photorealists as reactionaries, and Albers no doubt would have disdained their real-life narratives, so far down the hierarchical ladder from his pure form and color. But here's the surprise. The stern abstractionist and the hyperrealists have at least one thing in common: serious self-discipline and a commitment to a defining idea.

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