Waters of Abstraction

A new Tucson gallery focusing on modernist artists features the work of Bohdan Osyczka

Forty years ago, painter Bohdan Osyczka used to take along watercolors whenever he and his family vacationed at Cape Cod and on Maine's Monhegan Island.

Watercolor, then as now, was hardly high up in the art hierarchy, but Osyczka found small watercolor pads easier to lug than big canvases. And he had no intention of painting the usual beach clichés, lighthouses out on the rocks, rainbow-striped umbrellas on the beach, boats bobbing on the waves.

Instead, he turned out small, semi-abstract paintings that merely hinted at his location along the shore. A patch of navy might conjure up the sea, pale green a stormy sky. But before too long, he grew restless not only with this subject matter, but with the boundaries of the small paper and the conventions of transparency.

He searched for bigger papers, eventually special-ordering enormous sheets of rag paper from a company in France. He tired of the dainty watercolor brushes, too, and substituted spray nozzles and bottles that allowed him to dance around the work like a reborn Jackson Pollock, splattering and pouring and drizzling. And he soon abandoned any semblance of seaside imagery, jumping feet first into the heady waters of abstraction.

The dazzling results are on view at Tucson's latest gallery, The Gallery at 6th and 6th, which opened in March in the warehouse arts district. Osyczka's enormous paintings--one of them is about 5 feet high by 8 feet long--cover the narrow space, their brilliant colors and careening shapes jumping out from the white walls.

"92 WN/522," from 1992, is a big, gestural work, 4 feet by 6 feet, that mixes geometrics and organics. A lively black diagonal zips from lower left to upper right, slashing through deeply pigmented patches of green and purple, cutting the painting into triangles. Inside these wedges, two semicircles, outlined in black, vibrate in a bright yellow.

The largest painting in the show, "88 WN/16," takes up the whole back wall of the gallery. Its base is a rich red-orange; black wiggly stripes drip down from top to bottom. A ghostly white shape appears in the center, and yellow seeps out of a corner.

The new gallery's owner, Lauren Rabb, who recently arrived in Tucson from Washington, D.C., says her goal is to show the work of modernist artists like Osyczka "who are extraordinarily good, affordable but lesser known."

Osyczka, now 85 years old and retired in Peekskill, N.Y., for years taught at New York's Parsons School of Design, and Rabb landed him through her East Coast connections. Her last job in Washington was at Hollis Taggart Galleries, which specialized in 19th century and early 20th century work. Her boss, however, made an exception for Osyczka's modernist abstractions. "He fell in love with his work."

Now transplanted to New York, Taggart invited Rabb to take her pick of his Osyczka works to show at her new Tucson gallery. The exuberant paintings fit in precisely with her agenda, which is to bring "American modernism" to Tucson.

"In modernist works, the process of creating the art is as important as the finished product," Rabb writes in a gallery statement. Distinguishing classic modernism from the contemporary art now becoming familiar to Tucsonans--those challenging pieces made of, say, old toys arranged in a colorful collage--Rabb says that modernism "celebrates the joys of color, line and technique."

Since most younger artists are doing contemporary art, her artists skew older.

"I'm working with artists who are 85, and happy to have me take an interest," she says. In fact, two of the modernists she represents have already passed on. Next January and February, she'll show Michio Takayama, a Japanese-born painter who worked in Taos, N.M., for the last decades of his life, producing "very beautiful, lyrical oils on canvas with saturated color."

The late Ulfert Wilke, scheduled for next March and April, painted "large black and white canvases, using calligraphy, numbers and gestures." She'll finish up the season with 85-year-old Sal Sirugo, who does "amazing tiny paintings on paper."

But not all her artists are of the waning modernist generation. Jessie Morgan, a mid-career artist from New England, will open the season in September with her large abstract paintings. And not all of them are from out of town. Tucson's own Curt Brill, honored in a show at the UA Museum of Art two summers ago, will exhibit his monumental figurative sculptures at the gallery in November and December.

Rabb has solid gallery experience elsewhere. After graduating from Rutgers in 1981, she worked with Gary Snyder in the Princeton Gallery of Fine Art (Snyder has since moved the business to New York).

"He got me interested in modernism," she says.

Her next stint was in the conservation department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and after that Hollis Taggart Galleries, where she wrote a catalog essay on the 19th-century American landscape painter William Lamb Picknell.

"I'm the world's expert on Picknell," she says, with a smile, of the now-forgotten painter, but her research on his life led to the plot of her first published novel, Interview With Mrs. Berlinski (Windswept House Publishers). A second novel by Rabb, Walking Through Time, features a reproduction of a Picknell painting on the cover.

Despite her affinity for the 19th century, Rabb decided to switch to the 20th when it came time to open her own gallery. The decision was partly financial.

"I spent so many years in the 19th century," she sighs, "but for a 19th-century gallery, you have to be able to purchase the work. Contemporary art is different."

Rabb and her husband already owned land in the Tucson Mountains, and completed a house there last summer. As an independent software consultant, her husband can live anywhere, she says.

When she decided to open her first gallery in Tucson, she was aware of the high mortality rate of the town's startup galleries. The latest casualty was Fala Collections, which adjoined her new space, and closed a month ago. But she also points to the long-term success of stalwarts Etherton Gallery and Davis Dominguez.

"I do feel confident," she says. "You need three years to get established. And if you don't want to do regional artists, you need a national presence. I'm doing art fairs, and I have a good Internet presence."

She plans to close the gallery in July and August and take her wares on the road, following the pattern Terry Etherton set years ago. And she signed on with the Central Tucson Gallery Association, which plans the Summer Art Cruise, an evening of joint openings, on Saturday, June 3.

So far, so good, she says.

"Every day, somebody comes in and says, 'Oh my God, I'm so glad you're here. This is great for Tucson.'"

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