Robert Nunnelley
Battenville (Greenwich), NY 12834
Entrance | Recent works | 2004 Show | email
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Each of Robert Nunnelley’s paintings presents the viewer with a discreet invitation. These are landscapes and still-lives reminiscent of dreamed-of escapes. Especially when they are grouped, these paintings seem like so many rich reveries the viewer wishes to plunge into, seduced by color, light, mood, only to find the perspective so surprisingly compressed, the relationship between space, form and line so commanding, that the gaze is lured to the condensed dream set forth on canvas rather than turned inward toward the fantasy in the viewer’s own mind. It is nearly three decades since Nunnelley left abstraction behind and turned toward the representational, so it would seem at first glance paradoxical to assert that the power of his current work is created less by the viewer’s own associations to what is depicted than by an authentically visual experience of color and form -- a phenomenon which is more naturally associated with abstract than representational art. This is not to diminish in any way the evocative subject matter -- the voluptuous peaches in their black bowl, flanked by two urns, or the melancholy landscape glimmering at dusk; but even while we respond to their mysterious eloquence our gaze is inexorably drawn to the point where the road vanishes in the landscape, or to the inexplicable rectangle of deeper pink behind one of the urns. The eye’s responses to the work seem to be exacted by some internal laws, as with abstract painting, but are not accompanied by the usual intellectual analysis. We sense only, if we query ourselves about why this is such a compelling visual experience, that an ambitious feat of synthesis has generated a composition to which we find ourselves growing increasingly attached. Moment by moment, these are paintings that gain from being looked at, and the more they are looked at, the more apparent is their structural coherence and the more Nunnelley’s singular juxtapositions of color act on the viewer.

Robert Nunnelley
To account for this melange of evocation and rigor it seems reasonable to turn to the mid-1950's and Nunnelley’s encounters with David Smith and Robert Motherwell. Nunnelley was in his mid twenties in 1954 and still in graduate school at the University of Arkansas when he became Smith’s favorite student. Two years later, he studied with Motherwell at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Their combined influence was immediate, pivotal and decisive, and Nunnelley turned to abstraction. It wasn’t until ten years later, in 1964 that, following a summer trip to Florence, he changed course again, back to more representational painting.

Robert Nunnelley Nunnelley has long maintained that he has “no style,” that each time he goes to work, it is impossible to predict how a painting will turn out. He usually starts with form or color, and then alters shape, line, color, again and again, “simplifying,” as he might put it, until the relationships seem right to him on canvas.

Sometimes he still harkens directly back to the early lessons of his teachers and to the decade when he worked only abstractly. In the current show, the monochromatic drawings may be the best clues to his backward glances. Simple and calligraphic, they provide eloquent demonstrations of the finesse with which he uses contrast.

On the basis of the paintings in this show, it seems impossible not to conclude that Nunnelley has succeeded -- whether or not as a result of conscious intent -- in integrating the disparate components of his education as an artist, that he taught himself to combine the distilled energy of abstract work with the voluptuous sensory pleasures offered by the outside world.

This duality inherent in Nunnelley’s approach seems somehow embodied by the innumerable pairings in the work being shown in the current show. Nearly every important object is accompanied by its counterpart, sometimes in the form of a reflection or a mirroring, sometimes as a beautiful, iridescent phantom image. Occasionally, the doppelganger vies for prominence with the original figure. In the painting called “Evocation” there appears an incarnation of the Heracles marble, accompanied by his shadow. Glimmering slightly in the late afternoon light, this Heracles is curiously fragile, while his intensely dark shadow seems more defined, more powerful in the inevitable comparison. In front of Heracles and his shadow are two white earthenware containers adjacent to two red apples in a green bowl. But even as (and if) the viewer notices the pairings, there is too much life in the surrounding color to linger long on any one object. Perhaps we note an especially pleasurable symmetry, a surprising obeisance to the diagonal, but soon the gaze is compelled to lose itself in the tk green of the wall behind Heracles, the one that incorporates the powerful shadow.

In the painting called “Ariel,” the black bowl that contains the gorgeous peaches seems to be floating over fields of red and pink -- a wall and a table are merely suggested. Behind the bowl, in front of the inexplicably deeper pink triangle there is a tk urn, flanked by a second urn bearing no marks whatsoever, so plain it glows, against the pink, like an opalescent ghost of the first.

In “Out the Back Door,” the painting which appears here in black and white, we stand with the painter inside the house, a few feet away from a double door opening out onto the fields. At first we are so struck with the view, the lengthening deep green shadows, the pale green grass, the golden field beyond, the trees and the blue mountains in the distance, the soft luminosity and the gorgeous loneliness of the late afternoon that it is only later we observe that we are standing in a darkened room. It feels as if we are inside a brain and that the open window through which we view the landscape is the eye. Finally, we notice how vividly the landscape is reflected and refracted in each of the two panes of the open window.

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