Styles change. Hemlines rise and fall. But great art transcends time. Robert Natkin has managed, over the past fifty years, to remove himself from the fickle vagaries of the art establishment, and consecrate himself to creating paintings that are intimate and highly powerful.
“What is built on novelty perishes by obsolescence”, writes art critic Robert Hughes. The high-concept, low-content installations and “shock art” camp that fill today’s galleries and museums may serve as interesting sociological studies, but they fail, ultimately, to sustain us. Natkin’s paintings, despite their look of deceptive serenity, challenge the viewer to travel inward, and spark an intimacy that’s long-lasting and transforming. His canvases cannot be appreciated in a single glance- they require contemplation. Natkin, a longtime lover of words and wordplay, has long spoken his rejection of aesthetic “hollowness” in favor of that which is ‘hallowed”. He resists the ephemeral titillation of transient pleasure, embracing instead a more furtive and evocative poetic landscape that is, ultimately, transcendent.
Natkin is particularly demanding of his viewers. We—those gazing—become an integral part of the visual spectacle of the canvas. While many of Natkin’s contemporaries have resorted comfortably to creating art that is superficial and as easy-to-spot as a designer handbag (“logo art”, we could call it-think Warhol’s Polaroid portraits), Natkin strives, through his paintings, to weave powerful visual narratives. Indeed, it is the viewer’s involvement with Natkin’s paintings that ultimately actualizes the primal vision of the artist. The power of this engagement- this intense intimacy between viewer and artist- propels us past the skin of the canvas, beyond the pictorial arrangement of shape and color, into the realm of inner narrative. Natkin and his viewers become, in a sense, coconspirators, working in collusion.
In 1963 Robert Natkin began a series of paintings referred to as his Apollo Series named for the Greek god of sun and poetry which were distinguished by strong architecturally inspired vertical planes of color. Beginning in 1968 Natkin embarked on a markedly different group of paintings referred to as his Field Mouse Series whose title was inspired by an Ezra Pound translation of a Chinese poem. Pound writes:
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough,
And life goes by
Like a field mouse,
Running through the grass not touching.
In contrast to the Apollo Series this painting Field Mouse Series, circa 1971is brimming over with lively movement and a palpable energy. Bright colors and assorted shapes form patterns and textures in what Natkin refers to as a “scatter balance”. An assorted compendium of boldly colored dots, forms, snakes, and crosshatchings have been meticulously crafted to blanket the canvas interacting with one another in what Natkin describes as “a sweeping landscape of emotion”. The artist credits Paul Klee and his pioneering use of pictorial space, geometric forms especially dots, and color fields as an influence on his Mouse Series in a quest to create an infinite space unbounded by the urban landscape or unimpeded by the boundaries of the art world towards a greater alternative space seemingly without limits.