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.
As stated by Leda Natkin Nelis the paintings that comprise Robert Natkin’s Field Mouse Series mark a radical change from the grid-like balance of his preceding Apollo Series. In 1968, the year that Between the Sapphire and the Sound, Unfurls the Rose of Vision was painted, Natkin began experimenting with a more intricate and freer form of self-expression that was largely inspired by the work of Paul Klee. As our example demonstrates, the paintings of the Field Mouse Series combine different textures, shapes and colors resulting in a sort of primordial soup of ideas and motion. Dots are frequently seen in this series and are observed in varying shades of color that suggest their differing depths within each painting. What may be interpreted as the last legs of the Apollo Series appear as the underlying grids in Between the Sapphire and the Sound, Unfurls the Rose of Vision.
As opposed to the somewhat static nature of the Apollo paintings, the body of works comprising the Field Mouse series are enlivened with action and rhythm. Robert Natkin created the title for this series after reading a poem translated from Chinese by Ezra Pound. The portion of the poem that most inspired Natkin was the following excerpt:
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.
Natkin made a statement about the Field Mouse Series that “I want the eye of the viewer never to tire, never to cease”. This desire for a more interactive, emotional landscape was a result of Natkin’s boredom with his New York City surroundings and the somewhat false environments created by the New York art scene. Robert Natkin eventually removed himself completely from New York City art world and moved with his wife, Judith Dolnick, to Connecticut in 1970.
Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York
Private Collection, San Francisco