Over the years the Glasgow Museums’ collection has been a rich source of material to make connections with artists and anniversaries throughout the world, with opportunities to reveal works in new contexts. This year is no different and throughout 2016 there are exhibitions and events taking place in the US and UK to mark the centenary of the birth of the American artist Jon Schueler (1916-1992). Discussions with his estate and Magda Salvesen about Glasgow Museums’ involvement in the centenary year began a number of years ago with GoMA curator, Sean McGlashan and continued after he left. Within the Glasgow Museums Fine Art curatorial team a discussion began around the potential for linking in with the celebrations and we are delighted that The Search: Black Shadow Blues, IV is in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum throughout 2016. GoMA has asked Dr Joanna Meacock, Curator of British Art, and lead curator for The Search for Schueler to write a guest post for this blog to give a little more background on Schueler and the work.
The Search for Schueler: Dr Joanna Meacock
Schueler was part of the ‘second generation’ of the acclaimed New York School. He studied at the California School of Fine Arts under the leading Abstract Expressionist artist Clyfford Still, before moving to New York where he became part of a thriving artistic community around Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman (who helped him get his first studio), Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. During this centenary year, you can see Glasgow Museums’ Schueler painting, The Search: Black Shadow Blues, IV, an evocative, atmospheric abstraction of the Scottish landscape, in our Looking at Art gallery in Kelvingrove .
The Search: Black Shadow Blues, IV was painted during a residency at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh in 1980-81, which led to an exhibition, The Search, in 1981. Schueler described all his work, in which he attempts to paint the vastness of nature, its mystery and power, as ‘a search and a requiem’. His work treads a delicate balance between nature and abstraction. No matter how abstract, his paintings remain rooted in the physical landscape, concerned with place and atmosphere. However, they are not meant to be literal depictions of nature, but rather an attempt to penetrate and understand it. His work is deliberately evocative, suggestive and ambiguous.
Schueler was deeply influenced by his experience as a navigator of B-17 bombers for the US Air Force in WWII. Stationed in Britain, he took part in bombing raids in Germany and became fascinated by the sky, painting it again and again in an attempt to capture something of its power. He wrote: ‘There in combat and before, the sky held all things, life and death and fear and joy and love. It held the incredible beauty of nature’.
In 1957 Schueler discovered Mallaig, a fishing village on the west coast of Scotland. He felt an immediate affinity with the landscape, with its stormy weather, turbulent seas, intense light and sea mists and spray, but particularly with its dramatically changing skies:
I studied the Mallaig sky so intently, and I found in its convulsive movement and change and drama such a concentration of activity that it became all skies and even the idea of all nature to me… Time was there and motion was there – lands forming, seas disappearing, worlds fragmenting, colors emerging or giving birth to burning shapes...
Turner was a key inspiration. Like him, Schueler wanted to paint the real and emotional experience of being outside in nature. Following Turner’s example, he even went out on a sea voyage in stormy weather in order to encounter nature in a more direct and visceral way. The experience stayed with him all his life.
The landscape around Mallaig and the Sound of Sleat informed Schuler’s work in New York throughout the 1960s. In 1970 he returned to Mallaig for 5 years, during which time Richard Demarco showed his work in his Edinburgh gallery and commissioned a documentary, Jon Schueler: An Artist and his Vision. Schueler went on to paint in Mallaig almost every summer until his death in 1992. It is very fitting that his last exhibition was held at Mallaig Village Hall in 1991. Glasgow Museums’ purchase ten years earlier of The Search: Black Shadow Blues, IV was a shrewd and discerning move, the painting not only providing a powerful and atmospheric response to our national landscape, but demonstrating, once again, the way in which Scotland can be so often found intimately connected with international avant-garde art movements.