Neil Welliver, one of the leading wet-on-wet representational painters in America, died in Belfast in 2005. As Welliver settled into his mature style – coolly observed but stroke-luscious Maine forest scenes made from plein air works – he also helped solidify a core aspect of postwar American art: the ongoing dialogue with painting.
What may be the largest exhibition of Welliver’s work since his passing is now on view at the Maine Jewish Museum: “Neil Welliver | Painting through Time: Animals, Figures & the Maine Landscape.” If you know Welliver’s work largely through reproductions or late reputation, it begins with little surprise: The main gallery space is filled with etchings, lithographs and woodblock prints.
The last section of the exhibition includes 20 oil paintings, including several large and substantial works.
A few of the works from “Painting through Time” were shown at Thomas Moser last year, but mostly prints and just a few oils. Both shows were curated from the collection of one of Welliver’s former wives.
As a graduate student, Welliver studied at Yale University under Burgoyne Diller and Josef Albers, so it’s no surprise that much of his early work was straightforwardly abstract. Welliver himself began teaching at Cooper Union in the 1950s, then Yale until 1966, when he went to the University of Pennsylvania until he retired in 1989.
Keeping his abstract foundations in mind can make all the difference with Welliver. While at Yale, he moved from making large color field paintings to making realistic watercolor landscapes.
Comparing works from throughout Welliver’s career, we find a consistent proclivity for surface forms rendered in visible strokes. This may not seem profound, but Welliver’s work manages to simultaneously seem too simple and overly complicated. It acts both completely apparent and uncannily quirky. If you’re a fan, this duplicative quality adds to the sense of depth. If you’re trying to wrap your head around his intentions, this can make Welliver unexpectedly inaccessible.
Altogether, “Painting through Time” is an excellent introduction to Welliver. While the lesson could benefit from the inclusion of one of his top-tier, major paintings, such a focal point could risk leaving behind the bigger picture. “Grey Rocks” is a large work with a melted-chocolate sense, but it doesn’t reach Welliver’s major scenes, like those strewn with tumbledown birches under coldly dry blue skies.
There is a trio of mature prints at the beginning of the exhibition that includes the hand-colored etching “Immature Blue Heron” from 1978, a 1984 woodcut “New Dams in Meadow” and what appears to be Welliver’s last print, “Stump,” a woodcut from 2000. The differences between these open some important conversations about Welliver’s work.
The heron pops out from the background unlike anything else in the show because the top of the bird stands in high relief from the very light green grass at the far side of the stream in which it stands. It’s easy to see in this piece that, if the logic of the bottom half were continued – similar color densities and hues – there would be a fraction of this traditional spatial sense.
Surface constraint is the norm for the trout images on the opposite wall: Like Japanese prints, they do not include a horizon line because we look down on them. Indeed, Welliver’s clear intention is to convince us that our optical experience is determined by the surface of the water, which he matches to the surface of the print. In other words, we look at the glass-covered print with – virtually – the same distance we would look at a trout in a stream.
What Welliver is doing is creating a process by which he can match his observation of nature to his artistic rendering of that scene which in turn is matched to the audience experience.
“New Dams in Meadow” addresses similar issues by building its architecture on the mini-pond created by the beaver dam. We can only see the tops of the background trees and the sky in the reflection of the glass-flat pool. The pool then becomes our standard within the image. It is our level in the optical, imagined world. But by taking this leading role, it also becomes the primary shape on the flat image. The fact that the pond is simultaneously flat on the ground and flat on the wall adds several (almost Mobius) curves to the standard floor-to-wall theatrically presented scene in art, particularly because Welliver uses flat colors to make the effects of light a visual priority.
“Stump” is a horizonless scene which revels in the richness of the relationship between decay and growth. The closer you look, the easier it is to see the painterliness of Welliver’s myriad marks. Also, what seems so simple becomes impressive: The print uses at least 18 woodblocks (by my count, so it could be much more).
What ties all of the work together is the logic of watercolor, that phenomenal and too often-overlooked medium. With watercolor, white is the page. So we learn to see the page white as atmospheric space. With watercolor, we expect a pencil, and with Welliver, we see it. His pencil drawings support this context, and through time, they became one with his prints.
What we see in the paintings is a liquid mark, and however cool and flat it may be in reproductions, up close we can feel the liquidity of paint getting pulled off the tension-bent bristles of the artist’s brush. The sense of wet paint is the fundamental reality of watercolor, and Welliver sought to keep that in all his mature paintings – however flat the areas of color may seem in reproduction.
Let’s be clear: If you only know Welliver’s paintings through reproductions, you don’t really know them.
Even in lithographs, Welliver sought watercolor effects, like the wet-paper inkiness in the dark patches of the monochrome litho landscape “From Zeke’s.” On the first wall of the show, we can see “Trout and Reflected Tree” as both the black and white etching and the watercolor from which the print was made. This comparison is particularly important not for seeing changes or steps, but simply for understanding Welliver’s intentions.
For what he wanted to do, watercolor is scale-limited. But it led to his mature print and painting styles. Watercolor, for example, is blended on the surface and rarely in the palette. And the liquidity allows the artist to get color and modeling-like effects when he pushes paint around on the surface. This is gorgeously apparent in the pyramid-like space of the nude’s mid-section to knees in the large 1969 oil “Joanna with Hat.”
Watercolor logic also explains things like the weird – yet successful – white to brown transitions (imagine page white to dark) of falling water in oil works like “Study for Head of Passagassawakeag.”
Watercolor was always a great medium in Maine. We can look to Homer, Marin, Church, Sargent, Hartley, Hopper, Bellows, Kent, the Wyeths and so many others. And considering the extent to which Welliver was dedicated to painting en plein air, it makes sense that he would look to the immediacy of watercolors among the ranks of his top-tier Down East predecessors. We can follow this further in the consideration of Welliver to begin to understand how Maine painters, particularly the wet-on-wet painters like Alex Katz, related to the mid-century modernism (e.g., Fairfield Porter) but also how they are still a part of the modernist legacies of Homer, Hartley and Marin, whose trajectories were deeply bound with the paths of abstraction.
Neil Welliver was an important painter, but expect his critical fortunes to rise. His story, after all, isn’t about always being in vogue. Rather, Welliver quietly found his own way on a path that is more and more coming into focus.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: