George Wardlaw’s lively and color-bursting paintings make the case that Yvette Torres’ new second-floor address on Main Street in Rockland is one of freshest and best art spaces in Maine.

Wardlaw’s large canvases in the main space can be recognized as landscapes, but insist on being seen as abstractions. The bright colors might lead you to think of early Kandinsky paintings from his “Die Brucke” period, but their lightness and palette should bring you to see them in the context of Hans Hoffmann and post-war American painting.

“Hill and Sea,” for example, features patches of white, blue, green, orange, yellow, red and pink laid down like a joyously squirming quilt of a landscape. The top of the image does its best to read like a landscape with a dash of water-defined horizon crowned by a hilltop and a patchwork sky of blue, white and pink that could pass for Henry Isaacs. But over the left side of the hill and down through the center of the canvas, Wardlaw lets his composition degenerate into contrasting patches of color like a river breaks in a waterfall. And to complete this process, he does something almost impossibly brilliant: Wardlaw sweeps in from the left, under the sea horizon, with a dark blue line creating the greatest contrast. This gesture seems to reach across most of the canvas, halving it into foreground and background, but instead it installs its punctuating tip (it does look something like a brush) in the very middle of the canvas. To describe it as a brush form, however witty that seems in the wake of Matisse and others’ hints at breaking the fourth wall, detracts from its true, spiritual power (or, more fairly, its mystical power).

“Indian Summer,” 1960, oil on canvas, 68 by 49.5 inches.

With that gesture, Wardlaw reaches in from the edge and grabs the center of the canvas for us. It’s hard for us to see now, but at a time when the art world worshipped abstract expressionism and the phenomenological mysticism of Rothko and Newman ruled American museums and galleries, this was no accident, nor something minor.

And this, too, needs to be said as a reminder: Wardlaw’s still-so-fresh-as-to-seem-practically-wet “Hill and Sea” was painted in 1959. It fits now. We can see it in terms of contemporary painting. But if we don’t reach back to the most ambitious edges of American painting at the moment it took over the world, it’s easy to underestimate these works.

And, trust me, you don’t want to miss a lot of what you might quite easily overlook. At his best, Wardlaw was a great painter, and where we can see a flash of the flattened logic from the Bay Area School or the flickered gestures of Philip Guston’s abstractions, we must remind ourselves not to write these off as borrowed cups of sugar. Wardlaw was well out in front of many of the painters to whom we might look to understand his works.

While some of the canvases seem like they could still be wet, these works in fact date from 1959 and 1960. While Wardlaw deserves credit for that, what we should watch closely is how and why we can see the works in light of current Maine painting. To a certain extent, we can look to the paintings of, say, Colin Page. Page’s brush flies around the canvas with liquid abandon, and his newest works have a propensity for a new kind of impasto: thick strokes of pinks or Fauvist-style secondary colors punctuating the surface, almost like a chef’s sprinkling of herb garnishes to finish a plate. Wardlaw holds together his paintings, led by primary and secondary colors, in patches that flow together like tides or flowers in a garden. He doesn’t isolate a single bolt of color, but his strokes can get singularly bold as they flow into the transitional sections. Wardlaw was never as staccato as Page, but we can see a similar gathering of boldness, speed and energy in their brushes, at least for a time. Wardlaw’s works from the past three years have a different energy – jagged, spare and at times dangerous, not unlike the craggy Maine coast battered by the occasional lonely wave. While the older works revel in the joy of life and painting, the newer works reach for a very different type of emotional depth and complexity.

“Joined in Space,” 2016, acrylic on canvas, 62 by 58 inches. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky

“Untitled #2,” for example, is a 23- by 29-inch print Wardlaw originally pulled in 1975. But in 2015, the artist brought the print back into the studio to work it with paint and wax and various media. What was once a crystalline composition comprising black, blue and yellow rectangles with a curving red form on a white ground, now shimmers and writhes with white and black marks in wax-based oil stick, sometimes in jangly patterns and sometimes scribbled or scrawled across the forms. The composition originally looked to the geometrical clarity of Russian avant-garde great Kasimir Malevich, most known for his black square on white painting that helped usher in the age of abstraction. But Malevich’s signature movement, Suprematism, was just as geared to being colorful and spatially complex as it was geometrical. And Wardlaw goes deep with Malevich (unlike our society’s all-too-common superficial references to Mondrian’s primary palette) which means the challenge goes far beyond recognizing the reference.

In fact, it is hardly necessary to recognize Malevich in Wardlaw’s work. What Wardlaw is doing follows its own force through emotional and spiritual pathways. And the recent revisitations to his work from the 1970s make things even more complex. Where it was once easier to find the mystical hints and spiritual gates in Wardlaw’s geometrical works, the now-handworked prints present a very different animal. It is not nostalgia, but perspective, and it moves in many directions at once, unified by a sense of self-examination. Shifting between wisdom and energized gesture, Wardlaw’s new interventions both lead us away from the clarion focus of his past vision and lend us insight about the artist in that time and now.

“Untitled #2,” 2015, mixed media on 1975 print, 22.75 by 29 inches. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky

Along with the newly revisited suite of 1970s prints, “I Painted… I Paint” includes a couple of Wardlaw’s large new abstract paintings in the window-light-soaked front space of the gallery. While these paintings enjoy neither the indulgent boldness of the older paintings nor the sparky insights of the diary-like smaller pieces, they present a decisive clarity about Wardlaw’s personal narrative. It is spiny, spiky and sometimes jangly. It is hard-edged in a way that we can’t help but assume Wardlaw is on himself. “Joined in Space,” is a large squarish painting (though like the smaller works is played out on a white background) that snakes along a literal narrative strand through various squares, stripes and spots, almost like a visit to a museum – or a painter looking back on his life.

Wardlaw was born in 1927 in Mississippi. He taught at Yale, Amherst and elsewhere. He was a great silver jewelry designer. He converted to Judaism (for his beloved late wife) and became quite taken with Jewish mysticism. Like David Driskell, Wardlaw also came to Maine in the 1950s to teach and, from there, grew roots. But don’t make the mistake of thinking Wardlaw’s recent linear self-examinations are a late life diary of regret. Wardlaw, after all, has done these as part of a process of self-critical awareness over many decades.

It’s not that often we get to see great artists who have the drive to critically course-correct at age 90. It’s a rare and amazing thing, particularly with a painter like Wardlaw. Don’t miss this chance.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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