In search of a storm of elements

Jon Schueler came of age as a painter in the New York of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. But it was the west of Scotland that inspired his finest work
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The Independent Online

In September 1957 the American artist, Jon Schueler, arrived in Britain. On docking at Southampton he took a train to Edinburgh. He found the early autumn weather chilly. "The British admit that it is cold, but they just don't seem to care to do anything about it," wrote Schueler in a letter to his wife, Jody, back home in New York. "There is no heat anywhere. I doubt they will start lighting fires for a couple of months."

In September 1957 the American artist, Jon Schueler, arrived in Britain. On docking at Southampton he took a train to Edinburgh. He found the early autumn weather chilly. "The British admit that it is cold, but they just don't seem to care to do anything about it," wrote Schueler in a letter to his wife, Jody, back home in New York. "There is no heat anywhere. I doubt they will start lighting fires for a couple of months."

Clearly the American in Scotland, Schueler's complaints about the lack of heating were, however, eclipsed by the fact that he had finally made it to Scotland, a country he had long wanted to visit. He fell for Edinburgh, declaring it to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, although he did not view the women of the city in quite the same light. They were beyond belief, thought the 41-year-old Schueler. "They seem uniformly unattractive - so I could never imagine staying in this country indefinitely. Perhaps it's different in the Highlands - probably worse. The more beautiful the landscape, the less attractive the women."

Harsh remarks perhaps, but Schueler did not then know that he would go on to produce some of his finest paintings while living on the west coast of Scotland and meet in 1970 a young - and very attractive - Scottish woman called Magda Salvesen, whom he would later marry. Schueler's paintings are rooted in his observations of nature and teeter on the brink of abstraction. The oils and watercolours he painted while living in the fishing village of Mallaig are evocations of shifting skies and swathes of sea and land. Suns hover and fade. A squally shower descends. Soft grey skies turn cloudy. They have a touch of late Turner to them.

Yet Schueler, who died in 1992 at the age of 77, is not a widely known artist. But the first exhibition of his work in Britain in 10 years at Edinburgh's Ingleby Gallery and the recent publication of The Sound of Sleat, a collection of Schueler's letters and writings, looks set to offer the opportunity to reassess his life and work. A Britain-wide touring exhibition of his work is planned in 2001 and 2002.

In many ways Schueler's life was one propelled by hopes and fears. Five times married, his domestic life was more often than not chaotic, but he was not unaware of his failings. "I am a bad father, a bad stepfather, a bad husband, an indifferent friend, a confused lover," wrote Schueler who believed that these inadequacies fuelled his ambitions as an artist. "Only one thing; I am a good painter. And I had damn well become a far better one to make up for all the rest."

His decision to travel to Scotland in 1957 was made in the belief that there he might found an inspirational landscape in which to paint. Schueler was born in Milwaukee in 1916. The son of a tyre manufacturer, his early years were financially comfortable ones. He studied English at the University of Wisconsin but plans to become a writer were delayed with the decision to join the Air Corps of the US Army in 1941. He served as a B17 navigator based at RAF Molesworth, later saying that his fascination with skies sprung from flying missions over Britain and the Continent. Discharged from military service in 1944 as a result of combat fatigue, back in the States Schueler took up writing. It was by chance that he was introduced to painting. In 1945 his first wife, Jane Elton, signed up for portrait painting classes in Los Angeles and Schueler decided to go too. "It was a simple as that," Schueler recalled.

In 1948 he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Here he was taught by Clyfford Still, a forthright man whose abstract Field paintings were inspired by the American midwest landscape. And it was Still who introduced Schueler to the late works of JMW Turner. Schueler was captivated by Turner's use of colour. This was an artist who knew how to work paint, believed Schueler. To advance his career, in 1951 Schueler moved to New York. The New York School, centring around Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, was at its height. Introduced to Rothko and Newman by Still, Schueler found himself in the midst of this vibrant yet competitive art scene. He secured a loft studio and was signed up by the New York dealer and gallery owner, Leo Castelli. Schueler was determined to prove himself yet he did not feel at ease with New York.

In 1957, moved by a description he had received on the Scottish landscape from Bunty Challis, whom he had met during the Second World War while in Britain, Schueler left his wife, Jody, in New York for Scotland. On reaching Edinburgh he hired a car and motored west to the coast. "I am not sure if it's a place or mood I am looking for but I was going to keep going until I found it," wrote Schueler. He found both in Mallaig. Lying north west of Fort William and overlooking the Sound of Sleat and the islands of Eigg, Rhum and Skye, Schueler was entranced by what he saw: "The Geiger counter just want off the hook."

He set up a studio just south of Mallaig and remained on the west coast for six months. Schueler was not to return to Scotland for another seven years. In 1967 he spent the summer on the Isle of Skye and from 1970 until 1975 he was based at Mallaig living and working from a small schoolhouse. He continued to visit Mallaig for several months every year until his death in 1992. In Mallaig, Schueler had found "a storm of elements" he had been looking for.

Jon Schueler, Ingleby Gallery, 6 Carlton Terrace, Edinburgh (0131-556 4441) until 9 Sept. 'The Sound of Sleat' is published by Picador USA

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