Robert Natkin was an artist who will be remembered for his vibrant paintings, composed of floating shapes or lines of colour on expansive canvases.
Placing his work into the context of the contemporary art world, the critic Robert Hughes observed: "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." By contrast, he noted that "Natkin's paintings, despite their look of deceptive serenity, challenge the viewer to travel inward, and spark an intimacy that is long-lasting and transforming."
Natkin was born in Chicago in 1930 to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. From 1948 to 1952 he studied at the city's Art Institute, where he discovered the Abstract Expressionist movement from an article on Jackson Pollock in the pages of Life magazine.
After short periods living in New York and San Francisco in the early fifties,he moved back to Chicago in 1953 and four years later married the artist Judith Dolnick. Finding and converting a vacant shop, the couple created their Wells Street Gallery in the Old Town area of the city. Although initially intended as a space for emerging artists like themselves to exhibit, over the next two years the gallery became known for its cutting-edge shows including more established artists, such as the abstract expressionist photographer Aaron Siskind. The local newspaper remarked admiringly at the time of this "...avant-garde exhibition place filled with the most advanced abstractions in town."
On relocating to New York in 1959, he came under the influence of the older Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning, whose pure abstract paintings, such as Bolton Landing (1957), would dramatically change the direction of his work. Natkin's painting of this period, Dutch View (1959), is an example of this style, whose title pays dual homage to van Gogh's use of colours and de Kooning's palette knife painting technique.
He made his first trip to Europe in 1968 for the group show Timeless Paintings from the USA at the Paul Facchetti Gallery in Paris; the other artists included Lester Johnson, Harry Nadler, Frank Roth and William Wiley. Facchetti had 16 years earlier bravely introduced Jackson Pollock's work to the French public.
A group of paintings from this era, the Field Mouse series (1967-1971), were inspired by Paul Klee's use of dots and textures and Ezra Pound's translation from a Chinese poem: "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". One can sense in the paintings from this series, and the words which inspired them, echoes of Natkin's own busy life, at the peak of its creative activity. This same period also saw a move from the city to the peaceful countryside of West Redding, Connecticut.
British art lovers were able to appreciate Natkin's work for the first time in 1974 at an exhibition organised by the Festival Gallery and the Holburne of Menstrie Museum in Bath, where the British art critic Peter Fuller first encountered Natkin's paintings.
In 1979 Fuller and the film director Mike Dibb collaborated with Natkin on the BBC documentary Somewhere over the Rainbow which examined the relationship between art and psychoanalysis, shaped by Fuller's own experiences of analysis. He suggested that the illusion of space within Natkin's work, an ambiguity between "inside" and "outside", could parallel a stage in our personal development "when it was difficult to differentiate between 'self' and 'not-self' ".
Fuller's son, Laurence, remembers Natkin as: "...the only abstract painter to penetrate my father's vision. My recollection of him was that of a charismatic and welcoming presence, with a vulnerability in his willingness and enthusiasm to engage people in his work. When I was three years old he met us at our hotel, in the busy bustling lobby, full of New Yorkers on their way to somewhere. He spread out a large canvas on the floor, his latest painting, and said 'what do you think Laurence?' His passion was endearing and his work inspiring."
Peter Fuller's monograph on the artist was published in 1981 and Natkin went on to write for the magazine Modern Painters, founded in 1988. He gave the 1992 Peter Fuller memorial lecture at the Tate Gallery on the theme of Subject Matter and Abstraction in Exile.
The exhibition The Wells Street Gallery Revisited: Then and Now opened in January this year at the Lesley Heller Workspace in New York and provided a welcome retrospective of the Chicago School group of artists of the late 1950s and that vanguard gallery created by Dolnick and Natkin.
Robert Joseph Natkin, artist: born Chicago, Illinois 7 November 1930; married 1957 Judith Dolnick (one son, one daughter); died Danbury, Connecticut 20 April 2010.
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