Thayer treads fantastically between art and science

Not Theories But Revelations, curated by Kevin Murphy, presents alluring, previously unearthed works by Abbott Handerson Thayer. Photo by Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.
Not Theories But Revelations, curated by Kevin Murphy, presents alluring, previously unearthed works by Abbott Handerson Thayer. Photo by Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.

Not Theories but Revelations: The Art and Science of Abbott Handerson Thayer is something different. It discusses optics, coloration, camouflage – and in the first floor galleries at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), no less. Yet though we think it, art hasn’t really been that separate from science: Curator Maurice Tuchman’s Art and Technology Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 1967-1971 paired artists with aerospace and scientific research corporations – Robert Rauschenberg’s “Mud Muse” was just one work from that time. More recently, there’s been Mark Dion, James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson – the list goes on.

But here’s where the difference lies – Revelations is not an exhibition of contemporary art. Thayer examines technology before technology, and it’s fascinating. Inspired by the coloring and patterning of animal fur, feathers, scales and skin, Thayer was interested in examining camouflage as protection, an idea that carried through his work from the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

In “Duck Silhouette Against Lakes,” Thayer photographed a paper cut-out of a duck hung before some branches and foliage. The idea seems simple, but what’s interesting is that we don’t just see through that cut-out to the other side. The foliage in the background is actually a bit fuzzy, out of focus. To that end we shift between seeing an image of a duck printed on the paper and an outline of a duck blending in with the foliage. Our eyes try to adjust, like the autofocus on a camera lens. It’s strange, but it sharpens how we look and makes us see nature a little differently.

We’ve heard of the artist-scientist before – Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin – but perhaps Thayer worked in a different vein, walking the line between the two disciplines and letting them bleed over into each other. Not just paintings on one hand and scientific studies on the other; rather, paintings that played with optics and color theory for painting’s sake. We see this in Thayer’s mysterious and ethereal portraits of women and angels, camouflaged not practically in natural settings but instead fading into their dark impasto backgrounds.

With “Study of Alma Wollemann,” Thayer presents the subject as stately, posing regally, her gaze familiar to Western art. But then, Thayer’s concern (and perhaps obsession with) camouflage is apparent, even here. There’s no depth. Wollemann is flush with a rough, varied gray background and her hand is composed of nothing more than a few strokes of earthy brown paint. Looking closer, you wonder, is that even a dress? The only modeled features are her head, face and neck. Everything down from there expands into abstraction; Wollemann emerges from thick, visceral brushstrokes prescient of midcentury abstract expressionism. Her ruffled sleeve seems to disappear into what it’s made of, so that it’s no longer a recognizable image, but rough oil paint with spreading craquelure – camouflage.

But why hide? Why camouflage Ms. Alma Wollemann? She’s not prey, not hiding from animal predators – or is she, in an ignorant early 20th century New England? It is a painting, one whose subject is familiar but style and execution completely foreign. It gives the work a rough sense of urgency – almost as if her image isn’t going to last for much longer. Blink, and you’ll miss her. The way Wollemann fades into the paint is quietly beautiful, but a little unsettling: Where is Wollemann disappearing to, and why does she have to?

Camouflage runs deep in Thayer’s art – starting with work like “Duck Silhouette Against Lakes,” Thayer goes on to create ingenious designs of ships and uniforms blending into their surroundings, shifting from animal to human concealment and pioneering military technology still used today.

In “Study of Two Ships in Fog,” Thayer has expertly painted a ship in geometric shapes and blotches of gray and white. When placed against a foggy sky, the picture dissolves into the clouds and mist, fully camouflaged. In “Diorama for Military Camouflage With Text Panels,” delicate paper cut-outs have been painted with detailed bits of gravel and desert bush – almost as if the figure was placed down and the landscape painted over it. It’s this solving of a scientific problem, protection in nature, through artistic means that led Thayer to say he presented “not theories but revelations.”

But Thayer’s not just interested in camouflage at its most literal – look at his portraits. It’s when Thayer takes camouflage one step further, when he crosses between depiction and abstraction, when he stresses the tension between picture and painting, that he’s most engaging.

“Water Lilies” is a small painting, but a charged one. Thayer’s technique is fast and complex in its layering, and here it reinforces the materiality of the oil paint. White petals are created by diagonal brushstrokes cupped around a bright orange center. Off-white layers make it seem that there are shadows, or more petals, behind what’s painted. Little flitting strokes of black and brown paint seem to carefully outline the petals at first, but then we notice they’re misplaced. Not for modeling, but perhaps for action; lines that show dashing movement, the brush cutting through the air. The flowers are perched, but on what? Some face front, some lie on their sides. You realize they are in a wide glass vase, but the brim is not fully painted and thus perspective is confused. Even better – we end up looking closely at the water lilies.

The flowering plants verge on a point between the depicted and the undepicted – there is a movement, an energy in the work; we seem to see the painting right as the brushstrokes become petals. Thayer, with his familiarity with natural organisms, has put forth an acting, living, breathing painting. He could almost pick it up again – not because it’s unfinished, but because there could be more added to it. We feel a little off looking at these water lilies because they lie in a tension-filled state, between painting and picture. We aren’t sure what exactly we’re looking at.

This is Thayer at his best, and it culminates fantastically in a massive, all-consuming landscape in the second gallery – “Monadnock, Winter Sunrise.” Small, considered strokes of paint make up the ice in the mountain. The air is crisp and feels nippy, and the sun rises in the east and burns up the sky. Up close, we seem to see the same arbitrary flicks of paint as in “Water Lilies,” but here, the brushwork is prominent; a flick of the wrist resulted in black and dark green strokes that convey a mess of branches. The paint is ridged, the texture thick – then you step back and realize it’s a magnificent picture of the mountains in the early morning.

In throwing all conventions away, Thayer finds his own personal style, somewhere between realism and abstraction, with a little behavioral biology mixed in. His signature in paintings is not nicely painted in the corner; instead, it’s scratched  into the canvas. There’s something very violent about this gesture, about the directness of the incision. It adds to the tension.

Organized by WCMA’s Eugénie Prendergast Curator of American Art Kevin Murphy, Revelations is not your ordinary museum show. Last year, Murphy unearthed extensive artworks and photographs from Thayer’s descendants and the estate of journalist Richard Meryman, all previously unpublished. Revelations is a story of an artist not well known, a narrative expertly pieced together.

So does this exhibition help us find out more about Thayer? Yes, but restrainedly so. In giving us insight into Thayer’s work and practice, we find ourselves wanting more. The galleries in Revelations are dimly lit and the paintings hang on a patterned wallpaper Thayer designed himself. The walls seem to have been left unfinished, a strip of light beige left against dark brown. The tension isn’t just confined to the frame of the painting; we start thinking about how art is hung, how things might hide from one another, how different colors go together, how things – or people – might or might not fit in. There’s something mysterious about Thayer himself – what leads him to a desire for camouflage and constant protection? Can we separate his life from his practice, or do we let them bleed over?

Maybe. Maybe not.

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