The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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APR 2014 Issue

NATALIE EDGAR Abstract Journey

In the 1962 poem, “A Later Note on Letter #15,” Charles Olson writes:

. . . the dream being
self-action with Whitehead’s important corollary: that no event
is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal

The dream of Olson’s poem represents “what we know went on,” as opposed to any kind of objective version of history. This could apply to the painter Natalie Edgar at first in a literal sense; she was the wife of Philip Pavia, one of the founders of The Club, where Abstract Expressionism had its beginnings. She knew what went on. In another way, it could serve as a description of her recent work in a show called Abstract Journey, currently on view at Woodward Gallery. In one after another of the 17 canvases that make up the exhibition, the marks of Edgar’s brush intersect and collide with a grace that’s hard to account for.

Natalie Edgar, “Letter From Franz Kline,” 2013. Oil on canvas, 40 × 50 ̋. ©Natalie Edgar. Courtesy Woodward Gallery, NYC.

Edgar’s paintings have the aura of an act of faith, in which everything is left out except what is risked. In the beginning, circa 1950 (nine years before Edgar met Pavia), it was understood that this way of working was a fundamental part of what the New York School, as Robert Motherwell had named it, was about. Originality was coterminous with the stylistic territory an artist staked out as his own. The range was astounding, from Pollock to Barnett Newman, from De Kooning to Rothko. They were artists endowed with primary intensities, the creators of a movement that changed the art world.

One of the problems of being an abstract painter in 2014 is similar to what happened in the international art community following the initial impact of Abstract Expressionism. Overnight it became a style exported around the world. Many artists working in this vein were skillful, talented, and successful, but shared, in most cases, a common flaw: they understood everything about Abstract Expressionism except how come it was done. Its elusive identity had to do with all sorts of things—a postwar world, American space, Yankee self-invention, New York City—and could not be faked. An Abstract Expressionist painting made today with the presumption of first intensity is very likely to look not only dated, but empty.

The freshness in Natalie Edgar’s pictures, done over the past four years, doesn’t come from an effort to build a new world, but from the particular lilt of being at home in one that already exists. The paradox is that, through exactly this acceptance, newness is found. The details in her work, all the marks—thick, thin, wet, dry, capricious, passionate, fey, insouciant—reflect a hermetic intimacy. Henry Miller said that the difference between one of his books and another was little more than a shift in bodily position. Edgar gets out of bed in the morning and paints in her pajamas, not necessarily in a burst of inspiration, but as part of a continuum in which the flame remains lit.

The scale of these new paintings is modest by Abstract Expressionist standards. In each painting, a mass of layered colors—with multiple glazes, opacities, broad areas laid down in washes—occupies approximately three quarters of the canvas. The rest is white space. This motif, repeated from picture to picture takes a kind of content that belonged to the original Abstract Expressionist mythos—e. g. the existential nothingness out of which the being of the painting arose—and brings it deftly over into a formal aspect of the composition itself. The composition also echoes the edge of the American continent, with a focus on where it comes to a stop rather than on the vast spatial experience that was inherent in the advent of Abstract Expressionism.

These paintings are worked and reworked. In Edgar’s uncharted process, each stroke is a contribution toward a completion that isn’t known until it is achieved. The pictures differ from one another in a wide range of shifting moods and emotions, while at the same time not departing from an economy of actions. Form and structure, chords and notes of color, are delivered in the mark, but with an absence of autobiographical flashiness. They are 21st -century paintings, selfless versions of the dancer and the dance.

Nothing is overtly Kline-like in the pale blue and green washes of “Letter From Franz Kline,” except for a delicately brushed black that might be read as a calligraphic whisper. “Letter From Uccello #1,” can be thought of as an homage to the “abstract” qualities of Uccello’s work, but the painting itself doesn’t ring a specific Uccello bell.

“Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces,” said Mallarmé. The beauty of these abstract paintings—“Poe’s Diary,” “Night-Life,” “Watermark,” “Primary Reason,” “Calle,” to name a few—is in their success as constructs of emotional specificity, in the feeling and depth that comes through, calibrated by a wise eye.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

All Issues