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American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America

Robert Hughes

Alfred A. Knopf (Borzoi Book), Random House, Inc.

(editors: Charles Elliott and Susan Ralston)

ISBN 0-679-42627-2

Pages 554-556:

Neil Welliver (is another realist artist who) came out of Abstract Expressionism, seeking to escape an exhausted style in order to rearrange the physical world and recomplicate the game; but in his work the original genetic code shows clearly. His large paintings of the Maine woods--usually shown in winter or the early thaws of spring, in a clarity of light and with a brusque directness, stroke for form--could only have matured in the last thirty years A.P. (after Pollock). “With my work,” Welliver remarked, “there is always the resistance of the surface of the painting. The fact of the painting is always in the way.”

What detains the eye in a Welliver like Shadow, 1977, is, in part, his assertion of “abstract” readings within a very forthright and realistic transcription of raw nature. Typically, his spaces are shallow and entangled--if Pollocks can look like brambles, brambles reserve the right to look like Pollocks. No horizon line offers visual release . The surface isn’t oppressively congested, but it puzzles the eye. You can feel the twigs plucking at your coat.

Such landscapes are “all-over” paintings, slices taken from a boundless field of pictorial incident. They pay homage to the materialism of Courbet, and to large-scale nineteenth-century American landscape, and to Abstract Expressionism, all at once. But, as Welliver put it,

Courbet looked very hard and had a method. Bierstadt did not look very hard and had a method, and de Kooning makes it up as he goes along. . . I look very hard, and then make it up as I go along.


“Making it up” on a canvas eight feet square could not be done outdoors. Laden with a seventy-pound pack of easel, paints, canvas, and gear, Welliver would trudge out in winter to find a scene and make an oil sketch; the large version was always a studio painting, and its fictions of spontaneity--of rapid-fire correspondence between the eye scanning the motif and the hand making its marks--might take a month or more to achieve. The result, sometimes , is an emotional intensity that goes beyond the ordinary limits of realism. Shadow shows a stand of birches in snow, a strong blue sky peeping through their pale trunks, and more blue scattered in the dark clefts of the snow. Just above the middle of the image, the shadow line of a ridge falls across the trees and the ground. The hill behind you becomes a presence: a sign of what the Middle Ages called natura naturans--nature going silently about its business of being.


Neil Welliver Prints

Down East Books, Camden, Maine

ISBN 0-89272-370-X

Ruth Fine Introduction

Pages 3 & 8:

The wilderness is Neil Welliver’s subject--the source of inspiration for his paintings, drawings, and prints. His work encompasses a unity within the dense texture of the natural world, suggesting the tame (or tamable) within the wilderness as well as the wildness within a setting of serenity. One senses that the artist finds his own exploration of the land not only to be a way to make contact with nature’s grandeur, but also a way to embrace it on his own terms , to locate a core set of elements that leads to his personal arena of understanding.

Welliver makes his home in Lincolnville, Maine. The distinctive ruggedness of this northern landscape has attracted artists for generations, and while many painters today come to the area for summer months, Welliver has been a full-time resident of Lincolnville (Maine) for more than twenty-five years. His work in the region continues a visual dialogue central to American art, part of the landscape tradition that was developed in the late nineteenth century by such artists as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Winslow Homer, then continued in the early part of this century by Marsden Hartley and John Marin. These artists tackled pointed firs surrounding deep lakes, waves crashing against jagged rocks along the coast, the drama of brilliant red sunsets and powerful gray storms, the serenity of billowing clouds hovering above rolling fields. It is within this milieu that Neil Welliver’s art must be placed. Homer’s attraction to wildlife is paralleled by Welliver’s to deer, fish and waterfowl. Hartley’s best known subjects are its mountains, and Marin’s the sea. Welliver’s are the woods and the streams.

To make his art, Welliver has found it important to observe nature closely, to work in the landscape, the wind and light and air serving as part of the inspiration, even though the forms themselves often seem generalized rather than meticulously observed. This generalization serves to set up a distancing, a suggestion of universality, rather than specificity, each clump of trees, for example, functioning as an archetype.

Welliver works from places he knows and loves, places of grandeur and intimacy, places of extraordinary natural beauty and power. He returns to the same site repeatedly. In this way the artist comes to know his subjects by immersion, by osmosis; he learns how to seek out the secrets of each place. . .

Welliver’s art is based in great part on memories formed during his long hours of looking at the landscape but also in part on the drawings made on site. These set out the scheme but lack a real sense of finish that is later developed in the prints and paintings. . .

Represented by
Tibor de Nagy


© 1999 Neil Welliver