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A Memorial Tribute to Two Artists

A quiet and eloquent tribute to two recently deceased professors of fine art at Penn has been on display at the Charles Addams Gallery. The exhibition, Color/Fields: A Tribute to Neil Welliver and Robert Slutzky closes tomorrow. Professor Slutzky died on May 3, (Almanac May 24, 2005) and Professor Welliver died on April 5 (Almanac April 19, 2005).

Robert Slutzky, 1929-2005

A painter of light, a painter of color—Robert Slutzky’s painting is “about” both. It is about visible, tangible pigment, which he handles so skillfully that he transforms it into a metaphor of the ineffable—of light. Even black is for him the color of soot and ash born from flame or fire, a metaphor of burning.

Yet his growth as an artist is more evident in his manipulation of structure. At the high point of Abstract Expressionism, he was seduced by the ascetic certainties of Neoplasticism. Josef Albers’s luminosity freed him from its rigor, though this primary discipline allowed him to pursue his chromatic adventure fearlessly. A square seen orthogonally or diagonally was long his preferred field—and on it he would play a precarious game of balancing color forms whose contrasts often imply transparency and a depth that the materiality of his paintings denies. In the later work the sharp definition of the fields becomes softer, shifting, even smudged, suggesting that the interpenetrating planes screen a light that in turn suffuses the whole composition. In his last decade, the geometries become even more precarious, and the implied volumes more intricate. Yet within these new complexities, the true orthogonal is maintained as a ground against which the variations can be played.

Though there is not a whiff of the vogue about Slutzky’s work, he was always aware of other artists. A speculative, highly informed historian of art, he acknowledged any debt he owed to his teachers and predecessors generously; and he was aware, too, of his place in relation to them. It was perhaps his consciousness of the historical process and his place within it that closed his ears to the siren-song of the press and the critics. To come face to face with a work of his remains a formative, a transforming experience.

Joseph Rykwert,  Professor Emeritus, Architecture
Untitled by Robert Slutsky
Untitled by Robert Slutzky
Untitled by Robert Slutsky Untitled by Robert Slutsky
Untitled by Robert Slutzky
Untitled by Robert Slutzky


Neil Welliver, 1929-2005

Neil Welliver was born in Millville a rural town in upstate Pennsylvania and something of the farm ethic remained with him.  He received a B.F.A. at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. We met at Yale in the 1950’s when I was teaching art history, and he was acquiring an M.F.A. in a school run by Josef Albers.  His independence, a lifelong characteristic, showed in his earliest exhibitions, roughly painted ghoulish faces and figures far removed from Albers’s abstract color squares. 

When he came to Penn in 1966, he painted some of his best work, a series of nudes immersed in ponds and streams. In these and other paintings in Maine, the fundamental color course devised by Albers was evident. Neil hiked long distances, heavily laden with gear in heat or winter cold, to paint small canvasses. Despite this effort, he insisted that he never painted nature as he saw it but through an arrangement of color.

He kept these paintings from on site in view while working on large canvasses though he rarely stayed close to them. Helped by a charcoal drawing taped over the whole surface, he traced like the Renaissance fresco painters, with a pounce to reproduce dotted lines on the canvas.  He would then paint from the top down, aided by the lines, but holding color in his head. He contrived to make this slow process look faster than the hours he spent on it.  The modernity of his art is the primacy of color relationships and what looked like rapid brushwork (by which his paintings cannot be taken as imitation) and by areas that hold to the surface as in Cezanne and Pollock, whom he admired. It was a unique process. 

Although Neil’s schooling was in the studio, he was an avid reader of poetry.  Some of his phrases about painting were beautiful, like finding light in a dark color. He invited the New York poets, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashberry to read from their work at Penn and he bought a house with the poet, Mark Strand, on the Dingle peninsula in Ireland.  He moved permanently to his residence in Maine where, even after an appalling series of events occurred in his personal life, he managed to keep painting.

John McCoubrey, Professor Emeritus, History of Art


Pellitier Brook by Neil Welliver Stump and Ferns by Neil Welliver
Bear Hole, 1991, by Neil Welliver
Stump & Ferns, 1986, by Neil Welliver
Pellitier Brook by Neil Welliver
Pellitier Brook, 1994, by Neil Welliver


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 13, November 22, 2005


November 22, 2005
Volume 52 Number 13


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