PRINT December 1979

Ross Neher: Painting Behavior

There are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velazquezes, utterly knocked out by them and then goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velazquez. But what he knows is that that is not an option open to him. So he paints stripes. . . . He wants to be Velazquez so he paints stripes.1

Cézanne then was a Classic artist, but perhaps all great Classics are made by the repression of a romantic.2

MICHEL FOUCAULT CONSIDERED VELAZQUEZ'S Las Meniñas, and he experienced a highly developed plastic space with an enigmatic structure that he set out, like an anthropologist, to explore.3 When Ross Neher observes such classical painting as the Velazquez, like Foucault, he draws inspiration from it; but as a contemporary artist, he seeks to render that inspiration in his own abstract terms. Neher reaches back into the space of classical painting to translate its elusive nature in modern terms.

Certain aspects of Neher’s work are unfamiliar in modern American painting. For example, there has been little call for contour lines since Mondrian effected his reduction of natural sources to formal abstract terms. Neher does use contour lines, although systematically, to differentiate between the vertical strokes in his painting: they act as its skeleton, determining its unity. He considers the strokes in his paintings to be flat, abstract “figures,” varying in definition from painting to painting in the precision of the contour lines. The very presence of these strokes militates against any confusion between such work and field painting that pursues an overall effect at the expense of figuration of any kind. Instead, it suggests the basic problem of integrating the two.

There is also, in conjunction with the contour lines, a renewed sense of space and light, arrived at through inference, not recognition. More specifically, at the top of each painting is what Foucault would have termed an “ironic window.” It is not light that Neher is painting here: there is no parallel between this feature and a classical sky, except that its presence provides an environment for the main body of the painting and allows effects of light and local coloration take place there. Any more explicit resemblance to representational art would amount to reiteration, while having an implied space supplies a human need neglected by Minimalist painters in their drive toward literalistic flatness, a need for fiction, for painting to relate to the space in which we move as the only real anchor for its metaphors.

Neher’s technical accomplishment is in insuring that the modeling, color and glazes in each painting are cohesive, bearing out his historical premise. Thus in Transcendent Object, 1979, reminiscent of the 17th-century Dutch school, strokes of rich dark paint assume the quality of shadows, carrying the essence of Rembrandt’s maxim from Leonardo that drama is a figure emerging out of darkness. Or in Breathing, 1979, after Cézanne, the pictorial space is flatter, and the top part shows the merest emblem of light where individual brush marks are wider and more apparent and the contours allow the complete strokes enough flexibility just to twist and turn (like Cézanne’s bathers). However, although Neher employs some hatch-like brushstrokes and an overall color tone such as Cézanne might have used, he ignores diagonal inflections and does not wedge objects on receding planes: his work remains lateral. Here we see the artist’s enthusiasm for Cézanne bridled by a form that lays claim both to individuality and contemporary culture. Here also is the line between reclamation and reiteration, which Neher is wary of and does not cross.

Within this format Neher pays particular attention to an abstract kind of local coloration, the coloration of discrete forms. The immediate environment of his strokes makes for specific actions on those strokes, taken individually. The general attitude of the painting, determined by the genre it recalls, and the overall configuration that Neher has chosen, establish patterns of painting behavior. And these patterns spontaneously affect the immediate environment, and local coloration confirms the presence of figures in that environment. As the eye moves laterally across the paintings, it is as if the individualized strokes were stitched together, each small point of color marking the needle’s point of entry.

Each of the seven paintings shown last spring contains exactly 36 vertical forms. Thirty-six is for this artist an arbitrary number, endowed with no special significance except to be unvarying. Also, every stroke on every painting is finished by a thick blotch of paint at the bottom. The paint in these medallion-type details becomes particularly thick in a painting like Transcendent Object, and others which deal with the Dutch school. Neher himself is half Italian and half Dutch. His painting life, which began in Catskill, N.Y., had its first stimulation in the ways of Church, Cole and the rest of the painters of the Hudson River Valley, with its strong Dutch tradition. At high school Neher made a copy of Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, with a medallion on a gold chain hanging from Aristotle’s neck; the thick lead rounds on Transcendent Object and other recent paintings could conceivably be stylized versions of this same medallion; or, jumping forward, they might refer to Brice Marden, finishing off the painting process as they do at the bottom of each “stroke” form. Both elements are always present: Neher’s feelings for the great art of the past, which can be seen as a metaphor for his background, and his involvement in current culture, which represents emergence from the past. Each painting is an attempt to resolve this conflict, a personal conflict whose terms are not confined to painting.

It seems that Neher has long been afflicted by an acute sense of “body-mind duality.” From childhood, painting was for him an escape, a solitary, contemplative way of expressing himself. However, as a mature, literate painter, he is bound to deal with the surrounding context of modern art. Neher has found a solution to his dilemma by believing in something as fervently as possible to link the desire to paint with the need to respond to current painting culture. To place his hopes for resolution in belief rather than knowledge he sees as the only way to secure a serious external reception for his obsession.

Neher lived his early life surrounded by the rich, inspirational landscape of the upper Hudson. A Wordsworthian mind would have found a lifetime of work in that environment, and the adolescent Romanticism in Neher did include copying Hudson River masters. But he dealt with art inspired by the environment rather than with the environment itself, denying himself the pure and immediate feelings available from “sensual experience in the immediate presence of nature” and choosing instead a distilled, almost ascetic, approach.

Recently, when asked what he considered was the definition of abstract, Neher replied “Nature held at arm’s length”—the way a civilized society measures progress. From the beginning of his painting career, art has been a stronger force in Neher’s life than nature, and artistic terms have been his handle on its chaos.

The current work is an attempt to turn away from the sterile mentalism4 which was at first the logical conclusion of his escape, through art, from nature, with Mondrian as an example.

After his schooling, Neher was faced with a dilemma. The demands of his work, and the context of modern art at that point, precluded the abandonment of a Minimalism in which he was involved, and yet Minimalism was working against a deep-seated desire for greater involvement with the painting process and with metaphor. Having testified in The Fox5 and in private to his disaffection with the elitism implicit in the notion of art as “self-reflexive,” Neher found that Clement Greenberg had written years before: “This spatial illusion, or rather the sense of it, is what we may miss even more than we do the images that used to fill it.”6 Then Brice Marden moved toward a restoration of the poetic ambiguity of painting, which he saw exemplified in the work of Cézanne. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in his important 1974 essay on Marden, expressed this well: [Marden’s] interest in paint as a material that—through the ambiguous spatiality of color—undermines one’s awareness of its own physicality, is what allows him to bring together Cézanne and Johns."7

Cézanne, Mondrian and Marden all synthesized imagination, intellect and previous painting. In each case the reduction of nature to formal compositional terms was not a diversion from the demands of the artist’s own nature. Neher attempts consciously to arrive at such a situation, to recondition and internalize his responses to earlier stimuli. He is particularly inspired by B.F. Skinner’s psychological behaviorism for its marriage of instinct and intellect, past experience (history) and the present, in bringing both concerns together at the surface of a canvas. His whole mode of painting, attempting as it does to resolve Neher’s own psychological imperative in the face of a formal tradition, can be seen as resembling Cézanne’s, whose originality was forged under similar conditions.

Much of the art of the past 15 years has been preoccupied with the notion of presence, rather than with any experience in the present. There has been no play but the self-consciousness of performers. Process painting established time in the past through a direct line between the simple painting mechanism of the artist and the finished work. The Minimalists’ objects were imposing, but they effaced the viewer, who found no intimacy, although he might carry away a modified sense of environment. At the limit of the literalist spectrum, Conceptual art tried to promote its own vocabulary and to create the need for its own existence. Neher has moved still further back toward pure painting. Like the Minimalists, he seeks to join the work with the viewer’s environment, but where Minimalism intrudes, Neher’s work seeks merely to share a point in time. Ideally, it is not carried by internal formal relationships but by the conjunction of painterliness and the viewer’s response, unconcerned with the past or the future.

For Neher each painting renews a dilemma rooted in the split between Northern and Italian Renaissance painting, a dilemma which Neher, as a sort of American Tonio Kroger, is intimately concerned with and tries to approach directly. The Northern movement, represented by Neher’s Transcendent Object, deals with the particular, with narrative point-to-point reference between individually lighted and detailed areas. On the other hand, the Italian imminence that Neher considers in Italian Painting is characterized by each work’s overall feeling of homogeneity—“homogeneity of elements” and “formal interrelationships.”8 The specifically Venetian tradition was concerned with overall color tone and preferred mood to action, just as Neher does, while the one-to-three proportions of Neher’s canvas, and the slender, almost “Gothic” shape of his “strokes,” are further points of Venetian identity.

The most immediate and influential modern artistic achievement in this light must be the synthesis of Abstract Expressionism and literalism achieved by Jasper Johns, who freed painting from a totally subjective mode without betraying the painting metaphor to objectness. Since then most painters and object-makers have in one way or another developed object-envy: in seeking either to emulate or expand upon Johns they tend to take too literally the implications of his work. Objectness has been the result, but separated from a metaphorical context (its painterly community).

Neher is interested in Johns’ achievement, but not in its specifically literalist terms. He chooses to deal with the problem of integration on a more general level, strictly within a pictorial format. The painting Parenthetical Expression offers us Johns’ woven texture. Its initial form also showed Neher in a naive attempt literally to punctuate the work’s figuration (hence “parenthetical” quotation marks, etc., on the painting’s surface); in repainting Parenthetical Expression Neher managed to suppress the awkward literalness of these marks.

Neher’s jump from a relational Minimalism to a more painterly style was in part encouraged by the work of David Novros, whose juxtaposition of matte and gloss surfaces particularly interested Neher. Clearly, Neher shares a strong classicizing instinct with Novros, yet Novros’ reverence seems to prevent him from reducing his historical eclecticism to a cogent style. Neher decidedly avoids the compositional workings of Novros’ paintings. Perhaps he sees these as elements still too directly related to Minimalist/literalist thinking. His debt to Minimalism is a different one: though he rejects object-making (painterly or otherwise), his work does seek to move art beyond the picture plane and into the viewer’s world.

If Neher’s work is to succeed in terms both of its effect on the viewer and of its originality, the metaphor—pictorial space integrated with paint handling—must be substantial and yet so coherent as to be spontaneously comprehensible, an “objective correlative”9 bypassing the conscious process of ratiocination. It must be catalytic and, at the same time, as reflective as the mirror in the background of Las Meniñas, so that the viewer, like the King and Queen in the Velazquez, stands outside the picture plane, but is involved in the work. What one sees in the mirror is inalienably the present. Neher has reached the point where his canvases realize in the viewer a range of conditioned responses to painting, particularly that of the Old Masters. The concept of memory is flattened and distilled by the viewing experience, which is immediate and in the present. No nostalgic reclamation of other painting is required. Neher does not claim the viewer’s intellect so much as his active sensuous involvement.

The quest for regeneration, for the restoration of the artist and his audience to painting, has turned more and more painters away from detached formal abstraction. For Neher, the importance of painting is in the metaphor achieved by paint, and, as Skinner says, “Metaphor can only be fictive, it can neither accurately describe an experience, nor be verified.”10 Faced with the vastness and heterogeneity of American culture, the artist seems to have a choice either to empty it and his work, or to present it. Neher has chosen to present it.

Craig Fisher is a New York painter; Adrian Goddard is an English writer working in New York.



1. Rosalind Krauss, “A View of Modernism,” Artforum, September 1972, p.48.

2. Roger Fry, Cézanne, New York, 1927, p. 87.

3. Michel Foucault, “Las Meniñas,” The Order of Things, New York, 1970.

4. Ross Neher, “Mentalism Versus Painting,” Artforum, February 1979, pp. 40–48.

5. Ross Neher, “Bathysiderodromo phobia,” The Fox # 3, 1976.

6. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture, Boston, 1961.

7. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Brice Marden’s Paintings,” Artforum, October 1974, p. 31.

8. Joseph Masheck, “Pictures of Art,” Artforum, May 1979, p. 26.

9. T.S. Eliot, “The Objective Correlative” (from “Hamlet,” 1919), The Modern Tradition, New York, 1965, p. 134.

10. B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism, New York, 1974, pp. 103–4.