Genevieve Arnold

Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia

Genevieve Arnold (1928–2005) was the kind of person for whom terms like doyenne and grande dame were invented. Little known outside the Southeast, she was an important presence on the Atlanta art scene for more than fifty years. A recent retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia reflected her cosmopolitan perspective and her implicit refusal to be labeled a “southern” or “regional” artist. It also chronicled the struggles of a midcentury painter to reconcile the twin poles of modernism: figuration and abstraction.

Arnold’s first canvases, from the late ’50s and early ’60s, look to Europe. Although these abstractions rely on gestural brushstrokes and saturated, nearly monochromatic color, Arnold seems not to have engaged directly with Abstract Expressionism. Rather, these works are indirectly reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s subdued early paintings. For Arnold, figuration and abstraction were not mutually exclusive: Her project was to make them coexist as equals within the space of a single work. A series of oils from the early ’70s take up Richard Diebenkorn’s planar approach. But whereas Diebenkorn flattens landscapes and cityscapes against the picture plane, Arnold uses the edges of planes to create perspectival space within otherwise nonrepresentational compositions. The tension between Arnold’s commitment to a conventional use of line and space and her penchant for abstraction would prove both productive and problematic.

This tension is apparent in Arnold’s strategy of dividing her images, either by uniting multiple paintings or drawings to constitute a single work or by demarcating zones within each image. Points of View: Russia, 1986, for example, an image of a palace as seen from the water, is bifurcated by the shoreline. The upper half of the painting depicts the landscape and the sky above it, while the lower half is devoted entirely to water. Although the whole grisaille image is painted in dry, calligraphic strokes, the sky and water are rendered much more freely than the shoreline, which resembles a seventeenth-century Italian drawing.

Untitled (Venice), ca. mid-1990s, consists of three panels joined to form a single work. A section of a sketch of Venice on one panel serves as the basis for an abstract painting on another. This tactic suggests that Arnold achieved her particular perspective by looking very closely at—and reading between the lines of—the figurative image. In several series of works beginning in the mid-’80s, Arnold offers both figurative renderings of places she’s traveled to and abstracted takes on parts of the same images.

It was only in “Nile Series,” a group of small works from 2000–2003, that Arnold arrived at the synthesis of figuration and abstraction she had long sought. These once again resemble close-up images of water, but because they are so clearly recognizable as such they do not require another image to provide a referent. Arnold’s technique of painting in oil on tracing paper, then matting and framing the result, dematerializes the subject, transforming its physical substance into a play of shifting colors, flecks of light, and frothy texture. It is clear that we are looking at an image of a particular body of water and equally clear that Arnold wants us to see it both for what it is and as an occasion to celebrate the expressive potential of paint in its own right.

Philip Auslander