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Consider two reds: a pure cadmium red medium — all fiery denseness — alongside a burnt sienna, equal in tone but utterly different in character: subdued, stoic, retiring. They jostle and shift, eager to separate. Plunk next to them a throng of blues, some deep and jewel-like, others brightly vacant. Leverage them with various greens; punctuate with small, dense patches of light and dark.
This may sound like the promising beginnings of an abstract painting, one energized by (and in turn propelling) the actions of colors. But it describes, in fact, a few elements within a landscape by Louisa Matthiasdottir (1917–2000), whose fourteen paintings and three watercolors are currently on view at Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
Matthiasdottir was born and raised in Iceland, a setting that seems to have been ideally suited to the luminous austerity of her painting. She enrolled in the Hans Hofmann School shortly after moving to New York in 1942, but the famous teacher’s influence seems to have been limited; she had already gravitated towards the simplified, intensely hued landscapes, still lifes, and figure paintings that typify her lifework. An extraordinarily self-possessed and disciplined painter, she turned Hofmann’s often bombastic exuberance in a very different direction, towards a keen-eyed affection for the appearance of things, even when — or, perhaps, especially when when — they were reanimated through the formal language of painting.
Matthiasdottir was not only a gifted colorist but also a formidable composer. The color events mentioned above, in the painting “Icelandic Landscape with Sheep, Man and Red Roof” (c. 1983) at Tibor, become the unfolding depth of a grass field, the ranging of mountains, and the broad bulk of a house. Intervals of drawing speed and slow the actions of color. A pair of sheep — a veritable knot of overlapping angles — grazes directly below a nest of overlapping peaks, but broadly dividing the two are spacious streams of blue. A tiny outpost of pink — the face of a lone man — punctuates the middle blue band. Within this vision, nature’s rhythms feel vast, implacable, yet bracingly proximate.
A different scene inspires a new attack. In “Icelandic Village” (c. 1991), a condensation of colors — a radiant Naples yellow, an absorbent gray, a deep, rich, orange-brown — becomes a sunlight-raked building rising palpably from an ochre plain. The ground itself expands against the containments of a foreground roof and the hard, electric blue-green of a distant ocean. Typical of Matthiasdottir’s work, this painting’s style suggests the beguiling decorativeness of folk art; the directness, however, belies a remarkable pictorial vigor and complexity.
Not every painting in the exhibition has quite the tautness and vitality of these two, but three of the smallest pieces do. These are the watercolors, which, carving weighty landscapes out of delicate washes, could be lessons in the formal powers of color.
If we were to divide modern art into a pre-Duchampian period of earnest expression and a post-Duchampian era of concepts and self-examination, Matthiasdottir would belong decidedly to the former. Like Bonnard and Matisse, her work testifies to the unique combination of sensuousness and discipline that marks the best traditional painting. The particular virtues of her work — subtly weighted color, dynamics of rhythm and scale — don’t come through on a screen or printed image. You’ll just need to see them in the flesh, which fortunately you can do, at Tibor, for another week.
Louisa Matthiasdottir: Paintings and Works on Paper continues at Tibor de Nagy Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 11.