ROCKPORT, Maine — It’s a late, sunny Wednesday afternoon in mid-June at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) and, aside from a docent at the front desk, I have the whole Jon Imber: Force of Nature show to myself. Checklist in hand, I start to make the circuit, starting with a group of Imber’s Maine coast paintings—riffs, really, on landscape elements, painted en plein air near his summer home in Stonington, that fishing village that has drawn the Zorachs, Muirs, John Marin, Stephen Pace and a host of other artists over the last century or so.
“Low Tide” (2004), the earliest piece in the show, leads me to paraphrase a song by Bob Dylan, Imber’s favorite poet: tangled up in hues. It’s not a perfect alignment as the painter is very aware of how to put colors together—creamy whites, pale blues, rich yellows, pinks. No, the brushstrokes are what inspire the tangled up idea, but for all their freedom and improvisation—looping, twisting, curling; wide, thin, dashed— they, too, are assembled toward a compositional end. And we come away with a new sense of that disarray left on the shore when the tide recedes, and with an admiration for what CMCA director Suzette McAvoy calls “a fearless investigation of painterly space.”
Imber (1950-2014) once stated, “As long as there’s good information out there, like flowers and sky and sea with a couple of rocks, I can figure out something to get me going, and then I’ll just rely on my reactions, and try to make it an exciting painting.” In some of his paintings he seems to channel the forces of nature—like his friend Karl Schrag, in tune with the currents of air.
“Good painting is never planned,” Imber once said. He was always a great fan of Willem de Kooning; and when he fully embraced abstraction in 2004, he took some of his cues from the action AbEx-ist. You also sense Arshile Gorky’s spirit here: paintings like “Quince” (2008) and “Early in the Spring (My Attic)” (2009-2012) feature those biomorphic shapes, sometimes outlined in black, which distinguished the Armenian-born painter’s canvases.
There’s often a sense in the abstractions that something is about to coalesce—like a spruce emerging from the fog (“Summer Shoreline,” 2007). The remarkable “Tiger Lily” (2009) and “Nasturtiums” (2010) include hints of the flowers that spurred them into existence. In “Jill’s Garden II” (2009), Imber responds to the profusion of his wife’s plantings—a beautiful, chaotic arrangement.
Three quarters of the way around the wide room, I turn to review the paintings I’ve studied up close and discover new, from-a-distance visual pleasures. The work calls me back: “Spring Totems” (2010), a painterly equivalent of Dylan Thomas’s “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”; and “Lantern in the Snow” (2006), with its balance and layering and yellow light.
Imber never seemed anxious about his influences. He acknowledged his debt to his Boston University teacher Philip Guston on numerous occasions, once noting that he loved “every minute” he spent with him. “I learned more from him in one hour than in four years of undergraduate school.”
In a way Imber pulled a reverse-Guston, moving from figuration to abstraction over the course of his painting life—without, however, ever completely denying any instinct or mode that might help him deliver a vision of the world (and he drew from a wide range of art history, from the Venetian School to Marden Hartley). And he pulled another twist in the last phase of his life, turning out more than a hundred portraits in about four months. A sampling—eleven of them—is featured here.
Imber’s likenesses are cursory yet sure, the energy of the brush bringing faces into focus. The ears sometimes don’t line up, or an eye is blurred, yet the individual comes through, recognizable. Here are Peggy Golden, director of the Greenhut Galleries in Portland, which has represented Imber for years; Stuart Kestenbaum, poet and director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (which hosted a show of the portraits in Imber’s last days in Maine); and painter and sculptor Roz Sommer, with a halo of hair worthy of Medusa.
As I finish my circle of the room, I hear voices near the entrance. It’s Imber and his wife, painter Jill Hoy, talking about art and life in a clip from Richard Kane’s new film Jon Imber’s Left Hand. This remarkable portrait of the artist traces the painter’s final year and a half, from the time he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, to a few months before his death on April 17 in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Due to his affliction, and driven by his desire to paint, Imber switched from his right hand to his left in the course of his final year (at the very end he had an apparatus attached to his head that allowed him to move the brush). The portraits in the show and a couple of the larger works (like the lovely “Dogwood,” 2013) were left-handed creations.
Imber switched hands with a kind of gusto, happy to have a new lease on art-making despite the grim death sentence ALS presented him. He viewed it as an opportunity to explore a new freedom in his approach, not weighed down by past habits or concepts or deliberations. “The left hand takes orders pretty well,” he states in the film.
As McAvoy notes, Imber managed to find “a new lyricism, freed by the imprecision of his efforts, his ‘mistakes.’” He lived to paint, and he did so with courage and passion.
Jon Imber: Force of Nature continues at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, Maine through July 6
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