PHILADELPHIA — Most of Jan Baltzell’s recent paintings, currently on view at the Schmidt Dean Gallery in Philadelphia, are on Mylar. DuPont, in the 1950s, was an early developer of Mylar, which is made of stretched polyester. The name is actually DuPont’s brand. It has replaced the official product name, BoPet, just as Xerox has replaced photocopy. The material has many applications, including food packaging, insulation, and the helium balloons one expects at a child’s birthday party. Painters also use it quite widely. It’s cheap, doesn’t need priming, doesn’t buckle under moisture, and has the ability to take the texture of what’s behind it. Baltzell discovered Mylar in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s that it became her main surface.
Baltzell doesn’t fuss over titles for her paintings. Most simply indicate the year of composition, accompanied by a number. Even her show is simply called New Work. Edie Newhall, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2012, suggested that Baltzell could “refine [the] individuality” of her paintings if she were to title them. But it seems to me that the paintings are already distinctive and need nothing more than the paint and their engagement with form and content to define them. Clyfford Still comes to mind in this regard. “PH-183” or “1950-A-No.1” are titles typical of Still. He was convinced word-based titles overly influence a viewer’s experience. Numbered titles, on the other hand, put the emphasis squarely on the painting and insist that the viewer focus on what’s in front of her. This does not mean that these works transcend language. What one sees in Baltzell’s work can be described, just as readily as Johannes Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” (ca. 1662) can be described.
In “2015-2,” the blue seems to hover, as if the color will come off the surface, while the slightly jagged pink line just to the left of the middle looks crayon-like. I wish I could have picked up that pink like a stick and put it in my pocket. Baltzell, in all of her work, is adept with contrast. She not only works with the differences between the pink, blue, mustard, and gray in the painting, she knows how to use the Mylar’s white sheen to her advantage. In describing her process, she says she will sometimes wipe out a color so that it’s embedded into the surface. This influences other colors that emerge from the background. Wiping, she’s said, is much easier on Mylar because the paint doesn’t require turpentine for thinning the way it would on canvas.
Baltzell’s upbringing is particularly unique. She is the daughter of Jane Piper, a still life and abstract painter, and sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who wrote such classic studies as Philadelphia Gentlemen: the Making of a National Upper Class and The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. He is also credited with popularizing the term WASP. Although the DuPont’s are not WASPs, they bear the marks of an aristocracy, causing me to see a strange irony in Baltzell’s preference for Mylar as a surface. She is literally painting on a material that was developed by DuPont and whose brand name has superseded the generic name. It’s as if she’s painting on artificial dominance.
Piper and Digby were driven in their fields. Baltzell has said her work ethic derives from them. In the late 1960s, the young Baltzell attended Philadelphia College of Art, now University of the Arts. There, she studied with Gretna Campbell and Larry Day. From Campbell, who was married to Louis Finkelstein and associated with the New York School, the young artist learned the value of spontaneity and intuition. Campbell also taught her how to be gutsy. Day, a predominately figurative painter, provided a sense of structure and order. Sometime in the early 1970s, Baltzell saw a de Kooning show. She said it made her “want to dance.” She credits that show, to this day, with instilling a preference for pastel colors.
Baltzell started her career as a still life painter and teaches courses in it at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but she says she no longer paints directly from objects. She relies on her memory instead and her understanding of space and light. An athlete when she was young, Baltzell has said that she stopped with sports when she started painting. Now, her athleticism shows in her work, with its long, improvisatory lines.
One of the most intriguing paintings on display is “2014-15” (2014) in oil on canvas, one of three works on canvas in the show. When I was browsing the catalogue, I remarked to Christopher Schmidt, one of the directors of the gallery, that I couldn’t find the painting that was in front of me. He said, “It’s there, but Jan changed it the night before the opening.” He went on to say that Baltzell wasn’t happy with the work and that he told her, “You’ve got an evening.” Standing across the room, the painting seems to have distinct sections of color. Up close, it’s more apparent how subtly Baltzell blended, even blurred, the colors into each other. This painting is saturated with energy, particularly in the heavy white upper left corner and the pink and purple areas of the upper middle and lower right. The blue seems casual, but it too exerts a muted dominance.
There is an appealing fluidity to the work. At times, Baltzell’s paintings even feel heady, but she never paints simply for intellectual exercise. Two of her paintings actually made me laugh. A shape in “2015-4” (2015) looks like a thumb with a deep maroon thumbnail jutting out of a cluster of forms that typifies Baltzell’s commitment to layering, wiping, and even drawing. Many of the works at Schmidt Dean, she said, “felt like drawings” to her. “2015-4” has a nice half circle just right of center; the curving dark line above it leads the viewer there. “2015-12” (2015), which shares a wall with “2015-4,” but is separated by two charcoal works on paper, appears to have a George Washington bust in the upper right corner. Perhaps this is my hallucination, but the curving white, gray, and blue suggests Washington’s puffy hair on his balding head. Not only that, there is what seems to be a mottled-looking right eye socket. The rest of the face is covered with gray. I thought of how Larry Rivers, in “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1953), doesn’t give viewers the whole of Washington. He provides just enough of him, and skews the perspective enough that the work isn’t simply a regurgitation of Emanuel Leutze’s sentimental picture of the same name.
Noticing what appear to be a thumb and a Washington bust in these abstract paintings, I’m reminded of an anecdote John Yau mentioned in a lecture on Robert Motherwell at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Yau said that he had once received an abstract painting as a gift from a painter friend and he said to her, “I see fish in it.” Telling an abstract painter that you see something in her work, he said, isn’t something you should do. Subsequently, she took the painting back and years later he noticed another friend had the picture. He didn’t mention fish.
If it’s a mistake to see something, or more precisely, to say you see something in an abstract painting, then what should the viewer do? Sure, there is the centuries-long devotion to commenting on the strength of an artists’ line, or to discussing how magnificently (or poorly) the painter mixes her colors, or especially in abstract work, to praise the way an artist works with scale or movement. It seems to me that the viewer is bound to imagine things in abstract art now and then. What’s seen becomes a type of content. The viewer really is finishing the work in this regard. The thumb I think I see is giving the thumb’s up. I don’t feel under this painting’s thumb. That’s good. As for Washington, he looms in Baltzell’s painting, in much the same way a legacy tries to rear its head into the contemporary. Baltzell takes some gray to the spot where I would place his face, but this doesn’t completely snuff out the illusion. Whether or not these apparitions are intended may not matter. More significantly, Baltzell knows the artistic legacy from which she comes, but never simply repackages earlier strains of abstraction. A unique combination of painterly knowledge, a commitment to the physical act of painting, and an improvisatory instinct runs through her entire career.
Jan Baltzell: New Work continues through today at the Schmidt Dean Gallery (1719 Chestnut Street, Center City, Philadelphia).