PORTLAND, Maine — Among the earliest of the 40 works in Jon Imber’s retrospective at Cove Street Arts is “Happy Couple” (1978). In the 16-by-12-inch oil painting, a man and woman lie alongside each other, head to toe. They share a red blanket, which covers part of their torsos.
The naked figures are loosely painted, their hands and feet semi-skeletal. The rudimentary bed hardly holds their bodies. Perhaps they have just made love; their faces express a kind of post-coitus contemplation, he peering almost wistfully at her, she with her eyes closed, maybe asleep. A happy couple, yes, but separate in their reduced universe.
“Happy Couple” is one of several small figurative paintings from 1978 through 1980 arranged together on one gallery wall. They mark a significant time in Imber’s life: He received his MFA from Boston University in 1977 and had his first major show the following year, at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum.
Much has been made of BU professor Philip Guston’s influence on Imber, and Imber always openly acknowledged it. He shared some of his mentor’s aesthetic, including his guileless style, and also heeded the importance Guston placed on self-questioning in the creative process. That said, Imber’s figurative pieces tend to be more explicitly psychological in their presentation of relationships. “Upbringing” (1979), for example, depicts an uneasy father-son dynamic, its nude figures locked in a stick-wielding skirmish.
Two India ink drawings from 1980 highlight Imber’s lively linear work. “Reading the Morning Paper” shows a bearded man studying a newspaper while eating toast at the kitchen table. The outsized fingers and head recall Guston, but the figure has the unshaven look of an Edward Koren cartoon. A similarly disheveled man appears in “The Approach,” clambering over a windowsill to half-mount a slumbering woman curled into a fetal position. In this case, Picasso could be the progenitor.
The large (84 by 64-inch) oil “The Picture Hanger” (1980) speaks to the artist’s anxiety toward influence. A shirtless large-headed man in jeans stands on a ladder to hang an Old Master painting. He looks down at the canvas dangling below with disquiet. It’s an image of the past intruding on the present.
Another large painting from 1980, “In Bed with Sophia,” is curious and charming: A man (also with an oversized head) sleeps, face-down and naked, next to the Italian actress Sophia Loren, who sits upright, wearing a white slip and dark stockings and reading a small book. Erotic in her nonchalance, she looks like she could have been painted by Balthus. Meanwhile, the bearded man with his washboard ribs dreams on.
In the aquatint etching “Arm of God” (1984), the show’s only print, the disembodied and frayed appendage of the Almighty grasps a solitary man by his upper arm. The bearded, wild-haired man bears what looks like a chisel in one hand and a rock in the other; he wears a look that is part wonder, part surprise, as if responding to the strange force holding him back. The image might illustrate the second commandment in the Talmud: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”
Imber’s occasional but longstanding connection to Maine became more substantial when he met and married the painter Jill Hoy. They settled into winters in Somerville, Massachusetts, and summers in Stonington, Maine, on Penobscot Bay. The retrospective includes a dozen or so Maine landscapes.
Even when Imber was painting an iconic stretch of coastline, as in the vertical “Deer Isle Thoroughfare” (1997-2007), he managed to make it new. The rocky ledges on the left form a colorful patchwork. The foreground is a swirl of brushstrokes balanced by the burst of blues and two stoic black spruce trees in the distant background.
“Late Afternoon on Eagle Isle” (1998), is an affecting portrait of the artist carrying his sleeping son across his shoulders as they traverse a Maine island road. Imber heightens the emotional potential through the cast of the faces in the foreground: the shadowed artist in glasses looking woeful and beat and the boy’s visage, tight even in sleep. An egg-yolk sun lights up a New England homestead in the background as the father and son make their way toward us.
Imber admired de Kooning, and the latter’s expressionistic verve is evident in many paintings from 2000 on. Imber rendering of Stonington’s famous lily pond, for example, is a glorious flurry of brushstrokes in which water and verdant nature, reflection and landscape, are barely distinguishable. Likewise, in several floral studies, including “Tiger Lily” (2009) and “Nasturtiums” (2010), the blossoms provide a prompt to action painting.
After being diagnosed with ALS in 2012, Imber revved up his art-making. As his body succumbed, he adjusted in order to keep painting, first shifting from his right to his left hand, and then clutching the brush with both hands. Richard Kane’s 2014 film, Imber’s Left Hand, documents the painful but also uplifting final year or so of his life as the painter pulled out all the stops to keep painting.
Unable to make his way to his favorite landscapes in Stonington, Imber turned to portraits in his late works. When somebody visited his studio, he’d suggest they sit for a portrait. For a period in his final summer he was painting nearly one a day.
Four of those likenesses are included in the show and they testify to Imber’s determination to create. They are loosely limned — he had little control of his arms — but full of expression. In “Aparna Agrawal Portrait” (2013), a great head of gray-streaked black hair envelops the striking face of the India-born interdisciplinary artist.
Imber’s 2013 “Self-Portrait” is haunting. The artist looks directly at us with visible fear and sadness in his face. The prominence of his gnarled right hand speaks to his situation: he is losing his grip. While not exactly grim, the portrayal is unnerving in its straightforward and somber depiction of a painter with an uncertain future who nonetheless lived to paint.
Jon Imber Retrospective continues at Cove Street Arts (71 Cove Street, Portland, Maine) through October 10.