Nathan Oliveira: Forgetting the Self

Nathan Oliveira, Standing Man with Hands in Belt, 1960
Oil on canvas
82" x 62"
Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

"To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly."

-Thirteenth Century Zen Master Dogen in a passage from his Genjo-koan

The cover of the exhibition catalog Nathan Oliveira by Peter Selz displays what California art lovers would recognize instantly as a classic Oliveira canvas: "Standing Man With Hands in Belt (1960)." Like so many of the large oils that first brought Oliveira's work recognition it contains a single figure set in and against a field of painterly gestures, fields, drizzles and drips. Inside the catalog, a full page is reserved for the dusky "Spring Nude" (1962) in which a seemingly weightless female evanesces from a salmon pink ocean of glowing, calligraphic brushwork.

Nathan Oliveira, "Spring Nude," 1962
Oil on canvas
96" x 76"
Collection of the Oakland Museum

Paintings like these, which Oliveira executed between 1957 and 1962, when he was in his late twenties and early thirties, brought him early recognition, but also created the public perception that Oliveira was only a "figurative" artist. He was seen as a late-joiner to the Bay Area Figurative School and it is true that he attended drawing sessions with its members including David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, who became a lifelong friend. The problem with this association, and with the early fame achieved by the artist as a young man, is that his approach to the figure was fundamentally different from that of the other San Francisco Bay Area artists.

For over fifty years Oliveira has used the figure as the starting point for his artistic process, but not as its true subject. Something similar could be said of his animal images, his sites and fetishes of the late seventies, and of the Windhover series of recent years: they hover in they appeal to the imagination but resist easy classification.

The constant feature of Oliveira's creativity is that he has been trying to forget his subjects, not to paint them. It turns out that an artist famous for his figurative work has been working towards abstraction all his life. His work portrays the struggle of the artist's self and its consciousness to move towards a connection with the universal and the eternal. It is a struggle that begins with the perception of self and others, and which ultimately moves towards abstraction and destruction of those perceptions.

Oliveira's real subjects are human presence and absence.

"I always have wanted to be an abstract artist, but it had to be about something very particular."

- Nathan Oliveira

When Oliveira's work gained national attention in the 1959 New Images of Man exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the world was still absorbing the horrors visited on the human body by the Holocaust in Europe and the use of nuclear weapons in Japan. In this exhibition, Oliveira's paintings were shown alongside those of leading Europeans including Alberto Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet who were creating images of the human figure that attempted to suggest the perilous condition of human beings in what seemed a bleak and Godless future.

During the same decade when Europeans painted the body to suggest the despair of this condition, Jackson Pollock one-upped the Europeans by eliminating the body from his art altogether and using dripped skeins of paint to project anxieties that were deeply personal and abstract. Just as America emerged from World War Two as the world's leading power, New York surpassed Paris as the center of modernism and abstraction won the war of modernist styles.

To understand how Oliveira became an artist, and to appreciate how quickly his ideas developed, it is necessary to consider the influences which shaped Oliveira as he grew up 3000 miles from New York, and even further from Europe.

As a high school student first studying painting he had been thunderstruck by a Rembrandt portrait, Jooris de Caulcerii (1632) in a San Francisco museum. Although Oliveira had grown up in a Portuguese Catholic household, Rembrandt was one of the first of a long line of Northern European, Protestant artists who would speak to him through their artwork.

Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rijn, "Joris de Caulerri," 1632
Oil on canvas transferred to panel
40 1/2" x 33 3/16"
Collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Rembrandt was the first major European artist to plumb the self as artistic subject matter, and the artist's anxiety and self-doubt were his gateway to profound realizations about personality and spiritual doubt. Rembrandt, with his Protestant anxiety, offered a way of coping, through art, with a modern world that had just begun its slow divorce from the rituals and rites of Catholicism, still tinged with helpful Pagan magic and the promise that an appeased God could protect those who renounce sin.

Oliveira must have recognized a particular aliveness in the Rembrandt portrait, the aliveness of an individual man living with the anxiety and promise of a world where Calvinist thought suggested that the face of God could be glimpsed through contemplation. Rembrandt, Oliveira realized, was a kind of master magician who could conjure up this aliveness of the self through the inherently abstract medium of paint strokes on canvas. It was as if an artist who had been dead for over 300 years had reached out through the canvas and handed Nathan the brush, saying "Why don't you see what you can do with this?"

Although it was the representational art of Rembrandt which woke Oliveira up to the possibilities of painting, abstract art was a powerful force in the San Francisco Bay Area. When Oliveira enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts in 1947 Clyfford Still had been on the faculty for a year, and Mark Rothko was a summer instructor. The influence of abstraction was so powerful that by 1949 the San Francisco Annual was made up almost entirely of abstract art.

At this same time, a powerful counter-current of Northern European art came to Bay Area in the form of exhibitions at the de Young Museum of Max Beckmann (1949), Oskar Kokoschka (1950), and Edvard Munch (1951). All three of these artists were Expressionists who relied on the story-telling possibilities of figurative art, and one of them, Max Beckmann, came to San Francisco in 1950 to teach a summer painting class which Oliveira enrolled in.

To study with Beckmann who disliked abstraction and called it "nail polish" was a challenging, stimulating experience for Oliveira. Some art historians have argued that the vogue of Postwar American abstraction was a kind of avoidance of historical content, and since the horrors of the holocaust and Hiroshima were honestly portrayed by photojournalism, Expressionist art seemed to have been outstripped.

Beckmann, who spoke little English, was nonetheless a compelling teacher whose very presence was a reminder of the vitality of European painting traditions. He was a fully committed artist who had endured the humiliation of Hitler's "Degenerate Art" exhibition, and a poignant exile from the vanished world of German Modernism.

By the time Oliveira graduated from art school in 1951 he had already been confronted by the powerful artistic traditions that he has spent his career integrating and resolving: figuration and abstraction. His exposure to the work of Beckmann had convinced him that painting needed to tell a story, but his storytelling immediately took on an abstract and philosophical tone.

American Abstract Expressionism, or Action Painting as critic Harold Rosenberg called it, was a style of painting which demanded that artists improvise as they worked. It was this style of painting which had taken New York by storm in the late 1940's and early 1950's and it was the style that any advanced artist on either coast had to adopt to be considered a Modernist.

Willem de Kooning, who Oliviera met and befriended in 1959, liked to call himself a "slipping glimpser". Originally trained as an illustrator in Rotterdam, de Kooning became famous for his series of aggressively gestural "Women." His violent use of paint impressed Oliveira, who instantly understood some of the deep human and perceptual suggestions imbedded in de Kooning's approach.

Willem de Kooning "Woman V," 1952-53
Oil and charcoal on canvas
154.5 x 114.5 cm
© Willem de Kooning, 1952-53/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2002

Oliveira remembers de Kooning telling him how he had once glimpsed an attractive woman at a party. Moments later, de Kooning recounted, he looked back and found her gone. This, he told Oliveira, was something he kept in mind when painting; the visual memory of presence and absence. Oliveira's "Sitting Man with Dog" of 1957 has a strong kinship with de Kooning. The vivid black and gray swaths of paint which criss-cross this enigmatic figure seem to both give the figure mass and obliterate it.

Nathan Oliveira
"Seated Man with Dog," 1957
Oil on canvas
58 3/8" x 49 1/2"
The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Just ten years later, Oliveira would again deal with the theme of disappearance, and the clear style of his "Stage Paintings" showed the artist gravitating back towards a world that a viewer's eyes could recognize, albeit an empty one.

In "Stage #2 with Bed" the themes of presence and absence are suggested by an open door and an empty bed. With the earnest intent of showing us that his evanescent world could be briefly focused, Oliveira manages to give us narration, but with only a few recognizable forms. Clearly, what has happened or will happen in this world is a human drama, but the painting demands imagination from the viewer and implies that the artist and his subject have "exited," thwarting easy interpretations.

Nathan Oliveira "Stage #2 with Bed," 1967
oil on canvas
66" x 67"
The Anderson Collection

To put it another way: Oliveira's audience is part of the meditation of presence and absence. As "Stage 2 with Bed" suggests, Oliveira is aware of the audience for his art, but asks them to exit the stage door and go beyond the constraints of what they can recognize.

Oliveira's friend Richard Diebenkorn was also eliminating figures around this same time, starting work on the "Ocean Park" series of abstractions which Oliveira would admire and borrow from. Diebenkorn had grown tired of the way that critics and viewers found Freudian and sexual connotations for the figures in his work, an annoyance that Oliveira shared. It seemed that putting a nude into any painting would be perceived as somehow erotic, and this was another connotation that Oliveira felt distracted from the deeper resonance he wished to create.

The "sites" created by the artist during the 1970's and 80's continued to draw viewers into uncertain realms. While many of these images suggest a kind of archeology, they appear to be made by living cultures whose inhabitants appear in separate paintings. The sites are redolent with hints of rite and ritual, and also with the suggestion of societies who built and created while remaining in concert with nature. The images thrive on suggestions of human presence, while refusing to admit details of time or place. The sites are another example of Oliveira's tendency to avoid specificity, and let the human, the abstract, and the irrational flood into perceptual empty spaces.

Nathan Oliveira, "Western Site XI," 1978
Monotype with painted additions
26" x 22"

Collection Saint Louis Art Museum

Often, the absences in Oliveira's art provide enthralling moments. In his mid-career works, he willed the figure to disappear, and found himself -- and his viewers -- entering into spiritual territory.

"By our use of them to keep ourselves alive, other persons begin to assume the place of fetishes and totems, becoming keepers of our lives. Through this worship of the personal, personal relationships have become the place where the divine is to be found, so the new theology asserts... Human persons are the contemporary shrines and statues where personifying is lodged."

- James Hillman

Oliveira's approach to the human figure, from the beginning of his career onwards, has been one of personification. His imaginative approach has constantly suggested that art needs to take the figure out of the mundane context of the present into the world of myth. Whether his figures are faceless and featureless, as in "Red Couple" or loaded with anthropological suggestion, as in "Shaman 5" they connect us to a world vibrant with human magic.

Nathan Oliveira
"Shaman V," 1977
Color monotype with acrylic
78.7 x 57.2 cm
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Always a sensual artist, Oliveira's world demolishes literal boundaries and categories, and suggests that sensation transcends meaning. His images begin with sensual perceptions which he has taken into the eternal by demolishing their literal meanings. It is a world of immortals, always present and available to anyone with imagination.

According the Joseph Campbell, the difference between a Shaman and a Priest is that a Shaman is not connected to institutionalized religion. Oliveira, a non-practicing Catholic, uses images like "Shaman 5" to reclaim faith -- and magic -- from religion and restore it to individuals as a form of visionary consciousness.

Nathan Oliveira "Couple with Red," 2003
Oil on and galkyd on polyester canvas
50 x 42"

The artist's recent "Couple with Red" suggests co-existence in world where figures are indeed personified as shrines or objects. It is as if the erasure of their human particulars is accomplished with a painterly process parallels a stripping away of differences: culture, gender and other categories are released and a new kind of relationship can be contemplated.

Human figures are not the only ones loaded with personifying magic in Oliveira's art. Animals forms co-exist in the same equilibrium, and many of them, baboons and hawks among others, seem to be incarnations of animal deities found in earlier societies. His figures and animals all belong to a Pre-Columbian world of coexistence. It is a kind of Mayan or Egyptian world where the biblical idea of Eden and its opposites has not been introduced.

Nathan Oliveira
"Acoma Hawk III," 1975
Two color lithograph

The artist's engagement with the eternal has led him into conversations with many artists, writers and works of art. He has created series that came from artistic dialogues with Goya and Rembrandt, and has built themes on poems by Poe and Hopkins. In each of these cases he has treated works by past artists as living documents, seeing art history not as a series of periods and styles, but as a continuous dialogue.

"I had to go through a period of transition, from wings to abstract images that conveyed the idea of wings without getting all trapped up in feathers. It’s really about the imagination and the inner spirit of flight." - Nathan Oliveira

Nathan Oliveira
"The Windhover IV," 1991-94
oil on canvas
90 1/2" x 212 1/2"

In his more recent works, Oliveira has continued to create figurative works -- often the figures are animals -- while also creating a cycle of large scale works which are meant to be installed as a cycle. The "Windhovers", inspired by a Gerard Manley Hopkins Poem, are abstracted from images of wings, rainbows and skies. Compared to most Post-Modern painting, which often has a rigorous theortetical basis, the Windhovers favor the experience of the senses over the power of the intellect. In a surprising way, an artist who began his career as a Modernist has reached backwards in feeling: the Windhovers have more in common with Catholic Baroque art than they do with Picasso.

The Windhovers do what Baroque art did: the use the sky as a metaphor and inspire sensation, awe and faith, qualities that Oliveira's peers in the "New Images of Man" exhibition had abandoned.

After 55 years of leaving behind the "real" world and creating a new, better one in his paintings, Oliveira has found that forgetting details can be liberating. Dismissive of art world fashions, and of intellectual currents, he has had the luxury of losing himself in his work, and forgetting the problems of the world. The figures in his art have been simply a starting place for the artist's lifelong process of moving towards abstraction, in ideas and images.

In the process, he has found himself.

I simply want to be a part of a continuous resonance. - Nathan Oliveira

Written in 2003