Warren Rohrer: Paintings 1972-1993
Philadelphia Museum of Art
June 22 – August 17, 2003
Rohrer was a native of Pennsylvania; significantly a native of Lancaster County, where he was raised in a Mennonite farming community. He was supposed to become a minister and a farmer. The Mennonite community is a separatist Christian group which emigrated from Europe and settled in Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s. While not as extreme in eliminating all manifestations of modern culture as the Amish are, the Mennonites still do not exactly embrace modernity. And so it is ironic – but also a fact – that Rohrer’s connection to modernism came after seeing a show of Amish quilts at the Whitney, in 1972. Not only did that show recharge and guide the style of his painting, it also initiated a lifelong interest in quilt collecting. In a catalogue essay for a show of Pennsylvania quilts, he remarks on this moment of recognition:
After I left home and became a painter I didn’t think about quilts for a long time, until I happened upon the American Pieced Quilt Show… The impact of that exhibition was overwhelming; in particular several quilts stood out, simple in design, like “modern art,” and brooding in color like Rothko… My surprise was total…
[Pennsylvania Quilts: One Hundred Years, 1830-1930. Moore College of Art, 1978]
Along with his steady stitch work of brushstrokes, regular compositional framework, consistently square format, and modest palette, Rohrer’s paintings are frequently lean enough to reveal the weave of the canvas. All of these attributes make quilt work a good basis for understanding what Rohrer is working with for visual reference.
Quilts, however, do not in any way help the viewer to understand the vast spaces, the heavy air, the swirling precipitation, and the solid recognition of ground and landscape that Rohrer depicts. Quilts are for inside. Rohrer’s paintings are so much about a rooted understanding of his place in Lancaster County that it would almost be reasonable to argue that the paintings themselves belong out of doors. This work is unmistakably about landscape from all points of view, both actual and intuitive. Some paintings, for example, seem to depict landscape from the point of view of someone standing in a field. Others seem to depict the same, but from above. Others yet seem to be vertical cross-sections, revealing from top to bottom the heavens, the sky, the air hovering over the ground, and a cross section of the earth itself.
From 1961 to 1983, Rohrer and his family lived in Christiana, Pennsylvania, in a nineteenth-century farmhouse. The cow barn was converted into a studio, and it stood between a pond and an apple orchard. After the Whitney show of quilts, Rohrer began to depict – with the characteristic restraint and understatement of modernist simplicity – the countryside that surrounded him, paying homage to the traditions of working the land that he had known growing up. Regular parallel lines floating over lean backgrounds, and grids, underpinning tightly patterned surfaces, seem to be metaphors for farming. Rohrer’s understanding of how the land is worked became the nexus between the colorful tradition of representational European landscape painting and the conceptual and systematic character of modernism. His mode of painting appears to be derived poetically from the site of his studio. The demands of farming the land determine a rural order, matching Rohrer’s internal, aesthetic order and sense of contemporary abstraction.
Rohrer’s earliest canvases in this show have a bland, agrarian topography: rows of narrow, fatty marks create contoured planes floating on halftone atmospheres. These atmospheres are the result of a fully wiped-back ground. One would wish to look into the atmospheric interior, but the rows of marks intervene. The rhythmic marks are secular reminders of which way we are supposed to look. Indeed, these topical lines, Braille-like, lead the eyes from left to right. There are tricks involved in this blind trust: in “Pond 3” (1975), Rohrer’s fatty, narrow lines are segmented, rearranged, and one’s eyes dive down from a shifting flat plane into an unexpected depth (uncharted by lines), and then abruptly reemerge where this punctuated surface continues.
The paintings from the late 1970’s and 1980’s are devoted to a lovingly patterned study of luminosity in landscape. Rohrer does not wipe back the ground on these ‘mid-period’ paintings. The topical direction is still there, however, and when he is working with his brush full, the strokes proceed in a consecutive embroidery of surface direction. In these, the brushstrokes are measured, and the hair-textures, like feathers, optically devolve flat colors into sub-hues. The mechanically even brushstrokes stack up, and appear to mark micro-units of space, much the way Cezanne did with his pencil marks. Most of the canvases have a two- or three-color scheme, and from a distance appear to be blurry remembrances of moments in a place (Rohrer’s field). They are large baths of tasteful sunset, sunrise, night or fog colors – colors perhaps adapted from his study of quilts – which open roundly, like a convex lens view of a landscape. Brushstrokes stand out on the raw canvas edges: a visual reference to threadbare or patched fabric.
There are enigmatic points to Rohrer’s ingenuous simplicity: why does he not allow a free fall into his realms of illusory space? In “A Walnut Black, 1980” the frayed, frank brushstrokes emerging from the embroidery of a heavy night-blue are jarring and uncomfortable: at the edges of the canvas there are these secular reminders about the kind of space he is creating. It is almost as if he flays the paintings at their edges. An equally enigmatic note about these frayed borders is that the paintings almost always bleed off the right side. There is a distinct compositional flow out to the right. While we know that Rohrer began in the upper left of his canvases and worked diagonally downward, why would he choose to leave this kind of indication of his process? These apparent details become salient elements in the images, given his notorious systematic work and deliberate, simple presentation. These are not – cannot just be – beautiful color field paintings, can they?
The latest of Rohrer’s paintings in this exhibition are the ones he did 1993; he died in 1995. Toward the end of his life a “language” emerges from his landscapes: literal symbols, not particularly calligraphic but a curious ideographic set of stamped symbols, which fly around the compositions. In the case of “Field Language 9” (1991), a cross-sectional landscape showing earth and sky, red symbols are embedded in a layer of humus, while others float in the air above. “Field Language 10” (1991), has blue symbols buried in a tan earth as others erupt and evanesce, cloud like, over the horizon. Rohrer is supposed to have “regard[ed] the landscape as a language and himself as reader and translator” (program notes). What he does would appear to be more like transcribing, however, since the symbols are senseless without their Rosetta stone. The lexicon (again from the program notes) might have been his private sketchbook. For some reason Rohrer began to depict the messages that emerged out of his landscapes in the didactic of mortal symbols and would-be letters, instead of his more profound code of brushstrokes. He went from invoking meaning in his landscapes through Fibonacci sequenced structures, to flat transposition of mysterious linear symbols. This ideography is puzzling, especially in light of his self-directed questions. Again, from the quilt essay he says, “…How was it that [the quilts] were being shown and collected as art (and I consider some of them to be art) without their maker’s acquaintance with or reference to art? Is intention central to the making of art?” Were these ideograms meaningful: pieced together from drawings and photos he took on visits to Lancaster’s fields? Or are they much deeper, intuitive gestures, condensed from artistic observations? Are they the fossils left, under the weight of a lifetime of vision? What are they intended to say?
Warren Rohrer was a local painter, “a Philadelphia painter”, and an instructor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1958 – 1972. He was on the faculty of the University of the Arts from 1974 – 1992. Practically everyone in the arts in Philadelphia knows about him, and many were taught by him. He made regular trips to the Art Museum with his students, and people know very well which were his favorite paintings in the collections. Rohrer is known for his steady attention to Lancaster’s fields and to one field there, in particular, which is named after him. He remarks on videotape that he internalizes and absorbs the landscape, then recreates them back in his studio. The enigmas which become salient in the simplicity of his work – the compositional pull to the right, and the ideograms – are especially puzzling because of his remarks about intentionality and art-making; his paintings are crafted, thought-out. Even the ideograms do not erupt from his intuition, but are printed like mono prints.
Next to one of his favorite paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rogier van der Weyden’s The Crucifixion (1460-64), these enigmas lose some of their tension. St. John the Evangelist’s robe, and Mary’s robe have structured folds that seem like pieces of the ideograms, and so perhaps does the stylized bone at the foot of the crucifixion. The painterly quality of the Gethsemane wall is reminiscent of Rohrer’s halftone atmosphere, and some of the colors rhyme with those in Rohrer’s palette. Most striking, however, is the way in which the diptych – and there are a few Rohrer diptychs shown in the exhibition – has a serial movement from left to right. Why would these natural comparisons matter? Rohrer absorbed every landscape around him; not just the fields of Lancaster and wherever else he traveled. It makes sense to imagine that the Art Museum also was a landscape which, after pilgrimages with his students and alone, he brought back to his studio. Perhaps even more importantly, Rohrer seems to have — in his own secular and systematic way — become a minister and a farmer anyway: by planting van der Weyden’s seeds in a modernist, utopian landscape.