BAMPFA’s portrait of abstractionist painter falters in audience engagement

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Who was Harvey Quaytman?

His art isn’t as well-known as that of his contemporaries, such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. But according to BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder, Quaytman deserves more recognition than he has thus far received. Quaytman’s “exceptional integrity and artistic grace produced a body of work that deserves to be much better known,” Rinder writes in the text accompaniment to BAMPFA’s latest exhibition, “Harvey Quaytman: Against the Static.”

The collection displays more than 70 of Quaytman’s works from the 1960s to the 1990s. It marks the first exhibition devoted to Quaytman’s art since his death in 2002.

So, again, we ask — who was this artist whom BAMPFA insists the public has carelessly overlooked? The exhibition readily provides answers, relying on written descriptions to orient viewers to the works before them.

First and foremost, for the purposes of “Against the Static,” Quaytman occupied the role of visual artist. Not unlike the majority of artists, Quaytman’s work defied being cleanly categorized into a single movement or style. Curator Apsara DiQuinzio locates him within an amalgam of art movements prominent throughout the 1930s to the 1970s, “at the junction of abstract expressionism, minimalism, process art, and constructivism.” Quaytman’s experimentation with these movements reads clearly in the exhibition, which DiQuinzio orders chronologically.

Particularly striking is Quaytman’s experimentation with pigments to produce his own hues. For the artist, this process was clearly more than just experimentation — it was a science. The exhibition included selections from Quaytman’s notebooks, revealing the painter’s investigations into methods of producing aesthetically pleasing hues.

“Not only can color, which is under fixed laws, be taught like music, but it is easier to learn than drawing whose absolute principles cannot be taught,” Quaytman had scrawled on one page, quoting 19th-century French art critic Charles Blanc. “There is always in a picture a luminous spot, of which there must be only one,” he wrote, quoting the words of 19th-century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. And then, in all capital letters and attributed to no one other than, presumably, himself: “LUMINOSITY IS NOT INTENSITY.”

Glimpses such as these into Quaytman’s personal processes and methods provide the main attraction of the exhibition. Despite Quaytman’s focus on abstraction and minimalism, in “Against the Static,” his works lack intrigue when standing alone. Explanatory text written by museum staff prompts the viewers to orient themselves within the greater artistic movements that Quaytman was inspired by for each particular piece. But these captions tend toward the abstract themselves, lacking the connection to self or society that many viewers (including the college students who visit) will inevitably seek in the art.

Of course, as the exhibition urgently reminds viewers, Quaytman’s work with color did not totally define his art, which changed regularly over his lifetime. The artist also experimented with sculptural works, carefully crafting arcs from stretcher bars to suggest “a sense of movement,” as BAMPFA’s A.J. Fox writes. The exhibition also notes the intentionally uneven surfaces of some of Quaytman’s paintings, which push his work into the realm of the tactile.

In Rinder’s introduction, the director states that “the present Quaytman exhibition reminds us of the enduring power, relevance, even necessity of abstract painting.” Perhaps this holds true for patient museumgoers familiar with abstract art, but many BAMPFA visitors do not fit this description. And for this majority, “Against the Static” lacks accessibility, leaving its assertion of relevance a faltering one.

How do we connect the work of this underrecognized artist to our own lives? Why, if abstract art is unfamiliar to us, should we care about Harvey Quaytman? Where do we, the viewers, see ourselves in his art? BAMPFA fails to adequately answer these questions, making pieces that are not that old feel more removed from the present day than necessary.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].