Less Is More

Maybe it's the way the mountains emphatically hit the sky, or perhaps it's those seemingly infinite flat prairies. Whatever the reason, many artists working in Colorado have looked to the firm, straight line as the principal means to their artistic ends.

One of the most prominent of those practitioners is an artist who packed up and left the state long ago: Mary Obering, the former Denver housewife and art student who, after learning about art in books, went back East in the 1970s to join up with the New York School. Obering, now the subject of the fabulous Rule Gallery solo show Mary Obering: Paintings 1978-1996, didn't have to jump on the New York School's minimalist bandwagon when she got to the Big Apple a quarter-century ago. Thanks to the formative years she spent in Denver, she was already on board.

Born in 1937 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Obering still speaks with a thick Southern drawl despite having spent the last 25 years in New York. She attended graduate school at Radcliffe College near Boston, where she studied psychology with B.F. Skinner in the late 1950s (even then, she says, she was chiefly interested in art). Leaving Radcliffe, Obering moved to New York City to work for CBS, during which time she studied at the Art Students League. She arrived in Denver with her husband in the mid-1960s and settled into the life of a wife and mother. "I was skiing all the time, going to luncheons--I was even in the Junior League," she says. "And then I thought, 'Hey, this isn't dress rehearsal.'"

Obering first began to expand her horizons by studying art history. "I have to give credit to the Denver Public Library, because it was there that I was first able to explore art," she says. Those forays amid the stacks led Obering to enroll at the University of Denver, where she received a master of fine arts degree in 1971 at the age of 34. While at DU, Obering worked with Roger Kotoske (who's featured in a group show that just opened at Artyard) and says she remembers him as an enthusiastic teacher who continues to serve as an inspiration. Obering first dabbled in sculpture, working in the medium of welded steel. Soon, though, she turned to painting.

"I was using rollers and acrylic paint, creating huge abstracts on unstretched canvas laid out on the floor," she says. These early pieces were color-field paintings, and while they were minimal, they weren't minimalist. "I was being influenced by [abstract expressionist giant] Mark Rothko, so there were large areas of color with one shade overlaying another," Obering notes. It was this work that led Obering to her signature style: rendering paintings on a completely level surface.

The idea that paintings should be perfectly flat had gained momentum among contemporary artists by the 1970s. And Obering was fully immersed in the campaign. "I wanted to create paintings that were totally flat," she says. "First I used acrylic on canvas, then oil on canvas, then oil on Masonite, and finally tempera on Masonite."

Obering eventually achieved the level foundation she was after. And instead of allowing the pigments to bleed through, as she had done before, she used simple geometric shapes with a hard edge between the colors. In this she was not only reflecting the contemporary art of the time but was also becoming a part, albeit briefly, of a long Colorado tradition.

Obering says she was aware of Aspen's Herbert Bayer and of Beverly Rosen--who was then teaching art just down the hall at DU. But she says that neither Bayer nor Rosen--nor any of the other Colorado artists working in minimalism, constructivism, geometric abstraction, pattern painting or other related styles, including Clark Richert, George Woodman, David Yust and Angelo DiBenidetto--exerted an influence on her. "There may have been connections between us--but it was subconscious," Obering says. "I was looking at Paul Cezanne, Constantin Brancusi, Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman."

Having completed her studies at DU--and having left her husband--Obering took her young daughter and went to Italy. It was there that she met master minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was impressed with her work. When Obering moved to New York soon after, Andre introduced the neophyte to many of the movers and shakers of the art world. As a result, Obering says she was "lucky right away." Thanks to Andre, she found herself at the center of New York minimalism and made many close friends with other proponents of the movement, notably the late Donald Judd, with whom Obering was especially close.

The New York School was a natural fit for Obering. In fact, her association with it seems as inevitable as does the minimalist movement itself.

The sequence of events leading to New York minimalism began in the 1940s and '50s, when the abstract expressionists summed up all the various "isms" of European modernism--cubism, futurism, abstract surrealism--and arrived at what might be called pure painting. These painters believed that the act of creating a painting is about nothing more than arranging paint on a two-dimensional plane--the pattern that connects all abstract art. The subject matter for the abstract expressionists was the act of painting itself. This knocked down once and for all the age-old concept that a painting needed to be a window on the world.

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