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.

Then, in the 1960s, the pop artists attacked abstract expressionism, replacing the touchy-feely subjectivity of the style with their own irreverent and cynical take on America's commercial culture. The pop art paintings didn't reveal runs, drips or smears, like those of the abstract expressionists, but instead adopted the hard edges and flat surfaces of prints.

Establishing a stylistic beachhead somewhere in between were the minimalists of New York, whose decade of triumph was the 1970s. Like the abstract expressionists, the minimalists were interested in creating paintings that were non-objective, but like the pop artists, their surfaces were pristinely flat.

By the time Obering got to New York, both Italy and Andre had made an impression on her. Even her most recent work is closely akin to the minimalism long championed by Andre; and Obering's decision to use tempera as her material of choice places her work in an Italian tradition. She's still personally close to Andre and travels frequently to Italy, where she maintains a studio in the province of Puglia.

The excellent exhibit now at Rule doesn't attempt to survey Obering's entire career. What it does is follow a single concept embraced by her--turning a traditional painting into a minimalist one--from 1978 to the present.

The oldest piece in the show is a six-panel tempera and gold leaf on gessoed Masonite titled "Cafeteria." According to Obering, the entire show has its roots in this 1978 painting. "The later paintings are all blowups of this one," she says.

Obering says she had noticed that traditional paintings--in particular landscapes and still lifes--nearly always featured a horizon line. Using small rectangular blocks of color or gold leaf, Obering creates her own horizon line by arranging each of the six panels into two sections. In the top half of each panel are vertical blocks, and below are horizontal ones. The distinction is subtle but easy to see. Obering painted all six of these panels at the same time, and though each one is different, the carefully formulated approach relates each of the colors to the others.

"Cafeteria" is an early example of Obering's use of tempera, an elaborate technique that requires both skill and patience. Made with powdered pigments and egg yolks, tempera is a type of paint that predates oils--it's the paint of the Italian Renaissance. Obering turned to the material not just because she sought to make her paintings thoroughly flat (tempera can't be used on canvas, only on a rigid surface), but also because of the permanent brilliance of its colors. "Oils inevitably darken as they age, but tempera does not," she notes. "The paintings of Giotto, which I love, are hundreds of years old, but the colors are still bold. They haven't changed at all."

However, the tempera process is painstaking. Even before the colors can be applied, layer upon layer of gesso must be put down, and each layer must be sanded smooth before the next application. Obering makes her gesso the old-fashioned way, by using rabbit-skin glue and whiting. And attaching the gold leaf is even more involved. A French gilding clay is put on top of the prepared gesso and burnished to a smooth surface; the sheets of gold leaf are then attached to the clay.

The 1989 painting "Archangel" lays out Obering's entire process, serving as a de facto catalogue of her favored materials. The painting is divided into two horizontal halves--just like "Cafeteria." Across the bottom Obering has put squares of unfinished Masonite, gesso and graphite, and across the top is a central square in sky-blue tempera bracketed on either side by a pair of rectangles of gilding clay. Beyond that are a pair of rectangles of gold leaf.

"Archangel" demonstrates just how gestural minimalism can be in Obering's hands. One critic has even labeled her approach "subversive," since, despite being typically simple arrangements of simple shapes, her paintings are dense with hand work. The tempera flows slightly--almost imperceptibly--on either side of the line meant to contain it. The marks of the burnishing tool on the clay are still easy to see. And the graphite panel is a dense expressionist scribble. The contrast between these highly personal features and Obering's pointedly impersonal approach to the design of her pictures is amazing--and effective.

Some of Obering's paintings, though they still feature flat surfaces, are displayed jutting out from the wall as if they were painted on thick, heavy blocks. In this way, some nearly become hybrids of painting and sculpture--a concept Obering has taken further in work not included at Rule. "Chakras," a 1991 tempera and gold leaf on gessoed Masonite that is in the show, is a fine example; it has a sculptural presence but is essentially still a painting. In the case of later pieces like 1994's "PB," 1995's "NS II" and the almost brand-new "PK," it's more of a judgment call. Maybe these "paintings" are really sculptural wall reliefs--or maybe not.

Obering's must-see show at Rule is an overdue tribute to one of Denver's leading expatriates. And it's one of the many fine art shows that have opened in the last two weeks--proof that this year's fall season is off to a running start.

Mary Obering: Paintings 1978-1996, through October 6 at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

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