New York — `THERE is nothing like the excitement I get from creating art,'' declares Nanette Carter, a young artist of talent and flair, whose colorful abstractions are beginning to attract serious attention in art circles in the Eastern United States and in some parts of the Midwest. ``And listening to jazz while I work makes it even more stimulating and rewarding. Rhythm and movement are important to my paintings, as are texture and color. I love to work against solid black, because it makes the colors richer and more dramatic and closer in effect to the music I hear.''
A quick glance around her spacious, plant-filled upper Manhattan apartment proves that Ms. Carter's paintings are extremely handsome. Several of the most recent hang on the walls, and a number of smaller, unframed pieces are spread out on the floor for study. All are geometric in design and sumptuously colored. A particularly radiant painting is pinned to the wall in what is obviously her work area.
``I'm not quite finished with that one,'' she indicates, ``but I'm pleased with it. I'm trying out some new color combinations, and they seem to be working. I use this corner as my studio, because the light from the window is so good, and if I need a break, I can stand up and enjoy the view of the Hudson River and New Jersey.''
It's obvious she's not one to fuss with fancy or elaborate studio equipment. ``When I work with oil pastels -- and right now it's my favorite medium -- I pin or tape the paper or board directly onto the wall for support, and my collages are done in much the same way. Even my printmaking is simple and easy. I `print' my woodcuts by the old-fashioned method of placing paper over the inked block and then rubbing the paper gently with a wooden spoon.''
Although some of her methods may seem casual and old-fashioned, the results definitely are not. Her work has already been displayed in four exhibitions this year, including a group show at Associated American Artists, one of the most prestigious print galleries in America. She has also had a one-woman show in Detroit, held at the N'Namdi Gallery, that consisted entirely of oil pastels and was both a critical and commercial success.
Carter's preparation for a career in art began early. She was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1954, moved to New Jersey with her parents when she was a child, and then returned to Ohio to study art at Oberlin College. She received her BA from Oberlin (after spending her junior year at the L'Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy), then went on to win her MFA from New York's Pratt Institute in 1978.
The years after that were busy and productive. She taught briefly at Pratt, accepted a position teaching printmaking and drawing at a preparatory school in Englewood, N.J. (which she still holds, although her responsibilities are now limited to four days a week), and spent the rest of her time working diligently at her art and her career.
Both came into focus rather quickly. By 1980 her work was sufficiently sophisticated to be included in two museum exhibitions, and in 1981 three other museums followed suit. Since then she has had five one-woman shows, has had her work selected for several important national and regional exhibitions, and has been featured in a number of magazines and books.
Carter attributes some of her success to the fact that her work can be interpreted in various ways. ``Although I was influenced by jazz, African art, Japanese prints, and Russian Constructivism, people persist in seeing my pictures in largely natural terms, as representing or evoking elements or qualities of landscape, the ocean, or the sky. I said once in an interview that my work is probably a synthesis of all three, and I think that still holds true. My paintings and prints may appear nonobjective, but they are, in many ways, about what we see and experience in nature.''
In the last few years her art has grown dramatically in richness and diversity. The biggest change has been in her use of color, which has progressed from crisp dark-light contrasts, through muted hues and tonalities, to coloristic brilliance. Her evolution, however, has always been reasoned and balanced, with her sensibilities and intelligence working in perfect tandem to fashion images embodying feeling and form in equal measure.
This balance is not quite as evident, however, in some of her recent monotypes (a type of printing that produces only one impression), especially those pertaining to South Africa's racial problems. In them, emotion wins out over control, and color, by being more aggressive, sets the tone in ways it never has before.
``I'm excited about these monotypes,'' she asserts. ``They are very important to me. I see them as positive, affirmative statements, as harbingers of hope. That's why I've entitled one series `Seeds of Promise' and the other `Burning Apartheid.' All of the latter have images of fire. I already have 25 in the first series and roughly a third that many in the second, and I see no end in sight.''
The majority are small, compact, and highly energized, and project an aura of passion and painterly impetuosity not found in her other, more neatly structured works. The differences are so startling that one cannot help wondering whether they indicate a possible change in style -- or are merely an expression of her strong feelings about apartheid.
``I really don't know where these pictures will lead me stylistically,'' she responds. ``I'm challenged by and welcome change in my art, but only if it's anchored to something meaningful. In this case it is. Serene or radiant images simply wouldn't do for something as stupid and repugnant as apartheid, even if it's presented within a hopeful context. What's called for is something more passionate and provocative, and that's what I'm working toward.
``On the other hand, there's more to art than emotion. Feeling must be shaped and directed and translated into formal rhythms and design before it can become art. If I cannot do that here, then it doesn't matter what my subject is.
``My understanding of this was given a big boost by the Mondrian [leading abstract painter of the 20th century] retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in the early 1970s. Moving down the museum ramp, I saw a traditional, somewhat romantic landscape artist turning into a very pure abstract painter right before my eyes. The step-by-step process was laid out for all to see. It was a great lesson for me, and I've never forgotten it.''
She also hasn't forgotten how inadequately the history and contributions of black artists were presented in the schools she attended. ``I was upset as an art and art history student,'' she states, ``by the fact that we weren't better informed about black artists. Everybody knew about Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, of course, but that was it. I had to find out about the others by myself -- and there are many others, and very good ones at that.
``I was fortunate to meet and to be accepted by a group of older black artists, and to discover through them what a talented and wide-ranging community of painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers -- you name it -- we have. The art world, unfortunately, still doesn't feel quite at ease with us -- at least when we appear in a gallery with our slides or in a museum with examples of our work. A mild form of apprehension, an uncertainty about our seriousness and dependability, often hangs in the air. It's subtle, but it's there.''
In her case, however, the art world seems to have few if any qualms. Her work is abstract in form and Constructivist (an approach to art that denies all forms of representation and focuses on geometric forms) in origin, but it is sufficiently lyrical and nonconformist in spirit to bypass most prejudices and dogmas and to prove agreeably accessible even to those who normally prefer straightforward representation in their art.
While this may be due in part to her ability to evoke a sense of nature and the great outdoors in even her most abstract works, a more probable cause is her special way with color and design. She integrates them so well, and with such quiet, understated elegance and grace, that one cannot help responding warmly and respectfully to even the most subtle of her images.
Her recent monotypes, for all their fervor, are also warmly lyrical, even celebratory, in tone, and transmit a powerful sense of the urgency and invincibility of human life.
Here again, it's the life-enhancing and integrative aspect of her creative self that wins out, not her anger over cruelty and evil.
More often than not, however, there is a price to pay in art for such generosity of spirit and modesty, and that is to be taken less seriously as an artist than one deserves. For all the positive reaction to her paintings and prints, Carter must still occasionally put up with criticism that automatically equates unpretentiousness and smallness of scale with minor art, and that summarizes what she does as ``pleasing, quiet, and nice.''
``Good'' and ``beautiful'' would be more like it. And even, at times, ``extraordinary.''
Last of a series Other artists profiled Robert Kushner, June 10 Ida Kohlmeyer, June 20 John Wilde, July 2 Philip McCracken, July 17 Gregory Paquette, Aug. 8