An Artist Who Painted Light

Restrospective on Morgan Russell reveals his fascination with color and its properties. ART: REVIEW

THE great churnings in the art world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries stirred up so many radical changes that scholarly evaluation continues to dredge up new visions of those fabulous few decades. So much happened in Europe and America, so many movements and manifestoes tore down old habits of perception and built up new forms of expression that the expatriated American artist Morgan Russell (1886-1953) has never received his due, until now. The traveling exhibition ``Morgan Russell: A Retrospective,'' on view here through Sunday at the Terra Museum of American Art, presents a fascinating history of the artist's investigations into color theory, his development (along with Stanton MacDonald-Wright) of ``synchromism,'' and his lifelong involvement with the figurative. The show moves next to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., where it will run from Sept. 15 to Nov. 4.

Russell's role as co-developer of synchromism - a term meaning ``with color'' or ``colors together'' - is his most important contribution to the annals of American abstraction. But curator Marilyn Kushner of the Montclair (N.J.) Art Museum, where the show originated, has rightly assembled a range of his work, offering a vigorous new appreciation for the latter part of his career.

Living in Paris for most of his professional life, Russell studied with Matisse, absorbed the lessons of Cubism, and, just as significantly, examined the Old Masters, especially the sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini and Michelangelo.

``Dazzled'' by Monet, Russell saw how the maestro balanced color as a ``movement of light.'' Russell also assimilated 19th-century ``discoveries'' in physics about the properties of color - principles acknowledged by artists since Leonardo. He reveled in C'ezanne's use of color to achieve structural solidity: Color generates form. C'ezanne's visual rhythms created by the play of warm light against cold fascinated Russell. And C'ezanne's color rhythms, combined with the theory that warm colors advance and cool colors recede, inspired the development of synchromism.

Russell wrote to a friend, ``Never paint the object, paint light. There are no shadows, only lights. The object grows out of the light, just as form grows out of the painting of light.'' Color for Russell became the instrument of light.

Robert Delaunay usually has been given credit for developing abstraction based on color, and critics for decades have dismissed Russell's work as derivative. But Ms. Kushner establishes unequivocally that the two arrived at their experiments independently and almost simultaneously.

Delaunay, she further points out, was not interested in depth, as Russell was.

``Synchromism was one of the first American responses to modern art in Europe,'' Kushner said in a telephone interview. ``Russell was not only responding to new ideas in art and abstraction; he was influencing the development of those ideas. Synchromism directly influenced a number of American painters,'' she said, ``from Thomas Hart Benton and Joseph Stella, perhaps, even to Georgia O'Keeffe - that idea of color defining form.''

The exhibition involves the viewer in the development of synchromism by incorporating Russell's own notes and including one of his exquisite ``light boxes'' complete with four painted tissue panels glowing almost like stained glass. The show is rounded out with much of the work he did after his all-too-brief experiments with abstraction.

Missing from the show at the Terra is his most important synchromist work, ``Synchromy in Orange: To Form'' (1914) - which wouldn't fit through the doors of the museum. (It will be on view in Buffalo, however.)

What we can see of Russell's abstract work intrigues and instructs. His preoccupation with light, and with color as its instrument, foreshadowed some of the great experiments even in avant-garde film.

``Synchromy in Blue Violet'' (1913), a 22-inch-tall canvas, is still considered a seminal work, as Russell himself considered it. Kushner describes how Russell worked on his ideas for this painting over the course of several years and based the origin of his forms on Michelangelo's ``Dying Slave.''

Thus, the ``S'' curve dominates the center of the picture. Brightest yellow draws the eye to the center of the painting, while blocks of blue pin the twisting blocks of orange, green, and red.

The inscription under the title in the original catalog read, ``Then God said let there be light and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.''

Russell was reaching for something beyond the representation of what the senses record.

He wrote to his patron, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, ``If modern painting is to express anything greater than a few apples or portraits, it can only be something of this sort.''

But Russell himself considered the synchromies only the first act of his life's work, as Kushner points out. His still lifes, landscapes, and portraits sustained him financially through most of his life. His paintings of nudes, he felt, were central to his work, though they have never gained wide critical acceptance.

Kushner's inclusion of the nudes, along with her excellent catalog essay, offers a unique opportunity to rethink and re-see this artist's contributions to the history of American art.

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