Clifford Gleason: Early Oregon modernist

Hallie Ford Museum of Art continues its justly celebrated retrospectives of Oregon artists with the late Clifford Gleason

“Painting is hard work. It’s work, sure it’s work. When you are using all your faculties for one thing—standing in front of an easel—you don’t realize it because it is inspiring, but you are exhausted at the end of the day, you are bound to be, because you are using everything.” — Clifford Gleason

If you go to see the Clifford Gleason retrospective at Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, you will be rewarded if you enjoy impressive abstract painting and traveling through an artist’s career. It is ironic that Gleason’s big show, now 42 years after his death, occurs when people hesitate to even leave home (here are the museum’s guidelines for visitors). Gleason (1913-1978) was not one of the big names of mid-century Oregon art—just a well-respected painter. This exhibition demonstrates why he was well-respected and why he should be newly remembered.

Clifford Gleason in his studio, Salem, Oregon. 1960s.
Photo by Bob Crist. Collection of Bob Crist.

Clifford Gleason: The Promise of Paint takes us through Gleason’s roughly 40-year career, beginning in 1938. As we move through the exhibition we can imagine what it might have been like to figure out how to be a painter was in step with his time. As with recent Hallie Ford retrospectives for Louis Bunce and Lucinda Parker, this one has been organized by Roger Hull, and is accompanied by a catalog with a fascinating, detailed essay that weaves Gleason’s life/career with great documentation of the times. 

We learn about a young man from Salem, Oregon, who enjoyed art in high school, but dropped out (not unusual: the high school graduation rate in 1930, when Gleason was 17, was only 29%). But Gleason was prepared for “modern” ideas about art by his high school art teacher, Ruth Brauti. Gleason remembered her: “She was very far ahead of her time. She had studied and knew contemporary painting. She was alive with contemporary art, such as Matisse and Picasso. She kept prints on the wall, reproductions. She was probably one of the first people who really encouraged me.” (All quotations by or about Gleason come from Roger Hull’s essay.)

It was also a lucky coincidence for Gleason that in the late 1930s there was a Federal Art Center in Salem (a small city of about 30,000 in those days), part of the Depression Era Federal Art Project, and that Louis Bunce needed the salary that teaching there provided. In his catalog for the Hallie Ford Louis Bunce retrospective, Hull writes of the Art Center, “The strong support by Salem community leaders, generous coverage by the local press, an excellent facility, and a dedicated staff helped make it a notable success.”

Bunce had studied at the Art Students League in New York, where the Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929, and he became Oregon’s greatest advocate for contemporary painting in the abstract expressionist era (for instance see the entertaining Jazz Arts film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJMyOQ0zaBI). Bunce, in his early 30s, must have been an energizing spirit when Gleason studied with him. 

Clifford Gleason (American, 1913-2011), “Strange Plant,” 1961,
oil on canvas, 30 x 24.5 in., Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art,
Willamette University, Salem, OR, Gift of Marian Milligan and William Dugan,

Unlike Bunce, who upon his return to Oregon immediately took his modernist education back to landscape painting for a while, Gleason seems to have gone straight into making modernist inspired still-life, interior, and figurative works. It is unclear how much paintings like Still Life With Spools, c. 1939, were influenced by art school instruction (Gleason received a scholarship to the Museum Art School in Portland in 1939), but there are hints of classic cubism, Chagall, Morandi, and Cézanne. 

In a lecture c. 1960, Frank Stella said, “There are two problems in painting. One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting. The first is learning something and the second is making something.” The early part of the exhibition illustrates a search for “what painting is” in the 1930s and 40s by a young “student” of the medium. As late as 1951, when he was 38, he went to Paris he said, “to do advanced study with Léger, recognized as one of the 20th century’s leading painters.” At that time Paris was still seen as the center of advanced painting as abstract expressionism was just getting under way in New York.

Clifford Gleason, “Still Life with Spools,” ca. 1939, oil on board,
45.25 x 32 in., Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art

In the 1950s Gleason begins to “find out how to make [his] painting.” After his return from a few months in Paris he began to contend with the spirit of the abstract expressionism in the air even way out here in Oregon. Artist Laneta King, wrote in the Capitol Statesman in 1953 (Gleason was back in Salem), “Mr. Gleason calls his approach to art ‘Expressionistic,’ an expression by the artist over and above what might be inherent in the subject matter…” But Gleason was not an “action painter” in the sense that we see slashing brushstrokes or drips of paint. His “action” is, as King continued in her commentary, “the studied working out, on canvas of color and form placement according to the painter’s response to the subject.” There are landscape-like references in the 1950s paintings, with horizon lines or house forms providing some familiar sense of order, but they become less important than the painterly qualities.

Hull sees a breakthrough in the late ‘50s with works built over pasted crinkled rice paper. He says, “The crinkled paper works, modest and experimental, are significant in the arc of Gleason’s creativity, for they set forth elements that he developed and transformed in his oil paintings in the 1960s, when he fully sensed the promise of paint as a medium of freedom, liberation, and improvisation.” Robert Rauschenberg utilized pasted newspaper to begin his “Black” and “Red” paintings of the early ‘50s. He said, “I began using newsprint in my work to activate a ground…”    Gleason’s breakthrough, utilizing a similar method (I’m making no case for influence here), allowed him also to begin without preconceiving an idea—in reacting to what was a textural “given.” Untitled, 1957, is a small (15” x 14”) work that has a bit of texture from the paper wrinkles, and is non-referential except for the “horizon line.” In a work such as this, mainly areas of subdued color over texture, Gleason steps forward to his own painting. There is no nameable suspect for artist influence. He was 44 years old.

In his work from the 1960s, fields and shapes of color are not built over texture, but by texture from the paint buildup itself. It was a time of valuing paint for its inherent viscous qualities. The works from this period are the ones that must be seen live, as the paint itself (“The paint’s gotta sing,” as artist Mel Katz told students at Portland State University around this time) breathes life into these paintings—beyond composition, or color. Strange Plant, 1961, provides an example of compositional change in Gleason’s work as the depicted forms seem suspended from the edges within a brushed field of paint. In the ‘60s the paintings often grow from the edges inward—central fields of interesting paint are flanked by small shapes just nudging their way into the canvas.

A couple of things: What is “interesting paint?” For me that’s paint that has been applied in such a way (could be texture, could be subtleties of color variation, etc.) that delight might be found in the experience of taking the time to savor it. In classic landscape painting it can very often be found in expanses of sky. Why is it important that the paintings grow inward, versus having centralized composition? That’s just a point for those who “enjoy traveling through an artist’s career.” That’s a curve on the road leading to a new direction.

Clifford Gleason, “Blue Passage,” 1973, oil on canvas, 68 x 38 in.,
Collection of Dorothy and Brooks Cofield. Photo: Aaron Johanson.

Gleason got off to a great start in the 1970s through an Art Advocates project. Art Advocates was a group of collectors who “invested” in the production of an artist for a year and received a portion of the artist’s works. Gleason had a grant for 1972-73. During that period, as we see in the exhibition, Gleason worked on what were, for him, large-size canvases, almost six feet tall. By the 1970s the play of shapes moving into open “space” from edges is the main motif, such as in a work like Green Butterfly, 1972-73. In such works, the open central field is flatly painted, no longer nuanced through touch or color. In the late works, there is a feeling of fresh lightheartedness that contrasts with the more labored feeling of earlier paintings. Very little reworking or paint texture is evident in what feel like quickly resolved colored shapes.  Maybe these paintings remind us of visual concepts of the time—open spaces in Barnett Newman’s paintings, the big white areas bounded by color of Sam Francis, the edge markings in the color field paintings of Jules Olitski—but these works exude Gleason’s confidence in his ideas about what painting could be, and in his ability to pull it off. 

In 1975 I wrote about Gleason’s exhibition at the Sally Judd Gallery in Portland (his last). I said, “Clifford Gleason must be one of the least pretentious artists in Portland. No frills, grandiose gestures or gimmicky shallow ideas are in his work.” 

Mask up and take a drive. And read the book.

NOTES

Clifford Gleason: The Promise of Paint runs through  October 31 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, Oregon.

See: https://willamette.edu/arts/hfma/about/covid-19.html for COVID-19 restrictions.

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