1929 (Millville, Pennsylvania)
2005 (Belfast, Maine)
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|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following biography is from an essay on the web site of Neil
Welliver (www.neilwelliver.com) as referenced by Ken Somer and written
by Edgar Allen Beem:|
"Robert M. Doty, former director of the
Currier Gallery in New Hampshire, for instance, has called Welliver
'one of the best landscape painters in America.' Former United States
Poet Laureate Mark Strand has dubbed Welliver 'the finest landscape
painter America has produced.' Art historian Frank H. Goodyear, Jr. has
seconded that nomination, writing that 'America has not seen a native
landscape painter of the genius of Neil Welliver since Frederic Church
(1826-1900).' And Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes has concluded
that 'Welliver's huge paintings of the Maine woods are among the
strongest images in modern American art.'
importance of Neil Welliver's landscapes, then, is that they represent
the highest achievement of landscape painting in the wake of
abstraction. Whereas Maine's other great representational painter
Andrew Wyeth paints as if the 20th century never happened, Neil
Welliver's "realistic" images of Maine have absorbed the most important
lesson of abstraction, namely that a painting should have integrity of
its own as a thing-in-itself before it serves as an imitation of
something other than itself.
Neil Welliver is nothing if not his
own man. At 65, he is a tough, no-nonsense individualist who carries
himself with something of a martial air, a persona accentuated by his
close-cropped white hair, clipped mustache, and penchant for wearing
khaki field shirts. Indeed, it would be easy to imagine him as a
retired military officer, or, coming upon him in the fields and forests
of Maine, to mistake him for a farmer or logging contractor. He is an
artist and an intellectual who wears his learning very casually.
grew up in Millville, Pennsylvania, in a rural landscape long since
destroyed by development. He is a graduate of the Philadelphia Museum
College of Art (1953) and of Yale (1955). At Yale, he studied abstract
painting and color theory under Josef Albers, the Bauhaus master famous
for his Homage to the Square series. Welliver's firm grasp of color
relations and the fact that most of his paintings are square (as
opposed to the horizontal rectangle traditionally associated with great
landscape painting) can be traced to Albers' influence.
himself taught painting at Yale (1955-65) and at the University of
Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Art (1966-1989). From 1970 until
his retirement in 1989, he commuted monthly to Philadelphia from his
farm in Lincolnville, Maine, where he became part of a mid-coast Maine
circle of outstanding realist painters that included Fairfield Porter,
Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, Yvonne Jacquette and Rackstraw Downes.
1971, Welliver's best friend drowned in a pond near his farm. In 1975,
his farmhouse burned to the ground, and his entire collection of his
own work went up in flames. In 1976, his infant daughter Ashley died of
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and, six months later, his wife Polly died
suddenly of a viral infection, leaving Welliver alone to care for four
sons. Then, in 1991, Welliver suffered the most severe blow of all when
his son Eli, 20, was murdered while studying in Thailand. One might
reasonably expect to see the impact of such tragic losses in an
artist's work, but the serene beauty of Welliver's landscapes appears
eerily undisturbed by his personal tragedies.
It may just be,
however, that Welliver's life manifests itself in his art in ways too
subtle to be detected by viewers unfamiliar with his story. The
elimination of the human figure, which marked the transition to his
mature work, for instance, occurred shortly after the death of his
daughter and his wife. And in the painting he has done since the murder
of his son, Welliver has repeatedly been drawn to subject matter that
most landscape painters would have avoided - the aftermath of a forest
fire. "My son had just died," Welliver explains. "I went immediately to
the Allagash. There had been a huge forest fire. Most painters do not
go out in the middle of something like that and paint. I did. But I did
not think about that when I was painting."
Welliver owns a cabin
in the Allagash wilderness along Maine's northernmost border with
Canada. Many of his recent paintings - Twin Brooks -- Allagash (1991 )
and Low Water -- St. John's (1994), for example - celebrate the ebb and
flow of natural cycles in this northern forest land. But the greatest
departure in his recent paintings has been a preoccupation with the
ravages and rebirth in the wake of the forest fire. Fire's Edge and
Singed Fir (1992) is one of the most desolate of these paintings,
presenting as it does the charred remains of burned trees enlivened
only by the new growth of ferns among the singed fir.
like to think that in painting nature's capacity to recover from
disaster Welliver is externalizing his own healing process, but that is
not a symbolic leap the artist himself consciously makes. Welliver
resists injecting himself into the landscape, the result being that
some viewers find his work cool, detached and impersonal. And that's
just fine with Welliver.
"I'm like ice when I paint," he says.
"My body temperature goes down to 60 degrees. It's very un-emotional,
but God knows there is enough action and emotion in the woods to cover
all of the emotions. To have any emotional impact, for me, would at
best be a distraction."
Underlying this Welliver reserve is a
methodical approach to painting that is at once mechanical, meditative
and modern. Unlike most painterly realists who lay down an undercoat,
rough out the image, and then work toward greater and greater
refinement, often painting over and into finished areas, Welliver
imposes a rigorous discipline on his canvases. There are no accidents
in a Welliver landscape, and there is nothing beneath the surface
except a blue print, a diagram, if you will, of the final image.
begins each painting traditionally, executing an oil study (several of
which are included in the 1 exhibition) directly from nature. Often he
paints from canoe, snowshoes or cross country skis, preferring wintry
landscapes. Three frost-bitten fingers tell him when it is time to pack
up the easel and head for the studio.
In the barn studio
attached to his home, Welliver recapitulates the direct experience of
nature using the study and memory as his guides. "I have an absolutely
elephantine memory for what I see. I even remember pine needles and how
they lie," he says. "When I'm painting the big pictures in the studio,
my mind is running wild. To a certain extent you re-live the experience
of nature on a greater scale and, one hopes, better."
his large - typically, six, seven or eight foot square - paintings,
Welliver first draws a cartoon outline of the image on a huge sheet of
sign writer's paper. He then traces the lines of the cartoon with a
serrated wheel that perforates the paper drawing. Taping the perforated
drawing over a primed canvas, he taps the drawn lines with a bag of
charcoal dust to transfer the image onto the canvas.
remarkable thing about Welliver's method, however, is that, once the
guidelines have been transferred, he begins in the upper left hand
corner and executes a finished painting left to right, top to bottom.
When a Welliver landscape is half finished, it is literally half
painted. The top half is a finished oil painting, the bottom half is
white canvas with faint outlines waiting to be followed, albeit loosely.
the studio, I make things up as I go along," he explains. "It's very
abstract in that sense." Once an area is painted, however, Welliver
never goes back to adjust or re-paint it. When he gets to the bottom of
the canvas, he simply signs his name in the lower right corner and
stops. It is a balancing act as demanding of his attention as a
high-wire act and just as exhausting.
The landscape paintings
that result from this painstaking process are not, then, imitations of
nature but highly mediated records of a human encounter with a
particular place. While he does not paint himself into the pictures -
either figuratively or expressionistically, the paintings are as much
about Welliver's mindfulness as about the scene they depict.
would call them presentations of nature rather than re-presentations,"
Welliver says. "I am presenting something. I consider myself part of
nature. I am not Homo Sapiens, lying back, looking at nature. I feel
totally at home in the woods, and I have a gut understanding that I'm
part of it."
So, in the end, what you have in a Neil Welliver
landscape is the evidence one artist has collected of the visual order
within the seeming chaos of nature, of human consciousness alive in an
indifferent universe, and of the clarity of vision that can be brought
to bear on a beauty borne out of pain."
C. Riley, March 2003
|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following, submitted March 2003, is from C. Riley, who knew the artist.|
Neil Welliver was born in Millville, Pennsylvania. He earned a B.F.A. at the Philadelphia
College of Art in 1953, and an M.F.A. from Yale in 1955. Welliver has
taught at Cooper Union in New York; Yale School of Fine Art; Swarthmore College and the
University of Pennsylvania; and has frequently served as a visiting
He owns a large parcel of property in Lincolnville, Maine, on
which he has constructed a house and studio of huge ax-stripped
timbers, burnt stone and bricks.
For the past three decades,
Neil Welliver has been painting the woods of inland Maine,
concentrating his attention on the shifts of light and color in
different seasons, weather, and times of day. His subjects have been
the unidealized physical matter of nature in whatever form it presents
itself to his eye.
|Biography from Alexandre Gallery:|
|Neil Welliver (born 1929) is known for his large-scale depictions of the Maine woods, Welliver's all over compositions and flattening of space blur the distinction between representation and abstraction. |
Welliver has work in the permanent collections of museums including The Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has been the subject of over seventy one-person exhibitions.
After teaching at Yale University for ten years, Welliver founded the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remains Professor Emeritus. He has lived in Lincolnville, Maine for forty years.
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