As they gaze through the arched entry of the BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., visitors can witness how Bernard Chaet’s and Charles Cajori’s paintings punctuate the space with color.
What they won’t see at a glance is that each artist has received a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. That prize is granted to one artist per year whose “lifetime contribution to his or her vision has been both consistent and dedicated.”
Both artists have also long been well-regarded teachers. Chaet taught painting at Yale University from 1951 to 1990, while Cajori began teaching at the New York Studio School in 1964 and still does today. Both have exhibited widely and well for the past 50 years. Now in their eighties, the two men boast résumés that reflect the skill and experience obvious in their paintings. Given their long careers and mounting honors, the BigTown show’s title, “Two American Masters,” is not hyperbole.
Chaet and Cajori make a harmonious pairing. Both painters’ works are studied, skillful, gestural and often abstract. Yet they’re decidedly different.
Chaet’s works focus on the Maine landscape. He paints outdoors, and the dynamism of changing weather and light charges his works with lush tension. In “Hovering Cloud,” 30 inches square, an abstract coastline of interlocking blocks of color and squiggly lines meets a tumbling sea of deep blue and white. Broad strokes of blue and pink, representing the sky, stretch over the water and back to the horizon. An arched cloud perched over the sea seems to move. The whole dramatic, delicious landscape of color swirls at Chaet’s touch.
This work is a perfectly balanced paradox — sometimes loosely and sometimes tightly painted, brimming with emotion tempered by the skilled hand of a practiced formalist. Chaet’s ease with paint is evident in the texture and economy of each stroke. Placed with precision and intuition, each contributes to the composition and feeling of the piece as an essential part of the whole. Chaet’s observation is exact, his instincts honed; these compositions fairly sing.
Cajori’s cool-toned palette — peaches and pinks accented with intense blues and grassy greens — suits his most beloved subject: the figurative “landscape.” The color beckons the eye, but his paintings find their purest poetry in the carefully weighted lines that define his figures and give them volume, depth, even texture. Cajori works directly from models, drawing with so few marks that the forms seem to rise almost magically from the picture plane.
In two small charcoal figurative drawings, both untitled, Cajori’s powers of observation and execution produce brilliant constructions of space and form. In one, a woman sits with her knees drawn toward her, arms crossed in a balletic gesture over one ankle. Cajori captures her presence in space, the physicality of her form and even her mood in a small number of lines, drawn wide or thin with equal grace. Dotted marks dance over the page; they appear to have been made by the tip of the charcoal as the artist looked up repeatedly to render the figure in its fullness. Through simple media and a great depth of experience, Cajori creates calm yet energetic order from the white chaos of the page.
In the brightly lit quarters of the BigTown Gallery, viewers can move among the paintings of Chaet and Cajori like dreamers marveling at the clarity of the imagined world. The more one looks at their works, the more there is to see. Color, form, composition, gesture, line and feeling interact seamlessly over canvasses large and small. The effect is mesmerizing and, indeed, masterful.