Harriet Wood’s “Inner Doors” show of abstract-expressionist paintings bursts forth as a late flowering. With 20 canvases and scrolls hanging in the lobby of the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier, the 75-year-old Marshfield artist reinvigorates a movement that’s nearly as old as she is. These sure-handed and sharp-eyed ab-ex paintings demonstrate Wood’s mastery of what she describes as a “challenging” form — one to which she has turned late in her career.
“Flowering” is an apt metaphor, since many of the pieces in this cheerful exhibit riff on floral themes. Wood’s titles often point explicitly to the sources of her inspiration in seasonal landscapes. Militantly abstract painters strive to divorce their creations from the natural world, but it may be hard for Vermont artists, no matter how strong their devotion to nonobjective expression, to disguise the influence of the world outside their windows.
“Spring, Jug Brook Road,” the first work a visitor encounters, sets the tone, with broad bands of red and clumps of yellow glowing at the center of a large canvas that’s also alive with streaks of white and eddies of blue. Wood alludes to a lily pond in the upper-left corner, where splotches of pink float on one of those blue pools. Surprisingly for a painting with “spring” in its title, there’s barely any green to be seen.
Along with blossoming and lushness, “Inner Doors” presents the “complexities” and “distillations” that, Wood says in her artist’s statement, attract her to abstract expressionism. In “Night Dance,” for example, the viewer becomes tangled up in blue as compressed, writhing azure and cobalt strands anneal into a square that covers two-thirds of the canvas. The rest of it remains untouched white, showing how powerfully absence can accentuate presence.
“Sugar Snow” demonstrates the difference between white paint and white primer. Here, Wood uses white as a receding background element that causes strokes of creamy pink and streaks of mustardy yellow to pop from the picture plane. Effective layering is among the techniques that give Wood’s work the complexities she seeks.
Her paintings also demand contemplation because of the variety of ways in which Wood applies paint to a surface. It sometimes appears to have been squeezed right from the tube or spattered from a distance, à la Jackson Pollock. Pencil-thin markings on some of the canvases suggest that Wood may have worked with the handle of her brush as well as with its bristles.
Two of the three sets of scrolls included in the show are oil painted with the same verve and exquisite color harmonies that Wood brings to her canvases. The visual effects are different, however, because the material, paper, does not have the same absorptive capacity, and because these horizontal pieces dangle from wires rather than being pulled tautly into squares.
The artist scores an aesthetic knockout in the first pairing, simply titled “Scroll I” and “Scroll II.” The combination of blooming pinks and splotches of maize in the left-hand piece beautifully complements the blue tendrils twisting around the same maize forms in the scroll on the right.
But the artist has unintentionally set us up for a letdown. The triptych of scrolls that follow look like a child has doodled on them. They’re chaotic and crude, lacking a unifying approach and consisting of squiggles of mismatched colors.
Skeptics — philistines might be a more accurate term — who think abstract expressionism means doing whatever you feel like doing can see by comparing Wood’s scrolls that this simply isn’t so. Deft judgments concerning colors and their placement are essential to an abstract painting if it is to appeal to, or at least provoke, an audience. Wood displays those attributes in almost all the works in this show; they desert her in a couple of cases, and the difference is obvious.
Mention must be made of the irony of a Wood exhibit being mounted in a citadel of the political establishment.
It’s inherently odd to have to pass through a metal detector and undergo a bag inspection to view an art show. But that’s not the primary dissonance one experiences while viewing “Inner Doors.” ?Wood entered the art world back in the ’50s via the NO!art movement. It arose as a political protest against racism and war and as a rejection of the dominant art genres of that time: abstract expressionism and pop art. The young Wood, who studied at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League of New York, also hung out at the Cedar Tavern, which served as the clubhouse of the beatnik elite. Its storied glories include drunken escapades by the likes of Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other ab-ex heavies.
Vermonters who view Wood’s show will be thankful that she has rejected NO!art’s rejection of abstract expressionism and found her way to a place in the art world where she clearly feels at home.
“Inner Doors,” paintings by Harriet Wood, Vermont Supreme Court Lobby, Montpelier. Through June 27.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Opening Doors"