Neil Welliver (1929–2005) would likely forgive viewers of a recent exhibition (Neil Welliver: Chrysalis, 1954–1964) at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, Maine, if they do not recognize these paintings—consisting of family members, academic colleagues and acquaintances, skeletons frolicking in a sylvan pool, a tuba player from a marching band (the artist tooting his own horn?), a disembodied head jostling with and alongside sheep, and chubby infants masquerading as Renaissance putti amongst Raphael-riffing compositions—as by the artist whose, “paintings of the Maine woods” art critic Robert Hughes once proclaimed, “are among the strongest images in modern American art.”
It would also be a mistake—an even greater one to my eyes—to describe these paintings as transitional. They are foundational to Welliver’s subsequent evolution as America’s premier landscape painter of the late 20th century. They belong to a kind of chrysalis of his artistic becoming—that is, his transformation into a very different artist, nearly unrecognizable from these early paintings from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. They are surprising, too. Especially so in light of the fact that during this seminal period, Welliver had been the student of and teaching assistant at Yale to the Bauhaus master, Josef Albers, whose Homage to the Square series introduced American students to European geometric abstraction in perhaps its purest form. There is a long history of youth rejecting the teaching of their elders. Even so, Welliver was able to take from Albers what he most needed—the oscillating vibration, the sparking ignition of color adjacencies—and convert theory into what Robert Hughes also spoke of as an “emotional intensity that goes beyond the limits of realism.” Certainly, these key elements are present in Welliver’s early as well as mature work.
In 1950, just as Welliver began teaching in New York at Cooper Union, he might have taken notice of the Arensberg Collection of Surrealist art that made national headlines when the gift to the Philadelphia Museum, where Welliver studied, was first announced. This transformational trove included Marcel Duchamp’s early paintings, such as his Dulcinea (1911), where nude figures emerge from and dissolve into a diffused backdrop. In fact, it is the same figure repeated in varying stages of undress, a kind of cinematic dance of Salomé invoking life and death, time and movement. While it is impossible to say when or if Welliver saw the painting in Philadelphia, he would have been aware of more contemporary updates on the theme in New York, such as Willem de Kooning’s quasi-abstract paintings of women: women struggling to emerge from, rising above and slipping beneath slathers of paint, refusing to be legible against the harrying gestures of de Kooning’s push-pull brushstrokes. De Kooning was probably the artist who mattered most to Welliver at this time and whose work is most strongly felt in his figurative landscape paintings of the fifties and early sixties. Hanging onto the figure was important to Welliver, but so was the excitement of improvisation found in painting wet on wet, letting colors mix themselves, reveling in the smears, blotches, and running drips.
As a young man emerging from small-town, rural Pennsylvania, Welliver suddenly found himself on the doorsteps of the most fertile hothouses of Euro-American modernist art and theory, both in New York and at Yale. Even so, there is the unmistakable whiff of self-deprecating humor in these early works. Did Welliver wish his tie-clad colleagues—including himself—to just “loosen up” a bit within an academic setting where postwar prosperity and white middle-class privilege were raising uncomfortable questions? The birth of a youth culture demanding less Sinatra and more Elvis, the literary wanderlust of the beat poets, and the rise of sui generis American painting in the work of Pollock, Mitchell, Frankenthaler, and de Kooning were notions that pervaded this time. The decade beginning with Brown v. Board of Education and ending with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy in late 1963 was an era of radical transition and transformation. It was a time of halting social progress and aching loss.
The blunt material physicality of these early paintings by Welliver—the skidding brush marks and the near abolition of line and edge; the more or less faceless portraits and distorted bodies, their awkward placement in uncertain settings—celebrated both their making and a rejection of theoretical rule books. Energetic young artists like Welliver were having a go at coloring outside the lines of their groundbreaking elders, including Albers and de Kooning, all while having the time of their young lives.
Welliver, trying to both teach and learn, applied Albers’ lessons intuitively, naturally, finding vibrant greens and complementary yellows to hold his canvases in a state of exuberant tension. In the Italian Renaissance-inspired tondo compositions, visually grating yellow framing strips (make-do gold leaf) lightly grip their crowded interiors in a kind of petri dish of suspended animation. There, untethered limbs and featureless faces inhabit otherworldly spaces, suggesting floating figures from some cluttered baroque church ceiling, spinning above the artist’s encyclopedic, voracious eye.
I sometimes wonder if Welliver ever traveled down the road from New Haven and Yale to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where he might have met Robert Hamilton, his fellow art school professor who also expatriated to Maine (Port Clyde) after a long teaching career. The mature works of both artists have iconoclasm in common. And, in the mid-1950s and early 60s, they might have had much to discuss, especially their mutual distrust of prevailing art world winds—Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Color Field painting—wafting through mainstream arts institutions in the postwar years, especially in graduate-level studio programs. Indeed, Hamilton’s works share a certain anarchic, secret assassin of modern art quality with Welliver’s early paintings. Both presaged today’s more Catholic acceptance of serious artists working in both abstract and representational modes with all degrees of variation in between. They were the proto-postmodernists of the late 20th century, Giotto-like precursors painting flights of figurative fantasy pointing toward forbidden possibilities to be taken up by today’s “new” figuration and landscape imagery so prevalent in every major survey of current painting.
Languorous skeletons surprised by their own reflections in the tree-shaded pools relax and mingle beside a rushing stream. They will morph into sun-dappled ripples and mimic the tangled, twisting forest understory on a muddy bank in Welliver’s later paintings. Dead things and others, such as dying seedlings emerging—representing the ongoing, accidental uncertainties of what lives and what dies—have always been Welliver’s latent, just-beneath-the-surface subject. The skeletons refer to the longstanding tradition in art of memento mori images, reminders of mortality and the fleeting exigencies of life’s quiddity. They would come to foreshadow heartbreaking personal tragedy striking his family in the coming decades. But here, the unlikely skeletons seem to anticipate the death of abstraction in his own painting and a full-throated acceptance that art could accommodate a multiplicity of styles and approaches—from the messiness of youthful irreverence and crotchety contrarianism to the sublime serenity of his late landscapes.
Artists often look back to their earliest finished artworks for reassurance and continuity. But, then came the loss of much of Welliver’s work up to that time in a 1975 fire. In a way, the fire literally cleansed his palette for the concentrated intensity of his late paintings. These few hardy survivors from before the fire, featured in the recent exhibition, are, nevertheless, telling. Here we encounter Welliver thinking through nature as subject matter, as the place where paint can assume and retain its own autonomy while working to make recognizable images, speaking to realms of the spirit and imagination. Nudes below a plunging waterfall are becoming incidental and unnecessary. Elsewhere, strange butterflies emerge as nude art school models—the graduate art program as chrysalis. These early paintings mark the transformative, if not to say slow, awakening of Welliver’s own work. The ravenous, raucous, uncontained early works ricochet between abstraction and realism. In the late landscapes, for which he is best known, the seeming slapdash urgency of the early paintings dissipates into something new, vital, and central to the artist’s being. In the artist’s mature, monumental paintings of Maine’s northern forests and streams we see a new kind of painting where surface handling, painterly gesture, and subject—unruly nature—seamlessly merge and quietly coalesce. The fading memory of those manicured lawns of suburban academia—Manet-like picnics on the grass with fellow faculty accompanied by nude models, dogs, sheep, and general dissonance—eventually yields to the randomness of nature for its own sake, on its own terms. Those early collisions of fantasy and reality—butterflies and friends, sheep and tubas—finally resolve into Welliver’s full, final embrace of plangent nature, as source and solace.
 In 1976 a daughter died in infancy and her mother, his second wife, died from complications following a minor injury. In 1991, a son, Eli, died of disease, and another son, Silas, was murdered while traveling in Southeast Asia.
Neil Welliver: Chrysalis (1954–1964) at Dowling Walsh Gallery, 365 Main Street, Rockland, Maine, 6–28 May 2022. All photos courtesy of the Dowling Walsh Gallery, All Welliver images copyright the Estate of Neil Welliver. Robert Hamilton painting copyright estate of Robert Hamilton.
Chris Crosman is currently a freelance author and art museum consultant active with artists’ foundations and estates. In the past, he was director of the Farnsworth Art Museum for 17 years, Chairperson of the Maine Arts Commission, and served as founding chief curator of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR.
Image at top: Neil Welliver, Man with Butterfly, Nudes, 1960–62.