The artist-activist Alan Gussow (1931-1997) carried on a conversation with his surroundings all his life, whether he was visiting Monhegan Island or running alongside the Hudson River. He managed to combine his environmentalism with his art. And he often turned to watercolor to convey his interactions with his surroundings.
Gussow discovered the medium as an undergraduate at Middlebury College in the early 1950s, training with Arthur K. D. Healy (1902-1978), professor of art and art history and an accomplished landscape painter and illustrator.
“As a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, I learned at least two things about art,” Gussow once recalled. “First, that art was magical. How I or any person could mix a little water with some paint and then make marks and shapes which look like parts of the world still remains a source of wonder.”
The other thing Gussow learned was that in order to make art, he had a wonderful excuse “to be out of doors and not at my desk.”
Able to draw from an early age, Gussow embraced the medium that requires great discipline yet, paradoxically, must not seem over controlled. Watercolor offered avenues of improvisation and lyric invention. The medium became an essential outlet for his artistic vision even as it served as the foundation for his work in oil and pastel, lending energy to each.
Watercolor’s portability would prove to be a plus for a painter who was constantly going out into nature. Gussow would employ it as a means to render place and elements of nature. His wife Joan Gussow noted: “The thing about watercolors that was different from anything else: Alan did not do any other work out of doors. He did not do pastels out of doors or oil out of doors…. The watercolors were really the only thing he did en plein air.”
To fully appreciate Gussow’s watercolors, one must know something about the artist’s life in art. His early exposure to the dynamics of Abstract Expressionism was especially significant. The sense of action that he encountered in the work of Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and company while a student in New York City in the 1950s never left him. “At Cooper Union where I studied for one year after Middlebury,” Gussow recalled, “I learned that art was a form of energy.” However nature-centered his art became, he consistently practiced a highly expressive approach to subjects, often entering realms of abstraction.
At the same time, the painter became an environmental activist, driven by intense personal passion for nature and by witnessing firsthand the degradation of the world around him. He fought against power plants and highways, and led people across the country and around the world in activities that highlighted the need for preservation, empathy and peace.
In many instances, such as his book A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land, 1971, Gussow connected art to the environment, underscoring that special relationship that exists between the individual and his or her surroundings. Among his own treasured places was Monhegan, “a Maine island,” he once wrote, “that rides on the ocean like a hulking, hump-backed whale.” He first stayed there in 1949; he went on to spend part of nearly every summer on this remote and remarkable island surrounded by a host of fellow artists, among them, Reuben Tam, Hans Moller, Elena Jahn, Frances Kornbluth, Michael Loew and Lawrence Goldsmith, all of whom shared his passion for the place.
The painter once noted that over time his interest in Monhegan subject matter evolved from the picturesque to more elemental things: “Now the place the tides own fascinates me,” he wrote in A Sense of Place. A number of watercolors offer close-ups of the natural world discovered in explorations of the island. He made studies of a crab shell and a skate egg. Joan Gussow recalls her husband returning from his annual sojourns to Monhegan with watercolor sketchbooks filled with island studies. “He felt very attached to [Monhegan] and it’s a visual place, a place people consume with their eyes.”
Gussow’s watercolors often have an experiential quality, as if he were channeling the energy of a phenomenon. A series titled “Sundrying” exemplifies this approach. Essentially abstract, these paintings nonetheless are responses to what is happening in front of the artist: sun appearing after rain, perhaps, turning the world into dazzling emanations of light, renewing the land, air, eye and spirit.
In this regard Gussow’s work has ties to Karl Schrag, Arthur Dove and other artists who were able to represent nature’s energy, re-creating air and sky, trees and sun, as currents and vortices. In Nature in Abstraction (1958), John I.H. Baur described how such artists sought “a distillation of the character, mood or spirit of nature’s aspects.” Bauer linked this mission to a desire to intensify experience, both for the artist and the viewer. These artists produced visual excitement, he wrote, thanks to “an exceptional sensitivity to nature’s colors, forms and shifting patterns of motion.”
September Sun, dated 9/3/76, captures the particular radiance of early autumn sunlight. With its lively patterning, this watercolor might be a piece of aboriginal textile, an impression one comes away with after viewing a number of Gussow’s pure pattern paintings.
Gussow often turned to watercolor to record his responses to working in the gardens that he and his wife tended in their homes in Congers and later Piermont, both towns close by the Hudson River north of New York City. The organic shapes in many of these paintings reflect his passion for the bounty and beauty of the harvest, of fresh vegetables and flowers leaning into the light. He even painted mulch, mesmerized by the intricate patterns of the ground cover that enriched the soil.
Many watercolors have a radiating structure, sometimes blossom-like, other times like a sunburst, waves and irregular rings of color divided by the white of the paper. One recalls Arthur Dove’s paintings of plant forms and phenomena of light. Dove always insisted he was extracting, not abstracting, from nature, a perspective Gussow embraced in his own celebratory way. What Gussow wrote about Dove in A Sense of Place might apply to his own work: “He painted intriguing and inventive works inspired by natural forms, works that revealed an authentic response to observed phenomena and a profound understanding of earth rhythms.”
Gussow was a serious runner, and a favorite route in Congers took him around nearby Rockland Lake, about a five-mile circuit. While running, he observed the life of the lake, including the mallard ducks paddling along the shores or sleeping with their heads turned around. From those impressions he started a series he called “The Mallard’s Dream,” which he produced in watercolor as well as in silkscreen prints and pastels.
These paintings are among Gussow’s most brilliant watercolors, each a richly colored composition featuring broadly abstract interlocking shapes. The first of the series The Mallard’s Dream, dated 12/29/76, conjures a flurry of wings and water. The paintings in a related series, “Mallards Splashing,” also from 1977, are equally luminous and spirited.
These paintings extended Gussow’s connection to nature into new realms. As he told art historian Martica Sawin during a studio visit in 1977, “Prior to 1972 I was looking at scenery. Now I am in the environment, part of it…. I have stepped through the scene to go inside it and that has made all the difference.” Painter Ibram Lassaw expressed a similar perspective in Baur’s Nature in Abstraction: “Man is part and parcel of the total ecology of the universe and fulfills his function…along with plants, animals, stars and galaxies. I am nature.”
One also thinks of Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), whose watercolors of Horn Island, one of a group of barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi, represented a similar immersion in the natural world. As Gussow wrote in the introduction to A Sense of Place, “The artists who paint nature today are also moved, as were their predecessors, by the sheer physical delight of being outdoors.”
In all his watercolors Gussow allows the paper to show through the pigment, which lends an underlying luminosity to the colors. “[Alan] knew how to hold out the whites; I mean it was really fun to watch him,” Joan Gussow recounted. “He really knew what he was doing. And watercolor is such a spontaneous painting. You can’t rethink it.”
In some cases the white of the paper appears as pinpricks of light. In one of a handful of city-inspired pieces, Berkeley/Light and Rooftops, 1980, the watercolor paper that has been left unpainted serves to demark the geometric shapes of buildings.
At the same time Gussow understood how colors could evoke moods and emotions even as they often served as a direct means to express his intimate vision of his surroundings. His most abstract compositions are like jazz, the notes of color in sync with one another yet tuned to the rhythms of the outer world.
Gussow’s watercolors also manifest his unfaltering environmental ethic borne of a deep respect for nature—the same abiding concern that led him to fight industrial blight and send personal letters on noticeably recycled paper. His watercolors are political in that respect: As he wrote in the introduction to his second book, The Artist as Native: Reinventing Regionalism (1992),
“The only weapon artists possess to express rage against environmental destruction is their ability to make visible what they experience and what they value.”
Through his watercolors, Gussow identified himself with the natural world, from rocky outcroppings on Monhegan to the dreams of a wild creature with which he felt a special affinity. In many ways, these paintings represent his truest self, a fact Gussow underscored in A Sense of Place: “Any artist,…no matter how objectively he may try to delineate his subject, always paints himself as well.”
Carl Little’s most recent books are Philip Frey: Here and Now, Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore and Paintings of Portland, co-written with David Little.
Sources: Martica Sawin, Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature, Hudson Hills Press, 2009; Joan Gussow; Alan Gussow, “Moving Toward the Center of Life,” In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, Spring 1984.