He attracted some attention
when he found the fourth dimension
But he ain’t got rhythm
So no one is with him
The loneliest man in town
—from “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” by Irving Berlin
These lyrics often run through my head. They remind me that the core of my work is founded on rhythm. My “maximalist” stroke production is focused on setting up a painting rhythm that stimulates and facilitates improvisation.
I feel a strong kinship with many forms of improvised music. Jazz was a first love of mine. In high school I wrote a jazz column for my school paper. I always assumed I was the only one who read it but later found that it fostered love for this art form in at least several others.
I often listen to jazz in the studio. Thelonious Monk always triggers spontaneous creativity. Over the years I discovered many other forms of music cause similar stimulation. Currently I am tuning in to different forms of world music, especially the Moroccan Gnawa. I spent some time in Morocco in the sixties, first with a childhood friend, Paul Jefferson, and later with my wife, Gay, so it is nice to still have such an attachment.
I also experience the rhythm of the Maine coastal environment on a daily basis. The wind, the water, the sky, and their constant interactions are a great source of inspiration. I love the rocks and the blueberry barrens, too. And though I don’t encounter the American West on a daily basis, it remains a big influence on my work. The rhythms and colors are never ending.
I’ve been interested in anthropology since I was inspired by an excellent teacher in high school, Jack Ellison. Megalithic architecture and advanced ancient high technology is a growing interest. I love the physicality of excavating the past as well as the amazing and overwhelming evidence of great and mysterious achievements of “ancient architects.” I am also intrigued by the art of New Guinea’s Asmat people.
I’m not sure how all of this gets digested and expressed as abstract painting, but somehow it works out. It is a challenge to express in words a phenomenon that exists pretty much on a subconscious, nonverbal level. But of course that is the beauty of it: it just comes out. I am reluctant to overanalyze, lest I interfere with the process.
However, I do have to think about the process. I feel it necessary to set limits on the free flow of the paint, though the boundaries evolve over time. My use of paired color fields was suggested by the accidental juxtaposition of a predominantly blue canvas next to a similar canvas of mostly yellow. As these two hung around the studio together, I decided to try marrying them. One such painting, The Ant People, refers to Anasazi/Hopi mythology involving an emergence of the people from underground into the light of the world. One half of the painting is the light world, the other the dark one.
Another boundary is the layer. It may be that Schoodic Point had a hand in this. I have been going there regularly since the seventies to do watercolors, hike, and generally absorb a favorite place. The end of the point is dominated by a vast expanse of the horizon: the Big Layer. The rhythm (sometimes) of the sky sits above the usually turbulent and roiling ocean, followed by the fixed movement of the rock which seems to be sprinting toward Mt. Desert Island. This scene is etched deep within me.
I like layers for many reasons. They break up the fields, thereby offering a sense of stability and organization. And like the body of the fields, the layers, too, appear in an intuitive fashion. Though they interrupt the flow of the fields, they are at the same time part of that flow. Another format is what I call the tower, or the flip. I discovered this in the studio when I turned a small layer painting on its side and it suggested a larger, taller version with vertical bars or stripes.
Katy Kline’s critical description of my work is more lyrical than my own: “The bands of roiling brushstrokes in Haroutunian’s colorful fields are documents not of the natural world, but of the doctrine of flux which underlies it, the time-honored tussle of order and disorder within which we are both witness and participant. The colors, moods and forms of the Maine landscape inspire and infect his paintings. If his canvases do not constitute landscape portraits, they nevertheless serve as persuasive metaphors for the way the landscape is experienced. Like the painter, the viewer is engulfed by sensory experience, plunged into fields of flux and flow.”
Kelly Littlefield, who owns Winter Harbor’s Littlefield Gallery with his wife, Jane, recently echoed these thoughts. He stated that when he walks around the shore and out at nearby Schoodic Point, he is reminded more of my abstract work than many of the more traditional landscapes. I like that.
Image at top: Joe Haroutunian, Red Sky, Schoodic, oil on gessoed paper, 30 x 22 in. (37 x 29 in. framed), 2016.