‘Marks on a page, whether made with a brush or a pen, are an attempt to transcribe how I move through space. The marks are records of where my eyes have been,” says artists, curator, and retiring Rider College professor Harry Naar.
Naar’s words appear in an essay accompanying the catalog for Naar’s Rider University exhibition, “Watercolors Observed and Imagined.”
Opening on Wednesday, October 31, and continuing through November, the exhibition is both an artistic and personal retrospection.
The former relates to Naar’s ongoing work of transposing his surrounding landscapes into the line and form.
The latter is connected to his retirement from Rider, where in addition to teaching art and gallery management he and curated a series of exhibitions that have enriched the region and highlighted the artistic accomplishments of both established and emerging artists.
Star-Ledger arts writer Dan Bischoff writes about both in the exhibition essay that puts Naar’s artistry and curatorship in proper perspective.
Bischoff starts by looking at the defined arts spaces that “Naar knows well. The landscapes done in watercolor, like his intensely imagined ink drawings of wintry, brush-entangled forests and his numinous still-lifes of shells, fruit, hats and knives, are both observed and imagined—based on real places and objects, but transformed by Naar’s dynamic aesthetic.”
Bischoff then puts Naar’s artistry and work at Rider into perspective, as the following excerpted passage shows:
Of course, defining space is very much what Naar has done at Rider since he started teaching here in 1980. In particular this space, the Rider University Gallery, where he became director over 30 years ago. The gallery was then a non-curated set of rooms, available for visual arts displays but not dedicated to them. Naar launched a series of contemporary art exhibitions that put the Gallery on the map as a premier exhibition space in New Jersey, showing regional artists like figurative painter Lois Dodd, syncopated realist Robert Birmelin, dean of Jersey portraiture Mel Leipzig, printmaking doyenne Judith Brodsky, and many others. Audrey Flack showed her rarely seen abstract paintings — not her famed feminist still-lifes — at Rider; internationally known sand-cast bronze sculptor Isaac Witkin showed there too, along with artists from as far afield as Cuba, Israel, Russia.
Along the way Naar assembled the Rider University Collection, one of the more outstanding public contemporary art collections in the state, and he’s become a familiar fixture on campus to generations. When this show closes on Dec. 2, Naar will finish teaching his last class at Rider and leave his native New Jersey for western sunsets.
So “Observed and Imagined” is a valedictory show. As his students and colleagues will tell you, the Harry Naar they’ve come to know over those years likes more than just the image to be rebellious. Naar was born in 1946, into the generation of American artists on whom stars fell. But most of those stars fell on abstract artists, and abstraction came to dominate academia in ways that are hard to imagine today. Naar was never an abstract artist.
Harry Naar grew up in Highland Park and attended Highland Park High School. He went to the Philadelphia College of the Arts (now University of the Arts) for his undergraduate study, and when it came time for an MFA, Naar applied to Yale University and was accepted.
But Naar decided to attend Indiana University in Bloomington instead, because it was, in the mid-1960s, the leading institution teaching contemporary representational painting. (That title would shift to Yale in the 1980s, along with key members of the Indiana faculty.).
“I’m strong on thinking for yourself,” Naar says. “That’s one of the things about being an artist, nobody tells you to go to your studio and work. I’d like people to appreciate my work, but their opinions don’t control how I work.”
After graduation, Naar’s soon-to-be wife, Barbara, a scholar in languages (now an international tax attorney), won a Fulbright grant to teach in Paris, and Harry accompanied her. In Paris he met and exchanged studio visits with Jean Helion, a French painter whose early experiments with abstraction in the 1930s had enthused Modernists. But just before the war Helion joined a stubborn rebellion against abstraction, returning to the figure.
Naar’s steadfast individuality, his defiance of art world trends to pursue a unique vision of artistic space, has its roots in this European resistance.
“I’m always creating a painting that says it’s a painting,”
Naar’s still-lifes have an iconic Frenchness about them, an ancient echo of their traditional genres charged with a vaguely erotic tension.
Over time, the way Naar painted figures and still-lifes created an aura around the central objects in a picture, almost like an echo of the subjects’ silhouettes. The figure seems to move, almost to shimmy in paint on the surface of the canvas. This effect draws you into the picture even as it emphasizes its flatness, revealing the object’s three dimensions all at once–almost as an act of imagination.
The watercolors in “Observed and Imagined” are in some ways a pure distillation of this technique. “I think of them as more like Cezanne, trying to paint Mt. St. Victoire one colored mark at a time,” Naar says. “I’m not trying to fool the viewer’s eye.”
Whether in landscape, still life, or the figure, Naar invites the viewer to revisit the subject in a way that reflects his grounding in European art while evoking a uniquely American vision. Echoing Neil Welliver, Fairfield Porter, and even George Inness and Thomas Eakins, Naar paints the American experience of space, which is fluid and indeterminate, often emotionally charged, and fundamentally different from reality.
“I want the painting to bring you into the space and reveal not just the subject but the space around and behind it.”
He also wants the work to do something else. “I want the image to be rebellious, to resist the eye even as it draws you into space.
Watercolors Observed and Imagined, Rider University Gallery, Luedeke Center. Opening Wednesday, October 31, 5 to 7 p.m. Artist talk Wednesday, November 7, 7 to 9 p.m. On view through November 30, Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Free. 609-896-5168 or www.rider.edu/arts.