Harry I. Naar says his life has always been about art. The Rider University art professor opens his first solo exhibition in New York with a reception on Saturday, November 3, at the Bowery Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. The exhibit is on view through Saturday, November 24. Naar has had previous group shows in New York, at Tibor de Nagy in 1980, Carimor Galleries in 1984, and the Foundation for Hellenistic Culture in 2005, and was recommended by a fellow artist for his upcoming solo exhibit.
Naar says that at the time when most young people worry about what comes next, he knew just where he wanted to go: that for him, making art was what it was all about. “Art really spoke to me,” he says. “I liked the idea of discovery, of all the different ways there are to make a picture.”
He was born in New Brunswick and grew up in Highland Park. His father owned his own business Naar Brother and Naar Best Food products, a wholesale food processor. His grandfather, Benjamin H. Naar, was the first rabbi in New Brunswick. Inspired by a high school art teacher, the young Naar earned a BFA from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1968, followed by an MFA in 1970 from the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Then, as many aspiring artist do, he then spent a year in Paris, where he studied with the French painter Jean Helion.
“When I returned from Paris it was the Nixon years,” Naar says. “Money for the arts was drying up. I did whatever I could. I taught any place I could find work.”
It took a while but as Naar’s exhibition of realistic paintings and drawings indicates it all it worked out fine. After teaching here and there, a combination of talent and good luck led Naar to Rider, where he has been teaching art for some 30 years. In the process, life in academia has given him the time and the space to follow his muse. And that wasn’t always easy either.
Naar says that when he was starting out, realism was considered old fashioned but he knew that, for him, realistic art was the only way to go. “My commitment to realism was decisive. In a way it shaped my life. At the time most schools were committed to abstraction in some form. I had a lot of choices but ended up at the University of Indiana because I discovered that it was one of the few major universities where I could do what I wanted, where they still cared about realism in art.”
Realism it was. And realism it still is. But Naar says that his work is more than pictures of things he has seen. “Even though I’m thinking in terms the realistic image, I’m thinking about the abstract qualities I find in my surroundings. The landscape continually stirs my interest and offers me countless possibilities. I want the viewer to share this, to experience the visual excitement created by an appreciation of the pure raw marks that go beyond the depiction of the scene. I want people to see that the variety of marks can become a clarity of lines, shapes, and forms that reveal a structural idea about nature and life. I want to give more meaning to familiar things.”
As such, the exhibition of large-scale drawings and paintings opening at the Bowery Gallery is a virtuoso demonstration of where realism can go. The collection of some 15 finely wrought landscapes and still lifes, rendered in acrylic, watercolor, and pen and ink, introduce us to nature as Naar sees it — and feels it. Trees, grass, flowers, dunes, rocks, and water — bits and pieces of the world around us — become graphic devices for structure and surface. Color, tone, and pattern declare themselves as major players in a series of local landscapes: the Assunpink Creek, the Delaware River, jetties on Long Beach Island.
He also takes viewers far away — a series of Tuscan landscapes captures light and space as the paintings tell us about the delicate beauty of the villages and the countryside.
According to Naar learning how to use his subject to take the viewer somewhere else has been an ongoing process. “At first the images that I painted were traditional vistas. As I continued to draw and investigate, what I saw began to change. The landscape became visually closer and denser. I became more concerned with the painting instead of the picture and became more concerned about the purity of single and overlapping marks and lines.”
The artist says that this enhanced connection with his surroundings continues to be an artistic challenge. “In many ways it makes it a lot more difficult to develop this work than if it were purely abstract. I don’t want to lose the image but there is more to say than that. When people look at my work I want them to see the shapes and textures that nature creates. The poetry is very important.”
Art Exhibit, Harry I. Naar, Saturday, November 3, 3 to 6 p.m., Bowery Gallery, 530 West 25 Street, Fourth floor, New York. Opening reception for exhibition by the curator of Rider University Art Gallery. On view to Saturday, November 24. www.bowerygallery.org or 646-230-6655.