The Arts Council of Princeton’s “Structure and Flow” is a multi-layered exhibition that flows into its final week, concluding with events that feature participating artists and a free jazz presentation.
Infused with the idea that visual art and music connect, the exhibition also recognizes the late artist Al Aronson, whose music-inspired paintings are featured in the exhibition that he helped shape.
Curator and Arts Council of Princeton’s executive director Jeff Nathanson says his interest in connecting the two art forms grew out of his own passions. Nathanson is a musician and visual artist.
“My main instrument is guitar,” says Nathanson, “and in college at the University of California at Santa Cruz I minored in music. I majored in fine arts. During my 20s and 30s I played professionally in San Francisco as a session guitarist and was a member of a number of rock, R&B, and jazz groups, playing guitar and keyboards. I also was music director for a popular improv troupe called Faultline Comedy, and I was a partner in a recording studio in San Francisco for many years.”
He grew up in Hawthorne, California, a Los Angeles suburb where music was part of the landscape: it was the home of the Beach Boys who attended the same high school as Nathanson, though years separated them.
Music was also in the home. “My mother is a talented pianist, and music was a huge part of my life growing up, from piano lessons starting when I was six, to playing trumpet in the junior high orchestra, to getting my first guitar when I was 12. I fell in love with the guitar immediately and by the time I was 13 was playing in a garage band and have continued to play ever since,” he says.
Though his father was a business man, not an artist or musician, both he and Nathanson’s mother took the future musician and arts council director to museums, concerts, and the theater. They were also active in the community. His father was on the school board and his mother an educator active with the League of Women Voters, efforts that gave Nathanson a strong sense of community involvement.
“As a senior in high school I was selected by my art teacher for a leadership program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” he says, “and even though I was a pretty strong artist that is probably the first important step that led me into arts management.”
He started working with non-profits and galleries in the San Francisco area in 1978, and then came to New Jersey in 2000 to serve as director at the International Sculpture Center at Grounds For Sculpture. He joined the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) in 2005 and stays involved with his early pursuits.
“While a practicing artist, I used music as the inspiration for my own paintings and felt strongly that they looked the way they did because of the music I loved. Over the years, music and painting continued to be parallel interests for me, although seldom was there a direct intersection,” he says.
He is not alone. Early 20th century painters had turned toward music for more than mood but as a means to arrange a surface with color and tone to create art that represents internal sensations rather than physical objects.
If Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky was the headmaster of this school of art, his primer was his 1914 book, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” In it Kandinsky wrote, “With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.”
Kandinsky then encouraged visual artists to create arrangements that stir the soul in a manner similar to experiencing the tones, intensities, and forms in music. He followed his own advice, as Nathanson points out, by calling his paintings “compositions” as a direct reference to music.
While the Russian artist may have been listening to an inner music marked by fluid phrasing and passages flowing into one another, other practitioners used more measured rhythms and rationed color tones. Take, for example, Dutch-American painter Piet Mondrian and his “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” a grid-like arrangement of contrasting colors and sharp patterns that suggest the sensation of a New York street alive with the sound of swing.
The ACP exhibit recognizes the extremes between music’s wondrous sighs and measured beats, and this modest exhibition features the work of five visual artists whose work exploits the fluid, the geometric, and the gradations in between.
Nathanson’s goal was to explore “how and why abstract artists balanced their work between order and chaos, structure and expression.”
A visit to the intimate gallery and the cleanly arranged 20 works inside (and four outside) shows that Nathanson has succeeded, demonstrating also how a small focused exhibition can be an extended artistic experience.
A fitting place to start viewing the exhibition is with the works by Al Aronson, who gave the exhibition a soul on several levels. Nathanson says that Aronson was one of the first artists engaged for the exhibition, citing his “vibrant, expressionist canvases” and “the emotional, spiritual, and spontaneous ‘flow’ of his work.”
When Aronson died before the art for the exhibition was chosen, Nathanson engaged the Princeton-based artist’s longtime partner, Trudy Glucksberg, to select the pieces to exhibit. “I discovered through the process that (Aronson) was a huge jazz fan, and music had a strong influence on his painting,” says Nathanson. “It occurred to me that music could be the body that would connect the various artists to Al, whose work had become, in my mind, the cornerstone for the exhibition.”
Aronson is represented by five paintings that confirm the curator’s claims and show the artist’s connection to the Abstract Expressionist movement that blossomed in New York City in the 1940s and ’50s.
In each of the paintings (two oil, three acrylic), Aronson adroitly organizes rich and soft hues and soft-edged patterns to suggest (without ever stating a clear image). Though each work has a title, a viewer may bypass them and still connect. The sensation is similar to hearing a song in a foreign language and feeling the meaning without needing to know the words
This set of paintings also forms a proper way to say goodbye to the artist who was a familiar presence in the area. As with a number of artists interested in creating personal art, Aronson led a double life. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1951, the Bronx native was hired by this area’s RCA Astro Space Division and worked with satellite electro-optical and control systems until he retired. Meanwhile, he also studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Princeton University, and Mercer County Community College, where he received an associate’s degree in fine arts. His works have been exhibited at the New Jersey State Museum, Trenton City Museum, Arts Council of Princeton, and other venues.
Another artist engaged early by Nathanson is John Franklin. And no wonder: Franklin is the abstract counterpoint to Aronson’s approach. “I knew early on,” says Nathanson, that the two ends of that visual spectrum would be best represented by “showing the works of the two artists together, especially since Franklin epitomized structure and Aronson flow.”
Nathanson adds that Franklin’s meticulous geometric abstractions were also informed by the power of music and jazz.
Franklin is represented by a quartet of works that use defined patterns or grids, yet hard geometric edges are mitigated by the eyes attempting to reconcile bold color contrasts or where ribbons of trim — seamlessly fixed in the painting’s patterns — indicate softness, first by suggestion, and then by closer observation.
The artist’s set of works is divided into pairs united in design but imbued with different color choices to suggest the exploration of a theme through tone, as when the same song is played on a cello and then a flute.
Franklin, a Cincinnati native who is a longtime art preparer at the Princeton University Art Museum, has had solo shows locally (Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick), nationally, and internationally. His work is in the collections of museums in Portland (Maine) and San Jose, and in private galleries.
Painter Benjamin Colbert bridges the two artists with his three acrylic landscapes. The Trenton-based artist’s approach is to arrange planes of colors in manner that suggests distant vistas or landscapes. One of the works — fittingly named “Mirage” — shows the interplay of soft shapes and complementary tones (stone blue and clays) as well as a balance between flowing line and geometry. The latter is intensified by the creation of a frame within the frame, with gull-white planes pressing from above and below to focus the visual arrangement and create the sensation of depth.
Colbert, who studied at the University of Georgia, has participated in exhibition at the ACP as well as having solo shows at Emory University, University of South Florida, at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Alyce Gottesman’s four paintings continue providing suggestions and mirages, though her abstract images seem to shift to form. Her 2011 acrylic, graphite, glass powder and ink on canvas, “Divergent Spaces,” suggests fragments of objects coming into focus, similar to drifting into a dream. The frame is dominated by a plane of white that pulls to the right and contains an undefined image. That plane is balanced by unevenly applied swaths of black on yellow as well as sketchy uneven lines to the left. The combination creates a pull between being complete and incomplete, seen and unseen, and balanced and unbalanced.
Of her work, the Montclair-based Gottesman, who received an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has exhibited at Johnson & Johnson and the Ben Shahn Gallery, says, “They are organic in nature and feel very personal to me as they reflect my spiritual connection with the natural world.” As with the other paintings in the exhibition, her works present without defining.
Two sculptures are also featured. Inside the gallery are four haunting pieces by Jersey City-based Nancy Cohen. Composed of familiar objects — crutches, piano keys, a skate — melded with resins, glass, wire, and paper, the works create a haunting presence.
“My recent work merges scientific structures with human memories and associations. We connect to these elements yet they retain the ambiguity and the distance of a natural phenomenon moving at its own pace and following its own logic,” says the Columbia-trained sculptor whose work has been added to the collections at the Yale University, Montclair, and Zimmerli Art museums.
Outside the gallery and outside the building are four geometric sculptures by Trenton-based artist Michael Gyampo. A Ghana native who studied African Visual Arts at the Institute of African Studies, the artist says that he uses the human experience as his central theme and utilizes abstract expressionism and pure form to communicate ideas.
His clear and defined shapes in the sunlight provide a balance to Cohen’s work. With a combination of shapes that seem to move yet are tightly constructed, they reflect the show’s name and one of the works, “Orchestration,” drives the message home that visual art and music are connected.
Structure and Flow, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. On view through March 9. Artist discussion on Thursday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. “Stop Correcting Me: ‘Waiting for Da Flow’” concert on Saturday, March 9, at 5 p.m. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.