Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 30, 2006 with the permission of the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts / Mitchell Museum and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts / Mitchell Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Order and Experience in Harold Gregor's Illinois

by Kevin Sharp

 

Even if you don't know Harold Gregor or his work, you will develop a sense of his aesthetic priorities and preferences after taking just two steps into his second-floor studio in downtown Bloomington, Illinois.[1] Within moments of being greeted at the door, graciously and with an almost formal reserve, you gain a measure of insight into the artist and the man. As you glance past your courteous host at the first in a sequence of progressively cluttered rooms connected by narrow passageways, the walls filled with randomly hung artworks, and a years-in-the-making collage of family photos, doctored postcards, and other ephemera, you realize more or less instantly that the first principle of this gentlemanly painter is to make order out of chaos. And you are right.

To some degree, Harold Gregor in his studio speaks metaphorically to his life's work as a painter, to his relationship with his audience, and to the central Illinois farmland that has preoccupied him for thirty-five years. Just as farming, especially the modern agribusiness found not five miles in any direction from the artist's city-center studio, can be thought of as bringing cultivated order to nature unbridled, Gregor's paintings are uniformly-sized, sequentially-numbered, carefully-catalogued products of the claustrophobic disarray that is his place of business.[2] Under fluorescent light, surrounded by broad tabletops filled with row upon row of oil and acrylic paint tubes and jars of brushes, Gregor conjures in his steady, deliberate manner the relentlessly flat farm country that is less his subject than his plowed and planted raison d'être. [3]

The disorder of Gregor's studio might be a bit of studied casualness to feed your expectations of artistic eccentricity, of which he seemingly has few. In fact, Gregor must be counted among the most disciplined and methodical artists of his era. Since 1970, when he moved from southern California to Bloomington and launched his career as a landscape painter, he has largely committed himself and limited himself to six basic approaches within the central Illinois farm country that is his singular theme. (1) He started in 1971 with what are essentially Photorealist portraits of corncribs, the once-ubiquitous farm structures that traditionally have played character roles to starring red barns in the B-picture world of American landscape painting. As a matter of principle, Gregor has vowed never to paint red barns.[4] (2) By 1973, the artist was producing his first Illinois Flatscapes, the now-famous aerial views of rural farms and surrounding countryside that established him in Chicago and New York as a painter of national importance. (3) Later in the decade, he began his Illinois Landscape series, low-vantage vistas across endless spring furrows and summer crops that, in their painterly approach, confound more than they adhere to the conventions of Photorealism. (4) By the early 1980s, Gregor had broadened the Illinois Landscape series to include works in a drive-by, panoramic format, and (5) in the 1990s, he developed his Trail Series paintings, loosely-brushed canvases that take their inspiration from woodland rather than pastoral locations. (6) Most recently, Gregor has begun what he calls his Left-Right Vibrascape Series, a body of visionary landscapes cast out of necessity when he broke his right (painting) wrist in 2004. This latest body of work is based on left-handed watercolor experiments he conducted while his right wrist healed, and they are among the most freely handled and purely imaginative paintings he has produced in years. [5]

Gregor did not set out to be so orderly in his career path, so methodical in his approach to painting, nor for that matter did he plan to become a landscapist. Trained in the 1940s and 1950s, he reached artistic maturity under the bravado influence of the Abstract Expressionist generation.[6] Moving to San Diego in 1960, Gregor spent much of the ensuing decade producing robust gesture paintings that danced nimbly between representation and abstraction. But canvases such as Dying Gaul (fig. 1) and Canadian Horse Cantering (fig. 2), while bold in their broad handling, energy, and immediacy, already reveal something of the incipient search for order that would take firmer root in the next decade. Dying Gaul is by no means the only abstract painting to be derived from classical antiquity, but it does indicate the degree to which Gregor required an intellectual armature upon which to support his then freely handled brushwork.[7] Still in California in the late 1960s, Gregor turned from the muscle of gesture painting to the cooler and more cerebral motifs of geometric abstraction (flavored with touches of Pop Art irony), producing Still Life with Vapor Phone (fig. 3), and a handful of other works derived from the same visual vocabulary. His abstract patterns were no doubt intended to bring about meaningful art, but they would suggest less a course of action than an organizing principle -- or more accurately, a belief in the principle of organization. Gregor's geometry reveled in its compositional order and surface refinement, qualities that proved particularly useful once he moved to Illinois and stood before his first corncrib. [8]

From the moment Gregor's Illinois Corn Cribs first appeared in Chicago and New York gallery shows in the 1970s, critics more or less reasonably situated him in the camp of then-voguish Photorealist painters. They saw in his crystal clear light, in the clean lines of the corncribs, and in his strikingly faithful rendering of the smallest barnyard detail the rural equivalent of Richard Estes's sharp-edged riot of urban reflections. Photorealism was in its moment in the 1970s, even as critics debated over what that moment represented, and by extension, what to do with Gregor -- a Ph.D. painting hitching post hyperrealism. Every writer had his or her perspective or axe to grind. Ellen Edwards, writing for The [Chicago] Reader, noticed that: "Gregor's world is open, clouded only with unthreatening clouds, the fields plowed, the corn husked, the work done by human beings, who, though not painted into the scenes, have clearly left their mark on them."[9] An anxious and possibly hungry C. H. Morrison fretted in ArtForum that: "there is an inclination to stress complexity by picturing a relationship between commercial man and a food supply which may not always be regarded as abundant."[10] And Norman Turner of Arts Magazine stewed, "It is impossible to say how Gregor responds to such considerations [about realism], whether there is some flavor of ironic deadpan." [11]

The aesthetic authority of Photorealism and its attendant social meanings (or lack thereof) scarcely influenced Gregor's decision to paint corncribs. He was more concerned with unearthing a voice of his own -- a thing to say and way of saying it -- within the rural idiom he had only recently discovered. Discussing the work with Jim Gallagher of the Chicago Tribune in 1977, he stressed that:

I had always been a good enough painter, but I always felt like I was painting in somebody else's shadow. There was nothing that stood apart as my own personal statement... Now with these corncribs, I've found a single voice -- isolated myself as an artistic being... I'm no longer drifting from fad to fad. [12]

After spending the 1960s in California, exploring one artistic trend after another, Gregor's move to Illinois was tantamount to a return to basics. His intense scrutiny of the Midwest's rural vernacular architecture was not a product of the Photorealist meta-critique or of a desire to capitalize on Photorealism's currency and fashion. But neither were the corncrib paintings beholden to nostalgia for a simpler agrarian past that the artist, a Detroit native, cared little about in any case.

For Gregor, standing before the elemental forms of corncribs and storage tanks revealed in the sharp light of an Illinois morning was the equivalent of setting up a cube, cone, and cylinder for his drawing students then switching on a task light. [13] Well into the 1970s, the artist rightly believed that he had found in the austere authority of a corncrib a sympathetic subject that, in its straightforward utility, expressed the sense of order and simplicity he was trying to achieve in his paintings. And with critics latching on to them as paragons of rural Photorealist virtue, he naturally claimed the corncrib as a signature theme, seemingly believing that they might sustain him infinitely. Between 1971 and 1977, he produced seventy-three corncrib paintings, half of which were five-and-a-half feet wide, his standard large-scale format. [14]

But the corncribs would prove only the beginning of Gregor's search for order in the rural landscape. In 1977, the same year that they were exhibited by Nancy Lurie in Chicago and Tibor de Nagy in Manhattan, just as his stunning Photorealist accuracy was attracting praise from critics and cash from a buying public, Gregor realized that this first period of disciplined aesthetic fundamentals had simply run its course. Just as in Illinois Farmscape #27 (see cat. no. x), where only a corner of a corncrib is glimpsed behind a rusting metal feed bin, the obsolete structures began to disappear from his paintings as quickly as they were vanishing from the Illinois landscape. Despite the thoroughness of his investigation, and the brilliance of its results, Gregor walked away from the subject only months after extolling its virtues in the Chicago Tribune. It was a courageous decision, given his long climb to national recognition and commercial success, and the corncribs' essential role in that rise. But by 1977, he no longer believed that the aesthetic and intellectual framework of his paintings should be derived solely from subject matter. The cube, cone, and cylinder of corncribs and storage tanks, if they survived at all in his paintings, appeared well in the background on the distant horizons of the central Illinois landscape. [15]

Gregor had not so much exhausted the expressive potential of corncribs as he had discovered a more meaningful strategy for bringing visual and aesthetic coherence to his consideration of the great Midwest. And the inspiration for that discovery came from an unexpected source. While rummaging through a flea market in 1972, he picked up an empty cornmeal bag, whose logo was a highly schematic aerial view of what easily could have been an Illinois farmhouse and outbuildings (fig. 4). Drawn to the simplicity of the trademarked image, Gregor appropriated the plunging birds-eye view of the barnyard almost verbatim in a painting he called Flatscape #1 (fig. 5). [16]

Gregor had pulled near to corncribs to avoid missing even the most insignificant detail (whether he included it in the painting or not) -- to comprehend and to articulate the telling aspects of their construction, their condition, and their purpose. But in the series of aerial views that would become the Illinois Flatscapes, he found a point of view that was as broad and generalized as the corncribs had been specific. By 1973, the artist was hiring local pilots to fly him over the widely separated farmhouses, barns, and sheds that dot the landscape around Bloomington. Reaching a camera out the wedged-open door of the cockpit, Gregor shot downward photographic slides of these tidy farming operations from a few hundred feet above ground. Back in the studio, he projected the images onto canvases, allowing him to accurately trace the abstract patterns of houses, barns, feedlots, and fencerows. Once the compositional structure and strange aerial perspective were in place, he filled the open spaces of the first Illinois Flatscapes with broad areas of unmodulated primary and secondary colors ­ their flatness acknowledging the modernist concern for surface, the topography itself, and even the original trademarked source. In very little time, however, the Illinois Flatscapes would come to be defined less by their planer qualities than by their complex chromatic and tonal harmonies and dissonances, dazzling arrangements of vivid color that shuddered between illuminating and denying recognizable form and the illusion of dimension. [17]

In Illinois Flatscape #16 (see cat. no. x), a painting from 1981, the surface of the canvas reverberates with colliding color harmonies of dominant yellows, reds, violets, and blues. Gregor's repeating patterns swirl, ambulate, and charge lightly across the surface of the canvas in brushstroke-wide steps of perfectly even cadence. He was becoming increasingly absorbed in formalist issues, particularly the relational quality of color, leading some critics to suppose that the eternally flat Illinois landscape had become for the artist a virtually neutral subject, in effect a blank slate upon which he could chalk his well-ordered color theory.[18] And perhaps, given the intensity and the range of the experiments he was conducting, that may have been the case in some instances. But Gregor predictably balked at the assertion, insisting that without significant content, his paintings would be reduced to mere exercises:

A flatscape is not meant to be primarily a picture of a farm nor is it solely a color-formed space. Instead, it is meant to be both, and thus a new, more complex and dense kind of presentation. If I succeed, viewers should be able to enjoy the descriptive aspects of the work and the ordered color array simultaneously. [19]

To observers in the 1980s, Gregor's Illinois Flatscapes did suggest that the heart of an abstract expressionist still pounded in the landscapist's chest. But the long view from a Cessna was more than simply the most complicated and expensive means of developing flat abstract compositions. In his Illinois Flatscapes, Gregor had launched one of the twentieth century's most original, pertinent, and sophisticated visions of the American landscape. But more importantly, his leap to the sky provided clarifying distance, a remote prospect that crystallized his thinking about the rural Midwest, his representation of it, and what was left for landscape painting to say about the wide agrarian center of the North American continent. [20]

By the mid 1980s, Gregor was well into a third series, which he generically titled Illinois Landscapes. Painted at ground level, eyeballing down long rows of young corn and soybeans, his compositions appeared almost arbitrary in the slices of farm country he chose to represent. But that studied randomness had meaning even as some critics continued to mistake it for thematic neutrality and others for ironic indifference. Gregor genuinely admired the cultivated beauty of central Illinois -- its verdancy, its light, the miraculous miles of uninterrupted horizon. But admiration aside, he was seeking answers in the landscape that had nothing to do with the picturesque, the pastoral, or the sublime as those aesthetic traditions had been articulated by painters and theorists of past centuries. Gregor respected the history of his craft, but he was painting for the here and now. As early as 1978, he insisted: "I have tried to avoid sentimentality or any indication of yearning for pastoral virtues, wishing to picture defined qualities rather than cherished notions or points of view about our agricultural heritage." [21]

It was an important distinction. Gregor's paintings were of the landscape, but not about it. He was far more interested in the conversation between form, content, and reception, between color, countryside, and how you saw both, than "the land" as an expression of the American character or temperament. No metaphor, legend, or history, no Jeffersonian idealism, no Scarlet O'Hara returning to Tara, no received wisdom about America's heroic yeoman farmers would romanticize his subject matter or turn it into a fable. His work was never mechanical, far from it; but Gregor, the native of Detroit, a city born of mass production, standardization, and efficiency, recognized early on that there was little in the extraordinary sameness of Illinois farm country that expressed the rugged individual or correlated visually to the spirited pioneer seizing his manifest destiny. Individuality in modern agribusiness is a weed. More than anything, he was moved and intrigued by his own strong visceral response to Midwest farm country as form -- its unremitting repetitiveness, its grid-like overlay, its tight surface organization. Gregor would ultimately and brilliantly translate these qualities into the aesthetic structure for a great and cogent body of work that he classified, numbered, and presented in as orderly a fashion as he could possibly marshal. You could take the artist out of Detroit...

The search for order in Harold Gregor's Illinois would eventually lead him to contemplate not just his own experience of rural America, but the way you and I come to know it as well. Beginning in the early 1990s, he developed within the already-substantial Illinois Landscape series an exaggerated panoramic subset that eschewed the contrived foreground, repoussoir, and deep space of most scenic painting for an interaction with Midwestern expansiveness that was both insistently lateral and based on an unfixed perspective. [22] Gregor's panoramas -- most measuring only eighteen inches tall but nearly eight feet wide -- were meant to replicate the experience of a viewer in motion, surveying vast cornfields with the continually-shifting focus of, say, a passenger in a fast-moving automobile. Panoramic paintings such as Illinois Landscape #121 (see cat. no. xx) and Illinois Landscape #136 (see cat. no. xx) not only approximated the horizontal grandeur of central Illinois, they insisted, by their very format, that you move physically from one end of the canvas to the other, finding points of interest along the way as if you were seeing them from the interstate (on that long cross-country trip you always promised yourself). [23]

Most landscapists, indeed most artists of any stripe assume there will be viewers, enlightened observers, who will see what they have seen and understand the visual cues that they have set before you. But few painters have considered the relationship between artist, audience, and subject with more empathy and insight than Gregor. And in turn, no landscapist has worked harder to understand and then render not so much the place seen as the experiential nature of seeing it. In a 1997 interview, Gregor explained:

Viewing the Midwest prairie landscape casually from our car windows as we drive by, people today tend to perceive the scene as a huge panorama. The 19th-century viewer assumed a fixed focal point, while in the elongated horizontal space there is no strong focal point. We look at the scene but do not focus on it. We just gather it in, looking at it for a moment, then go on to the next concentration ...[24]

We just gather it in. Perhaps it's a product of his long career as an educator or maybe it's his genial nature, but few artists use the word "we" more generously than Gregor. And it's not just a gentlemanly turn of phrase. It reflects his having thought long and hard about the nature of viewing his personal expanse of Illinois -- not just how he sees it, but how you and I see it too. Despite the apparent human vacancy in his paintings, it must seem to Gregor that he has always been accompanied on his long artistic journey. If he had only concerned himself with accurately representing the corn and bean fields of central Illinois, something he does expertly, he would not have gauged our understanding of vast acreages in the same way, or as often, or as thoroughly as he has. But in Gregor's much larger goal of helping us to gain insight from our experience of the rural Midwest ­ not what we think it should be, but what we actually see -- we are indeed crucial to the process. We are as strangely present in Harold Gregor's Illinois as the farmers are strangely absent, and that may represent the very essence of what he has tried to teach us. His work is not about farming; it never has been. It's about you.

Gregor continues to paint his aerial views of the farm country near Bloomington, steadily turning out two or three large Illinois Flatscapes each year. To his Illinois Landscapes, which now number upward of 200 large format canvases (and hundreds more smaller paintings and watercolors), he added a Trail Series in the mid 1990s, based on his walks along a nearby woodland path, and a Left-Right Vibrascape Series, which he started in 2004. The relative freedom of composition and brushwork that characterizes these last two bodies of work might suggest a departure from the focused quest for order that has been so much a part of his mission as a landscapist. And in a way, it is. But the bold color of Illinois Landscape #185 (Trail Series) (see cat. no. xx) and Illinois Landscape #189 (Left-Right Vibrascape) (see cat. no. xx) is certainly no more vibrant than in some of his Illinois Flatscapes. And if his woodland subjects and imaginative vistas appear to give into the chaos of uncultivated nature, you might look again. After thirty-five years of making rational aesthetic order to parallel the order of modern agriculture that surrounds him on four sides, Gregor has accepted an even greater challenge in the Trail Series and the Left-Right Vibrascapes: isolating visual coherence where you might say none exists.

After you spend perhaps an hour with Gregor in that downtown studio in Bloomington, Illinois, you come to understand what you first sensed at the door. It's not that he has explained anything; certainly, he has not drained the magic from his work as he guides you thoughtfully through narrow hallways and between broad tables filled with paint tubes to large canvases hung under fluorescent lights. But just as he must have illuminated thousands of students, he leads you to your own understanding of the work he has carried out here amid the detritus of his artistic life. As you gaze across row after row of young corn, or look down on a farm, or through a thicket of woods, you know that in every brushstroke there is purpose, and in every color chosen there is sound reasoning. Harold Gregor's Illinois is a very orderly place, even if it only exists on canvas, even as the rest of the world is in relative chaos.



1 Harold Gregor has worked in his current studio since 1985, when he bought a storefront building in downtown Bloomington, Illinois. See the "Chronology," Harold Gregor, eds. Peter J. Baldaia and Gerald Nordland, (Rockford, Illinois: Rockford Art Museum, 1993), p.51. Gregor has authored a number of articles on painting and watercolor technique that describe his methods and materials. Other writers have spoken of his studio and its contents, but rarely, it would seem, with the benefit of having actually seen it.

2 Gregor occasionally assigns descriptive or poetic titles to his works, but they are the exception. Most newly-completed paintings are simply given the appropriate sequential number within the series it belongs to. In a similar nod toward standardization, his paintings in any given series will usually be consistent in size and nearly always in proportion. Gregor's uniformity of titles and dimensions is another method of reinforcing the aesthetic and thematic structure of his art. He consciously seeks "landscapes that are featureless, offering equivalences of the mood, light and sounds of the prairie." See "H. Gregor Talks about His Landscape Painting," p. 3, an unpublished manuscript found among the artist's indifferently organized personal papers, hereafter cited as Harold Gregor Archive. His comments were answers to a questionnaire sent to him by Robert F. Sayre for Recovering the Prairie, ed. Robert F. Sayre (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). Only a fraction of Gregor's eloquent and thoughtful statements actually appeared in the book.

3 Gregor's long rows of paint tubes, perfectly aligned, resemble rows of crops in a field. The plumes of brushes are like the rare copses of trees that survive in central Illinois farm country. It is hard to say whether Gregor arranges his materials and tools to intentionally mimic his subject matter or whether it is a purely unconscious installation. For Gregor's use of fluorescent light, see Betty Schein Goldman, "Harold Gregor," American Artist 50, 532 (November 1986), p.76.

4 Gregor has said: "A corncrib is not a barn. Barns are for animals, and they usually have silos attached ­ great big phallic symbols that suggest fertility and regeneration. Barns have been painted so often they've practically become an artistic cliché." See Jim Gallagher, "Painter finds self-expression in a corncrib," Chicago Tribune (19 January 1977), section 1, p.14.

5 Nearly all of the extended literature devoted to Gregor's work divides the discussion between four subsets: corncribs, flatscapes, landscapes, and panoramas. The clear organizational structure of his landscape painting is like an outline that most writers cannot resist following, including me. See for example, Gerald Nordland, "Harold Gregor: Heartland Painter," in ibid., Rockford, pp.2-10.

6 Gregor holds a Ph. D. in painting from Ohio State University, a degree program that existed in only a handful of institutions and for only a short period of time. He completed his dissertation and was awarded his doctorate in 1960. For a synoptic history of Gregor's life and career, see ibid., Rockford, pp.49-52.

7 Gregor loosely based his Dying Gaul (1962; Harold Gregor Studio) on the ancient Roman marble (after an earlier, now-lost Greek bronze). Dying Gaul (Capitoline Museum, Rome) is featured in almost every ancient art textbook, and appears in most art history surveys as well, including books from which an artist-educator such as Gregor probably would have been teaching. See H. W. Janson, History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), p.117.

8 In Still Life with Vapor Phone (1968; Harold Gregor Studio), Gregor incorporated plaster relief elements into the composition.

9 Ellen Edwards, "Gregor's Midwest Landscapes," The [Chicago] Reader (4 October 1974), p. 9.

10 C. H. Morrison, "Exhibition Review," ArtForum (February 1977), p. 72.

11 Norman Turner. "Harold Gregor," Arts Magazine (September 1977), p. 28.

12 Harold Gregor, quoted in ibid., Chicago Tribune, Tempo section, p. 2.

13 Gregor had moved to Bloomington, Illinois in 1970 to teach painting and American art history at Illinois State University in Normal. See ibid., Rockford, p.50.

14 Gregor produced thirty-seven paintings in the Illinois Corncrib Series, works that for the most part measured 60 x 82 inches. He painted thirty-six Illinois Farmscapes, which were smaller, generally in the 14 x 18 inches range.

15 The corncribs are the only landscape theme Gregor has completely abandoned since coming to Illinois. Every other idiom has remained an ongoing investigation.

16 Gregor may have been initially drawn to the cornmeal bag because for much of the 1970s, he created room-sized installations made largely out of cornmeal that he spread on the floor in geometric patterns. For one of these installations, see Duncan Pollock, "Review," Art in America (January-February 1974), p.106.

17 For a detailed description of the methods and materials that go into Gregor's Illinois Flatscapes, see Harold Gregor with Katherine Gregor, "The Techniques of the Flatscape," The Artist's Magazine 3, 12 (December 1986), pp. 36-43. At least one perceptive critic drew attention to the aesthetic coherence Gregor achieved by painting a flat (and from an aerial view, flattened) subject, with flat color, on the flat surface of a canvas. See ibid., ArtForum, February 1977, p. 72.

18 In his otherwise perceptive review of Gregor's 1978 exhibition at Tibor de Nagy, Holland Cotter wrote, "He [Gregor] has chosen as his subjects wide, panoramic views of topographically 'neutral' landscapes from the midwest [sic]." See Holland Cotter, "Gallery Review," New York Arts Journal (September-October 1978), p.11.

19 Ibid., The Artist's Magazine, pp. 37-38.

20 For an interesting discussion of "prospect" in the context of Gregor's painting, see Joni L. Kinsey, "Harold Gregor: Midwestern Perspectives," From the Road, from the Trail, from the Sky: Recent Works by Harold Gregor, ed. Gayle Maxon-Edgerton (Santa Fe: Gerald Peters Gallery, 2001), n.p.

21 Gregor, quoted in Vicky Chen Haider. "Two Illinois Artists Show Their Stuff," Chicago Tribune Magazine (8 January 1978), p. 4. The quote was misattributed to Eric Bowman, who also had a show at the Nancy Lurie Gallery in Chicago at that time.

22 Gregor has described this shifting point of view as "cavalier perspective," and he cites its use in a number of examples from art history, including the work of Jan Breughel and Paul Cezanne. See Betsy Dillard Stroud. "Redefining Space: An Interview with Harold Gregor and Kenneth Holder," Watercolor Magic (November 2000), p.17.

23 The American landscape painter, Worthington Whittredge, described the horizontal grandeur of the plains and prairies after an 1866 excursion into the American West. See The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge, ed. John I.H. Baur (New York, 1969), pp. 31, 46.

24 Gregor, quoted in Bonnie Iris. "Recent Images, Recent Concerns," Watercolor 3, 12, (Fall 1997), pp. 38-39.

 

About the Author

Kevin Sharp is Director of Visual Arts at the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts

 

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