Irving Guyer (1916-2012)
In 2008, when Irving Guyer was 92 years old, he had his last solo exhibition at b. sakata garo gallery (Sacramento). A series of paintings he called Pinetum, which he did in 2007–2008 while suffering from macular degeneration, was central to the exhibit. His Pinetum paintings are bold, multi-canvas works, with abstract rectangular forms perpendicular to, or at deliberate tilts, to vivid fields of color. Dominated by the monumental, often up-close presence and texture of pine trees, the paintings embody, among other things, the emotional impact of color and metamorphosis of mood as light changes. Though they look simple on the surface, these late works were a distillation of Guyer’s lifetime of effort as a painter. For decades he observed the world around him, working in relative solitude with paint and studying his artistic heroes (Goya and Rembrandt when he was young, Cezanne and Matisse as he grew older). At times, he let his painting lie fallow while he supported a family. The paintings in his Pinetum series stood, he felt, among his strongest work.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, Guyer was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and grew up in New York City. He was raised in an environment with “little conception or interest in the arts” but nonetheless came to “the improbable notion of being an artist.” After high school, he spent three years at the Art Students League (1934–1937), where he gained most of his training (and was briefly a classmate of Jackson Pollock’s).
Like many other young artists of the Depression era, when he finished art school, he went to work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project. He served in the Graphic Arts section of the WPA as an etcher. Several of the etchings he did during his time at the WPA found their way into the permanent collections of important museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum, among others. In 1939, he was awarded first prize for painting at the 1939 World’s Fair.
When his stint at the WPA ended, he turned to commercial art to make a living and support a growing family. He married in 1942, served in World War II, and had four children over the course of a decade. He opened an advertising studio in New York. Painting became something he did at the end of the day in the basement of his Lynbrook, New York, home. His daughter, the artist Léonie Guyer, remembers him painting at night.
After three successful shows in the 1960s at the Galerie Paula Insel in New York, Guyer felt stretched between his many roles. Given his ambivalence about the art market, he chose to withdraw from the pressure of making and showing art and spent the next several years focused on professional and family responsibilities. While he continued to study art, he didn’t complete another significant body of work or have another exhibition until 1981. By then, his children were grown, and he and his wife had relocated to San Francisco. Deeply moved by the Pacific Coast landscape and profoundly influenced by an exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cutouts at the National Gallery of Art in 1977, Guyer writes of being “shaken up” and wanting to start painting again.
His eye troubles began before he launched his Pinetum series. He had cataract surgery in 2003. At about the same time, it became evident that he suffered from macular degeneration. He stopped driving and reading, which had been a lifelong passion of his. But, with an eye to simplifying forms and exploring “the border between nature and abstraction,” he continued to paint. In reflecting on his work, his daughter feels that the formally inventive strategies of his late paintings, such as the simplified compositions, with their stark contrasts of light and dark, may be due to his visual impairment. But she also sees his late works as completing a trajectory discernible from his earliest.
In 2011, not long before his death, Guyer reflected on his painting with the confidence of an artist who had found his place, even if few were aware of him:
My painting creed is simplicity itself. I don’t believe in art criticism; I stand before the centuries of brother & father artists and observe a mosaic. I can reject none of them; I embrace them all. I have learned something from each I have known. I do not believe in style, I believe in exploration, no matter the form it takes. Art movements do not mean progress, they represent the search for interstices others may have passed over. And they also bear witness to the overwhelming urge to join the band of brothers who search for life with paint, hands and minds.
The world is full of unrecognized, some would say failed artists. All hail to them! They have striven, worked, produced for the love of their art. The world may yet recognize some. I hope to be among them.
I leave my work to the world if it wants it; a part of the grand mosaic that is art.
For more information on Irving Guyer and his work: www.irvingguyer.com