There are many instructional books written by artists, for artists, and in general the fame of the book deservedly eclipses that of the author’s art. Max Doerner (who wrote The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting, 1921) was a competent, if not especially inspired, landscape painter in oils. Robert Beverly Hale (who gave us Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, 1964, among several other indispensable titles on the art of figure drawing) produced abysmal abstractions. Art history didn’t do so badly by Robert Henri, whose collected thoughts in The Art Spirit (1923) remain as inspirational as ever, but his colleagues included Maurice Prendergast and George Bellows, and who would take his paintings over theirs?
Against these examples, consider Bernard Chaet, who worked alongside Josef Albers to revise Yale’s art curriculum not long after arriving there in 1951. Both of his texts, The Art of Drawing (1970) and An Artist’s Notebook (1979), went into multiple printings and are still available. In contrast to, say, the marching orders barked in John Sloan on Drawing and Painting from 1939 (“Get some nerve into the line,” reads a bit of strident and not particularly helpful advice), Chaet’s tone is matter-of-fact, even dry, suggesting one possibility of artistic construction after another with little urgency regarding what the artist might prefer.
What a surprise, then, to find that his landscapes are exuberant to the point of ferocity. Alpha Gallery in Boston is showing a suite of them produced during or inspired by plein-air sessions at dawn on the North Shore, towards and soon after the end of his four-decade tenure at Yale. Half a lifetime of teaching and marinating in technical knowledge didn’t stop him from painting like he had a fever.
This is someone who knew the ins and outs of figurative modernism, especially Edvard Munch and Milton Avery and their treatments of the landscape. From Munch he picked up the idea to mush the sphere of the sun into a vertical stripe reflected in the sea, and then absorbed the lesson so thoroughly that he was able to render the effect using an improbable but dashing powder blue in Pink Horizon (1989). The reduction of Cape Ann’s rocky coast to triangles and oblongs in Sun (1997–98) salutes Avery. I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to see the spirit of William Baziotes and his biomorphic abstractions in the sky of First Light (1990–2003).
But Chaet was clearly his own man, driven by a love of experimentation and of pushing on himself accordingly. The Atlantic Ocean in First Light could just as well be a multi-acre quilt thrown down on a prairie, so inventive is its coloration. In Sun Shower (2002–2004), limpid, indigo boulders crawl out of the ocean, proceeding right to left, leading to a row of equally cool and rocky clouds that trail back to the rising sun on the right. The sun drops its cake-frosting-thick orange reflection to close the loop, as the horizon buckles under the weight of its light.
Orange A.M. (2001) approaches religious vision, with dappled halos emanating from a tangerine sun, clotting the sky with pastel hues. The sun’s reflection bypasses the surface of the water to fall directly upon a shore of green and ochre angles that trap tide pools into aqua trapezoids. The expressionist geometry nevertheless feels like it was taken faithfully, if indirectly, from nature, which of course it was.
The introduction of An Artist’s Notebook contains one of its few exhortations: “The artist fearful of craft knowledge should realize that the concepts of artist-as-genius and artist-as-craftsman are not in the least incompatible. Knowledge of technique is not inhibiting, nor is it a guarantee of achievement. At best, mastery of craft supplies a working vocabulary—one that opens possibilities to be fulfilled by the individual vision of the artist.” Chaet proved himself right. His vision deserves to be esteemed as highly as his bibliography, and, with no slight to the latter, even higher.