BY PAM ACORD
It’s early summer. Flowers are in bloom. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. My drive from Rochester to Penn Yan passes through pastoral landscapes of scripted fields burgeoning with crops, fenced pastures wafting with rural scents, and tree-lined hamlets announcing church dinners and lemonade stands. My destination is Hawk Ridge, Sheldon Berlyn’s home and art studio. I have a lunch date with him and his wife Diane.
As I’m driving east on Rt. 5, I think about an article I read in which the author heralds Berlyn as “an archetype of contemporary art culture.” A coveted title to be sure and duly appropriated. His credentials are imposing: a career spanning five decades; fellowships, awards, and exhibitions far too numerous to list in this short space; a forty-year member of “Who’s Who in American Art”; and most impressive, a mainstay in nearly fifty private, public, and corporate collections.
Sheldon Berlyn is an abstract expressionist. In other words, he creates nonrepresentational art; his art is not mimetic of nature: you can’t see figures; you can’t see landscapes, albeit their influence is ultimately presented in some form. Berlin’s interest is to create form and shape and not least to extrapolate an aesthetic response from his beholder. His work is characterized by the interplay of sweeping graceful arcs and semi-transparent layers of color that travel in horizontal and vertical motion. He accomplishes this by what is referred to as gestural painting, that is to say, expressive paint strokes that deliberately emphasize the movement of his hand or the sweep of his arm. The aim is to reflect personality and mood much like my or your gestures reflect our personality and mood. But here’s the thing that trips me up: Berlyn cues from the great masters—Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Pontormo, and the later works of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet, among others—as models for his abstractions. I’m admittedly confounded. The contrast between the nondescript elements of Berlyn’s abstract art and the realistic representations of Baroque and Impressionist art is striking. Where does he see the connection?
“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth harmony.”
– James McNeill Whistler
I’m beginning to think I’m in over my head. In an effort to push down my angst, I let my mind finger through the Rolodex of literary movements and theories I studied as a graduate student, trying to determine which label would best identify what I know so far of Berlyn’s work. Literary theory is born from many of the same cultural fluctuations that informed the tenets of the shifting art movements, so there’s not much stretch between the two. And in this case the mental exercise is helpful before meeting with an “archetype of contemporary art” who self-reportedly “intellectualizes his work.” I’m hoping the afternoon with Berlyn will give me a perspective broader than, or at least different from, the delineated genres in which I’ve been taught to identify art, and my hope is fulfilled.
He greets me from an outdoor balcony and directs me to the stairway leading to where he and his aging Labrador wait. Berlyn lives in a post-and-beam home of his own design that recalls Buddhist minimalism and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. Whatever angst I had is immediately disarmed by his congeniality. After a hearty handshake, he escorts me into his cool, naturally-lit house, which sits on a densely treed hillside flanking Keuka Lake. I am introduced to his wife Diane who is an established artist in her own right, and the three of us gather at the dining table for lunch and conversation, which eventually leads to a discussion of a large painting situated above the Kawai grand piano in the adjoining living space.
I study the painting for some time while Berlyn patiently waits. The very act of searching for an interpretation in Berlyn’s work is pleasurable and I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that “there are works which wait, and which one does not understand for a long time; the reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised.”
Finally, I tell him I see dancers, elegant and sure—perhaps a waltz, a sweeping ballet—and indeed, he tells me this was his intention when he created the painting. He is pleased at my recognition—an affirmation of a master’s work. “Human kinetic movement is what I’m after,” he explains. I tell him that the iridescent delicacy of the white paint pulled by his homemade squeegee adds a lyrical, linear direction suggestive of a musical score. “That was not intended,” he says, “I remember doing this painting and I remember how excited I was that I could control it all the way through to its end while maintaining a certain tension and that the whole thing came together as a unified structure.” Berlyn is acutely conscious of his placement of form and of visual balance. He aptly controls the beholder’s eye so that it never goes totally off the page. Calm. Grace. Beauty.
He then shows me to his studio on the lower-level, also paneled with floor-to-ceiling windows. He pulls a large canvas from an upright bin. “I reference Caravaggio in this painting,” he says as he places it on the tabletop, “This is the ‘Martyrdom of St. Matthew.’” I don’t get it and I tell him so. He explains:
“What I did was draw a grid over [Caravaggio’s] work and also a series of concentric circles and diagonals to show what his compositional reference is. Diagonals and horizontals determine where the figures line up and the concentric circles have to do with the receding and advancing quality of the imagery,” he says. “You see, I’m not trying to be totally literal, but I am using the dramatic characteristics of Baroque painting, and I’m using the placement and directional flow of the figures, but I’m totally abstracting it. I’m not trying to reproduce or imitate Caravaggio as such.” Berlyn’s ultimate goal is to create a good painting, an interesting painting, one with variation, one that you can look at once and come back to time and again and see it for the first time. “That is the mission of true art—to make us pause and look at a thing a second time,” posits Oscar Wilde.
After talking over several more paintings, uses of color, which Berlyn takes particular pride in (a nod to Josef Albers et. al), and interpretations, we come to the end of the afternoon. I’m compelled to ask to see the ink drawings he sketched while in the Korean War. He is most happy to oblige me. He goes to a back room and returns a moment later with a box he made to house this collection of some of his earliest work. He uncoils the string that wraps it with the lightest of hand, approaches the edge of the paper as if it were a tiny bird, and turns the first drawing over for us to view. I am again struck by the delicacy of his artistic hand, but even more so by the humanness with which he depicted his subjects: Korean prisoners in his charge. Men and women, some robed in linen garb, some busying themselves with banal tasks, all depicted as gentle, kind, human, and lonely. War.
Where does Berlyn see the connection? I get it now. What I had come to understand is that by distilling human emotion from the objects of nature, by eliminating the embellishments of gender, class, status, particularities of environment, boundaries, Berlyn disabuses any misperception about what it is to be human. He rises to a symbolic expression that reaches across time, culture, and borders to convey the essential, even spiritual, ideas of experience and of art.
My mood is elevated and light; my intellect crisp and heady. I am somehow aware of the weight of the hours I spent with Sheldon Berlyn and that I am somehow changed. A chord has been struck. In my literary world, it would be the equivalent of studying, if only for a trollop of time, with a Pulitzer Prize author, and I wonder if years from now university students will be highlighting Berlyn’s biography with yellow marker, cramming his philosophies about art, about beauty, about minimalism and essence into their heads in the wee hours of the night, readying themselves for a mid-term exam. Berlyn is a master of his art, a man of excellence, a man of measure who creates because he must create, an artist for art’s sake.
When I stop at the bottom of the winding drive, I look into my rearview mirror. Hawk Ridge is out of my field of vision—a respite tucked in a lakeside wood, hidden, as it should be, from the masses—and I am aware that my perspective of art in the old sense has faded.