Harvey Quaytman: Against the Static is the first comprehensive retrospective of work by Harvey Quaytman, an under-recognized figure in twentieth-century American painting noted for his monumental shaped canvasses, material investigations, and interest in color as a pure medium. The exhibition also marks the first posthumous museum exhibition for this artist, who left behind a prolific body of work when he passed away in 2002. Drawing from private and museum collections—including BAMPFA’s own significant postwar art holdings—the exhibition features more than seventy paintings and drawings that span Quaytman’s four-decade career, including many of Quaytman’s most significant, and rarely seen, works.
Harvey Quaytman: Against the Static is organized into six galleries based on distinct phases of Quaytman’s creative trajectory, which saw him experiment with different aesthetic modes over the course of four decades. Quaytman began his career in the early 1960s, making gestural, abstract paintings inspired by Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. By the late ’60s, his focus on the character and shape of brushstrokes evolved into a unique style that blended minimalist abstraction with his interest in gesture, color, movement, and tactility. Strongly influenced by twentieth-century icons Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and Henri Matisse, Quaytman’s work reveals a fascinating interplay between earlier strands of European Modernism and American postwar abstraction.
In the 1970s, along with artists including Frank Stella, Richard Smith, and Robert Mangold, Quaytman brought painting into a newly sculptural domain. Quaytman developed a unique mode of painting, making curved stretcher bars himself by scoring and steaming them in his studio in New York’s Bowery district. The resulting paintings, often distinguished by an arc shape that imbues them with a sense of movement, are also distinct for their attention to surface texture and experimental application of color as in Harmonica YP (1972), a highlight of BAMPFA’s collection. While these works display a rigorous commitment to formalism, they are simultaneously invested with rich undertones of sensuality, complexity, and humor.
Quaytman’s turn to geometric abstraction in the mid-1980s heralded a new direction in his painting, although his systematic investigation of form, materials, color, shape, and movement remained. The new definitive shape assumes the form of equilateral crosses, within the confines of more traditional square and rectangular formats witnessed in a painting like Wanderer (1987). These works present an austere contrast to his early paintings. And yet, through subtle chromatic and linear shifts, Quaytman was able to inject novelty into the most stable and historical of forms, and to keep the viewer’s eyes in continual motion. Finally, Quaytman returns to shape with large-scale crosses no longer set within a rectilinear format, such as The Illusionist (1997).
Harvey Quaytman: Against the Static marks the first major solo exhibition of Quaytman’s work since a focused retrospective at PS1 in 1999. As the artist’s first West Coast presentation, the exhibition is an unprecedented opportunity for Bay Area audiences to immerse themselves in the work of an artist whose singular contributions to twentieth-century modernism anticipate today’s renewed interest in the sculptural and material qualities of abstract painting.
(Photo: Harvey Quaytman, Harmonica YP, 1972; acrylic and pigment on canvas; 105 x 108 in.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Gift of David and Renee McKee.)