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On the uncompromising artifice of influential local painter and professor Marvin Saltzman



Landscape painters often fit into one of two categories. On the impressionist side of the fence, landscape is seen as an optical phenomenon transferred onto canvas through a stylistic or realistic lens. Meanwhile, on the expressionist side, landscape serves as a platform for the painter's experience of it.

Influential painter Marvin Saltzman simply walks away from the fence.

The 14 oil paintings in THE ABSTRACT LANDSCAPES OF MARVIN SALTZMAN, a selected retrospective of recent work at Hillsborough's Eno Gallery, are synthetic responses to the physical world. Saltzman constructs these colorful, intriguing paintings through a process that begins with plein-air pencil drawings, eight of which are in the show. Back in his Chapel Hill studio, he extracts shapes and what he calls "glyphs" from the drawings, combining them into painted compositions.

Saltzman is neither applying an optical theory nor opening his soul. Instead, he grabs your eyes and attention, telling them where to look and what to do. His work teaches you how to see it, and as with any instructional experience, it's not always pleasant.

"I am forcing you to see a certain way with paint, with color, with tonality," he says at his studio. "It's more than just lines or composition. It's paint. I'm a painter, damn it. And most people are scared shitless of my paintings. But once somebody has bought one, they'll come back and buy another one."

A painting from the "Trent River Winter" seriesby Marvin Saltzman
  • A painting from the "Trent River Winter" seriesby Marvin Saltzman

Saltzman's professorial tone is well earned. Born in Chicago in 1931, he taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for three decades, building the art department and training a generation of artists through rigorous critiques. (Another exhibition, Marvin Saltzman: Works from 1948, shows at the John and June Allcott Gallery at UNC in August.)

Saltzman retired from teaching in 1996. The Mahler Fine Art Gallery in Raleigh honored his classroom legacy in 2011 with Celebrated Artists: Students of Marvin Saltzman, collecting the work of 24 former students including Thomas Sayre, Peter Krogh, Michael Brown, Ann Conner, Jacob Cooley, Frank Faulkner, Bryce Lankard and Jane Filer.

Reading through these artists' statements in the Mahler show's monograph, you get a portrait of Saltzman as an unrelenting hard-ass who enabled students to make what they needed to make by forcing them to know what they were doing at all times. Saltzman taught intentionality, and he holds himself to that standard today.

He takes "landscape" literally—the paintings in Abstract Landscapes lack horizon lines and skies. The hills of "Vallee De La Dordogne #11" run right up through the top edge of the canvas. Even though the forms of hills, trees and fields are identifiable, the valley lacks pictorial depth. You don't see its distance.

It's not flat, however, because of how Saltzman has coded instructions for your eyes. Green hills along the bottom of the painting slightly darken into the center. The yellow hills along the top darken into the upper right corner. He calls these subtle gradation changes "the drift." They signify pictorial depth without representing it in an illusory way.

Bright confetti-like marks across the painting's surface provide further instruction. The colors and orientation of these glyphs direct a visual current around the planes and lines of the image. In other works, the glyphs are literal arrows, guiding your eyes like roadway signage.

Saltzman never bullshits us, offering no pretense of looking at an actual landscape. At all points on the canvas, he reminds us that we're looking at a painting. It's a slightly disorienting, even dizzying, experience.

"Light falls on reality. Most landscape painters try to paint that reality. I don't," he says. "I paint differently. Cut off the sky in Vincent van Gogh and you've got a Saltzman. But you've got to cut off the sky, which would give it too much of a certain kind of dimension."

"Trent River Summer #11" is vertiginous. There is a horizontal line of symmetry through it, as if the surface of a foregrounded pond were reflecting the hills beyond it. Saltzman's drift makes the canvas seem like it's leaning off the wall over you. But the glyphs disrupt the symmetry and the possible depth it could imply. The perspective doesn't match the depiction, as though Saltzman is reminding his students that this is a construction and that the canvas is a flat surface that can't actually offer perspective.

"[In life], you're looking down, you're looking at and you're looking up. But on paper, it's only one," Saltzman says. "So what you're really doing is putting those three elements into one space. It's like looking into a three-dimensional box and putting it on a two-dimensional surface. People forget that."

A painting from the "Trent River Summer" series by Marvin Saltzman
  • A painting from the "Trent River Summer" series by Marvin Saltzman

Saltzman's glyphs take more definite forms in other works, approaching asemic writing—an abstract, open semantic form. In "The Cumberland #1," the letters S, B, X and O are nearly recognizable across the upper green field. The bottom edge of "Alaska Marine Hwy" looks like the cross section of an archaeological dig, revealing the tribal litter of prehistoric tools, jugs and bones.

At an early point in Saltzman's process, the glyphs essentially are the painting. As he looks over his drawings in his studio, shapes and forms register to his eye. Then he "writes" all over the canvas in yellow ochre, blocking out its composition. A second pass with a dark color provides major directional information. Subsequent passes add skin to this framework, which Saltzman describes as an almost subtractive process: "The glyphs are what's left over from getting rid of them."

The drawings, which he executes very quickly, give insight into the glyphs. Some of the drawings are conventional landscapes, not abstracted at all—meadows bounded by tree lines and distant hills. Others are like motif collages, gathering tree branches and leaves into compositions against dense backgrounds. But when you lean in close, you see the same fundamental unit: the mark. Even in shaded areas that look as if graphite were applied with a sponge, many minute individual marks persist.

Landscapes exist in reality, but what's interesting about their representation on canvas is what the painter sees and how he or she chooses to render that vision. The art is always in the artifice. Saltzman will not let us forget that. His glyphs and marks are the ultimate cipher, lacking any dimensional aspect, describing nothing but themselves.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Lose your illusion"

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