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Terrence Heath

The Cosmic Landscapes of Otto Rogers

artscanada, Feb/March 1973.
[ 1,717 words ]


The difficulty of talking to Otto Rogers about art is that he does not think that painting should be discussed in terms of form but rather in terms of content. He speaks of paintings as messages, and that pulls the carpet out from under any art critic's feet, and of a good number of artists as well. If you let him have his way you end up talking about God and the spiritual life; if you fight to keep the paintings central, you begin to think of yourself as an idolator or crass materialist. After several bouts, I discovered quite by accident a pivotal point at which it is possible to stand with some certainty and face both Rogers's paintings and his words without distortion — or at least with a minimum of distortion. The pivotal point is 'that painting revolves around the fact that there is an observer.'

When Rogers is painting he is not consciously involved in the act of making a picture; he is an observer to a process which is happening through him as agent. He says he paints best when he is not aware that he is painting. This assertion is not a simplistic espousal of automatic painting, because by it Rogers is not describing the release of unconscious drives. He is talking about the loss of self-awareness and total immersion in prayer or the act of praising God. He is not disgorging repressed experience and drives; he is becoming one with an eternal order. The closer he as a person comes to the ideal — to God— the closer his painting comes to the ideal. 'An artist must seek to transform himself before he can transform others;' he has to be holy to paint a holy painting. At the same time, by painting he becomes an attraction point for the attributes of God. He claims, with a perfect seriousness impossible to doubt, that he can come across one of his paintings in a gallery and say without conceit, 'That's really a good painting.' Because he is not aware of having painted it, he can rediscover it in the same way as another observer who has not seen it before.

For Rogers, the peculiar task of the painter has to do with setting up visual poles or contrasts and establishing the nature of the space between. He sees forms, shapes, colours, tones, methods of applying paint, all as ways of setting up polarities. First, there are the poles created when the first paint is put onto the surface of a white canvas. The white canvas as a pole of rest is polarized by the paint as motion. Each set of poles elicits another. 'If you can define two poles and leave something in between you have a good painting.'

This ideal can be seen in a simple form in what I would call one of the most conscious and deliberate of Rogers's paintings, Rotation Tablet. Here the four spheres at the edges of the canvas are fixed, simple, static and defining, while the space is a jumble of nervous, moving, ill-defined shapes and lines. The deliberate polarization is the dominant interest of the painting. The space in between these two poles is not as clear or well-defined. I didn't ask Rogers, but I would anticipate that this is not one of the paintings he could say he didn't paint.

In most of Otto Rogers's paintings there are recognizable objects — trees, clouds, sky, water, hill, stars. He stoutly denies, however, that he can be called a landscape painter. These objects are not specific trees, clouds, etc.; they are identifiable points that are natural to him because he has observed such objects as a child. The landscape, what he observed and observes, has been interiorized and become a part of his way of seeing. 'They are the points within which I can attract mobility.' That is, they are poles which set up a field of motion which can be suspended, balanced, brought into a harmony through form and color. The landscape is in his paintings because he sees and because he is creating a pictorial object. The experience for both painter and viewer is visual. Both are observers. There is not, however, any attempt to give information about what he has seen; he is bringing his experience together in a concrete act of worship, in which the viewer may join to whatever degree he is able.

And yet no one has interpreted the prairie landscape in a more meaningful way than he has. I still carry with me the first impression I had of Otto Rogers's work when I saw the exhibition of his tree series in 1966. His tree was the prairie tree in its essence — single and self-justified. Similarly in these recent paintings, the 'bump' in the horizon line of Cloud Tablet is the prairie hill. The trace of pink in Sun after Rain is the astonishing delicacy of colour in the prairie landscape. As I grope for a comparison, I come up with the landscape of a Kafka novel. The castle of Kafka's The Castle is at once no specific castle and yet the very essence of what a castle is. Only Rogers is a Kafka with joy. His paintings really do make you happy when you see them. They have something of the effect of Paul Klee's paintings.

Pace Otto, but I think these points inevitably lead to a discussion of the paintings as form. To start at the most obvious, they are big paintings — 5' x 8', 3' x 12' are common sizes for his work. The size of the observer in respect to the painting is important in the experience of expanse that characterizes these recent 'sky' paintings. Within the expanse, however, there are small, sharply defined forms — roughly, trees, clouds, planets that are that much more individual in the expanse, but do not produce a feeling of insignificance. They seem to control the space for the moment. When Rogers achieves this sort of control, he succeeds in setting up poles and balancing them. Then, his paintings are visually and emotionally very powerful. The clouds in Cloud Rotation hold this balance with the same sort of sureness and precariousness as a unicyclist on a tightrope. The tree shapes in Point of Attraction, on the other hand, accomplish something of the same feat, but it is a more mechanical and arbitrary success. I felt in this painting a tension rather than an ease in the relation of the polarities.

Rogers has unbounded admiration for the paintings of Vermeer and in particular the latter's View of Delft. It is interesting to compare this Vermeer, and Rogers's Sun after Rain. From the view of style and colour, they couldn't be more different. But that felicitous balance of repose and movement and the resulting sense of deep serenity and peace are in both paintings. It is this ideal of peace that Rogers is striving for. He quotes Bab, the first figure of the Baha'i faith, to which Rogers adheres, 'In this age, out of motion stillness hath been engendered.' It is this kind of 'message' that Rogers identifies with the real significance of art, no matter which age or which culture produced the individual works. They are works of art in so far as they approach this ideal of peace. For much the same reason, Rogers defends the art museums and their function in the art community. He insists they are not mausoleums of dead works but temples where painters can worship. At best, they are collections of the ideal. These are rather excessive phrases, but I think he feels that the museums are not there to hang the paintings of contemporaries but to preserve the best as part of the record of man's approach to the absolute.

However far you may be prepared to go with Otto Rogers's ideas about art and life (and I doubt that he draws any line between the two), his paintings have that special quality which makes them stand out amongst any collection of works. It is tempting to credit their appeal to the colours. He has a masterful sense of subdued colour variation. In fact, I think some of his paintings are overly pleasing because of their decorative and pleasant colours. But it is not primarily colour that thrusts his paintings onto the viewer; it is the dramatic tension of his forms. And it is his daring in using natural forms without respect for the specific. They enter the polarization of the painting and create their own space completely apart from their place in a natural context. The horizons are closer to Mondrian lines (one of his favourite painters) than landscape, but he does not abstract them in a geometric fashion. They remain organically fluctuating. He doesn't attempt to keep the technique clean as one might expect from his concept of polarities, but he applies paint crudely. The forms in his paintings have an almost accidental bravado that is both strong and joyous. The carelessness of the paintings heightens the polarities as if the technique itself was a pole of the content of the painting. 'I don't think there is such a thing as a finished painting.' He says this in the context of the painter's success in approaching an ideal, but this is true in a different sense in his own painting. They are never finished because the observer, both painter and viewer, can always anticipate another polarity being established. And every painting leads to the next one even before it has been painted. In this way he differs very much from Vermeer, whose work has a sense of contained space. In Rogers the space is expanding, the balances seem to shift because the forms are less finished and smooth. There are accidents. Often, as in the painting, Sun after Rain, Rogers uses an interior square (a bit like the colourists), which at first viewing seems to contain the central subject, but which then begins to push or squeeze the central subject out of the two-dimensional plane. The overall effect is one of instability and change. I don't know where this places him in relation to the ideal, but it makes his paintings endlessly fascinating as a purely visual experience.

artscanada, Feb/Mar 1973.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.


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