The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

July 25th, 2011  |  Published in On View, Summer 2011  |  3 Comments

Harry Reisiger at The Phyllis Weston Gallery

Clement Greenberg once said that “the superior artist is one who knows how to be influenced” and the current survey of paintings by the late Harry Reisiger reveals just such an artist. Born in 1922, Reisiger studied at both the Art Academy and the University of Cincinnati, eventually becoming a successful commercial designer for Kenner Products. Inspired by his love of music and landscape, Reisiger’s work is inundated with the saturated colors of Matisse, the composition of Nicholas de Stael, and the touch of Willem de Kooning; all filtered through the brush of long-time friend and renowned local artist Paul Chidlaw. At their best, Reisiger’s paintings evoke his many mentors, exuding a confidence and energy that, though occasionally crossing into the derivative, never veer into the clichéd.

Works such as the effervescent Seaside and the viscous From Above -both laden with impasto – provoke a careful examination of surface and their compositions reiterate the profound impact of Chidlaw’s style on the junior Reisiger.  The facture of these many easel-sized works emphasize the horizontal, befitting the paintings’ terrestrial preoccupations and imparting a pleasing formal unity to the exhibition. Though these works are often loose and flowing, they eschew the accidental.  In A Blustery Day, -the high point of the exhibition- the artist employs audacious brushstrokes and forceful chromatic contrasts to depict a roiling sea of air.  Stopping just short of abandon, this work witnesses the student exceeding the master.

In terms of color, Reisiger seems to have had a penchant for analogous palettes; most of his best pictures are dominated by cerulean blues and light greens punctuated by intense bursts of cadmium orange. A few paintings, Cadmium Sunset and the de Stael-inflected Sunrise, invert the relationship and rely on the warmth of yellow-orange offset by breezy turquoise accents to create the images’ tranquil rhythms.  Though one hesitates to call this a formula, it’s clear that when Reisiger deviates from the program, something vital is lost.  By replacing his customary ceruleans and cobalts with ultramarines, (see Girl Sitting on a Cushion or Sketch Class/Plein Air Painting) the expansiveness of his alluring landscapes contract into a less lively, and more claustrophobic space.

A former trumpet player, Reisiger’s late paintings are candid about their musical roots. Featuring abstract impressions of instruments, these works evidence Reisiger’s move away from the gestural modernism practiced by Chidlaw and into a spare, less painterly manner reminiscent of Kandinsky. Banjo!, with its emphasis on simplified forms, large expanses of color, and lightness of touch exemplifies the artist’s alterstil, and hearken back to the earliest days of abstraction.  Along with Cellist and Guitar #3, Banjo! acquires a clarity that is a frequent trait of a mature practice, but the visceral impact of the artist’s more painterly forays are sacrificed to get there.  Though the selections in this exhibition represent Reisiger well, a considered examination of his evolution as a painter is hampered by an irritating lack of dates.

In the final analysis, it would be a simple matter to characterize Harry Reisiger as a good painter who, for the most part, wore his influences on his sleeve; no more, no less. But paintings are more than elaborate arrangements of formal elements; they are conduits to the very soul of the artist.  The best artists position these elements in a way that not only excite the senses and fire the imagination, but communicate an affirmation of shared humanity, even if the vernacular is borrowed from others. Good painting is good painting, and the type of originality often demanded of artists is simply no longer possible. Those who think they can “bring something new” to painting, formally or theoretically, are on a fool’s errand.  Instead, Harry Reisiger’s work stands serenely for the vast majority of practitioners who achieve a pictorial quality overlooked by those on the hunt for an elusive (and mythical) novelty. That they are still not dissuaded from participating in a medium so thoroughly explored by others, and are content with what they have to offer, serves as counsel to us all.

-Alan D. Pocaro

“Harry Reisiger: The Lyrical Modernist” at the Phyllis Weston Gallery through August 15th.   2005 1/2 Madison Road Cincinnati, OH 45208.  513 321 5200.









  1. brian edmonds says:

    July 26th, 2011at 9:06 pm(#)

    Nice piece. It makes me wonder exactly when originality really ceased to exist. Not to say that artist are not still pushing the boundaries of painting today but realistically there is only so much a person can do and still produce a coherent, viable work. I know some artist purposely practice “bad” painting to achieve some sense of originality but those often feel forced. Picasso and Matisse do not seem forced. De Kooning and Pollock do not seem forced. Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons seem forced. What do you think?

  2. Alan D Pocaro says:

    July 27th, 2011at 10:07 am(#)

    Thanks, Brian. I think that on its own, originality can be a contentious term. If we went back to the late 30’s and early 40s, we find that de Kooning and Gorky were making remarkably similar paintings heavily indebted to Joan Miro. Undoubtedly their exposure to a large scale Miro exhibition had a powerful impact upon their practice. And yet, I would characterize both of them as original painters (Gorky less so) particularly because they had time to mature and digest influences as artists prior to “making it”. As a result, I’m skeptical of painters who get their cards punched at a Columbia or an NYU-type school and sell-out their MFA shows; what’s going to happen to their work in 10 or 20 years?

    As far as “bad” painting goes, I think its a valid approach, but to my eyes marginal results are always programmed into the strategy. Did you read Sharon Butler’s “New Casualists” in Brooklyn Rail last month? I for one am tired “interesting” supplanting the beautiful or the sublime as the supreme good of art. I’d like to think I have higher expectations for what painting is still capable of, original or otherwise. Thanks again.

  3. brian edmonds says:

    July 27th, 2011at 3:45 pm(#)

    I agree. When using those artists as examples though, I hope I didn’t give the impression they were totally original. They all borrowed from one another. Two good examples of this are Picasso and Diebenkorn. Picasso borrowed from Goya, Velasquez, etc. while Diebenkorn from Matisse, Bonnard, and Hopper. Each allowed other artists to guide their hands and minds but in the end created work unique and independent of those influences.

    Don’t get me started on art school grads. You can’t group them all into the same category but many produce lazy, uninspired gibberish that pass for cutting edge. For the most part galleries/collectors are looking for the glitter in the gutter and as Rene Ricard said “Nobody wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh.”