The B. Deemer Gallery in Louisville presents a partial retrospective of the work of artist and educator Robert Knipschild (1927-2004). Paintings include works dating from the 1960s (a little over a decade after he was selected for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s renowned exhibition “American Painting Today”) through the 1990s. His style in this extensive period was varied, from some early works that reveal the influence of the generation of artists before him (such as that of Miró in Knipschild’s Untitled 001) to his inventive Egyptian Series. They all attest to his engagement with the profession of painting as well as his willingness and courage to experiment. The exhibition includes other career landmarks, such as a photocopy of LIFE Magazine’s March 17, 1952 article (in which a reproduction of his Knipschild’s Lavender Circle was mistakenly printed upside-down), and the text of AEQAI editor Daniel Brown’s catalogue essay on the oevre of Knipschild, considered by the family and galleries to be the definitive analysis of his production.
His early work is certainly skilled, and demonstrates his mastery of composition and color. Knipschild is acclaimed above all as an abstract landscape painter, and it is in this style that I found his work strongly compelling. Deemer (who curated the show) may have believed this as well, for she placed his encaustic Spring Landscape (1961) prominently on the front panel by the entrance. On first viewing, deep yellow and beige hues emerge luminously through its turqoise foreground. The technique of encaustic is particularly effective in this regard. Both color and mark-making are evident therein, but they are at the service of another investigation that moves beyond the mimetic representation of its subject matter. I find this investigation to be the transcendence of the initial composition (perhaps a blooming, grassy field), transforming it into an epiphany of the union of the artist’s inward experience of color and his awareness of the laws of optical refraction. What remains of the physical objects in the composition (like the grass or flowers) is just their ‘shell,’ such as lines and scratches, through which the viewer experiences a religious play of light and shadow. The darker hue, no longer limited to its function of representation, in its abstraction symbolizes material reality; this results in the yellow tones symbolizing enlightenment.
What remains of the original rough outline of the landscape has been progressively transformed by artistic poesis in the artist’s repeated emphasis of the relationship of inner light and its oppositional corporality. Not all artists can achieve this effect, despite the many years of the existence of this approach. As this process is so evidently treasured by Knipschild, Deemer placed copies of his actual handwriting alongside some of his pieces. Particularly apropos are his thoughts about his technique:
Painting is hard–You must be willing to destroy that first solution if you wish to go deeper–beyond–to paint out those nice findings–to muddy it up–to scratch into it–to smash the nice things out of it. It is hard–it is painful–it is fraught with failure–but to go beyond has the lure of the sublime. To go beyond yourself to a new place–a land not yet seen.
Hence one may appreciate how an original Spring landscape such as a field of flowers and grasses morphs into a meditation of the play of forces. This process is evident in other works as well, and for me represents his best work. For example, in Pavilion (1985), a large canvas apparently abstracted from a seaport, sky tones are identically reflected in the lower half of the canvas (implying water). Clouds and land masses merge and disintegrate; the transcendent and imminent unite harmoniously. Such is problematic in philosophy’s semantic limitations yet attainable (and here achieved) in the language of the arts. The form is mediated by the quick marks and lines that reference perceptual forms (boats?) and what appears to be a suspension bridge. Yet what they once may have represented (boats or a suspension bridge) no longer matters, much like the aforementioned Spring field; the subject matter again becomes transcendence. Their subtle remaining black lines give foundational ground to the splendour of the blues and siennas.
Similarly, Playing Light (1990) also represents an abstraction of land, light and water. However, here the original form from which the image is derived is still evident, recalling Impressionism. It is an experimental direction different from Pavilion and Spring Landscape. I speculate that Knipschild wished to experiment with visible light, as a continuous abstraction as evinced above sometimes requires an artist to return to basic foundations. It is hence interesting from the point of view of experiment.
The final artistry of Knipschild is also on display, and this was his pedagogy. The exhibition includes both art works, testimonies, and anecdotes by a selection of his students during his long teaching tenure (1967-1991) at the University of Cincinnati. Their names, in order from the gallery’s web site, are Ying Kit Chan, Al Gorman, Ken Green, Mary Newton, Martin Rollins, Guinever Smith, and Fred Tarr. Some reveal his influence in their works on display. More importantly, all have evolved their own personal style, a strong testimony in itself of a patient and supportive instructor considered the definitive work on Knipschild by his family and galleries.