By Bob Bahr
Robert Bateman is currently finishing up an autobiography, so not surprisingly, his presentation on Wednesday night of the Dubois 2015 workshop mined much of the material he has carefully prepared for that publication. The result was a look at his personal journey, with the emphasis on his artistic development. Along the way, Bateman delivered aphorisms about creating art that lodged in the participants’ minds long after Headwaters went dark for the night.
The Canadian master explained that he painted outdoors exclusively until he was 32. “If I didn’t finish it on the spot, it was not finished,” he said. His schooling was good but not spectacular. “I’m Bob Bateman—basically a B guy,” he said. He failed French and Chemistry in high school, and focused on Honors Geography “to get free field trips.” Every Thursday night throughout college he was in a life drawing class, and Bateman to this day values drawing. “My weapon of choice—since college—has been the ballpoint pen,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a very good draftsman. To me, being a good drawer is a gift. You either can do it or you can’t. But I’m fast. I got there from doing these quick nudes. When you have more time for a pose, you keep correcting your mistakes. That’s the crux of it—do you notice your mistakes? And then do you take measures to improve?”
In his early 30s, Bateman was teaching, and exploring an intriguing direction—abstract expressionism en plein air. But then one of his teachers cajoled him into visiting an exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, New York. It was a large show of Andrew Wyeth’s art. “That trip was my ‘road to Damascus,'” said Bateman. “I fell off my abstract horse that night in 1962 at the museum.”
“Subject matter was getting less and less important,” he went on to explain. “Subject matter was just an excuse to put paint down. Modern art was over by the end of the 1960s. We are in post-modern now, and it is sometimes interesting but usually pathetic. People are now paying thousands of dollars for a piece of a broken Venetian blind. In my view, the folks in this room—that’s where real art is.”
…in the representational. But with Bateman, there’s usually a twist. Just like the master from Chadds Ford, Pennysylvania. “I had been transformed by Wyeth,” Bateman said. “Wyeth was looking down at his feet. He liberated my eye. Suddenly you didn’t have to have sky for the top 1/3 of your painting.” Bateman was entranced by a brand of realism. “You cannot be a naturalist and be true to yourself without a small brush,” he said, summing it up obliquely. “You can’t paint the difference in the bark between a red maple and a sugar maple without a small brush. You can’t do it with a big, big brush, slapping it on.”
Bateman showed some of his own paintings from the period after Wyeth changed his outlook. In one, a bunny sits among dead leaves, wonderfully rendered. “That painting was about dead leaves,” he explained. “I really, really like dead leaves. They are underestimated. People rake them up and burn them, actually. If they were really big, people would go to see them instead of going to Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls is boring, actually.”
Wyeth’s impact is still readily visible in Bateman’s work. Sometimes, its presence is literal. “I put Wyeth’s ‘Hoffman’s Slough’ in a painting recently, actually,” he said. “You have all that stuff in your brain. Use it. Picasso said, ‘To steal ideas from others is necessary. To steal ideas from yourself is pathetic.'” Bateman showed one of his paintings of a rhinoceros. It was cropped in such a way that the form of the powerful creature left dynamic, compelling negative spaces in the composition. Bateman said the piece was inspired by Henry Moore. He was still blending the contemporary with realism. This sometimes left the unimaginative somewhat confused. He recalled that one collector criticized the fact that Bateman cropped off the rhino’s distinctive horn. “It’s worth too much to put in the painting,” he replied slyly.
He closed with a recent painting and a quote that clearly emanated from his heart—when he started to read it, Bateman got choked up.
The image was a painting of a heron perched on a dolphin sculpture that stands on the grounds of a wealthy friend’s house in the Bahamas, a place he visits every year. This time, Bateman said he was inspired by the surrealist Magritte, resulting in the light night sky incongruously contrasting with the dark foreground. And the quote?
“We retrace our steps. Although the hike home follows the same route, the sights are quite different. As is the light. Rain, shine, or snow, every foray is unique and every day special because we hike in nature’s endlessly variable paradise. I am rejuvenated.
Soon I will go once again in the studio and take up my brush as I have done almost every day of my life. I will paint.” Ω