Arts A sensualist in the land of Judd

When Charles Field arrived in San Antonio in the early '70s, he couldn't have been less fashionable. But locals have come 'round to his way of seeing.

Painter and UTSA Professor Emeritus Charles Field is the 61st recipient of the San Antonio Art League and Museum's Artist of the Year Exhibition. While Field is primarily known as a landscape artist, the SAALM exhibition, which opens Friday, September 2, spans his entire career and includes earlier figurative works and nudes. Light, abstract gestures, and the ever-changing sky figure prominently in Field's landscapes, which he began painting in 1979, inspired by the view outside his Helotes window. Field spoke with the Current about the challenges he faced pursuing a career in Texas and the importance of light to his work.

Artist Charles Field stands in his studio among examples of paintings spanning his long career, from his earlier figurative work to his later landscapes. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

When you look back over your career, do you think of yourself as a painter who went through periods?

When I began as a student back in the '50s, that was a time when any painter worth his or her salt was an abstract expressionist; you painted abstractly or you were dead. One tended to conform to the norm of the time, so I began painting abstractly, although I always loved to draw and work figuratively as well. But abstraction fascinated me quite a bit. I'm sort of a painterly painter, sort of a sensualist, so that was good for a while.

After undergradaute work, I had four years before I went to graduate school, and by that time Abstract Expressionism was on the wane, Bay Area figuration was strong, and `Richard` Diebenkorn was a big influence. I had a professor in graduate school who was from New York and very serious about figurative art; his work is very oriented from Cézanne, so that was a big influence. At that juncture, I was able to see that a person could be an active, dynamic painter and have content and subject again. Diebenkorn ran into the same thing, finding that abstraction became more decorative after a while and not very fulfilling, and I felt the same way.

Often when I talk to people about your work, they'll say, I really feel he's underappreciated. Do you feel underappreciated?

I wouldn't declare underappreciation; I'd say often misunderstood. When I first arrived in San Antonio in '74, I was doing nudes. Well, San Antonio wasn't entirely friendly to the whole notion - you know, double nude paintings, full frontal, and so on. It was a very confusing signal I think I sent out into a community that wasn't entirely as sophisticated as Albuquerque was, or Austin. So it was more confusion, I think, on the part of the audience.

Do you feel your work changed in response to that?

It was hard starting at `UTSA`, so that was one dynamic. The other thing that was difficult with maintaining the figure as the source - San Antonio wasn't as easy in terms of acquiring models to work from. There was still this hang-up, of not a familiar situation in working with live models, hiring them, etc. So that wasn't as predictable as it had been in Albuquerque, for example. It was difficult in a number of ways, and then you run into the "painting is dead" thing. So if you're a more romantic painter, as I am, these trends - conceptual art, minimal art, painting is dead - it looks like paint is passe; you're not in phase with the cutting edge. I'm very happy that San Antonio eventually became far more receptive to what I was doing, and eventually I changed primarily to landscape, but I didn't entirely leave the figure or the masterwork.

Charles Field:
Artist of the Year Exhibition

10am-2pm Mon-Sat
Through Oct 23

San Antonio Art League and Museum
130 King William

Coming to Texas, the predominant landscape in Texas was Western art, so you know bluebonnets - you just didn't want to touch that. I had to find my way past that stuff to feel that it was pertinent because I didn't want to join into that vein, which was hyper-sentimental and commercial.

Even though `minimalist` Donald Judd was in many ways the poster boy for "painting is dead," did you find inspiration in his work?

Not particularly. I found it overly reductive. Intellectually I understand what he was up to, seeking the purity of form, but from my taste and experience, taking it away was going too far. I prefer to go the other way, more inclusive than exclusive.

Houston's Contemporary Art Museum has a show of contemporary landscape paintings titled Landscape Confection. Do you think that's evidence of a landscape renaissance?

Admittedly, the landscape has always been, in the genres of art, down near the bottom, near still life; I don't know why. I think there will be a constant revisiting of the subjects of landscape, particularly given what we're learning about the world and our resources. And we see the photographs from outer space and see this beautiful, luscious place. We wince everytime we see bulldozers knocking down more trees and putting up more ticky-tacky houses and so on. All of it's going to continue to be near and dear; we depend on water and food and clean air to live. Plus, it's a gorgeous form, and the sky is incredible. You could be anywhere, in the most depraved part of the urban world, and you just look up and there's amazing infinite space and clarity.

"North of Taos" by Charles Field

How did Texas change your palette?

I don't know if Texas did; I think probably California formed my palette more. California light, particularly the Bay Area and along the coast, there's just nothing like it. It's a mellow light, sort of a warm golden light. So you have this incredible range between the warm tones and the sea and sky and so on, a huge contrast.

It's so Mediterranean-like. I think I brought that with me and I bring it even when I go to Italy, Ireland, wherever.

On a recent trip to Ireland it was the coldest May on record. It was just chilly as hell; we were clinging to the radiators and we weren't prepared for it. It was all rainy and cold and gray, but occasionally the sun would come out and it would just be brilliant and I really found, once I saw the full sun, it generated my palette again. I was really starved for that color, for that bath of warm light.

What do you think of the state of San Antonio's art scene?

It used to be when one arrived in San Antonio, you were branded a local artist, and no one bought local artists. You were immediately just regarded as an amateur, even though you may have come from somewhere else and had a very professional life, you were somehow regarded as a local artist. Now, that's happily not the case. I don't even hear that term anymore; certainly not derogatory as it used to be.

By Elaine Wolff

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