In 2015, Joseph Mallord William Turner enjoys the posthumous status of a Hollywood celebrity. Two days after Mr. Turner (the film based on his life) received an Oscar, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles opened a large exhibition dedicated to Turner’s paintings after he turned 60, titled Painting Set Free.


In the context of contemporary aesthetics, Painting Set Free would be a misnomer for the exhibit (the term “painting set free” brings to mind works of artists like Katharina Grosse whose paintings extend beyond the canvas to the wall, the floor, the bed, the laundry, the window, and out the side of the building into the garden). Although Turner did set painting free from several academic constraints of his time, the paintings in Painting Set Free remain incarcerated in the conventional visual structure of the early 19th century. They cohere through traditional perspective and composition – all are painted on horizontal rectangles with imagery that clearly delineates foreground, middleground, and horizon. Even the frantic activity in his evocative Snow Storm – Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) – see p. 215 – takes place on defined layered planes. Rarely does the background escape its confines and enter into the foreground – the smoke in Snow Storm – Steam Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) and the highlighted wave crests in Rough Sea with Wreckage (c.1840-5) are welcomed exceptions. The turbulence transpires on the surface. We are aware of figure and ground, never are we blown away by wind set free from the frame, nor dragged in by a receding wave. 


Furthermore, the paintings are trapped in heavy ornate frames. Sawnie Morris, a poet whose writing incorporates the visual, asks: “Is a Turner still a Turner when the frame is removed?” An interesting question given that Turner is to be found in Rothko’s palette of internal light and mood, the pressed and mad swirling brushwork of deKooning, Joan Mitchell’s opulent use of white that infuses her paintings with air and breath, and the spontaneity in Twombly’s seascapes and sketchy finger paintings – to name a few of the last great painters of the sublime, whose paintings take us to experiences beyond imagery, beyond figure and ground, beyond the frame. Through his ecstatic, exploratory process and expressive use of materials, Turner released his own inner nature in a way that transmits a maelstrom of layered physical and emotional sensations, common in later action painters, but not generally the mode of painters whose work appears in thick gold-gilded frames.


Turner’s gift to future artists was his vividly frank effort to move beyond the confines of visual depiction and recognition to instill in the viewer a kinesthetic sensibility. The scratched, scraped, and scumbled surfaces of Turner’s later tumultuous paintings are a historic record of the physicality of his rendering. Like an actor of the Stanislavski method, Turner fully experiences and acts out the force of nature he depicts. He is tumbled by the waves, tossed hither and dither by the gale, flayed by a maelstrom of whirlpools – and all is recorded as the canvas absorbs the blows. Combining painterly brushwork with the scrappy freshness of incised lines, Turner accesses a heightened sense of nature’s chaos. He sets aside the paintbrush in favor of other tools – including his fingernails – that allow for a more direct, intimate, and honest contact with the surface. In that sense he becomes more aligned with his drawing practice of graphite penetrating paper than with the caressing nature of paintbrush on canvas. By unshackling the painter from the constraints of the brush and pallet knife, Turner was, in fact, successful in setting painting free from conventional execution.


With academic discipline, Turner perfected the depiction of light and atmosphere early in his career – and for that he gained the nomenclature “the painter of light.” His later paintings maintain his dramatic use of light, while increasingly turning his attention to highly complex and abstracted subtleties among the shadows. In the shadows we see how his artistic ambitions move from depiction of events to communicating the physicality of experience. He takes on as his subject the visceral, agitated, and destructive aspects of nature, and in so doing he becomes a master of grey tones, illumined shadows, drawn shapes and swirling motions that, combined, become key to his interest in conveying – and thrusting upon the viewer – an experience of the sublime: an elevated sense of the event he portrays. Blinded by the masterful and inspired splattering of bright light, the viewer gains greater access to the tactile and auditory rawness of air, fire, land and water – a more direct and sharpened experience that is the painter’s primary concern. Who can spend time with Snow Storm – Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth and not feel the earth moving, or want to join the birds in playful flight in the wind-blown spray of the symphonic watercolor and gouache Long Ship’s Lighthouse, Land’s End (c. 1834-5)?


To Turner’s credit, his contemporaries had strong reactions – some were curious but most were shocked, confounded, confused, angered. Just as people unfamiliar with photography are unable at first to identify themselves in the shapes revealed in photographs, so Turner’s contemporaries felt but were unable to identify what they were experiencing as what it was – the violence of nature that he was able to convey through his newly discovered, unrecognizable imagery. 


Turner (1775-1851) was a contemporary of fellow romanticists Goya (1746-1828) and Delacroix (1798-1863).  All three were consumed with expressing a heightened sense of experience – Goya gave voice to the human condition, Delacroix, the heroic, and Turner focused primarily on the forces of nature. Many art historians consider Turner, Delacroix, and Goya to be the first modern painters. Certainly we see the influence of their fervor leading up to Abstract Expressionism. But where is their influence now? Post-modernism appropriated their imagery but discarded their passion, their soul, their spirit.


Turner’s comeback as a super star at this time holds the question: Why Turner, why now? Much of it is due to the efficacy of the sophisticated promotion of art as entertainment. However, in the subtext of Turner’s resurgence lies a challenge to the contemporary art market. Turner’s mastery at depicting light blinded his contemporaries to a radical departure from the art-making of his time; Painting Set Free inadvertently stresses the lack of raw nature on art gallery walls today. 


Turner challenges contemporary artists to be in authentic relationship with the elemental dynamics that are shaping the zeitgeist – including climate change, the most radical unintended consequence of modern society and the most ominous legacy of our time. Currently, the artistic rendering of climate change is primarily the purview of conceptual and video artists. There is a tendency towards cerebralizing the experience, with high-tech renditions that install barriers to a spatial encounter with nature’s vagaries. Can contemporary painting provide the viewer with a truly visceral experience?


Abstract Expressionism – the last painting movement to be consumed with depicting the sublime – is said to be spent, dead. Turner hinted at the movement less than 200 years ago. Where, after all, was representational painting in its development when it was only 200 years old? Action painting is hardly over. It’s penchant for depicting primal sensation is in the trenches, remaking itself in the works of Per Kirkeby, Howard Hodgkin, Suzanne McClelland, Jacqueline Humphries, Sam Scott, Mary Weatherford, Krista Harris, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Julie Mehretu, and Despina Stokou, to name only a few. As Donald Judd predicted in 1965, “someone is going to do something surprising with Abstract Expressionism.” It’s a matter of when. The most impactful artistic expression from Turner and his action painting heirs is yet to come. 

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