Uniqueness in the art of the 20th Century
is often confused with quality. To make its mark in the upper
circles, an artist's work must not only be good, it must be different.
Sometimes, if it's different enough, even the "good"
can be dispensed with. There's no use quarrelling with this syndrome:
it is the inevitable result of the high value we place on individuality.
The question is: how do we define uniqueness?
The truly unique has nothing to do with an artist's choice of
medium, technique or subject matter. That is, it is not necessarily
attained by cleverly hitting upon an unoccupied niche in the
art world. It can come from an artist working within an outmoded
tradition, as in the case of Melville, Mahler or Eakins. as well
as from such ground-breakers as Joyce, Schoenberg and Picasso.
One feels that the works of these writers, composers and painters
would have been just as great regardless of the idiom in which
they were done. This is what I suspect about Sammy Peters, whose
works will be on display at Little Rock's Heights Gallery through
Peters works in the modernist tradition of abstract expressionism,
the style which brought American art to world prominence in the
1940s and 1950s and which has been all but smothered under the
avalanche of "isms" since the Sixties. Like Adolph
Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell before him, he works with a limited
number of geometric forms. These have evolved out of his earlier
figurative work, just as Willem de Kooning's and Jackson Pollock's
did from theirs. Despite these parallels, words like "derivative"
or "outmoded" are not likely to occur to the viewer
of a Peters painting. All such considerations are swept aside
by the vitality and drama of these works.
Every abstractionist has to deal with the problem of how to -
or whether to - make the world of his or her art as interesting
as the real world. Peters' strategy is to start with a few rudimentary
shapes and colors, set up a dynamic, unstable relationship between
them, and let them interact. His paintings seem to have evolved
as the universe itself has, beginning with a few elemental forces
in opposition, expanding, proliferating and exploding.
What might be called the "environments" in which these
dramas play themselves out are made up of rectangular color fields,
sometimes flat and featureless, as in White Roofs, sometimes
churning like a drop of pond water or the surface of the sun,
as in Vague Miasma.
White Roofs, 1986,
mixed media on canvas,
68 x 90 inches
Vague Miasma, 1986,
mixed media on canvas,
68 x 52 inches
Often the most prominent of the dramatis personae
is the right triangle, or wedge. Its base is characteristically
unstable, so that it tends to eject its contents like a volcano
or a wound. A double curve, resembling mountains or breasts,
is frequently found near the top of a painting. In the middle
region of nearly every work is a kind of horizontal barrier of
short vertical strokes, which resemble coyote fences the artist
said he saw in New Mexico. Equally omnipresent is a group of
small bean-shaped forms resembling footprints or microbes. Sometimes,
as in Richly Blatant, these have become trapped in loops of juicy
white paint like invading germs attacked by leukocytes.
Near the end of 1985, a mutation of the wedge, an isosceles triangle,
began appearing in Peters's work. In Merger and Acquisition,
it recalls a rooftop; in Necessary Circumstance, the female
pubis; and in Richly Blatant, it tries to imitate the
indigenous right triangles by taking on their red coloring and
Necessary Circumstance, 1986, mixed
media on canvas, 68 x 90 inches
Richly Blatant, 1986,
mixed media on canvas, 68 x 52 inches
Peters works mainly in oil and oil pastel
on canvas or paper, usually on a large scale. There is always
interplay between the dry marks and fluid strokes. The artist
describes his work as "messy." and so it is. with drips,
splatters and troweled textures so entangled that sometimes the
painting looks out of control. This is, of course, deliberate.
It is not the artist who has lost control, but the world he is
depicting. It is a world in a continuous flux of upheaval and
collapse, growth and decay. In Jaded Merger, the wedge
seems to have just been reborn out of the gloom in a gush of
fire or blood, whereas in Subsequent Metaphor, its ejected
contents have cooled and petrified.
Jaded Merger, 1986,
mixed on canvas,
68 x 52 inches
Subsequent Metaphor, 1985,
mixed media on canvas,
90 x 68 inches
Such works are not so much finished as simply
stopped, as action is stopped by a camera. A painting is a static
thing that can, at best, show only a record of movement, like
a seismograph, not movement itself. It is the painter's task,
as it is the photographer's, to stop the action at precisely
the right moment. The mood and character of a Peters work depends
on this decision.
No matter what their mood, all these paintings give the impression
of having been caught in the act. And it's not just paint that
has been caught. In spite of their sometimes imposing physical
presence, they are nevertheless pictures- images of something
beyond themselves. They are fundamentally metaphors of the human
condition. Geometry may be their language, but it is a passionate
Anton Bruckner has been accused of writing the same symphony
nine times, and Sammy Peters has said the same thing about himself-
that he paints the same painting over and over again. Although
that criticism of Bruckner is exaggerated, it may have more validity
in his case than in Peters'. You certainly don't get a feeling
of repetition in a roomful of Peters' paintings. Each work demands
to be experienced on its own terms. True, the "characters"
keep coming back in different guises, contexts and degrees of
prominence, like those in Faulkner's novels or in Donald Roller
Wilson's paintings, but this only stimulates our interest in
them. If there is any weakness in this approach it is only that
one Peters painting by itself is perhaps less interesting than
it would be in the company of some of its ancestors and descendants.
Except for a recent self-portrait, the last figurative work Peters
did was in 1983. In those earlier canvases, one can find the
beginning of the footprint-microbes, the proto-wedge and other
embryonic forms of his present pantheon. Why were these works
unsatisfying to him? I think his shift in direction might be
comparable to that of a scientist who is compelled to turn from
observed effects to root causes. His figures are as "messy,"
animated and volatile as his abstract forms, but they arc the
visible result of the animating forces, not the forces themselves.
It is as if in his present work he is trying to penetrate the
very origins of form and color, and to do this it became necessary
to create the world anew. This is the necessity out of which
the uniqueness of Sammy Peters' work emerges.