BRATTLEBORO—Driving up a steep dirt road in Putney, past Chuck Ginnever’s sculptures, I finally land at David Rohn’s house and studio. On this snowy windy day, it’s a bit of a harrowing trip. But Rohn is a gracious host and, before I’m even settled in for our interview, he has set out a hot cup of tea for me.
I am here to speak with this artist who is a sought-after teacher and longtime pillar of southern Vermont’s visual arts community on the occasion of a show of watercolors that spans four decades of his career.
“David Rohn: Watercolors, 1974–2016” opens this Thursday, March 16, and it continues until Sunday, April 30, at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts in Brattleboro. Rohn is one of MGFA’s very fine stable of artists, and this rare, one-person show will fill the gallery.
Rohn, 82, has taken a surprisingly circuitous route to finding himself as an artist, given how natural and relaxed these paintings feel.
His early drawings were of airplanes. With “a head full of military,” he enrolled (voluntarily, he points out, with a touch of incredulity) in a military high school; there were no art classes and so he got heavily into cartooning, becoming something of a local celebrity in his hometown in Michigan, placing his work in the local, small-town newspaper during his summers home. “India ink flowed through my veins,” he quips.
Also during summers home he took watercolor classes, targeted to the summer vacationing crowd. The second summer home, the young student had a class with a designer from Studebaker who gave him his first inkling of the “power of a painting,” says Rohn.
He continued his cartooning while attending college at Florida Southern College, took summer courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, and eventually transferred to the University of Michigan, still reluctant to take a college art class.
But he eventually did so — and, he remarks, it turned out to be life-changing.
“[Jacques-Louis] David’s ‘Oath of Horatii’ opened my eyes!,” Roan says, referring to the 1784 painting by the French artist. “It revealed to me the secret language of art — composition, color, how these things can ‘mold men’s minds,’ to use a comic book phrase. I still like that idea!”
Rohn transferred to the University of Michigan’s art department, finally taking studio courses.
“It turned out the ugly duckling was a swan! I loved it!” says Rohn, who did watercolors “for amusement.” Those paintings became his portfolio.
He came of age as an artist during the era of abstract expressionism.
“I love that period — all the masters working around 1957. De Kooning and the rest,” says Rohn, who joined the many artists lured by New York City’s magnetic pull in 1962.
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In 1964, Rohn headed to Vermont to start the art department at Windham College in Putney.
With both pride and dismay, he recalls, “I built the art department, and it was world class! But for a while it was only me.”
“I would run from one room to the next,” Rohn remembers. “The print room was in the basement of the dormitory! It was a wild time!”
The art department became one of Windham’s most popular programs. He taught at the college until it closed in 1978.
Rohn’s teaching career (which continues) has clearly been an important thread in his life. He speaks of his determination but also the challenge of teaching sophisticated art concepts to first-year college students.
“I would teach them concepts of abstraction secretly: ‘Look at the space between the bottle and the vase.’ I’d even have them measure the space. I’d instruct them to look at the precise quality of a shape. I’d have them conceive of the picture plane as a box, the contents as ‘packaging’ that they’d lay out using just line, to get them to contemplate the relationships.
“The relationships on the two-dimensional plane are primary — it’s a dialogue that doesn’t stop. It’s all there all the time — a battery that doesn’t stop!”
On a trip to France in 1968, Rohn fell in love with the country and shortly thereafter with French painting of the 19th and early-20th centuries. Over the years, he has periodically spent time in southern France: a sabbatical in 1970, and several extended stays on grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Rohn had done his first watercolor still life during a winter in France from 1970 to 1971.
Rohn was still teaching at Windham College when he had his first show at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in 1973. During this time, he was deeply enmeshed in the abstract art movement. His work at that point was color field painting, a style that emphasizes an overall effect but little in the way of shape or edges.
“I was pouring paint,” he says.
Sometime during 1974, Rohn was taking a yoga class that would include 10 minutes of meditation. During one of these sessions, he says, he had an epiphany: “I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.” He was not enjoying making his art and recalls feeling that he was trying to copy the “big-name artists.”
“The only thing I could endure was going outside and drawing,” he says, looking back. He also kept on painting watercolors, “to take a break.”
“One day, I drew a still life in my house. I laid it out and drew slowly, as I’d been instructing my students.”
That drawing represented the first stage in his ultimate transition from abstraction, a process that took some years.
But, “by being humble, I found what suited me,” Rohn says. “I became prolific.”
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“The still life is a very important thing in art history,” the artist observes. “But I don’t set it up –– it’s found. I treat it like a landscape, walk around it, stalk it.”
Both landscapes and still lifes are worked from life, with a master’s facility of the medium.
Rohn does not alter what he sees initially. “It’s great not to be in my ’making art’ mind and just draw what I see,” he says.
But if the scene is “too realistic, it can deflate the painting,” he says.
So Rohn might remove elements of the scene that would require too much descriptive drawing. From there, he “play[s] with the tension of space.”
“It’s important to have fun,” he notes.
The fun comes with the laying on of the paint: the way it oozes into another color to highlight a shape; the way it seeps into the paper and fans out to create a shadow such as that on the sugar bowl in “Jam, Butter and Sugar Bowl”; the way the few spots of bare (or nearly bare) paper show the light glinting off the glass in “Oranges, Sunglasses and Japanese Plate.”
His still lifes are a kind of mediation, says Rohn — an exercise in being present.
“My still lifes are really self-portraits — half me, half the object,” he says. “I yield to the object, then see what’s happening. I have to be there for the jam jar and it has to be there for me...it’s a quiet thing.”
“The stillness of a painting is what I love,” he continues. “My ideal painting is one you may walk by, then grabs you as you’re leaving the room.”
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Yet despite the talk of his art’s formal elements, what most strikes me in Rohn’s work is the domesticity, geniality, and graciousness of the paintings.
Henri Matisse, whose paintings Rohn’s still lifes sometimes remind me of, once famously said he wanted his paintings to have “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.”
Rohn’s still lifes, with their informal intimacy, seem to offer the comfort of a good cup of tea. There is both a luxuriousness and calm about them, an escape from the troubles and busyness of the world.
And yet, despite their home-comfort ease and the conventionality of subject — potted plants, fruit, and vases abound — there is an edginess to a Rohn painting. The closely cropped borders and the overall tightness of the painting’s structure creates drama. You are sometimes not sure what exactly you are looking at: an edge of a table, leaves jutting into the picture frame, a jar cut off at the top.
Lovers of realism for its own sake might not take to Rohn’s work. (“I try to avoid the gee-whiz factor,” he says.) But in the tautness of the painting’s relationships, I find an abiding love of the abstract that is bracing.
Much of Rohn’s work, unlike the usual watercolor still life, is measured in feet rather than inches. Perhaps this is a choice taken from his abstract days, where big was an important part of the aesthetic. I find their scale a wonderful balance to a somewhat cool and distanced approach to his subject.
The tension between these two qualities — the homeliness (in the best sense!) of the still life and the edginess of its abstract qualities — is what I hold to be significant, and most appealing, about Rohn’s work.
Add to that tension the frisson of immediacy the paintings impart, and you have a body of work that is lush, formalistically satisfying, and a painterly reminder of life’s simple pleasures.