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It has been 42 years since veteran artist Larry Graeber was given his first solo exhibition at the McNay Art Museum. One of the most prolific artists in San Antonio, Graeber spends about four hours per day, five days a week in the studio, which computes to more than 1,000 hours a year.
Whether working in painting, sculpture, or collage, Graeber is happiest when he is solving problems of structure and composition. His latest efforts, which include paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, are available for viewing at his solo exhibition which opens Saturday, May 21 from 6-9 p.m. at Mercury Project, a combined use building located near Roosevelt Park that, in addition to housing a gallery, includes office and studio space and the residence of owners Warren Borror and Antonia Richardson.
The son of an architect, Graeber initially intended to follow in his father’s career footsteps. But when confronted with the rules and rigor of architecture courses in college, he realized that this was not his calling. An intuitive thinker who enjoys the trial and error approach to aesthetic investigations, Graeber found that the art courses he took at Trinity University, San Antonio College, and Texas State University, San Marcos provided greater creative freedom. Upon setting up his first home studio in San Antonio in 1972, he established his vocation, and he has never looked back.
For his 1974 exhibition at the McNay, Graeber exhibited several landscapes influenced by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist styles that he studied up close in the museum’s permanent collection. In early works such as Firmament (1973), he employed a Cubist vocabulary of intersecting lines and curves to suggest the movements of plants, wind and clouds, and a bold Matisse-like palette to portray the warmth and luminosity of sunlight.
In the late 1970s, Graeber exhibited at the San Antonio Museum of Modern Art, one of the city’s first alternative spaces that was founded and operated from 1976-79 by artists Norman Rene Avila, Donjon Evans, and George Horner. For a fundraising event, several of the SAMOMA artists created prints and drawings for a limited edition boxed set of multiples.
Graeber’s contributions to the project were two screenprints, one an illustrated poem and the other a rapidly sketched figurative landscape. Influenced by photographs of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, which were exhibited around that time in San Antonio, Graeber appropriated the Italian Master’s figurative style and invented a narrative in which two figures feel wonderment as they explore an idyllic outdoor setting.
By the 1980s, Graeber was making large scale paintings that combine figurative and abstract elements to create potential meanings through the juxtaposition and layering of disparate images. In Head with Figure (1988), Graeber employed a heavily textured Neo-Expressionist style that was popularized earlier in the decade by European artists, primarily from Italy and Germany, and Americans working in New York.
In superimposing a confrontationally-posed male figure over the image of a large face with a questioning gaze, Graeber expresses a sense of tension and unease that was typically felt by baby boom artists who were conflicted over the diminishing idealism of their youth.
Figuration and abstraction similarly interact freely in Blue Nude with View (1991), which Graeber painted following a trip to New York City. In this example, an open-ended non-linear narrative is created through the interplay of various images that inspired Graeber during his visit, including the facade of an apartment building seen above the trees of Central park, a walking man based on a sculpture by Matisse, and the central focal point, a back view of sculpture of nude figure which, for purposes solely of aesthetic impact, is painted blue.
In searching for a way to resolve the composition by uniting its different elements, Graeber responded impulsively like a master magician shuffling props on a table, and added a bold diagonal band that effectively locks everything into place. This approach, in fact, has remained his modus operandi to this day. Regardless of medium, Graeber moves his images about organically until he feels this kind of magic which, more often than not, seems to make itself known when working in pure abstraction.
Not surprisingly, many of Graeber’s most dynamic paintings are those that incorporate architectural motifs such as the grid, which has provided endless possibilities in the field of abstract painting for decades. To achieve varied results, Graeber is always trying out different tools for manipulating paint. Breakout (2005), for example, was begun with a trowel, which Graeber used to apply thick white oil paint.
He next used a stick to cut deep grooves into the paint surface, like sectioning the icing on a cake.Once the surface dried, he painted the grooves black and added a variety of different colors to selected squares, yielding an optically vibrant pattern that resembles tiles of a floor or wall surface, while also bringing to mind game boards and crossword puzzles.
An entirely different effect can be seen in Expecting July (2010), with its emphasis on slick, lateral movement. To create the sumptuous sensuousness of paint bleeding into paint, Graeber gently pulled a squeegee across the painted surface.
Spatial considerations have taken center stage in many of Graeber’s more recent abstract paintings, such as Lens (2012) and Currents (2015). In these works, aesthetic tensions result from the proliferation of spatial contradictions. This type of spatial structure, which the late abstract painter Al Held referred to as “multidirectional and non-gravitational,” can be particularly effective in engaging viewers by leading our eyes around a composition from place to place, never to find a resting point.
In Lens, there is a dynamic contrast between the contained black-and-white trapezoid in the center and the more open multicolored space that surrounds it. In Currents, the angular positioning of the green and yellow triangles forcefully animates the composition by creating a clockwise rotational movement.
Along with his ongoing production of paintings, Graeber’s engagement with sculpture has been fairly constant over the years, with his best efforts being simple small scale works that are aesthetically alive when viewed from any vantage point. Noteworthy examples include the painted wooden sculptures Black on White (1997) and Core (2013), which gain their visual fortitude from the rugged tactility of their allover protrusions and appendages.
Although he has rarely exhibited them, Graeber’s works on paper are among his most inventive and imaginative undertakings. In addition to being formally compelling, many of them are also poetic or conceptually evocative. In Chair (1993), Graeber approached his composition as he had in his painting Blue Nude with View, once again superimposing abstract geometry over figurative images. Rather than unite the images, however, the four blue lines become their compositional foil, acting like a barrier that prevents us from entering their space.
To add an additional layer of complexity, Graeber pasted on a photocopy of a dictionary illustration of a building facade, so that the end result is a compilation of multiple layers of information that invites viewers to solve the puzzle of what we are actually seeing.
Similarly intriguing is the simple drawing Number Face (1999), where organs associated with four of our five senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste) are drawn in the linear style of Matisse and float freely amidst a seemingly random assortment of press on numbers, commonly used by architects.
For his exhibition at Mercury Project, Graeber is including some of his never-before-exhibited collages, many of which resemble aerial views of landscape. While these continue his utilization of shifting planes to create rotational movement, many are also brought to life by light reflecting off of pasted scraps of gold foil.
Always working, Graeber is one of those artists who probably becomes restless when he is not making art. This became particularly evident to me as I was thumbing through a number of the splendid artist books that he keeps on his dining room table.
For years, Graeber has been collecting and altering calendars and museum bulletins by drawing over their pages and embellishing them with collage work. Several of these were created during the artist’s travels, and thus they remain creative testaments to the dedicated work ethic of someone who was born to be an artist.
Top image: Larry Graeber in his studio. Photo by David S. Rubin.