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Walter Anderson at Luise Ross
Art in America, May, 2004 by Nathan Kernan

The year 2003 was the centennial of Mississippi modernist Walter Anderson's birth, and in addition to a large retrospective organized by the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Miss., on view at the Smithsonian Institution's cavernous Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C., the occasion was also marked by an intimate and lively show of watercolors at Luise Ross in New York, Anderson's 11th there since 1985.

Born in New Orleans, Anderson studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the '20s, then returned south to spend most of his life on the Mississippi coast. There, in addition to painting in oil and watercolor and making sculpture and furniture, he often worked as a decorator of ceramics. His mental stability was fragile, and he spent many years, especially between 1937 and 1940, in psychiatric hospitals.

Anderson was greatly influenced by traditions outside the Western canon, including Asian, pre-Columbian and Neolithic art, which he saw firsthand on travels--mostly on foot--through China, Costa Rica and Europe. Later in life, his greatest pleasure was to go off by himself to uninhabited Horn Island off the Mississippi coast, where he slept under his overturned rowboat, observing and painting the plant, animal and sea life. It was there, between 1951 and his death in 1965, that he made many of his best works, watercolors executed on sheets of typing paper.

The work gains interest from the tension created between close, direct observation and stylization or design. Anderson's absorption of such formalist theories of the '20s as "dynamic symmetry," his own experience as a pottery decorator and his art-historical concerns show in his repetitive patterning of waves, scales, duck heads and other elements. The intensity of his gaze is matched by a hallucinatory brilliance of color, in which even a subject such as an extraordinarily iridescent cabbage leaf can be nearly subsumed. The work is as much a sympathetic interiorization of nature as strict observation of it: no less than Pollock, Anderson "is" nature.

Many of Anderson's subjects give the impression of being surrounded by "auras" or force fields, created in some cases by repetition of the contours of the subject in patterns of background landscape. In Redwood Lilies and Bittern (ca. 1944-45), the cursive orange watercolor lines describing the central bird form are echoed by parallel blue and yellow lines surrounding it, which segue into lily forms. The subjects, while still legible, appear to dematerialize into pulsing waves of contrastingly colored parallel lines. Here, and in general, Anderson's work could illustrate William Blake's lines, "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."

--Nathan Kernan

COPYRIGHT 2004 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Bibliography for "Walter Anderson at Luise Ross"
Nathan Kernan "Walter Anderson at Luise Ross". Art in America. May 2004.

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