Pigments of Imagination

Text by Louis Postel

Back in the 1950s, John Walker’s classmates at the Birmingham College of Art in England might have been forgiven for wondering why so many plants filled the young artist’s work area. Was he studying art or botany? It was a matter of propriety, rather than interest, it turns out. Walker wasn’t far into his teens when the art school recruited him. “I was at least three years younger than everyone else,” he recalls. “They thought drawing live models would corrupt my mind. So I drew a lot of plants before I drew humans.”

The thousands of hours of drawing paid off. At seventy-one, Walker has developed superb artistic muscle: powerful, subtle reflexes between eye and brain, enabling him to paint just about anything he sees and, more important, feels. In compositions that are as rock solid as a newly poured foundation, Walker’s work is wild with burnt oranges in black horizons, Velasquez pinks feathering past the moon and the turquoise sea off his coastal Maine home.

Walker is a very young older man, a man who has gleefully eluded decline. His powerfully molded, almost bullish dome holds soft, limpid eyes. Fortune seems to follow him in a low-key way. The National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., has just purchased a large triptych. And the hammer at Sotheby’s London recently came down on the equivalent of about $13,400 for Tense II, a large acrylic he painted in 1985. His work can be seen in museums worldwide including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Art Institute of Chicago; the British Museum and the Tate Gallery, London; and New York’s Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Walker’s canvases speak with lyric power and emotion, but he’s no iconoclast or avenging angel. He’s not standing before his easel for countless hours, intent on overturning the milk bucket of civilization. Rather, his work captures the fleeting yet grand—dare we say heroic?—qualities of the cosmos and the human race within it. Splendor is the goal. Awe. Romance. Giving these poetic qualities rhythm and expression by virtue of decades of hard discipline. Here’s a man with big ideas and large feelings who is able to express himself in a warm, perfectly controlled line. This rawness versus refinement is everywhere in the canvases Walker is working on in his Boston studio. The painter, who splits his time between the city and Maine, is also a teacher and the head of the graduate painting and sculpture program at Boston University.

Born in 1939 to a working-class family in Birmingham, England, Walker was the son of a cleaning lady who gave her kids the gift of culture early on. “We would go to museums all the time and stand before the Constables. Or go to Shakespearean plays—Stratford-upon-Avon isn’t far from Birmingham,” he says. “And I always liked drawing and painting. I’d spread my materials out in the bathroom. When someone had to get in it became quite awkward.”

When Walker started art school, he had no lofty ambitions. He and his friends drank a lot of beer while churning out a quixotic literary magazine. “For us, ‘making it’ in the art world was not an issue, because there was no such thing where we were,” he says. “The art world was far away in London. But I knew I wanted to be a painter for the rest of my life. It beat the mines and the Ford factory.”

His Boston studio is large and bright and sits on the third floor of what was once a car dealership. Tall African and Oceanic statues—inspiration for his work—cluster like old friends in front of the banks of expansive windows. Large acrylics, meaty with pigment, lean against the high walls. Joy is a fleshy streak of pink horizon; anger is a skull before a blackboard with script lettering; passion an in-your-face banana-yellow frog mask. While a yellow frog mask may not be everyone’s idea of passion, Walker’s play on tribal masks awakens something very deep.

This “play,” however, isn’t frivolous. “For Walker, there’s a seamless connection between the African and Oceanic cultures and his own work,” observes poet and critic William Corbett, who is collaborating with Walker on a limited-edition book of art and poems.

Before coming to Boston, Walker taught at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia. There he produced the Oceania series, work inspired by the native art around him. His figurative abstractions capture the intensity and spirit of aboriginal art, though not its literal form; instead, he makes this exotic culture his own.

In illustration of Corbett’s point, Walker fans out a stack of postcards promoting his latest show: his own acrylics juxtaposed with African art at the Hamill Gallery in Dorchester, Massachusetts, last spring. In his art, the aspects of humanity’s rich inner life are enduring. It’s only a matter of expressing this timelessness in ways that are true to oneself and one’s observations.

Art is basic and seamless for Walker, and so is the art of teaching the artist’s craft. “While some artists get in to teaching just to make ends meet, for Walker it’s very important to give back,” Corbett says.

His predilection for giving back has helped push BU’s program into the forefront of traditional, painting-focused art schools along with Princeton, Yale and Columbia. “Poets can go get a library card to learn their craft,” says Walker. “But that’s not true of painters. You really need to learn technique through constant interactions, conversations. What works with that particular cadmium yellow, how does it dry, what brushes to use? You have to work hard here at BU, but if you’re interested in traditional painting this is a great place to be. We’ve won over twenty Guggenheim Fellowships as well as six of the annual prizes from the Royal Academy in London. They only give one per year to Americans.”

Walker recalls his own formative days: the enormous leap that took him from Birmingham to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris in the 1960s, to the 1972 Venice Biennale, to the abstract expressionist melting pot of New York. His technique was developed to a high polish. What came next was the courage to connect emotionally to the richness of his own life and that of others. “What got me really turned on to the possibilities of art was first seeing Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride,” he says. “Her hand touching his. It’s a very ephemeral moment and yet it’s forever and ever that touch.”

Not long after, he saw a show of work by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich. “I had no idea a black square could express so much emotion. It was amazing to me!”

Somewhere between Rembrandt and Malevich, Walker has staked out something entirely his own.

Editor’s Note John Walker is represented by Knoedler & Company, New York City, (212) 794-0550, www.knoedlergallery.com

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