(Born 1926, died March 2, 2008)
If there has not yet been a study of how early memories reflect mature philosophy, there should be. In a 1986 catalogue essay, Tony Vevers describes his earliest childhood recollection of being set out in his mother’s garden where he absorbed the bright, warm sunshine on his skin. This is not to prepare a case for Vevers’ art as especially sunny and lighthearted; nor to describe the man himself as a modern-day Candide, cultivating his garden -- although his youthful war-time pilgrimage does have a Voltaire-esque quality to it. Vevers’ domestic memory is significant because his work seems to spring from a secure and fertile place; one nourished by sincere reflection, self-questioning and total disregard for fads or fashion.
Born in England in 1926, Vevers was sent as a teenager to the U.S. during Germany’s blitz on Britain in World War II. He and his sister landed safely in Connecticut, where he attended the Hotchkiss School and began painting, “obsessively,” he has written. His student paintings were suitably random, ranging over various styles, but anchored in landscape and figure. He was inspired mainly at this time by Life Magazine, he says, “I liked the emphasis Life placed on showing artists, even though they had a hang-up on American scene painters like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.”
Vevers’ contrarian streak asserted itself soon after. Following the Army, and then Yale, where he majored in painting and drawing, he set off in 1950 on the young artists’ obligatory trip abroad. But instead of Paris, the usual Mecca for Americans, he headed for Florence -- prompted by a show of contemporary Italian artists, (among them, Afro, Alberto Burri and Marino Marini) that he’d seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The paintings were all very different from the School of Paris,” Vevers recalls, “and the sculptors were very strong. They lent as much weight to the show as the painters did.” (Later figurative paintings by Vevers, particularly his 1960s scenes of nude figures, male and female, on horseback, have the same mythic and iconic heft as Marini’s riders.)
Vevers’ early paintings from his time in Italy are geometric pastoral abstractions, imparting a sense of the landscape composed in soft and dreamy order. “When I first got there I tried to do a more abstract figuration. By the end of my stay, I was taken with the idea of working abstractly through nature, something I’ve always done.” Lungarno, (1952) is the summing up of his Italian idyll. As opposed to the usual scenes of sun-filled Tuscan hills, however, his palette in Lungarno is dark and smoky, like the dim interiors of country Italian churches, and poorly lit state museums. It was in one of those, the Academia in Venice, where Vevers saw Giorgione’s quirky masterpiece The Tempest. It continues to fascinate. “It’s very beautiful and strange. I was immediately obsessed with it and I’ve loved Giorgione since.”
Back in the states, Vevers went to New York, where he was surrounded by the burgeoning abstractionists of the early 1950s. “They were all friends of mine. We hung out at the Cedar Bar. It was very exciting.” He too was swept up, trying pure gestural abstraction but not having much faith in the results. He subsequently destroyed many works from this period. Looking at an image of a no-longer-extant, 1953 painting with bold, black, brushy strokes, he wryly dubs it his homage to Franz Kline. Gradually he returned to American versions of his Italian landscape abstractions, even though the critics seemed to see what they wanted in them. In a 1954 Art Digest review of a three-person show Vevers had been in at the City Center Gallery in Manhattan, critic Hilton Kramer, while acknowledging Vevers’ paintings had representational subject matter of “landscape and mountain motifs,” nevertheless shoehorned them into “the mainstream of abstract expressionism” by virtue of their “accent and force.” Kramer went on to proclaim Vevers’ talent as the more interesting of the three on view.
Ultimately, though, the young artist sensed that if this talent were to sustain itself, it would not be in the city. A trip to Maine in 1953, where he did only watercolors, had led him to abandon his previously impastoed technique. “I realized the possibility of carrying over a watercolor technique to my oils, using the white canvas surface to provide luminosity through thin layers of glazed color. This became my main method until the sand pictures much later.”
This “watery” oil on canvas technique also allowed Vevers to refine his drawing in the figurative works to come, as well as express more subjective themes in his landscape abstractions of the early ‘50s. His first painting done in Provincetown, shortly after he moved here full time is the roiling Seagull Sky, Mackerel Sea, 1955. Its subject matter is as recognizable as abstraction can be, presaging a major stylistic shift toward figurative works. Though some see influences of Milton Avery, who was summering in Provincetown in the late 1950s, Vevers points out his own figures are drawn from imagination, not models. Unlike the odd, Cubist-influenced angles that Avery often worked into his figures, Vevers’ figures are more fluidly realistic. It was Edvard Munch, in fact, with whom Vevers was more intrigued, particularly with how spatial perspectives in Munch’s paintings had a way of trailing off suggestively. Munch’s figures, too, possess metaphysical, dream-like bodies, somewhat akin to the (albeit, more down-to-earth) ethereality of Vevers’ figures. Whatever his influences, one assumes, as with most artists of interest, his own life was the wellspring.
From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, Vevers produced a mature body of figurative, vaguely narrative paintings that, along with his later assemblages, define him as an artist of authentic, low-key, but fundamental lyricism.
A major instrument of that lyricism is Vevers’ signature soft, fuzzy yet palpable line. Vevers studied briefly with Hans Hofmann in New York. “One thing I found out from Hofmann was that you can control a whole painting by the edges, whether they are hard or soft.” (Otherwise, Vevers says, Hofmann influenced him only as an exemplary teacher –- imparting pedagogic skills Vevers employed during 25 subsequent years as a university art professor.)
Another painting in the 1958 Sun Gallery show was "Funeral in the Snow" (1958.) Even without the title, it, too, emits a richly somber mood. Black garbed, blocky figures, feetless as if in deep snow, are gathered on a gray-white ground. A glimpse of sky appears in the upper corner of a high horizon. The funeral depicted was that of Jan Müller, Vevers says, a much admired young painter in Provincetown who died of a defective heart at the age 36. Vevers painted the scene from memory. “I was sort of haunted by the whole occasion,” he says. “He was the first of our circle to die and it was a shock.” But some years later, Vevers experienced an aftershock when he went back to look at the painting. “I hadn’t known Paul Resika at the time, but later, after I did, I recognized him, second from right, in the painting.” Allegory, (1958) a moonlit group of male and female faceless nudes in another high-horizon, dune-like landscape, was also in the Sun Gallery show. Its mysterious composition is based loosely on the grouping of "Funeral in the Snow."
By 1959, the Vevers family, now with two young daughters, Stephanie and Tabitha, had settled into Provincetown’s seasonal cycles. Anyone who lives year round in a summer resort can relate to the quiet joy of Ah, Winter! (1959), an iconic painting that might be said to sum up the second decade of Vevers’ work, just as Lungarno did the first. "Ah, Winter!" was selected by Milton Avery for an exhibition of young artists at the National Arts Club. This led to Vevers’ first New York solo show, in 1960, at the Padawer Gallery. A rapsodic Art News review by Vivian Raynor resulted, in she which noted: “a steely sureness of color relationship –- he can get so many miles out of burnt bone blacks, browns and grays” and how “a curious, untutored drawing can deliver a figure into the picture with almost alarming directness,” In closing, Raynor observed, “there are, unquestionably, symptoms of joy in his painting.”
Vevers’ paintings through the sixties continue to have the same quiet synergy and variation between the domestic and the mythic, almost always predicated on landscape. On a visit to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Vevers noticed how Byzantine altar pieces were framed with smaller images in a kind of story board format. The aptly titled "Transition," (1964) is the first of his own multiple image paintings. It was made to mark the move to Greensboro, N.C. and his first university teaching job. Its assembled images, with their internal lines, figurative scenes and forms, connect with Vevers’ work to come: his late assemblages of sand-covered canvas strips and squares that are “figured” with curving bits of beach-combed rope.
Even as he edged away from imagery and toward abstraction, a sense of ambiguous narrative perseveres in Vevers’ works. "Irrigation," (1969) and "Clamdigger," (1971) retain the vastness of flats and fields even while they reduce the landscape to a nearly unmodeled plane. These works harbinge a literal slate-cleaning marking the dramatic mid-career change in Vevers’ work in which painted imagery disappears. But it was that same painted imagery of these last oil on canvas paintings that inspired what is probably the pivotal work between the two bodies of work. "The Rake," (1970) is a “picture” that is actually a tray of black, hardened earth marked with deep vertical grooves. The grooves correspond to the tines of a metal garden rake that remain embedded in the soil at the work’s top edge. “I felt that if I was going to make an earthy picture, like "Irrigation" or "Clamdigger," perhaps it could also be done in a sculptural fashion,” Vevers says.
The Rake resembles various avant garde currents of the era, from American Pop and assemblage to Italian Arte Povera, but though Vevers knew Alberto Burri’s 1950s stitched together burlap canvases, he was unfamiliar at the time with Arte Povera. Vevers was invited to submit work to an all New England art show in 1970. The exhibition’s judge was Tony Smith, the prominent sculptor (also the father of Kiki Smith.) Smith awarded "The Rake" one of the $1000 prizes. This triumph also led to Vevers being promoted to full professor at Purdue.
The success of "The Rake" notwithstanding, Vevers’ switch from paint, to sand and earth on canvas stemmed from aesthetic restlessness after nearly 20 years of making similar imagery with similar technique. Happenstance also played a part. On a trip to Mexico in 1972 without his painting supplies, he felt the urge to work, and “made a series of pictures on paper using local earth as pigment and acrylic glue as a binder. Back in the States, this led to a series of canvases using sand,” from the rivers of Indiana, where he was now teaching each winter.
Vevers experimented with various colors of sand in works like "Expanse," (1973) "Dogwood," (1976) and "Pilgrim," (1979.) These abstract works suggest the vast flat, horizon-less look of open seascapes and midwestern landscape as seen from the air. Proving a Proustian adage, time and space experienced by American artists from the vantage of modern innovations, (like air travel, which first became widespread in the 1970s) resulted in less subjective, more detached and even grandiose imagery in much art of the era. But Vevers’ works of collaged found objects and canvas squares with their encrusted surfaces of soil and sand, are immediate and tactile; they shift the viewer simultaneously between intimate scales of close, personal physicality and distanced, metaphoric abstraction.
Through the next two decades, Vevers continued to make assemblages on sand-coated canvas, but hadn’t altogether abandoned paint. At Long Point Gallery, the cooperative gallery in Provincetown of which he was a founding member, his ideas were often inspired by themes the group elected to explore, from Homer to particularly metaphoric colors, like black, red or blue. The aquatically atmospheric Blue-Marine, (1984) is collage of rectangles covered with foggy-looking gray-white sand, blue paint, and delicate found objects like spiraled bits of cord. Vevers writes in 1985: “I seem to paint in cycles – often working from a monochromatic to a coloristic stance; from an emphasis on form to the addition of content via color—which may be the immediate future for me.”
Since 1980, found objects have been elemental. A trip to west Africa in the 1970s had predisposed him, he wrote, to appreciate “the life of materials.” During another trip to Mexico, street refuse fallen from a garbage truck became “a key to the idea and then the making of a picture.” Shoes, in particular, held potential. Sandinista Souvenir (1991) combines a length of rope lassoing the flattened, split halves of a bullet-ridden soldier’s boot sent to him by his daughter Stephanie from Nicaragua. Emily’s Book of Knowledge, (1986) collaged with words cut from a primary student’s exercise paper, signals, perhaps, his most recent aphoristic works.
A 1995 solo show at Long Point featured his mid-1990s assemblages, reliefs of found objects that had become almost sculptural. Styrofoam buoy floats, cut in half, and still adorned with their twisted, knotted tethers, are mounted on striated layers of multi-hued sand-covered canvas strips. The horizontally striped textured backgrounds alternately suggest windows shuttered with louvered shades, lines of text, earthen strata or, as in Apogee, (1994) deconstructed and inverted land and seascapes -- which is, in fact, what most of them literally were, since for some time Vevers has been cutting up and reusing his old painted canvases in his sand assemblages.
Vevers’ most recent works, the aphoristic assemblages, combine, what is surely by now, his intuitive formal visual acuity, with a talent he has more recently become appreciated for in the community -- writing. Especially since his retirement from teaching at Purdue, Vevers has contributed to the documentation of Provincetown’s art colony in a significant way, with numerous clearly and acutely written essays and articles. Once, he was an uncredited, but crucial, ghost source for an article of my own that appeared in the Boston Globe’s Calendar section in 1988. “A Walking Tour of Provincetown’s Art Colony,” could never have happened without him. As I drove slowly through Provincetown he casually rattled off the history and myth behind nearly every structure, extant and otherwise, that had ever had the slightest connection with the twentieth century art scene.
One of his recent aphoristic collages, "All Things Excellent are as Difficult as they are Rare," (1997) doesn’t look difficult at all.
Scrawled on a casual patchwork of sanded canvas fragments, are the words of the title, punctuated with bits of fabric blossoms. Done after a serious illness, its offhandedness belies its poignancy. Putting flowers on a picture takes the same kind of courage, and disregard for expectations, that painting frontal male nudes must have done in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Neither art world trials nor trials of life have quelled those “symptoms of joy” noted by a earlier critic, or diminished that excellent, difficult, rare and fertile place where Vevers still cultivates his art.
© Ann Wilson Lloyd
For catalog contact Provincetown Art Association and Museum
Tony Vevers, 81, Prominent Artist and Longtime Provincetown Resident.
Surrounded by family and friends, artist Tony Vevers passed away peacefully on Sunday, March 2, 2008. Vevers was a professor of art and art history at Purdue University in Indiana and a highly respected and well-loved artist with deep roots in Provincetown, MA.
Originally from England, his contributions to the art world and to the arts in his adopted home are legendary. His figurative and landscape paintings from the 1950s and '60s have a simplicity and purity that marry narrative and formal eloquence. He had a deep appreciation for the poems of W. B. Yeats, which informed much of his early work and is reflected in the titles of many of his paintings. Later, he was drawn to African art as both an artist and an historian, and this along with travels in Mexico lead to a change in his work. In the 1970s he began working with rope and sand, creating poetic canvases of mysterious beauty.
Born in London in 1926, Tony and his sister were evacuated to the U.S. in 1940 to escape the Blitz during World War II. By 1944 Vevers was serving in the U.S. Army, in Germany, and had achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant when he was honorably discharged. After leaving the army in 1946, Tony entered Yale University on the G.I. Bill where he studied art, graduating in 1950.
In the early 1950s Tony traveled to Italy to study art, and later lived in New York where he met many of the first generation Abstract Expressionist painters. In 1953 he met and married the artist, Elspeth Halvorsen. By 1954 Tony and Elspeth had established themselves in Provincetown and their two daughters were born over the next three years.
Although Vevers taught at Purdue University from 1964 to 1988, it was the summers in Provincetown that fed his creative spirit. His astute insights into Modernism as it spread from New York and into Provincetown were fueled by his connection with virtually every artist who had been part of that era--including Edwin Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov and Robert Motherwell. As Museum Director Chris McCarthy stated, "It is hard to imagine anyone who has had a more consistent hand in the life of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum over the past four decades. Tony's insights and contributions to writing the history of art in Provincetown are unparalleled."
Tony Vevers exhibited his work in over one hundred solo and group shows in New York, Boston, Provincetown and throughout the U.S. In 1977 he became one of the founding members and president of Provincetown's legendary Long Point Gallery. His work is in the permanent collections of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Walter Chrysler Museum, the DeCordova Museum, the University of Massachusetts and many others. He received awards from the National Council on the Arts and the Walter Gutman Foundation. He served as an advisor to the Fine Arts Work Center and as a trustee and curator of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Tony Vevers is survived by his wife Elspeth, daughters Stephanie of New York and Tabitha of Cambridge and Wellfleet, sister Pamela Sherin of New Jersey and his nephews Anthony Sherin of New York and Jonathan Sherin of California. Much loved by everyone who knew him, Tony brought a quiet grace and dignity to his every encounter. In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be made to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown, MA 02657. A Memorial Service is planned for early summer at the Museum.