Art Review: Paul Gruhler, Highland Center for the Arts, Greensboro | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: Paul Gruhler, Highland Center for the Arts, Greensboro

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"Chelsea Series #4" (1978) - COURTESY OF HIGHLAND CENTER FOR THE ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Highland Center For The Arts
  • "Chelsea Series #4" (1978)

This story has been updated to reflect the cancellation of several upcoming exhibits due to COVD-19 restrictions.

Paul Gruhler, a Craftsbury painter who will turn 80 in September, meant only to make a catalog of his work. A year ago, he floated the idea to his friend Linda Mirabile, principal graphic designer of RavenMark in Berlin, Vt.

When she visited Gruhler's studio, Mirabile saw 60 years' worth of work, neatly dated and stored by series — from the earliest Chelsea Series of the 1960s and '70s to the Points of Reference Series of 2019 and 2020. She suggested the work deserved more than a catalog.

With the help of many, Gruhler's life's work is now the subject of four coordinated exhibitions around the state, each representing a different period in his career. At the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro, visitors can see "Harmonics: 60 Years of Life in Art," comprising selections from the Chelsea Series, through August 29.

And there is a catalog, designed by Mirabile and beautifully printed by Villanti Printers in Milton, with a foreword by Vermont state curator David Schutz and an art historical essay by Shelburne Museum associate curator Carolyn Bauer.

A flip through the catalog makes one thing clear: Gruhler may have explored variations in materials and an extraordinary range of color over the years, but he has pursued a single style for six decades: hard-edged geometric abstraction.

The movement, begun in the late 1950s and exemplified by Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly and Josef Albers, was a reaction against the personalized gestures of abstract expressionism. It blossomed just as Gruhler, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., graduated from high school in 1959 and hit the streets of Manhattan for what would be his only art education: total immersion in the art scene as it happened.

The Highland exhibition, curated by Maureen O'Connor Burgess, shows the progression of Gruhler's style after he secured his first studio in the city's gritty Chelsea district, in 1962, at the age of 21. An early work in oil from 1963, "Chelsea Series #12," is a gestural, amorphous zone of variegated blues featuring an energetic burst of indistinct white brushstrokes at the center.

Created two years later, "Chelsea Series #18" bridges the gap between abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction. The 60-by-48-inch oil painting is filled with short, straight brushstrokes in reds and pinks layered on a red-oxide background. 

"That was my first real voice: gestural but [focused on] color and straight lines," Gruhler said, his Queens accent undiminished, during a gallery visit with Seven Days.

"Chelsea Series #18" (1965) - COURTESY OF HIGHLAND CENTER FOR THE ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Highland Center For The Arts
  • "Chelsea Series #18" (1965)

By the time he made "Chelsea Series #45," in 1967, Gruhler had landed on the style of most of the work displayed at the Highland — and which continues to fascinate him today. The 50-by-90-inch acrylic painting divides the canvas into two geometric blocks of slightly different blues joined by a thin horizontal band of reds arrayed in irregular stripes. All the edges are done with tape. Later, the artist perfected his color application, eliminating the faint evidence of brushstrokes, and began to seal the tape with gel to attain sharper lines. 

For Gruhler, the fascination of these compositions lies in the balance of tension created by the forms and colors. He mixes his own colors, using each one only once, and donates the extra paint to the Howard Center in Burlington. Only recently has Gruhler realized that he needs to document his color recipes: "I had to touch something up, and I had no idea what was in it," he said.

Gruhler credits three mentors with helping him find his voice. In 1960, he befriended Michael Lekakis, a sculptor and poet who'd had solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. Lekakis brought the budding artist to openings and artists' gatherings, where Gruhler mixed with the likes of Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson and Barnett Newman. Lekakis wrote captions in poetic form for Gruhler's first solo exhibition of paintings, at the De Mena Gallery in 1966.

"It was such a vibrant time then, after World War II," said curator Burgess, who attended Manhattanville College for art and art history from 1970 to 1974 and is also curating the medical center show. "Artists were settling into this community, and a lot of it was basically illegal; they were squatting. I remember walking up three flights in the Meatpacking District, and there would be all this incredible art. It was really laid-back, not formal at all. That was when Gruhler was just finding his style."

In 1964, Lekakis introduced Gruhler to modernist painter Harold Weston, a pivotal figure who helped organize the National Council on the Arts and Government (the first federal funding of the arts) and served as art adviser to the United States Information Agency. Weston became Gruhler's first patron and facilitated his first solo show abroad, in Mexico City in 1967.

The rest of Gruhler's overseas exhibitions were due to his own efforts. In 1961, he had taken a marketing job with American Airlines to educate himself about Greek and Italian art. "I could fly almost for free — all one-stops to Europe to see an exhibition — and I got a deep discount for hotels," Gruhler recalled. Toting his portfolio and slides of his work on these trips, the artist landed solo and group exhibitions in Finland, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

Lekakis wrote poetry to accompany the Mexico City exhibit, an excerpt of which is on display at the Highland Center. Poetry deeply interested both artists. Gruhler, who was raised in a Christian fundamentalist family, heard his first poetry unrelated to the Bible when a high school teacher read aloud Robert Frost and e.e. cummings. Moved, he attempted to become a poet, he remembered, but realized "I had no way with words." Gruhler had dyslexia, a diagnosis not made until he was in his sixties. He still reads poetry daily in his studio to reach a meditative state before painting.

That multidisciplinary approach, Bauer noted in a phone call, was common in the '50s and '60s. Many artists, including Joan Mitchell and Frank O'Hara, tied their practice to poetry, meditation and philosophy. "It was in the water," said Bauer, who curated an exhibition of geometric abstraction called "Hard-Edge Cool" at Shelburne Museum in 2016.

In 1965, Gruhler met his third mentor, German American artist Herb Aach, whom he described as "an expert in color." Aach introduced him to acrylics, a revelation for the artist, he recalled, "because I couldn't get that flat surface with oils." Aach, the chair of the art department at Queens College, also suggested applying a clear coat of acrylic polymer on a stretched Belgian linen canvas to seal it against color bleeds. The sealant allowed Gruhler to isolate blocks of flat, saturated color against a beige background.

"Chelsea Series #4," from 1978, is a particularly stunning example of Gruhler's use of exposed, treated canvas. The painting comprises two dominant blue blocks of different shades, bookended by vertical bands of darker blue and separated by more vertical bands in lighter blue and a central red; the tactile beige linen frames them all and divides each band and block.

"[The beige canvas] floated for me, and it made a tension with the forms. I used subtle shifts in color to create this tension," Gruhler said.

How did he end up in Vermont? Gruhler came to the Bennington area to pay homage to Frost on the poet's death in 1963, but it wasn't until 1993 that he decided to move to the Green Mountains. His New York neighbors, writer Kathryn Davis and filmmaker Walter Ungerer, had made the move to teach at Goddard College, and Gruhler's visits to their new home confirmed to him that the place facilitated meditation and painting. He has not stopped doing both since.

"He has stuck with geometric abstraction. He has this endless fascination with color and form," Bauer said. "It's incredible how many variants one can do with just these elements. And he has perfected it over time."

Correction, August 11, 2021: An earlier version of this story misstated Carolyn Bauer's title. Bauer is associate curator at Shelburne Museum.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Color and Form"

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