A third of a century has passed since the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition called Turner: Imagination and Reality , which caused a considerable sensation at the time. The English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) wasn’t an unknown figure, of course. He had once been a great favorite among American collectors of Old Master paintings, and there were fine examples of his work to be seen in the museums. For the New York art public, however, the great exhibition at MoMA in 1966 marked the beginning of a Turner revival-a new understanding of a prodigious 19th-century talent that had indeed been a legend in the artist’s lifetime and for his immediate posterity, especially among the Impressionists, but in the course of the 20th century had come to be regarded, if regarded at all, as utterly passé.
The Imagination and Reality exhibition reversed that judgment by triumphantly restoring a significant part of Turner’s oeuvre -late Turner-to the canon of modernist painting. This was a revelation, and this is the Turner that is now universally recognized as a modern master. Yet since that MoMA exhibition, New York hasn’t seen much of the work which supports that judgment. Now, with the extraordinary exhibition called Exploring Late Turner at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, we are once again given a splendid opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a talent that still has the power to astound our expectations. Of the 39 works in this exhibition, most of them watercolors or oil paintings on pasteboard, few have ever before been seen in New York. Most are on loan from the collection of the Tate Gallery in London.
Even to his late 20th-century admirers, however, Turner still seems something of an anomaly in the annals of modern art: a radical artist supported by an official academy against the attacks-often very violent attacks-of the conservative opinion of his day. The paradox is further compounded by the fact that Turner was a canny custodian of his own career and succeeded in making a handsome living out of a talent that was almost constantly embroiled in artistic controversy. He was ruthless at driving up his own prices, and no less ruthless in the demands he made upon his own gifts.
He was born in London, the son of a barber, began drawing as a boy, and was something of a prodigy. At the age of 14, he became a student at the Royal Academy Schools, and at 15 began a lifelong career of showing at the Royal Academy itself. At 24, the earliest age at which the Academy admitted membership, Turner was elected an Associate, and in 1802 achieved the rank of a full Academician. Yet he remained, from start to finish, the very archetype of the robust, extrovert artist, uncouth in manner, immensely energetic, tirelessly productive, jealous of his status, yet adamant in pursuing his highly individual goals.
His usual procedure was to adopt an accepted style and approved subjects, and then carry them to some personal extreme of invention and innovation. Coming of age in a period that favored picturesque views of remote landscapes and looked to the past-to Poussin and Claude Lorrain-for the correct ways of rendering such views, Turner toured the countryside and the seashore, first in England and then on the Continent, constantly sketching and storing up memories of the exact effects he intended to achieve in his finished work, but still alert to the traditional ways in which such effects were realized in the paintings of the Masters. He made himself a connoisseur of the traditions in which he worked: No innovator of modern times was a more attentive student of the Masters than Turner, and he worked in conscious competition with the great painters of the past.
Much of his earlier work was thus governed by the commonly held belief that a truly heroic style required for its complete realization a traditionally heroic subject. Between his early success and his later radical accomplishments, however, Turner underwent a fundamental change in his understanding of what a heroic modern style might consist of. It is from around the 1830′s that we see in his paintings one of those extraordinary leaps of the imagination that separate the assumptions of one period from those of another. At the end of that development, which is largely what Exploring Late Turner is concentrated on, it is no longer a particular motif or a specific literary subject that commands our attention, but the pure painterly dynamics-those masses and swirls of light-vibrating color-which dominate the completed pictorial image.
As the late Lawrence Gowing wrote on the occasion of the 1966 MoMA show, “Eventually no single touch of paint corresponded to any specific object; the equivalence was between the whole configuration and the total subject.” This is what makes Turner-late Turner, anyway-look so modern to us today. It is, indeed, what makes him look like a precursor of abstract painting. Yet such an outcome was obviously very far from what Turner himself intended. What to our eyes looks so abstract-particularly in pictures like Sand and Sky and Sea, Sand and Sky (both circa 1840-45) in the current exhibition-was, for Turner, a heroic attempt at the most radical form of the realistic depiction of nature. Yet in concentrating on the way in which certain intensities of light had the effect of dematerializing the objects of both the natural and the man-made world, Turner succeeded in producing an art that breached the frontiers of pure abstraction, for the experience of nature has been transformed into the rhythmic and luminous flow of pigment.
No wonder the public of his day balked! But it is no wonder, either, that it was precisely this radical response to the depiction of natural light that made Turner a hero for Monet and Pissarro. And history repeated itself when Monet’s public similarly rejected his late work on similar grounds-the late paintings we now recognize as masterpieces of early 20th-century modernism.
Short of visiting the Clore wing of the Tate Gallery in London, I don’t think it would be possible to see a better exhibition of late Turner than the current show at Salander-O’Reilly. And even in the Clore wing you are unlikely to find as many fine examples of the late watercolors and small oils on view at one time as you can in Exploring Late Turner . This is a show that everyone with an interest in painting will want to see, and probably more than once. It remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through June 5.