Nelligan and Bileck: Charcoal Contours And Nature in Decay

Some years ago, I began hearing about the drawings of the American artist Emily Nelligan, and it was mostly other artists who were talking up her work. I soon discovered that it was these other artists who were also buying Ms. Nelligan’s drawings. The mainstream galleries hadn’t yet heard of Emily Nelligan, and neither had most of the critics and collectors. When I finally did get to see a rather modest gallery show of her drawings, they were a revelation of a remarkable talent.

This was soon followed by a show in which Ms. Nelligan’s drawings were exhibited with the prints of her husband, Marvin Bileck, a renowned printmaker and illustrator. It was in 2000 that the first full-scale exhibition of Ms. Nelligan’s drawings was organized at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine. Now the Alexandre Gallery in New York has mounted a splendid survey of the drawings and prints devoted to the subject that inspired both artists over a period of 50 years: the landscape of Great Cranberry Island, off the cost of Maine near Mount Desert.

Emily Nelligan and Marvin Bileck met in the 1940′s, when both were art students at the Cooper Union in New York. For many years, they divided their time between their home in Connecticut, where they spent winter and spring, and Great Cranberry Island in summer and fall. Sadly, Bileck died in April at the age of 85 while preparations were in progress for the current exhibition.

While both artists devoted their principal endeavors to works on paper depicting the visual enchantment of this isolated landscape, they brought very different sensibilities to their graphic accounts of it. Ms. Nelligan’s medium is unfixed charcoal on white paper, which she transforms into virtuosic varieties of shadow and light. The sea, the sky and the fog-misted earth are devoid of sharp contours in these drawings, and seem instead to have an apparitional character. From every smudge and erasure of charcoal dust, she has been able to wrest subtleties of coastal light unlike anything that has heretofore been seen in pictures of Maine or any other coastline. In contrast to those images we carry in our memories from paintings of Maine by Winslow Homer and John Marin, Ms. Nelligan’s drawings are nocturnes in which light is more fugitive than shadow and a velvety darkness dominates every prospect.

Bileck’s forte was close-up, linear observation of nature in decay. Fallen trees, tangled underbrush and lonely rock formations were frequent subjects for both his graphite drawings on paper and his etchings. The sky all but disappears as the artist concentrates his attention at ground level, where a once-vital jumble of roots and stamps and broken branches has weathered into a baroque phantasmagoria of seasonal decomposition. Bileck’s command of detail in depicting such profusion, especially in the etchings, is worthy of comparison with the finest tradition of Northern Europe graphic art.

For readers-and aspiring printmakers-who are curious to know more about Bileck’s working methods, the essay for the catalog of the current show, written by Alison Ferris, provides some useful information. “Bileck,” Ms. Ferris writes, “works on his plates over the course of a number of years. As a result, one print might be very different than a previously made print even though they were made from the same plate. Additionally, each print varies and is determined by how wet the paper is, how much pressure Bileck decides to put on it, and if and how he might burnish the back side of the paper before it’s dry. Sometimes he even considers one of his counter prints the finished product. All this indicates that Bileck is perfectly correct when he says that no one else could print his work. The copious amount of time that Bileck spends on his prints instills in them a complexity that distinguishes them from the spontaneity of his drawings, some of which are completed in a day or so.”

For connoisseurs of drawing and prints, the Marvin Bileck and Emily Nelligan exhibition is clearly an event not to be missed. It remains on view at the Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through June 17.