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Vita Petersen in Black and White: The Last Works
Vita Petersen was a natural colorist. For a colorist to leave the epic spread of the color spectrum and revert to those two extreme tonal dynamics–black and white–is always highly significant. Black and white is most often associated with drawing, and only rarely with the experience of color. It takes a special sensibility to evoke color with black and white values: Matisse’s “table and pineapple” ink drawings; Picasso’s Delacroix transcriptions; DeKooning’s “Attic”; and Kline’s black and whites–which have more implied color than his actual works in color. The same might be true of Vita Petersen’s last works.
Artists go to black and white for diverse reasons. For some, it is to re-think drawing (Bonnard); to find scale (Hofmann, Kline); to find unity (Poussette-Dart); to form haiku (Jensen); or to establish the epic (Pollock).
Sometimes the most unlikely event triggers a return to black and white. The partial loss of vision prompts the need for brevity, succinctness, and wholeness. It is quite possible that an eye condition made Rothko see more tonally, in the late stark grey and black series. Whereas these late Rothkos presage minimalism, Vita Petersen’s late work is decidedly maximal; given her vision loss, there is an urgency gained. Before these new works, she draws with color. In these, she paints in color, albeit implied color.
There is an emotional weight to these last works that has a real connection to their pictorial density. Their scale endorses and completes their impact, being neither too large nor too small. Powerful packages on a small scale, it is art that you can carry away with you, physically and mentally. Autobiographical abstraction.
To those viewers who ask what these intense black and white paintings are about, may I simply remind them that the word Vita means life. “ Ars longa; Vita brevis.” The paintings are a summation of a life fully lived, of opinions obstinately held, of engagement with all things called art, and all people called artists and, most especially, the young and the new. Vita was generous in her life, her friendships, and her art. In her last months, she painted every day with urgency and passion. Beauty, as with all her life, was on her side.
Vita was proud of these last works that are exhibited here at the New York Studio School. She had already established a near mythic status at the school where she was a longtime member of its boards, supporter and mentor of its students and artists, and unofficial historian of the school itself. Being a true painter, she wanted to be remembered for her paintings.
A best friend of the school which was also a second home for her, she confided once after a lecture, “The conversation is better here than it ever was at the Cedar Tavern.” She was a tireless advocate for the school to continue in the spirit and vision in which it was founded. It has, for nearly fifty years, held to be a place of integrity, discovery, and commitment. The same is true of Vita’s paintings.
– Graham Nickson