Thursday, May 6, 2004
Gerald Wasserman has been an artist on the local scene for as long as most people can remember. He’s been painting and sculpting here since 1945, the year he arrived in Carmel after his discharge from the Army. Since that time, his art has been a rock of consistency in an art world full of changes. And even though Wasserman himself changes styles, his art remains as humanist and accessible as one of his favorite chapters in art history, the School of Paris.
In a recent group exhibition at the Carmel Art Association, Wasserman was represented by several large semi-abstractions that looked like primitive fetish figures: frontal, monumental, iconic. The paint handling was sure, muted and bound to the subject. It appeared as if the artist was free, having fun. These were accompanied by a selection of bronze and assemblage figurines that complemented the paintings with their stylized anatomies and rugged grace.
Scanning the decades-long investigations he has made into post-impressionistic landscapes, semi-abstract figuration, the aforementioned primitive art-inspired sculpture, café scenes, and brightly colored scenes of domestic tranquility, one detects an artistic sensibility that seeks to express eternal qualities, balance, order, harmony, and, rare in contemporary art, compassion.
Wasserman bought a house in the Monterey hills in the early 1950s. He has now converted the home into his studio, and lives elsewhere. He paints in the living room; fog-draped pines frame a view of the rooftops of Del Monte Center and Seaside way down below. One bedroom serves as a gallery and another for storage. A talisman board hangs above a worktable in the living room space, dominated by a poster featuring a Bonnard from a Paris art gallery.
“I’m an expatriate who happens to live here,” says Wasserman, referring to his countless trips to Europe and his many long-term residencies there. In fact, Wasserman draws inspiration from European culture the way local painters get excited when they stand before the dramatic Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur coastlines. Since his first trip to Europe as an artist, when he traveled from Morocco through Spain, France and Italy with his wife Barbara, Wasserman has found artistic nourishment abroad.
“There are the museums, of course, but more than that are the villages and towns where a little church might be home to ancient murals done by some forgotten artist, or a cozy little harbor with colorful fishing boats,” he says.
Wasserman has managed to indulge his Europe fixation regularly over the years. There was the year in Morocco, followed by a stint in Majorca. “We stayed in a village there, Puerto de Aindraitx, that fed me artistically for several years. They grazed the sheep at night because of the heat, and the shepherd would play his pipes all night long. It was like something out of ancient Greece,” he recalls.
There was the year in Paris. “We had a room in a hotel a block from the Tuileries, and I had a studio—heated—in the room above us. I was the envy of many artists I met there who had to go to the cafés regularly to thaw out.”
There was the year in Florence. “The whole city is a museum. But I was particularly drawn to early Christian art, the murals you’d see everywhere. Not so much the content of Christian art, but the primitive treatment of the figure.”
There was the summer outside of Dubrovnik. “Another magical place we stayed was a little island off the coast called Otok Kzivota, Isle of Joy. You’re really cut off from the world there. I couldn’t even read the [International] Herald Tribune, so it would be weeks before I’d know what Nixon was up to.”
And then there were the long stays in Rome, and the annual return trips. “Gradually, my interest in the Baroque grew while in Rome. I never used to like Caravaggio and all his followers, but I became a believer. I think my café scene paintings owe a lot to the Baroque with the placement of figures, the light.”
Looking at Wasserman’s paintings is like drinking from a well of familiarity; each of his bodies of work developed over the years has some specific recognizable art source that has piqued his interest, compelling him to adapt its stylistic elements for his own ends. Primitive early Christian figure types of the latter 1950s sit around flat Cezanne-esque tables, and these figures evolve into hieratic Madonna figures looking out to the viewer with their oversized, stylized eyes.
Eventually, Wasserman arrived at what he feels is his personalized motif: the café table. “One day I just realized that so many of my paintings had people at tables,” he says. “Even the Madonnas I painted were sitting at tables with other people. I kept coming back to this theme, I guess, because it’s a classic subject, like the Last Supper.”
Wasserman places figures reminiscent of Bonnard or Picasso or Matisse around his favorite motif on a veranda overlooking a picturesque town or a garden. Just as Cezanne returned to his Mont Saint-Victoire as a ready motif, or Picasso to the bullfight, Wasserman returns to his commonplace subject so that the language of paint and the subtleties of human interaction—a glance, a cocked head, a set jaw—communicate on multiple levels.
Whether it’s his favored café scenes or the occasional empty piazza that comes off his easel lately, Wasserman’s paintings are rich with harmonious color, and paint applied deftly. To co-opt and paraphrase Matisse, they are as comfortable as a big stuffed chair.
Wasserman’s paintings can be seen at the Carmel Art Association, Dolores btwn. Fifth and Sixth, Carmel. 624-6176.