In the 1960s, before you could pick up Art Forum magazine at Little Rock’s one art supply store and when Pollock meant fish to most of us, Sammy Peters began to explore abstract painting. But a funny thing happened on the way to the canvas: His knowledge of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, while inspirational, was spare, and his work, he said in a recent interview in his studio, was based on a “misreading of abstract expressionism.”
His “take,” based on what little he could find to read about the art movement, was that there was little that was intellectual about it. He interpreted it to be about passion, splashing your inner self onto canvas, emotion writ large, the art of the new, really new, every time he got the paint out.
“Ten years into my career, I realized either they were pulling my leg,” Peters said, or that he’d misunderstood. There those guys (and girls) were, Tworkov and Twombly, de Kooning and Krasner, Francis, Frankenthaler and Rothko, doing paintings in series, brushing out themes. Peters was working to produce new expressions, new styles, new emotions with each canvas, seeing similarity as unwanted. Once he realized that the New York School artists were painting serially, in their own styles, about color, form and whatnot, that it was, after all, an intellectual endeavor, “it freed me up.” But all that wandering in the desert did him good, gave him the ability to easily explore new forms, new palettes, new sizes, new ways to paint.
Peters, 65, surely Little Rock’s first major impressionist, is exhibiting new work at the Heights Gallery, 5801 Kavanaugh Blvd., through Oct. 2. Mitch Jansonius, the owner, says lots of people don’t realize Peters is an Arkansan, and Peters tells funny stories about people dropping in at his home and exclaiming that he has such a huge collection of Peterses.
That impression may be because he shows mostly in other cities — exhibits in Santa Fe and Memphis are coming up. Or because two-dimensional abstract work is uncommon hereabout, though Arkansas has committed abstractionists such as Amy Hill-Imler, V.L. Cox, Gertrude Tara-Casciano and others (who, it occurs to us, are all female, for what that’s worth).
But Peters is home-grown, the son of a Little Rock artist who made his living painting signs. Peters ran the family business, Ace Sign Co., after his father retired, and five years ago he let the third generation take over (the business has since been sold). Since retirement he’s taken himself off to New Hampshire as a MacDowell fellow and Vermont, to the Studio Workshop, reveling in the life of full-time painter.
Abstraction is the sum of art’s parts — color, texture, shape, line. Kasimir Malevich’s prescient “White on White” (1918) and Ad Reinhardt’s series of all black paintings nearly 50 years later made perfect sense, art boiled down to just color, devoid of narrative.
Which makes people ask, why should we still do abstract art? Hasn’t every intellectual statement about the infrastructure of painting been answered?
Not for Peters. “Abstraction is a tough place to be,” he said. “To me, it’s the only place I could be. It’s the hardest kind of painting to do. I wish I could just have an image like Warren [Criswell] does.”
What visitors to the Heights Gallery will see are large, heavily daubed images that, in the artist’s words, are rhythmic areas, distinct and unified. His current palette is awash in salmon and red, his medium an oil-based acrylic that adds translucent body to the works. Bits of fabric march punctuate the picture plane, scraping reveals under-painting. It is as three-dimensional as two-dimensional abstraction can get, lyrical and rich.
Abstract does not mean arbitrary in Peters’ style: His process, likely as rewarding as the result, is a Rube Goldberg cascade of decisions — if red stripes here, then black spots there, then drips below. “At some point, there is a presence to it. … It starts to breathe a little bit.” Finally, it is complete.
“Obviously,” Peters said, “painting isn’t dead.”
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