PORTLAND, MAINE.-On April 5, 2005, the Maine art world lost one of its most important and enigmatic figures. For more than 40 years, Neil Welliver created dramatic paintings, watercolors, and prints in and around his home and studio near Lincolnville. He lived the life and created the paintings of the archetypal Maine artist: rugged, iconoclastic, in tune with nature. The memorial exhibition Neil Welliver: Water and Sky, on view from September 3 through November 27, 2005, at the Portland Museum of Art, pulls together approximately 20 works from all the major periods of his career, drawing upon the Museums permanent collection as well as several long-term loans.
Born in rural Milville, PA, and educated at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and at Yale, Neil Welliver (1929-2005) first gained national prominence in the 1960s, when abstraction was the dominant mode of painting. Turning away from the current vogue, Welliver boldly re-explored traditional themes, including the human figure submerged in or floating upon water. After 1971, when Welliver moved permanently to Maine, his focus shifted to the landscape, but even then the subjects he chose were not the more familiar coastal views. Fascinated with the thick foliage and underbrush of inland Maine, Welliver painted and produced prints of the Maine that many never see, the pathless wilderness that is the myth but so rarely the reality of landscape painting in the 20th century. Like his earlier paintings, his representations of hidden brooks, still ponds with beaver lodges, ice dams, and waterfalls unite subject and materials in his own unique way.
One of the great contradictions of Wellivers work is that, for both his paintings and his works on paper, he used surprisingly structured and meticulous techniques to describe the most amorphous and changeable elements in the natural world. The pools, rivers, lakes, and falls in his landscapes and figure studies seem fluid and charged with motion, while his day- and night-time skies vibrate with energy. The dynamic appearance of his work, however, belies a pristine and ordered methodology that begins with a small outdoor study, moves steadily through multi-level process of transfer and enlargement, and finally ends, in the case of his paintings, with a large canvas that is steadily completed from upper left to lower right, or, with his prints, a single sheet printed laboriously from multiple colored woodblocks.
Bridging the gap between traditional genres and pure painting, Wellivers work never fit neatly into any category of mid-century artistic expression. Yet as a professor at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, and as a devoted painter of Maine since he first visited here in 1962, he was recognized universally for the power, beauty, and strength of his own vision, which he pursued without compromise throughout his career. This exhibition celebrates that vision and pays homage to Wellivers lasting contributions to the art of Maine and beyond.