Warren Rohrer – The Brooklyn Train

In sight

Gallery of locks
April 1 to May 14, 2022
philadelphia cream

Figurative landscape art is inevitably linked to the site it represents. But often abstract painting is not. One can study the monochromes of Kazimir Malevich or the zippers of Barnett Newman without referring to the visual characteristics of the cities where they were created. Sometimes, however, abstractions are also site-specific. This is certainly true for Piet Mondrian’s late photos, which reflect his elated response to Manhattan grids. And so are Warren Rohrer’s paintings, which are abstractions based on the eastern Pennsylvania landscape.

Mennonites have been around for a long time. Rembrandt depicted Dutch Mennonites. But this important religious community is poorly represented in the American art world. Although they are not strict iconoclasts, Mennonites tend to believe that the all-consuming demands of artistic creation are incompatible with the intense life of their religious community. Raised on Lancaster Farmland, in a Pennsylvania community near Philadelphia, Warren Rohrer (1927-1995) came from several generations of Mennonite farmers. For a long time he lived on a farm among the Mennonites. And so, becoming an artist involved a real personal struggle. And although he left this community, this tradition gave him close and lasting ties to nature and agriculture. This exhibition of abstract paintings and drawings from the 1990s reflects that, his lived experience.

Viewed from a distance, Rohrer’s late paintings may appear to be monochromes. One is blond, some are dark and one is white. But when you get closer, you see marks being scratched across the very delicate surfaces. And Rohrer was a masterful painter of textures. In Field: Language 7 (1990), which is gilded, on the rectangular canvas are short marks, and at the bottom is a rectangular panel marked with fingerprints. In Field: Language 2 (1990) the field is dark brown and the lower edge red. And in Field: Downstream 1 (1990), a diptych, some striped lines are white, while others are red. As Mennonite farmers worked these fields, harvesting their crops and leaving behind brown brush, Rohrer showed both the colors of the farmlands he depicts and, in his marks, the effect of the harvest. These paintings are very varied, as they record the changing of the seasons.

On the Locks Gallery website is a wonderful photograph of Rohrer looking down at a field that has been cleared. We feel how much these rural sites meant to him. Its incisions in the surface, which are short lines, are a kind of writing, a hidden calligraphy that is not meant to be deciphered. As he said, his topic was stroke. The titles of these paintings are suggestive. Rohrer mentions fields, then adds a few more words, which vary by trait: “language”, “downstream”, a “screen” or an “extension”. He thus adds to the simple abstract reference to the fields some indications on the way of interpreting his subjects. In this way, these titles interpret its brands. Field: Downstream 1 (1990) is a diptych, with the marks on the right panel, i.e. downstream, blurred; in Control: Screen (1990) we see a white winter landscape; and in Field: Position (1992) the golden canvas, a diptych, has a pale and very marked extension at the bottom.

In the long chapter on landscapes as sources of abstraction in Abstract art: a global history, Pepe Karmel asserts that “abstract paintings are disguised landscapes. His examples include vortices, waves, waterfalls, wave lines, and other dramatic natural scenes. In this context, what is striking in contrast in Rohrer’s sources is their intrinsically calm, essentially contemplative character. Dramatic subjects are foreign to his late art. Rohrer was truly a Philadelphia artist. He made use of the splendid resources of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And for twenty-five years he taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). But when, in 2016, I published a little book about him, I was surprised to discover that although he often exhibited and played a prominent role in the local art world, there was relatively little literature on it. Philadelphia, although not far from Manhattan by train, has a very different artistic world. Thanks to the longstanding loyal support of the Locks Gallery, Rohrer was given the freedom to develop in relative and highly productive isolation.

In 1972, while young, Rohrer was very impressed by the exhibitions of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. But looking back, we don’t know what their painting had to offer him. He found the visual resources he needed at his fingertips. Using GPS, I once drove to the site of his former country house. As one would expect from the paintings, this eastern Pennsylvania landscape is unassuming, undemonstrative and undramatic – to characterize it in negative terms. In this way, Rohrer’s art was genuinely faithful to his religious heritage. Living and working alongside the Mennonite community, he discovered how to create highly personal and deeply expressive abstract art. And this, it seems to me, was a great success.

As I browsed through this exhibition, perplexed as to how to synthesize my experience, Phong Bui entered the gallery and offered me dazzling observations which I gladly borrowed and recorded. But of course he is not responsible for the way I used his ideas.