“In what ways can a contemporary artist show the myriad ways in which the figure relates to, reflects, is shaped by, and engages with the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of its environment?” Robert Cozzolino, curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, asks in Elizabeth Osborne: The Color of Light, the catalogue to the PAFA’s exhibition of Elizabeth Osborne’s stunningly colorful yet still figurative-focused work. First a student at the PAFA and now an instructor there since 1963, Osborne embodies the figurative tradition of the PAFA that stretches back to Thomas Eakins yet reaches forward throughout the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries in nodding towards abstraction’s explosion of color without losing sight of the human form. Osborne’s body consciousness of, as Cozzolino puts it, “refus[ing] to perpetuate the false dichotomy of abstraction versus figuration” allows her to link the human form with abstraction in works such as Renae (above, from 1992). In Renae, the woman’s red hair flames against a dark background symbolizing her dark mood, while the mauve wall on the left stands as pure abstract color and texture. Osborne strives for the best of both worlds and finds it over and over again.
Elizabeth Osborne. Color Field, 2000. Oil on canvas; 52 x 72 in. Dr. Janice T. Gordon.
When Osborne graduated from the PAFA in 1958, Jackson Pollock’s ghostly influence still dripped across the American art scene. Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme. Later, offshoots of Ab Ex such as Color Field painting kept a tight grip on the “new academy” of what was acceptable contemporary art. Osborne looked to artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns for a way to remain contemporary yet still true to her training. “From both of these artists,” Cozzolino writes, “she learned ways to incorporate suggestive traces of the body without relying on realist imagery.” In Color Field (above, from 2000), a ghostly female silhouette appears in the pale blue block of color among an almost abstract arrangement of colored shapes that, when visually reassembled, compose the artist’s studio. Alluding to the Color Field painters with her title while simultaneously clinging to the human body, however spectral, Osborne playfully pokes the abstract artists while changing the rules of their game to suit her purposes. “Clearly composed and impeccably designed, Osborne’s compositions filter the intensely observed world through her judicious adaptations of late-modernist strategies, including minimalism and color field painting,” Cozzolino says in praise of works such as Color Field. Seen in person, Color Field strikes the viewer as what Mondrian might have done if he’d just cut loose.
Elizabeth Osborne. The Bridge and I, 1992. Oil on board; 60 x 72 in. Mr. and Mrs. Harry C. Jones, III.
The daughter of an architect and wife of another, Osborne keenly understands the power of modern architecture. Color Field is just one example of abstraction as architecture. In The Bridge and I (above, from 1992), Osborne sets her self-portrait in her Philadelphia studio with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge behind her. Osborne’s birth father designed that bridge, so it stands in for the absent father in a way that both signifies and obscures him. The bridge “bridges” Osborne to her father, yet can never replace him. “Osborne’s eye for the order and open, liberating qualities of modernist architecture bears an uncommon sensitivity,” Cozzolino concludes. In works such as The Bridge and I, Osborne manages to achieve the subtle shades of emotion modern art often accesses through color, yet also taps into the symbolism of bodies (including her own) both present and absent. That connecting “and” of the title suggests union, but Osborne stands alone, with a chilling swath of cobalt separating her from her father’s design. The scarf slung about her self-portrait’s neck alludes to the cold loneliness of the arrangement.
Elizabeth Osborne. Lux I, 2008-09. Oil on wood panel; 44 x 30 in. The artist, courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
Osborne, however, is more than just a figurative painter taken to a new, modernist level. “Landscape and the observation of natural phenomena,” Cozzolino writes, “have inspired Osborne to distill her subjects closest to abstraction.” Lux I (above, from 2008-2009), one of a series of similar works showing the light of a sunrise or a sunset approaches abstraction yet still remains linked to the American Luminist style of Frederic Church and others. Although Cozzolino never raises the name of Rothko, I couldn’t help but think of the tortured Abstract Expressionist, who also looked at Luminism and brought it into modern times. Standing before the three Lux paintings, I felt revitalized, energized, happy, whereas Rothko’s works depress and/or befuddle me with cosmos-sized riddles. Unlike Rothko, you can still imagine the real world in Osborne’s Lux paintings—the sunrise or sunset experienced with a loved one—whereas Rothko ultimately leaves us crushingly alone—dwarfed by the universe. In a way, the body appears even in near-abstractions such as Lux, except that the body in question is your own.
“Perpetually aware of the deep history she has at her back, looking over her shoulder in the studio, she continues to push the limits of her craft and explore the unknown realms of representation,” Cozzolino says in praise of Osborne, whom he has known in an “extended conversation” since 2004. This close affinity allows Cozzolino to make such statements with informed affection rather than baseless corniness. Osborne really is in a fight with the figures of the past, many of whom worked within her living memory. The brawny, brawling boys of the days of Pollock still muscle out much of American art since the middle of the twentieth century, to the sad exclusion of many deserving artists, particularly women. Like Grace Hartigan, Elizabeth Osborne stands toe to toe with giants and earns her time in the arena.
[Many thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for providing me with a review copy of Robert Cozzolino’s Elizabeth Osborne: The Color of Light and for the images above from the exhibition.]