Robert Natkin - Untitled (Intimate Lighting), ca. 1997
Called “a visual poet,” Robert Natkin created large-scale canvases in which he merged Abstract Expressionism with Post-Impressionist color. His works stand out for their intense coloristic vibrancy combined with a delicate lyricism. In 2004 Theodore F. Wolff wrote: “Robert Natkin has spent a considerable portion of his creative life bringing beauty into sharp focus through paintings that are subtle evocations of the gentle, more effable levels and dimensions of our physical and spiritual universe.” In ArtToday (1999), Edward Lucie-Smith described Natkin’s paintings as “the ultimate development” in color abstraction, stating that their sumptuous color orchestration could “probably be carried no further” as they are unsurpassed “exercises of painterly virtuosity.”
Natkin was born in Chicago, where his father was a rag dealer. As a child, he went to the movies as often as possible. This experience left its mark on he; he would later state that his work was “like a narrative movie—I like to entertain.” The visual opulence in his paintings has been related to films such as The Wizard of Oz, a special favorite. Natkin decided to become an artist during a brief move with his family to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. On returning to Chicago, he enrolled at the Art Institute, where he was in attendance from 1948 to 1952. He spent time studying the museum’s large collection of Post-Impressionist paintings and also made many visits to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where he was drawn especially to the decorative art collection. In 1949 Natkin discovered Abstract Expressionist art through an article in Life Magazine. This interest was reinforced during a brief visit to New York in 1952, when he became deeply influenced by the paintings of Willem de Kooning.
After a stay of a few months in San Francisco in 1953, Natkin returned to Chicago, where he began working at the Newberry Library and taught painting classes. He soon became associated with other Chicago artists, including Richard Bogart, Ernest Dieringer, Ann Mattingly, Stanley Sourelis, Ronals Slowinski, Gerard van de Wiele, Donald Vlack, and Judith Dolnick. In 1957, he married Dolnick and opened the Wells Street Gallery, where he exhibited his work along with his colleagues, a group that was also prominent in Chicago’s 1957 Momentum exhibition.
Two years later Natkin and Dolnick moved to New York. There he quickly found a distinctive voice, first in his Apollo series of pictures, featuring their imposing vertical structures of luminous light, and then in the more complex, free-flowing and highly textured surfaces of his Field Mouse series. Based on a short Ezra Pound poem about the fleeting insubstantiality of our lives, the lyrically beautiful Field Mouse paintings were also strongly influenced by Natkin's appreciation of the poetic subtleties of assimilations of Cubist and Surrealist style. Natkin served as artist-in-residence at Kalamazoo Arts Center in 1964, a time when he created paintings noted for the eruption of their symmetrical structures. In the following year, he began a series of hard-edged architectural Apollos and grid paintings, partly inspired by the influence of such jazz singers as Nina Simone and Billie Holliday.
A number of Natkin’s Field Mouse paintings were included in Timeless Paintings from the USA, held in 1968 at Galerie Facchetti in Paris. The artist’s visit to this show constituted his first trip to Europe. In 1969, a retrospective of his work was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In the early 1970s, Natkin developed a technique of painting with different textured cloths wrapped around sponges. His approach emerged in his Intimate Lighting series, begun in 1971. The influence of the Cubist exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that year also had an impact on these works.
Shortly after a visit to England in 1974, Natkin started his Bath series, in which muted colors predominated. He initiated his Face series in the same year, while also reviving his Apollos. In 1976, a retrospective of Natkin’s work was held at Moore College of Art Gallery in Philadelphia. Natkin’s visit at this time to the Klee Foundation inspired his Bern paintings, many created on paper. In these works, he sought seeking to “recapture the expressionism of [his] youth.” They were featured in a BBC documentary on Natkin, directed by Mike Dibbs. In the late 1970s, Natkin began to write art criticism for Modern Painters and The New York Observer, while also writing catalogue introductions for fellow artists.
Natkin continued to work into the 1990s, executing a mural at Rockefeller Center in 1992, and giving lectures at the Tate Gallery, London (1992) and the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Baltimore (1998). A group of his monotypes was shown at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, in 2000.
Natkin’s works belong to numerous public collections, including the Akron Art Institute, Ohio; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Boca Raton Museum of Art; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, North Carolina; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Milwaukee Art Center; the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina; Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia; New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut; Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City; San Diego Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Art; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; University of Oklahoma Museum of Art, Norman; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.
Theodore F. Wolff, “Introduction,” in Robert Natkin: Recent Work, exh. cat. (New York: Findlay, 2004).
Edward Lucie-Smith, ArtNow (1977).