The retrospective exhibition for Gary Jurysta at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Altoona spans over half a century. Upon arrival, I mistakenly took it for a group show, as no single theme dominates the 50 years of art making. What connects the works is an unwavering pursuit of abstraction. That underpinning dictates regardless of his style, techniques or faculty. What Jurysta captures is our visual reminiscence of the outer world.
Sky Over Fields, dated in 1967, is the earliest piece in the show. It marked the beginning of a shift in his practice to incorporate constructed and contoured canvases. Although not mentioned in the exhibition, the work echoes the MADI movement, which started two decades earlier in Buenos Aires. Close up the work begs to differ, however. Under the influence of MADI’s founder Carmelo Arden Quin, flattened colors and playful frames was to meant to break away from concrete ideas. Instead, Jurysta was here seeking a way to narrate a reimagined nature with new aesthetic vocabulary.
Jurysta, a Pennsylvania native, had studied in Brooklyn and lived in New York City more than twenty years before he moved to Pittsburgh. It stuns both Eric and me to see innovative works dated that early. (Ellsworth Kelly probably started his shaped paintings around the same period.) It is hard to know how individual artists got the inspiration; but when Jurysta exhibited in places in Western Pennsylvania like Saint Vincent College and Seton Hill in the late 60’s, I had to wonder how Catholic students would receive and digest such visual shock.
If the shape of nature dominated in the earliest exploration, that organic form was soon revised to impose a sense of structural integrity. Alternator, dated in 1968, was born out of disappointment. After many failed attempts to stretch a sagging canvas, the artist added masonite boards to form accentuated convex and concave shapes. Layers of acrylic paint smooth the surface to a uniform matte orange, as if to totally absorb light from reflecting. Natural light, however, creates soft shadows out of curved ridges and grooves. Thus, the orderly structure and its organic shade co-exist in harmony.
Daybreak from 1970 reduces nature into planes and fragmented colors, similar to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park of the same year. While Diebenkorn suggested spatial illusions through varied tonal density and rich glazes, Jurysta embraced hard lines formed by modular flat-colored canvas blocks. The pictorial depth speaks through the subtle contour that gives and recedes tension. The high-horizon composition places a large unobstructed patch of deep yellow, only sliced away by a green triangle. The bottom tips up slightly, just enough to skew the diagonal line to break from rigidity. For me, it is quite soothing to look at the undulating cast shadows on the wall. They have their rhythm. Eric commented on the meticulous construction of his early works. After 50 years, the contoured shapes still look pristine.
Jurysta’s works from the 1980s are smaller in scale, yet with increased visual energy. They remind me of Frank Stella’s metal relief works of the same era. He adopted assemblage of painted objects to reach a jazzy improvisation. Charlie Parker, painted in 1988, was probably named after the famous composer. The intersecting and superimposed shapes take varied angles and possess decorative textures. Often the added squares or strips float beyond the boundary of the base, making them more sculpture than paintings. With their oscillating colors and dynamic compositions, the body of works suggests a kindred spirit with MADI even though the works from the previous decades might fit in the description better.
In recent works, Jurysta revisits an earlier theme with new contoured and constructed canvas. Updraft from 2012 recalls the mercurial dynamics and color harmony in Topography (1975). At the same time, the artist began to explore the fluid application of paint with splashing and pouring techniques. By registering the process, he invites viewers to relive the conundrum, struggle, excitement and sensation of his creative experience.
July, painted in 2013, is one of his most recent paintings in the show. It’s in a long horizontal format. Inevitably, you have to walk through it and look section by section, like in Monet’s late water lilies or a Chinese scroll. Not afar, Sky Over Field glows with its yellow patch. Almost half a century has passed in between. I would not have guessed they were by the same hand. But I know that’s a life-long experience distilled in those drips formed in orthogonal directions. The paint, shimmering in scintillating hues, feels summer – warm and refreshing. For someone who has lived in Texas for almost a decade, it leaves me yearning for a summer night in the Northeast.
And the show will extend into the summer too. But you don’t have to wait for July to experience that night breeze because the perfect July is already here at SAMA.