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Idelle Weber and the Contemporary American Realists
An essay by Virginia Anne Bonito, PhD
Idelle Weber: Blue Bird, 1972 - Painting
Idelle Weber: Cooper Union Trash, 1974 - Painting

Among the many various expressions or modes of realism (evidenced, for example, in the work of the artists represented in the Seavest Collection) that make up the overarching movement we call Contemporary American Realism, the pictorial language of Idelle Weber stands somewhat apart. Weber’s individual style is marked by an astonishing versatility that is due only in part to her background and training in the fine arts, but that owes its principal debt to her innate internal drives. Noteworthy is the fact that Weber is among the few women artists to have achieved prominence as a Pop artist and then as a Photorealist; and it is noteworthy also that she made the shift easily from top rank in one field to equal prominence in the other. She has continued to zigzag with consummate grace, elasticity, and commanding technical skill across abstraction, minimalism, color-field painting, and conceptual art as she determines when specific references to those diverse movements should inform her work. Underpinning her command of the canvas is fine-arts training includes a firm foundation in classical drawing; and, drawing has continued to be a significant element in her working process.

Through all of the diversity in her uvre, there are commonalties that surface. They are rooted in her nature. One is an imposing regard for structure; the other is a tension, or better yet, a dual appreciation of abstraction and realism. Paul Cummings, in a published interview with Weber, noted her early interest in music. ("Idelle Weber Talks with Paul Cummings," Drawing XV, no. 4 (November/December 1993); 79.) That interest has, it seems, translated itself into the formal rhythms that give order to her compositions, whether they be the vernacular structures of fruit stands - of arrangements of baskets and boxes loaded with fruit, or the syncopation of garden architectural elements, such as fluted columns or a sweeping hemicycle arcade that allow plays of light, shadow, and dense, random foliage across their surfaces. Powerful diagonals cut across not only canvas surfaces but time, linking her Pop-period silhouetted businessman riding escalators (Munchkin Man, 1964) to her Photorealist trash painting that features Martin Luther King’s, haunting "I Have a Dream," in a band of black that rakes across the picture surface (W.C. 12. 92 [I Have A Dream], 1992) to a hypnotic Versaille balustrade featuring repeated organic geometries and decorative elements (Balustrade [Versailles], 1985). In the hands of this masterful artist, her favored compositional device, the diagonal, serves to signal the humdrum and anonymity of office routine, symbolized by the mass people-mover – the escalator; the fragility of our civil rights and of a glory moment of the early ’60s through the poignant phrase on a torn page that has surfaced from a pile of debris; to a formal element that, in its physical beauty, stunning rhythm, and conjunction of organic and geometric elements, is the perfect interface between verdant nature and geological events frozen in polished stone.

In the same interview with Cummings Weber notes, "My high school dissertation [sic] was comparing Hopper and Pollock. I realize that I had a duality of interests: all-over abstraction and realism." ("Idelle Weber Talks with Paul Cummings," Drawing XV, no. 4 (November/December 1993); 80.) "Sketchbooks always. I was doing these little all over mark things. . . . I had always been so concerned with the object, that I wanted to see my hand and gesture without anything. Its good to get rid of an object and just to see where you are in terms of what you put down as a mark." ("Idelle Weber Talks with Paul Cummings," Drawing XV, no. 4 (November/December 1993); 81.) These contrasting elements have punctuated and defined Weber’s highly individual style over the years. In her early Pop work, she was already driving her silhouetted figures into the pictorial ground, meshing them into all-over decorative patterns. In 1986/87 she concentrated on paintings of grass, floral ground cover, and ponds bordered by painted or actual unadorned fasciae. She used trapezoidal formats, for example, to force tensions between perspective illusions and a flat surface, enhancing the contrasts between simple and complex surfaces, and between realism and abstraction. Random passages of colored marks always enliven and interrupt meticulous overall detail.

Weber is represented in the Seavest Collection by prime examples of her fifteen-odd Photorealist paintings. It is interesting to note, in this context, that the principal practitioners of Photorealism tend to be associated with specific subject matter - for example, Richard Estes with city vistas and reflections, John Baeder with diners, Ralph Goings with diner still-lifes, and Idelle Weber with fruit stands and trash. Among these, Seavest’s sparkling oil on canvas entitled Bluebird (1972) stands as a signature piece. Weber has zoomed in on a display of open crates and baskets of plums and pears, introducing a delightful variant on the tradition of still-life painting of fruit from De Heem to Cézanne. Geometries guide not only the circles and rectangles of the basket and crates but the bountiful arrangements of the fruit as well. In the manner of Cézanne, color is allied with brushwork to define structure (especially in the pears).

Yet Weber extends the responsibilities of her loaded brush steps further, painstakingly describing surface texture and detail. Our experience of the image is one of a heightened reality in which the accidentals of a produce stand find themselves happily conjoined with principles of aesthetics. We delight as well in Weber’s ability to restrict her palette to a few colors, which she exploits through shifts of tone and value - for example, her whites, which range from pure pigment to cool blue-and-grey-whites on the one side, and to warm cream-and-ivory-whites on the other. She further elaborates on these cool and warm tonalities in the purple of the plums and the orange yellows of the pears; she then completes the family of complementary colors with the insertion between the rows of crates of green of the "fake grass" used to package the delicate fruit. As do a number of her Photorealist colleagues, Weber delights in the labels and signage that enliven the mundane and generic. In Bluebird, such details provide opportunity to identify nationality; to intuit the hand of man in the multiple interventions of those who pick, package, handle, and sell the produce; and to reference the alliance of the commercial arts to the fine arts in the design and production of a label such as "Bluebird," which sports a naturalist’s image of the bird in flight.

Labelling is exploited by Weber in her trash paintings. In these paintings, such as Seavest’s W.C. 12. 92 (I Have A Dream), which number only a handful, she shifts her gaze from the fruit stands to the ground, homing in on the debris that accumulates at the foot of the stands or in the gutters. She transforms what, for all intents and purposes, should be the lowest common denominator as both representative of our material culture and as a subject of art – that is, garbage – into artful, highly charged compositions. As we delight in the slow recognition of various familiar crumpled packaging, the paintings nag at our consciences, underscoring materialism, waste, and perhaps, ultimately, the ephemeral nature not only of art, but of the moment.

©by Virginia Anne Bonito, revised "Get Real" Idelle Weber essay, April 25, 2000.

For a more detailed printed view of the collection order the book:

Get Real: Contemporary American Realism from the Seavest Collection
Virginia Anne Bonito. Foreword by Michael Philip Mezzatesta, pp. 138, 68 colorplates, 2 b/w photographs
Exhibition at DUMA April 4-July 6, 1997.
Hard cover $40.00 Soft cover $25.00

To order contact: Duke University Museum of Art

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