"When I speak of nature, I speak of the sky, because the sky has become all of nature to me."
American artist. 1916-1992.
Jon Schueler knew a lot about clouds. As an aircraft navigator in World War II flying missions over France and Germany, reading the sky and understanding the weather was crucial. And as a painter he strove to paint not the ground, but the air above it, turning from the abstraction of the 1950s New York art world to the abstraction of nature and the atmosphere of the Scottish islands.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 12, 1916, Schueler studied economics and then English literature at the University of Wisconsin, graduating with a BA in 1938 and an MA in 1940. At that time, his ambition was to be a writer, and he worked briefly at the New Haven Evening Register. In September 1941 he joined the Air Corps of the US Army; with America's entry into World War II, he was stationed at Molesworth in England, and served until 1944 when he left for medical reasons.
Following his discharge, he moved to California, still dreaming of being a writer. In 1945 he and his wife took an art class in Los Angeles, while he worked as a radio announcer and a freelance writer; two years later he moved with his family to take up a position teaching English literature at the University of San Francisco.
He turned from teaching to learning, thanks to the G.I. Bill studying painting at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, from 1948-1951. There he was taught by Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, and Mark Rothko amongst others. Here he found that his true vocation lay in images not words. Rothko and Still helped persuade him to move to New York: his early work was highly influenced by the abstract expressionist movement, and he spent time in the circles as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.
In contrast to the often gloomy Pollock, Schueler's work tended to be dominated by bright colours, brilliantly textured yellows and oranges and reds shining out of the canvas. His works are expansive and sweeping where Pollock was nervy and introverted. Works like Orange Mist (1955) and Burning (1956) are typical of this early period, pulsing with vivid colours.
In 1957 he travelled to the north east of Scotland, finding in the dramatic sunsets and desolate scenery of Mallaig the visions he had dreamed of in New York. It was as though the abstract idealism of his early paintings had become real and visible in the Scottish skies. This attention to landscape and skyscapes allowed him to escape the limitations of abstract expressionism, which was becoming a straitjacket for Pollock and others by the mid 1950s.
Schueler spent the winter of 1957-1958 painting in Mallaig, by the body of water known as the Sound of Sleat which lies near the Isle of Skye, but despite the productivity of this stay, he wasn't able to return to Scotland for many years except briefly. Works from the period following his first trip to Scotland show a change from the purely abstract to the semi-representational: April in Blue (1959) is based on swirls of white and blue above a red base, and may be a spiral of clouds in the sky, or just a pattern of paint; Morning Mist (1958-1959) jumbles the colors of naturalistic landscape painting in an abstract style.
He returned to teaching at Yale Summer School and Yale University in Connecticut in 1960-1962, was a visiting artist at the Maryland Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, from 1963-1967, and head of graduate and undergraduate painting and sculpture at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois from 1968-1969. In the 1960s he experimented with incorporating human forms into his paintings then rendering them unrecognisable in works such as Woman in a Morning Sky (1964).
In 1970 he moved back to Scotland, setting up a studio in Glasnacardoch near Mallaig and staying for five years; even when he moved back to New York in 1975 he returned to Scotland as often as possible, trying to spend three months every year. His later paintings lie somewhere between abstraction and landscape, reducing the sky and sea and land to bands of colour hanging suggestively in mist, as in paintings like Red Shadow in a Winter Sky (1974). Even back in New York his imagination kept returning to the Scottish skies in his later paintings like Summer Storm (1976) and Magda's Blues II (1979) which depicts a skyscape with only the tiniest point of land at the bottom of the painting..
Schueler continued to paint into his 70s, right up to his death in New York on August 5, 1992. By his later years, abstract expressionism had moved from cutting-edge to museum piece, and his work has shifted out of fashion. However, in Scotland his reputation was kept alive by exhibitions big and small - the last show of his work during his lifetime was when a touring exhibition visited his adopted home of Mallaig. Since his death, his reputation has grown internationally and he has been exhibited again in both the USA and Europe, emerging from the shadows of New York art and the label of "second-string abstract expressionist" and being appreciated for his ability to render the drama of nature in works that approach the sublimity of Turner's skyscapes whilst being invested with a warmth and passion all his own.
His posthumously-assembled autobiography, The Sound of Sleat, is regarded as one of the finest artist's autobiographies ever written, and a truly classic book about painting. However, it pays more attention to his angst-ridden, convoluted personal life - he married five times - and the complexities of the art market than to actual painting, but is still praised for its portrayal of the artist's somewhat tortured soul and the dignity and sacrifices required by art.
- Jon Schueler. The Sound of Sleat: A Painter's Life. edited by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau. Picador USA. 1999.
- Artnet. "Jon Schueler". http://www.artnet.com/ag/artistdetails.asp?aid=15156 (October 10, 2003)
- Mallaig Heritage Centre. "Jon Schueler". Mallaig Heritage Centre Home Page. http://www.mallaigheritage.org.uk/schueler.htm (October 10, 2003)
- Estate of Jon Schueler. Jon Schueler Website. 1999-2003. http://www.jonschueler.com/ (October 10, 2003)
- Jonathan Jones. "Portrait and a Dream, Jackson Pollock (1953)". The Guardian. July 5, 2003. http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/portrait/story/0,11109,991689,00.html
This was also inspired by the retrospective exhibition Jon Schueler: To the North, shown at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, from July 5, 2003, to September 27, 2003.