John Opper

Untitled

1954 

oil on canvas
45 x 33 inches

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When he arrived in New York in the mid-1930s, John Opper was already a well-trained painter, adept at rendering still lifes and particularly landscapes depicting the American scene. A reviewer of his 1937 exhibition at the Artists’ Gallery in New York, for example, wrote about Opper’s “colloquial flavor . . . spontaneity and an imaginative use of color which conveys just the feeling” which the subjects-East River tugboats, old garages, and scenes around Manhattan-suggest.

By 1937 Opper had become familiar with modernism, though he was not yet converted to the cause. Earlier, in 1935 and 1936, he studied with Hans Hofmann and began to think in terms of forces and tensions within the picture plane. He met Wilfrid Zogbaum, Giorgio Cavallon, Byron Browne, Rosalind Bengelsdorf, and George McNeil, with whom he shared a studio. He paid frequent visits to Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art. He joined the WPA easel project in 1936 and began to paint in “a kind of transformed cubist style.”

For Opper, though, abstraction conflicted philosophically with a strong commitment to social reform. Opper said he preferred to combine creative work with social comment and was as yet unwilling to do completely abstract art. during the early 1940s, he noted, he was torn “between the needs of the society and the needs of war on one hand, and on . . . what I felt were the aesthetic needs of painting.” Only when he resolved to separate these two, did he begin systematically to pursue abstract work. Eventually, he came to believe that the only thing important to art “is that which changes . . . the language and the substance of it.”

Opper had two one-man exhibitions during the late 1930s, but it was not until the 1940s that he began to show frequently in large museum exhibitions and receive widespread attention. For Opper, this was a time of maturity.

Initially Opper’s abstraction was based on nature, though later he became committed to the idea that “painting is concerned with painting,” an end in itself rather than a means to communicate other concerns. Early on he was allied with the “intuitive” (rather than the rationally inclined) faction within the American Abstract Artists. But Opper moved far afield stylistically from the densely painted, expressionistic works of the 1930s and 1940s. In time, he became known as an Abstract Expressionist, a painter of large canvases in which vertical bands of varying widths pulsed with color. His gesture was controlled, yet dynamic; his overlays of color luminous and tactile. In these works, and in field paintings in which clouds of color seem to float against soft grounds, he strengthened his commitment to “painting as painting” that he first developed as a Hofmann student. 

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