Described as the “author of a dappled infinite,” Robert Natkin created some of the most innovative color abstractions of the late 20th century. Populated by stripes, dots, grids, and an array of free-floating forms, his light- filled canvases are sensuous, playful, and visually complex.
Born in Chicago, Natkin was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry. At age five, he began going to the movies (often six times a week), an activity that, in addition to providing him with a measure of respite from his dysfunctional family, would later profoundly influence his work as a painter. In 1945, Natkin’s family moved briefly to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Natkin decided to pursue a career as an artist. A natural draftsman, he initially wanted to become an illustrator, like Norman Rockwell, whose work he had seen in the Saturday Evening Post. However, while attending the school of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1948 to 1952, Natkin was afforded the opportunity to study the museum’s world-class collection of French post-impressionist art and decided to turn his attention to painting instead. During these formative years, Natkin was inspired by the examples of Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, who used decorative patterning and arbitrary color to evoke mood. Most importantly, he also discovered the work of Paul Klee, the Swiss-German artist whose whimsical, semi-abstract paintings reflected his belief that “art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible”––a credo that nurtured Natkin’s burgeoning interest in emotional content.
An article on Abstract Expressionism, published in Life magazine in 1949, was equally vital in determining Natkin’s evolution as a painter. In 1952, he lived briefly in New York, where he saw and was influenced by the bold canvases of Willem de Kooning. Following this, Natkin spent a few months in San Francisco before returning to Chicago. He initially focused on portraits and expressionist figure pieces, but by 1954–55 he was producing his earliest abstract work and fraternizing with a group of artists that included the painter Judith Dolnick (b. 1934), whom he married in 1957. In the same year, Natkin and Dolnick established the Wells Street Gallery in a dilapidated storefront in Chicago’s Old Town, where they exhibited their own work as well as that of other progressive-minded local artists, among them the sculptor John Chamberlain and the photographer Aaron Siskind, as well as painters from New York, including de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Although Natkin never embraced the concept of “action painting” as exemplified in the work of Pollock, he did, for a time, explore de Kooning’s agitated, gestural brushwork, as apparent in canvases such as Keep It Quiet (1957; private collection).
In 1959, aware of the limited patronage for abstract art in Chicago, Natkin and Dolnick moved to New York, where Natkin joined the stable of artists associated with the Poindexter Gallery, known for its support of emerging painters and sculptors. Immersed in the dynamism of the New York art world, where Abstract Expressionism and Color-Field painting were the dominant styles of the day, Natkin’s aesthetic approach continued to evolve. In 1961, he adopted a serial approach to painting, a practice he would adhere to throughout his career. In his earliest cycle, known as the Apollo series, which Natkin worked on intermittently into the early 1970s, he used vertical stripes of varying thicknesses and textures to suggest the interplay of color and light while creating a strong architectonic quality. During the mid-1960s––in response to the color theories of Josef Albers, contemporary jazz, and his admiration for Chicago architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright––Natkin retained the upright format of his Apollo paintings in his Straight Edge and Step canvases, imbuing them with a heightened sense of order and structure by using masking tape to create clearly defined areas of form and color.
Natkin embarked on his next thematic group, the Field Mouse series, in 1968. Based on Ezra Pound’s translation of a Chinese poem which dealt with the fleeting passage of time, the Field Mouse paintings represented a new stage in Natkin’s artistic evolution: moving away from the cool and contemplative approach of the Apollo works, he developed a more intricate style (indebted to Klee), depicting diamonds, polygons, ovals, squiggles and other shapes against textured, delicately toned backgrounds interspersed with seemingly randomly placed dots and daubs of pigment and areas of crosshatching.
In 1970, following a retrospective exhibition of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Natkin and his family relocated to West Redding, Connecticut. One year later, while serving as artist-in-residence at the Kalamazoo Art Center in Michigan, Natkin put aside his brushes and began to use sponges, soaked in acrylic paint and wrapped in pieces of cloth or netting, which he would apply to his support with different levels of pressure, a technique that enhanced the decorative quality of his paintings. The artist first applied this methodology to his Intimate Lighting series, which was influenced by an exhibition of cubist painting that he saw at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The year 1971 also marked a pivotal moment in Natkin’s career in that he had the first of many one-man shows at the venerable André Emmerich Gallery in New York.
In the ensuing years, Natkin continued to develop his repertory of cyclical paintings, reviving older themes, such as his Apollo pieces, while exploring new subjects, as in his Bath and Color Bath paintings, which were inspired by the light and architecture he encountered on a visit to Bath, England, in 1974. (The Bath paintings were executed in understated monochromatic tones, while the Color Bath paintings feature a range of soft-toned hues woven together to evoke a diaphanous curtain of light.) In 1977, following his retrospective exhibition at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia a year earlier, Natkin visited the Paul Klee Foundation in Bern, Switzerland. Returning to America, he embarked on the Bern series, using rags and sponges (on both canvas and paper) to create spirited yet very intimate canvases featuring the geometric and biomorphic shapes of his earlier Field Mouse pictures, rendered now in strong, saturated primary colors, as well as black.
The Bern paintings were followed by the Hitchcock series, Natkin’s greatest and most engaging cycle in which he paid homage to the director, Alfred Hitchcock––a raconteur who, like Natkin, also used recurring themes and devices to express aspects of the human condition. Natkin began the Hitchcock series during the early 1980s and continued to explore the theme for the remainder of his career. Taking his cue from Hitchcock’s practice of synthesizing different story lines into a cohesive narrative, Natkin sought to imbue his Hitchcock canvases with carefully considered arrangements of shapes.
The subject of numerous one-man shows in America, Europe, and Japan, as well as a participant in numerous group exhibitions devoted to late-twentieth-century painting (most recently, Expanding Boundaries: Lyrical Abstraction: Selections from the Permanent Collection, held at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida in 2009), Natkin died in Danbury, Connecticut, on April 20, 2010.