Essay by Peter Frank

During an interview at a turning point in his career, Jackson Pollock was asked if he “painted from nature,” that is, from observation of the world around him. Pollock did not reject the question, but nor did he affirm it. “I am nature,” he responded, asserting not simply the omnipresence of nature itself, but the artist’s coincident dependence and autonomy – intellectual, emotional, stylistic, technical – within the natural order. Such autonomy, and such dependence, are grounded in great part on powers of observation; but they are grounded first and foremost in the artist’s pan-sensate response to the world, not just the seen but the heard, the felt, the tasted and smelled. Art, averred Pollock, is where, and how, humankind reflects on its existential station, and artists are thus tasked, almost shamanistically, with giving voice and vision to that reflection.

In his painting, drawing, and collage Steven Seinberg reifies this task and accepts it, as Pollock and so many others have. But, like all the other artists who realize such a task, Seinberg does so by manifesting an inimitable sensibility, an “aesthetic personality” that not only distinguishes his work from others’ but tells us more about us and our place in nature than we’ve already been told. A typical landscape painter might please us with a recapitulation of space and atmosphere, and a superior landscapist can deepen our appreciation of and sense of connection with a vast array of tropospheric phenomena. But a landscape painter, abstract or otherwise, who makes a difference in our vision does so by re-presenting space and atmosphere – and form and rhythm, and presence and absence – in an unanticipated, unpredictable, ineffable way. For all his tendency to work in series, in each of his works Seinberg not only clarifies his vantage, but broadens ours. His art brings him and us both closer to knowing nature by being nature. Continuities and nuances found in his art over the past decade result at least as much from the patterns of nature itself as from the patterns of Seinberg’s mind and hand.

Do we then “become one with nature” as we regard a moody, misty Seinberg canvas? Do the plant forms captured and invoked in his stark drawings and taciturn collages mark the midpoint between (each of) us and the natural order? In a manner of speaking, yes, his works map out our grasp of nature and nature’s grasp of us. But they don’t fabricate this grasp; they elucidate connections already there, connections Seinberg’s audience acknowledges (or is capable of acknowledging) in some form. Seinberg’s art alerts us to natural effects; but even more it alerts us to, or reminds us of, the fact that these effects are already working upon us in nature, in life, itself.

Seinberg speaks to us in an unorthodox but not unfamiliar language, a kind of disembodied impressionism where the identity of things is of less significance than is their texture, their contour, their bulk. From one point of view, at least, this is a knowingly approximate apprehension of the world, certainly in visual terms. It bespeaks a blunted sight on our part, a constrained optical cognizance whose very inexactitude is what makes it revelatory. Haze and precipitation heighten somatic awareness even as they compromise visual apprehension. In this regard Seinberg continues a tradition of western spatial painting that goes back at least as far as J.M.W. Turner and Barbizon and Barbizonesque practice (e.g. tonalism), reaches another apogee in Impressionism, and suffuses throughout modern painting, coming most stunningly to the fore in the affective abstraction of artists such as Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, and, in a different way, Cy Twombly.

His self-aware reflection of nature happens to tie Seinberg to the (especially later) work of Claude Monet, as in the Water Lilies. “[Monet] was only an eye,” Picasso mused, “but what an eye!” Yet, there is something in Monet’s quavering efflorescences which moves us beyond a solely retinal feast; with his remark Picasso was not reducing Monet to the seen but elevating the seen to the transcendent. It is this pathway to transcendence through vision to which Seinberg has dedicated his artistic project, recognizing Rothko and Monet and Turner as his philosophical as well as practical and sensual progenitors.

Seinberg, then, regards nature as a kind of source-subject, an all-enveloping physical and metaphysical life-field whose coherence, even unity, is not so much seen in his vaporous pictures as bespoken, testified to, witnessed. If the collages seem more concrete in their referent shapes and surfaces than do the canvases, they are in fact no more specific, even when the telltale form of leaves might suggest a botanist’s scrapbook. A biologically recognizable leaf does not signal the taxonomy of flora so much as it provokes associations and memories. In this regard Seinberg’s collages are like pages from an intimate book of poems, not least in their graphic terseness, compactness, and ellipticality. Even more than the paintings, the collages build on negative space – a negative space riven with drips, spots, and other incidents, as “empty” as outer and inner space itself.

One thing we learn from – or are reminded by – Seinberg’s art is that there is no emptiness. Not only does nature abhor a vacuum, it expends no little effort to fill it. The void teems with elements and particles of all kinds and sizes, whether neutrinos or supernovae, and the open, echoing blank fields that seemingly comprise the major part of any Seinberg work are as vital as the “filled-in” areas. Indeed, quite often these darker, more massed locations – including the occasional procession of rough-hewn dots marking a superficial grid – seem more realms of absence than do the lighter expanses around them. This is a figure-ground relationship whose figures are as likely to recede as advance. Veils of running paint further complectify the push and pull, re-anchoring wanton silhouettes, dissolving clots and clusters like paper in rain.

For all the evocation, and distillation, of earthly forms and sensations, Seinberg’s paintings leave us unsure what visual scale he would have us employ. Are these life-size, distorted by receding perspective like their Turnerian forebears? Are they microcosms in among Monet’s water-borne plants? Are they galaxies splayed out across light years, as Frankenthaler and Rothko infer? They are all of the above, of course, but it’s too easy simply to declare that. The work gains much of its energy from the steep changes in amplitude possible in any single work (including collage). Seinberg’s airy, measured, circumspect compositional manner allows us to discover many degrees of existence in any given image. A cloud can be a protozoan; an atom can be a nebula. And this results not just from pictorial observation, but from the breadth of sensate response Seinberg’s works inspire.

Pictorial observation, of course, is the trigger for such sensate response. Steven Seinberg is first and foremost a visual artist, and as noted, an inheritor of a painterly tradition in Western art. This tradition trusts in and strives for as thorough and universal an experience with painting as skill and vision allow. Seinberg’s vision roots him in and at the same time above the material world – which is where we find nature and our place(s) in it. We are nature: Seinberg’s art insists, and demonstrates, no less.

-Peter Frank
Los Angeles