Strokes of Genius
In an age of violence and turmoil, North Carolina native John Beerman devotes his art to the calming power of water
By the age of five or six, I wanted to be a painter. Though the work doesn’t survive, I suppose I’d committed my share of the cheerful mess that adorns the average parent’s refrigerator door. When I say “I suppose,” I mean that I literally recall none of my early paintings (I never went to nursery school or kindergarten, so I was hardly encouraged to paint). If I committed unrealistic pictures—the kinds of abstract expressionism on which, from the hands of thoughtful craftsmen, American painting almost exclusively depended from the late 1940s till the early nineties—I have no memory of them, though I do recall my work in dime-store coloring books; and there I took great pains to “stay within the lines.” ¶ As for original work, I recall at least that my father joined me at our kitchen table on numerous evenings and painted recognizable likenesses of the sole nonhuman animal that I’d somehow come to love, despite the fact that I’d never seen a live sample of the species—the elephant, specifically the Indian elephant. So I always meant to create enjoyable likenesses of real animals, human beings, and impressive places. When I was six or seven, my parents ordered from the Sears catalogue a respectable wooden box of oil paints and brushes so that I could produce the single picture I had in mind, one that had seriously consumed my curiosity for months—the great falls at Niagara. We’d never visited the actual site, but the pictures I’d seen in my parents’ magazines left me strongly driven to make my own image of such a phenomenal reality. The paints arrived and I spent days, and then weeks, in the effort to render the scene I could see so vividly in my young mind—no luck whatever, though. In fact, all I could make with my fine box of paints were further messes. The real world refused to yield to me and soon enough I resigned the effort, and the handsome wood box went into my closet, but why was the urge of a young schoolboy so remarkably strong?
John Beerman was born fifty-one years ago and mostly reared in Greensboro, North Carolina. His interest in painting started early, and he produced a good deal of abstract art—the demanded subject matter of those years—before he headed to New York in his twenties and took to a fellow art student named Susan Roth. Susan lived with her mother, the printmaker Sylvia Roth, very near the Hudson in Nyack, New York, about thirty miles from the heart of Manhattan. Susan and John married in 1988 and joined Sylvia (and the Hudson) in the house that Susan had lived in all her life.
Soon enough, Beerman had begun to paint the local landscape—the river and its surrounding banks and hills. Earlier, Beerman’s work had included a number of semi-surreal views of landscape and natural objects. Though it would be years before he learned that Henry Hudson (the river’s namesake) was alleged to be a family relation, the river had begun to capture Beerman’s actual vision and his original and surprising mastery of color. Of course it had been the prime subject of a good many prior painters’ work, but Beerman’s recent paintings and prints have gradually revealed a very different river.
In contradiction of the destruction and pollution bequeathed by more than a century of humans, Beerman’s Hudson is not only clean to the point of purity, it is likewise almost entirely devoid of men and women. Very rarely, a man may appear in the distance—walking on a pier, say, or rowing a small boat; but mostly we’re left alone with views of various broad expanses of unpolluted water or river banks that are as empty of human habitation or construction as F. Scott Fitzgerald imagines on the last page of The Great Gatsby when he thinks of a proto–Long Island, washed by the sea-bound Hudson:
I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.
In recent years, then, what Beerman has evoked for us in his pictures of the river and its surroundings is, generally, a world of sheer immanence—a series of places that exist most intensely within the details of line and color that a painter shows us in a given picture. The picture’s external details are captured for us with admirable care—and the degree of the painter’s care in his painterly details is crucial—but the life of a Beerman landscape (or riverscape) waits within itself, ready to yield to a viewer’s careful looking but to nothing else. And I can think of few living painters for whom the same claim might be made.
The life that awaits us in recent Beerman riverscapes is an even more intense form of the life that’s preserved in his earlier landscapes, and that life is one of peace and tranquillity. In fact, in the long history of Western painting, there are only two primary kinds of subject matter—subjects that may be divided into the tranquil and the turbulent. Are more viewers moved by the religious scenes of Giotto or Leonardo or by the crowded battle scenes of Uccello or Rubens? Since I can’t recall encountering any polls in response to such a question, I’ll leave the matter for the reader’s own debate.