Arts & Culture

Strokes of Genius

In an age of violence and turmoil, North Carolina native John Beerman devotes his art to the calming power of water

Photo: Michael Turek

Painter John Beerman in his element.

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.

Photo: Michael Turek

At his home studio, Beerman stands in front of his painting "East Bank."

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.

In any case, John Beerman’s work seems to mostly concern itself with his own hunger for calm in the paintings or photographs he gathers around him in his home or along the walls of his silent but brilliantly watchful brain. What then is the source of such a long need, as centuries of art have revealed it to us (think of everything from the average “sofa painting” with its fields of ripe wheat or a quiet stream as it glides through a patch of undisturbed willows)? Would it be correct to suggest that our love of the painted land- or waterscape derives directly from the same force that compelled the earliest known human painters to render on the walls of caves those profiles of animals that amaze us still—edible, and even dangerous, creatures whose beauty arrests us?

Photo: Michael Turek

Beerman captures the tranquil water of the Hudson River in Nyack, New York.

Surely one reality above all others guides—and even produces—that love; and that reality rises from the fact that the steady movement of humankind through all the known millennia has proceeded from life in caves or small villages to life in towns and cities. No cave paintings known to me portray landscapes or any form of life more calming to see than the familiar lions, bears, horses, and an early enormous species of ox called the aurochs. But hasn’t city life, from very far back, elicited from the painters among us pictures that assist us in pursuing a useful, enjoyable life among the clamor and danger unquestionably at hand? Think as far back as the painted (and sculpted) walls of ancient Egypt, Crete, Greece, Etruria, and Rome, or the stained glass of medieval Europe.

Sizable gatherings of human beings have mostly brought us the curses attendant on any such reality. The scarcest quality available in any city tends to be peace, whether we think of peace as the absence of unnerving noise or the presence of fairly easily available serenity for mind and body. To accept such a proposition may very well land us, if we think of art itself, on an interesting question: Has there been in the past two millennia of human history a supreme landscape painter whom we know to have lived far back in the deep countryside—far from towns and cities—in the vigorous prime of his working life? I can think of no one, not in Britain or the States, at least.

John Beerman is hardly a boy from metropolitan America, but Greensboro, North Carolina, is not a village, either. And most of his training occurred in the urban Northeast. There he began his landscape studies in the early 1980s. In the years since that start, his work has ranged widely for its subjects across the American countryside and as far off as Israel. And it has ranged in media from small monotypes to large oils. The works’ technical mastery and attention to their chosen subject are obvious, as are the unflinching steadiness of the painter’s eye and the patience with which he delivers his visual and emotional findings and inventions to the viewer.

Perhaps a fellow Southerner, which I am, is well positioned to see in them a certain grave courtesy toward the viewer’s inquiring imagination—a courtly deference to the spectator’s desire to know what he’s feeling and to respond in harmony with the painter’s own discovery. In Beerman’s work, there’s not only been no visible evidence of the all-too-lurking violence of our present daily lives, there’s even no implied emotion more potent than beloved serenity. If your own eyes and mind do not desire, in your actual home, unmistakable samples of calm—of meticulously offered peace—then you must turn elsewhere. If you seek tranquillity on your walls, few living painters can give you access to that great subject more usably and inexhaustibly than John Beerman, a still-young man but one already wise to our hungers.

Find out more about Beerman’s artwork at Somerhill Gallery and Tibor de Nagy Gallery.