The Spiral and The Source: Jon Imber’s Recent Paintings by Alexander Nemser

John Imber’s latest paintings capture the energy and vitality of the botanic cosmos.

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Imber 01

My Attic (Early in the Spring), 2009-12. Oil on panel, 46 × 46 inches. All images courtesy of the artist.

In the last ten years, Jon Imber’s paintings have taken on a new dynamism, a freshness, and a remarkable proliferation of color. To see paintings like Lantern in the SnowStonington Harbor, and Spring Totems together is to witness the thrill of a master rising to a challenge, letting it open and change him. These paintings display the selflessness of mastery: the cultivated willingness to step out of the way and hold an image as it develops, joyfully and calmly.

Through his searching abstractions and return to landscape, Imber has become an extraordinarily disciplined conductor: both the center of a many-voiced orchestra of distinctive forms, and the conduit for a lush flow of streaming energy. If De Kooning is a radical anatomist, Imber became a visionary biologist. The new forms are glorious, regal as sunlight. The joy of life in them is abundant: the carnal, dripping One Tiger Lily, the Blue Lily churning with Atlantic salt, the tumbling flesh of My Attic. The heat and cool of sun and sea explodes in Lantern in the Snow, a collision of opposites: an outburst of flaming freedom and oceanic flux.

Imber 2

Stonington Harbor, 2008. Oil on panel, 36 × 36 inches.

One secret is the clarity and crispness of sight. The paintings are rooted in earth and shell from Imber’s long apprenticeship to the Stonington shore, but infused with the singular vibrancy of his viewpoint. The whorls, shards, and petals are wilder than ever, the colors in shocking relation, but the sight is tightened, reined in, and the paintings are grounded in utterly faithful revelations of the truth of his eye.

Imber 3

Spring Totems, 2010. Oil on canvas, 68 × 56 inches.

Imber’s signature bursting-from-the-center composition shape, visible on the piers and among the stones, deepened to a universal spiral from the source. It is striking to look back over Jon’s work and discover how that shape was there from the beginning of his career. Fatherhood brought the first transformation of Jon’s vision. With the arrival of his son Gabriel, the debris became a menagerie. Jon found the calm core at the center, the harmony with nature where bulls and dogs watch over sleepers. By 1994, he was painting a self-portrait as a forest—or, more accurately, the gaze into a forest. The painter’s perspective on the cosmos became botanical. In Nap, the landscape’s elements of light and air had already started to show through. Part of the bounty of this recent search is the painter’s insight into these bright blanks. This blankness is, paradoxically, the source of his forms: the bareness of beginnings, the primal primer. Layers build up and then, through scraping and sgraffito, push through without canceling each other out. As a result, in paintings like the luminously vibrating Windswept canvases, translucence comes to capture time.

Imber 4

Palaemon, 2005. Oil on panel, 30 × 30 inches.

As the colors became bolder—hazard-cone orange, fluorescent turquoise, blinding white-gold—the structure underneath became brighter and blanker, the ground more void than earth. The Spring Totems leap from a bone-white place, egg- and scallop-shell, crests of waves. We see this rich source in the hewn, scrubbed white of Palaemon and in the flashing glow which pushes through the gold in Tiger Lily and Sunflower. Yet it is always a rendered blankness, ceaselessly relational, bleeding and conversing into off-white, hushed blue, muddied milk.

Imber 5

Lantern in the snow, 2006. Oil on panel, 30 × 30 inches.

There is something truly challenging in these painting’s commitment to such cheerful freshness, upending everything but the artist’s own sight. The lightness of the canvases, as well as the painter’s workmanlike diligence, hide the emotional resilience required to conduct experiments like these. Part of Imber’s accomplishment is to track the affirmation of life within disintegration. He opens a window on the force of creation usually unseen, aloof, miraculous, where time dissolves to light, and through light, to the nameless, indescribable medium of life. Here Jon goes from biologist to physicist, showing us a way of seeing where even time is a form of narrow-mindedness.

In a sense, Imber has spent the last ten years painting a portrait of an energy seen. Invisible, transient, and unrepeatable, it is a head-on challenge for static art. With each catch, he pushes towards a view of life closer to nature’s numberless eyes, a reflection of the gaze with which the earth, perhaps, sees us.

PALAEMON: A Survey of Paintings by Jon Imber is on view at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College until June 15.

Alexander Nemser’s poems have been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review. His book reviews appear frequently in the New Republic. He lives in Boston.

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