Currently on view at Amstel Gallery at the Yard, curators Gregory de la Haba and Laetitia Lina have put together an ambitious survey of painter John Havens Thorton’s work entitled “John Havens Thornton: A Survey of Paintings Spanning Fifty Years.” The survey is housed among four floors of the Yard, which is a co-working space where de la Haba serves as their in-house curator here and also at their 6th Avenue Herald Square and Columbus Circle locations. It is not only the volume of artwork, which includes eighty original paintings and several works on paper, but also the arrangement of pieces tailored for the space they are being exhibited in which makes this an exciting undertaking.
Although the Yard is a non-traditional gallery space and serves as a co-working office for several businesses, it becomes animated in another way through the use of Thornton’s art. The walls of Yard come alive through Thornton’s paintings and drawings. They help to transform this otherwise normal office space into a more elevated working environment which doubles as a gallery.
While Thornton’s canvases are often minimal in terms of the colors and imagery he uses, there is more to these works than meet the eye. Starting in the 1950’s, when Thornton was an undergraduate at Princeton earning his BFA, the viewer first encounters a cartoon he made during this time. This piece is different from the rest of the works on view and offers a more comical side to Thornton’s art. The show also includes two watercolor paintings, which are also a slight departure from his recognizable oil works that take over the canvas with color and bold lines.
During the 1950’s, Thornton became heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement. As he developed as an artist, he began to move away from this mode of working and started to incorporate different modes of working within his paintings. This is evident within his Tree Series from the 1960’s, which feature sparse, minimalist surfaces that are juxtaposed with figurative tree symbols. The trees function as circles with smaller lines representing the trunks and have various colors worked into the patterning. Done in bold lines and various colors, this would go on to be one of Thornton’s recurring images within his paintings.
Another group of paintings that capture a similar spirit is the Constellation Series which also done around the same time period. The vibrant blue tones of these canvases feature bold line work that is reminiscent of Matisse’s cut-outs and other Modernist iconography. Although these paintings are simplistic in application, the vibrant hues of blue and constellation patterns adds to the subtle complexities of the work.
Thornton’s work transitioned yet again in the 1980s when he veered away from grid formats and minimal canvases and on to explore representational work in the form of still lives. He continued to maintain a vibrant studio practice even after his retirement in 1984 where he taught courses in studio art and the philosophy of art at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. What is most impressive about the show is how Thorton’s artistic development is represented in the works exhibited. Thorton still paints in his studio in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is both helping to keep his legacy alive and is an example for the next generation of artists. “John Havens Thornton: A Survey of Paintings Spanning Fifty Years” is on view until December 15th.
John Havens Thornton: A Survey of Paintings
Spanning 50 Years, 1964-2014
Amstel Gallery at The Yard, 234 Fifth Avenue New York City
Curated by Gregory de la Haba and Laetitia Lina
October 6 – December 15, 2015
Writing by Anni Irish
Photographs provided by the gallery, the artist and Arte Fuse