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Warren Rohrer

American, 1927 - 1995

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Born in 1927, Rohrer was raised in a Mennonite farming community. Flouting familial expectation that he would be a farmer and minister, however, he decided to become a painter. After his graduation from Eastern Mennonite College in 1950, Rohrer studied art during summers at Pennsylvania State University and began painting outdoors.

In 1960, Rohrer and his family moved to a nineteenth-century farmhouse in Christiana, Pennsylvania, not far from his birthplace. Over the next two decades, he invented a distinctive vocabulary for capturing the spirit and sensations of this place. Painting in a studio constructed in an adjacent barn, poised between an apple orchard and a pond, Rohrer established an imaginative link between the processes of painting and the processes of farming--an homage to the traditions of his family. In his search for poetic and formal equivalents of nature and light, he joined conventions of contemporary abstraction with older traditions of American and European landscape painting.

Atmosphere, Pond, and Moon: 1974-1976

Ineffable conditions of light and fog in Lancaster and water reflections on the pond behind his studio inspired the artist's first sustained effort to work in series, resulting in his Atmosphere, Pond, and Moon paintings from 1974 through 1976. As Rohrer distilled the varied effects and experiences of nature, he first established his canvas as a luminous field of color, then developed a system of mark-making within it. His belief that Lancaster's orderly, farmed fields were the prototype for the geometric patterns of nineteenth-century quilts made in the region fueled his development of painting techniques based on metaphors of farming.

In these paintings, Rohrer prepared each canvas by painting its surface and then wiping away this original pigment layer. Residual, translucent color remained nestled in the textured weave of the canvas, heightening its character as a fabric. Reflective and matte surfaces created with different paint mediums could coexist, while the size and shape of the brushmarks generated a distinctive rhythm.

Combining drawing and painting, the series reflects Rohrer's analysis of water's reflective properties, reminiscent of Thomas Eakins's earlier studies of the Schuylkill River. The green tonalities of Moon 2 pay homage to the celebrated moonscapes of nineteenth-century American landscape painter Ralph Albert Blakelock, while the rhythms of its mark-making evoke the stitches of a quilt.

Nature Systematized: 1977-1979

In the summer of 1977 Rohrer traveled by car from Pennsylvania to Saskatchewan, Canada, where he spent six weeks as an artist-in-residence at the renowned Emma Lake Artists' Workshop. On his return, he painted according to ever more complex procedures and logic--a discipline by which his painting developed according to the incremental changes he introduced within each subsequent canvas. The pared-down, tonal delicacy of his Flying Blue Diptych, informed by his experience of the western landscape, signals the artist's interest in exploring perceptual responses to light with a mathematical rigor now guiding the mark-making, composition, and color.

Rohrer constructed his paintings by applying the individual brushstroke as a repeating module, organized in adjacent, horizontal rows. He worked according to a principle whereby each row and layer of paint possessed an inviolable integrity, and used the Fibonacci sequence--an additive numerical series recognizable in natural growth--to instill the patterns of nature in his compositions and palette. An archaeological record of individual paint layers is visible along the paintings' edges, which also reveal the carefully chosen intervals that initiate each campaign of painting across the surface.

Rohrer still alluded to the contour of a hilly landscape in Continual Shift: Winter White, but by varying the pattern and direction of brushstrokes he achieved remarkably subtle optical effects. The iridescent quality of Rohrer's paintings between 1977 and 1979 also reflects his attraction to the celadon glazes of Korean ceramics.

From Christiana to Philadelphia: 1983-1987

With his decision to move from Lancaster to the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia in 1983, Rohrer recorded in a sketchbook that his "painting attitude [had] changed." He settled into the former studio of painter Violet Oakley and relaxed his mathematical method, now initiating each painting with a layer of vigorous scribbling concealed beneath a surface of marks organized in tumultuous, swirling patterns.

In the mid-1980s Rohrer's small-scale paintings assumed importance equal to his large canvases, and provided the occasion for him to both analyze and reexamine his customary painting vocabulary. When he returned to working on an expansive scale in Variation on Equation, he translated the intimacy and detail of the small-scale works into a painting that summarizes and synthesizes the many painting languages he had developed over a decade. This consciously retrospective outlook coincided with Rohrer's regular visits to Lancaster County, where he took thousands of photographs of a single, beloved field at a bend in the Conestoga River--in the area where his ancestors settled nine generations before him. The artist's definition of his painting as an investigation of autobiographical origins finds powerful expression in the diptych Caernarvon 2, its densely encrusted surface suggesting Lancaster's rugged terrain.

Field Language Paintings: 1990-1993

Distance from everyday contact with Lancaster County provoked Rohrer to contemplate his agrarian roots even more profoundly in the 1990s, when he came to regard the landscape as a language, and himself as reader and translator. Field: Twenty Minutes in June, painted after a trip to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, announces this new direction. Rohrer further explored the concept of landscape as message bearer in his Field: Language paintings, all of which incorporate a private alphabet he developed based on sketches and photographs made during frequent return visits to Lancaster's fields. Designed to evoke a "primitive" script, these invented pictographic symbols and letters were drawn in oil stick on tracing paper, and pressed directly onto the canvas, expressing Rohrer's vision in an authentic artistic language of his own.

Leaving behind a legacy as one of the premier abstract painters to work in Pennsylvania in the twentieth century, Warren Rohrer passed away in 1995.

Warren Rohrer: Paintings 1972–1993, 2003

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