The boldness of the color juxtapositions in Paul Gruhler’s painting makes an immediate physical and emotional impression. The viewer is forced to stop and look! There is no “just walking by.” Like the Chinese brush painting that Gruhler saw as a child, there is a deep sense of presence, as if the strokes of color had just been laid on before our eyes. The “moment” is the essence. The geometry of the design seems almost secondary to the juxtaposition of the color tones, which have an immediate connectivity.
On a recent visit to Paul Gruhler’s studio in Craftsbury, I stood spellbound before his painting, “Chelsea Series #4,” composed of two large blue rectangles separated by a narrow red-orange line. I felt the resonance of the painting’s energy in my whole being; my heart and body were filled with a deep feeling of over-powering stillness. This entirely unexpected visceral response stayed with me as I visited the other paintings that Gruhler had set up along the walls. Each one was meticulously rendered in rich tones of blue, red, orange, purple. The use of the contrasting complementary colors gave each work a unique, specific energy.
The paintings have a magical quality, as if the colors are living, pulsing entities that beat in concert with the human heart, arousing an emotion within the viewer that echoes Mark Rothko’s words, “A painting is not a picture of an experience. It is an experience.” Gruhler understands this and offers us a multitude of experiences if we are willing to pause and take them in. They offer a rare existential encounter with the magic of pure color.
Gruhler is an artist who has educated himself through a passionate painting practice that has spanned 60 years. New York City itself was the school that he attended. In 1962, he set up his own art studio on 28th Street, a hotbed of artists in downtown Manhattan, and proceeded to have his first one-person show at the DeMena Gallery on East 88th Street in 1965. He was mentored and informally taught by three well-known artists: Michael Lekakis, a sculptor, and painters Harold Weston and Herb Aach, as he explored his chosen path of Geometric Abstraction.
The aspiring artist was part of this new movement, the antithesis of Abstract Expressionism that espoused gestural brushstrokes and often wildly interpretive painting. By contrast, Geometric Abstraction uses strictly regulated forms with non-objective compositions. Gruhler’s dedication to finding harmonic balance between color and form has continued to be a lifelong passion. Travels in Mexico, South America, the Far East and Europe enlarged the scope of his work which has been shown internationally.
In addition to his dedicated art practice, Gruhler has curated several important exhibits, most notably “Vermont Collections,” culled from 16 public collections, to celebrate the Helen Day Art Center’s 20th Anniversary in 2006. From 2008 through 2011, he curated “The Art of Vermont: The State Collection,” a series of exhibitions that traveled to 10 museums and art centers across Vermont. These installations were funded by the Vermont Arts Council through an National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the state of Vermont.
Gruhler’s exhibit, “Harmonics: 60 Years of Life in Art,” opening today (July 17) at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro gathers a lifetime of paintings, drawings, sculpture and paper collages. A sumptuous catalogue with an essay by Carolyn Bauer, associate curator at the Shelburne Museum, accompanies the exhibit and traces the trajectory of his development from the formative New York years through his subsequent move to Vermont in 1993, and into the present. Companion exhibits at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery and the Spotlight Gallery at the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier, and the Gallery at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin explore various periods of Gruhler’s life’s work.
This series of exhibits is a momentous exposition of the work of a master of color and form. Vermont is privileged to have Gruhler as one of its most talented and dedicated artists, and one who is committed not only to his own art practice but to supporting others as well. Here are some excerpts, in Gruhler’s own words, from a recent lively conversation.
B.A.: You refer to early experiences with ancient Chinese brush painting and porcelains. Could you share the impression they made on you as a child? Was art part of your family life? Did you study art in grammar and high school?
P.G.: My first exposure to Chinese art was at the China Institute in the 1950s in Manhattan where my family attended a fundamentalist Christian assembly. They always had an art exhibition in the room where we met. As the preaching of the elders melted into rhythm and cadence, I plunged into the intense colors and abstract forms of the ancient ink paintings and porcelains surrounding me. I became aware of the universal in art. The color and form of the ceramic objects resonated with me. The beautiful, pure color of the vases, which I later learned came from the Sung dynasty, were particularly striking.
In the third grade my teacher told me to draw trees outside. She was very upset with me when my trees were abstract forms in bright colors, the colors I use today, red, purple, and blue, in my work. This drawing was put in a book and rediscovered by my sister Carol many years later.
B.A.: Can you speak to your journey as a self-taught artist? Were there artists in your family? Was your family supportive? High school art classes? How did you meet Lekakis who became your mentor?
P.G.: No, there is no history of artists in my family, and they were not supportive of me being an artist. I did not have any art classes in high school. In the early ‘60s, I was introduced to Lekakis through a Chinese artist who had given me some paints and brushes. That is how I started painting. Initially, I was more interested in poetry but realized early on that I had no way with words.
I attended lectures at Cooper Union with Michael Lekakis, a sculptor/poet, who became a mentor and friend. He was instrumental in encouraging me to attend art events and invited me to museum openings where he introduced me to many of the contemporary artists.
Lekakis introduced me to Harold Weston at an exhibition at the Whitney Museum when it was on 54th St. He also introduced me to Alexander Calder, Ilya Bolotowsky, Barnett Newman at their openings at the Guggenheim Museum.
Michael was very philosophical and encouraged me to read the Greek philosophers. I never went to art school. I had a loft on West 28th Street in the wholesale flower district from 1962 to 1979.
The 28th Street art community was tightly knit. We were all living in lofts that were illegal. In addition to Lekakis having a studio there, Zero Mostel and Herb Kahlem were in the building across the street from mine. We all rented raw space so we had to do our own renovation. The wholesale flower market had most of the ground floor space of these buildings. The flowers started to be delivered around midnight by trailer truck. There was a lot of activity by night and day.
B.A.: What was the role of mentors in expanding your understanding and knowledge? Why Geometric Abstraction? Did you experiment with other modes of painting — i.e. styles? Oil vs. acrylic?
P.G.: My first series of paintings were small brush strokes across the canvas which were influenced by the Abstract Expressionists. By the mid ‘60s my work evolved into a more meditative place. The influence of living in New York City with its grid system of streets and the architecture that was being built at that time made me want to have a more defined relationship between the color and form.
When I was doing the small brush stroke paintings, I worked in oil, but to get the surface and reflective light I was looking for I started using acrylic paint. It was an easy transition from oil to acrylic with the biggest advantage being the quick drying of acrylic.
B.A.: What is the interface between the urban architecture that you lived in for much of your life, and the geography of your now-home state of Vermont? What brought you to leave New York City and move to Craftsbury in 1993?
P.G.: When I left NYC in 1979, it was job-related, and I moved to Oklahoma then New Hampshire before coming to Vermont in 1993. I had started working for American Airlines as a clerk at LaGuardia Airport and then took various positions in marketing. This was a conscious choice. Working for AA enabled me to travel extensively to museums and art centers in the United States and Europe.
I was able to take samples of my work which resulted in my exhibitions in Finland and other countries in Europe. I consider my travels to be a major part of my education because I went all over the world and experienced the history and art of many cultures.
I worked every day at my art whether I was traveling or in my studio. I carried a sketch book with me wherever I went. I had gone to a reading by Robert Frost in the early ‘60s. When I later learned that he was buried at the Bennington cemetery, I came up to pay homage. It was my first time in Vermont, and I also discovered Bennington College. I had several friends who had moved to Vermont, and eventually felt that it was the right place for me.
B.A.: Could you describe your working process? You say that “nothing is pre-planned,” which seems to be at odds with the strict geometric shapes that are the backbone of your work.
P.G.: I go to the studio every morning around 7, make myself an espresso, read poetry and look out at the landscape, which is a view of the Green Mountains. I have several Vermont poet-friends, among them Gregory Djanikian and Judith Chalmer.
Then, most days I do marker drawings in my sketch book. After that I start working on collages or paintings. When I am working on a painting, the form and color develop as I am working on it. I mix one color at a time to achieve the relationships between the color and form.
Originally, Herb Aach taught me how to grind pigments and make paint. Now, I use Golden Acrylic Paint and keep mixing it until I get the right color. Once the batch of color is used, I can’t reproduce it.
I work on one section of the painting at a time. I tape and seal it with gel and remove it when each form is complete, so I really don’t know what the relationships of the color and the forms will be until all the tape is removed.
B.A.: The newer works seem to have more diamond shapes — what has prompted this change?
P.G.: In 2010 I started painting sheets of paper and cutting them up to make collages but I was not able to get the flat surface I was looking for with the different adhesives and glues I was using. My friend Claire Van Vliet suggested I come to her studio to work on the collages and taught me how to dry mount them which enabled me to achieve the surface I was looking for. These collages were done with vertical and horizontal forms.
In 2018 I traveled to Sicily where I visited several Greek and Roman archaeological sites. I was captivated by mosaic floors that had diamond shapes in them. This resonated with me so when I came back to the studio I started making collages with diamond shapes in them and subsequently used them in my paintings. I keep exploring new directions.
B.A.: I see that you have curated some very important shows for the state of Vermont. It’s unusual that a working artist would take the time to do this. Could you speak to what prompted this interest?
P.G.: In 2006, Mickey Myers, who was (then) the executive director of the Helen Day Art Center, asked me to curate “Vermont Collections’’ to celebrate their 20th anniversary. I told her I wasn’t a curator, but she insisted that with my art background and knowledge, I could do the job. As I visited the 16 art institutions and universities to make my selections, I realized that the years I spent in New York looking at art served me well.
I chose one painting from the state of Vermont Art Collection, “Champlain Valley” by Thelma Appel. Many people were surprised that contemporary painting was in their collection. I proposed to David Schütz, Vermont state curator, that the people of Vermont’s art collection should travel across the state.
Subsequently, Judith Chalmer, (then) executive director of VSA Vermont, now Inclusive Arts Vermont, asked me to curate “Engage,” a traveling group juried exhibition that featured work of Vermont artists with disabilities. Part of my motivation for curating was to help Vermont artists get their work shown to a larger community.
I found curating very gratifying because I was able to include many artists from Vermont, and helped get their work into some collections which was very satisfying.
B.A.: What does it feel like to be mounting “Harmonics: 60 Years of Life in Art” at the Highland Center for the Arts, as well as subsequent shows at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery, the Central Vermont Medical Center, and the Vermont Arts Council, as well as publishing a retrospective book on your work?
P.G.: My heart is filled with gratitude for all the people that have been supportive of me over my life and with the production of this book, especially Linda Mirabile, RavenMark Design and Carolyn Bauer. It has been an amazing journey to put the experiences in my life in an amazing book and that reinforces my accomplishment as an artist.
A catalogue, “Paul Gruhler, Harmonics: 60 Years of Life in Art” is available during the exhibit at the Highland Center for the Arts: The hard cover with dust jacket is a limited edition of 100 books and includes a limited edition, signed print ($100, or soft cover with fold-in flaps ($35).