Highlights of the Collection: Oliveira

In this series, we look at three artists who employ the recurring motif of bodily distortion to express postwar trauma.

Nathan Oliveira, American, 1928–2010, Woman and Bicycle, 1961, print, 31 9/16 in. x 23 5/16 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Marer, Scripps College, Claremont, CA

Selected Prints (1960–1972): Woman and Bicycle, Execution, Horse and Rider

Introduction The global art scene in the post-World War II era is filled with new ideas and new forms. An influential trend is abstract expressionism developed by American painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 1950s. Represented by random paint strokes and splashes created by Pollock, the movement advocates an anti-figurative aesthetic and emphasizes intuitive motions involved in ways of creation. In the postwar era, the art world witnessed the merging of cultural elements and traditional art media. Some American and European artists absorbed elements of traditional and contemporary practices and created unique styles that combined representational and abstract approaches.

The three prints discussed in this essay by Nathan Oliveira, Connor Everts, and Marino Marini were created between the years of 1960 and 1972. The works show the artists’ shared interest in combining realism and abstraction. All use biomorphic forms to convey a sense of angst. This recurring motif of bodily distortion is often associated with postwar trauma.

The artists discussed here are active in multifaceted practices including painting and sculpting, yet printmaking has always been an important medium for all of them. On “The Education of the Artist and One Print’s Progress” (1979), Connor Everts said, “One of the marvelous qualities of printmaking is the persistence of memory…. Like a dream, the print keeps taking us back to the same crossroad for yet another chance…. Print is the art of opportunity” (qtd. in Ruby 5).

In this section of the three-part series, we will consider the work of Nathan Oliveira.

Nathan Oliveira: Woman and Bicycle
The monochromatic print Woman and Bicycle by Nathan Oliveira is set in a murky atmosphere. The most identifiable object in the scene is a tilted bicycle tire on the left. The shape of the palm of a hand—which appears disproportionally large compared to the scale of the bicycle—floats oddly on the right. The rest of the image blends into an abstract background. There is barely a hint of depth or light, and the narrative is vague. The central silhouette suggests a figure, which could be the “woman” in the title. Ink is applied thinly around the dark outline of the figure and creates a glowing effect. The brushwork on the outer edges conveys dynamic movements, while the ambiguous background suggests a sense of isolation.

Originally aspiring to become a portrait painter, Oliveira often uses the figure as a motif in abstract works. He says that the figure would appear normal but is actually “completely abnormal in its relationship to the space” (qtd. in Tooker 57). Of Portuguese descent, Oliveira grew up in the countryside. Visiting a museum for the first time as a teenager, he was struck by a Rembrandt portrait and became interested in figurative art. He was later influenced by expressionist painters such as Oskar Kokoschka, Edvard Munch, and Max Beckmann as well as European contemporaries like Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach. The idea of “discovering the figure” in Bacon’s obscure paintings was critical to Oliveira as a young artist (Martini 62). In the early 1960s, Oliveira devoted a great deal of time to life drawing as a part of a group with Frank Lobdell and Keith Boyle.

Often synthesizing the representational and the abstract, Oliveira’s practice seems highly personal compared to many artistic trends at the time. He says, “The whole pop event was sort of fun,” but the hundreds of pop paintings became “a terrible bore” (qtd. in Tooker 57); he is also concerned by the mannerisms of the abstract expressionist painters. Woman and Bicycle came from an initial stage in Oliveira’s exploration of his unique voice. The print combines figurative drawings and abstraction while emphasizing the action. It shows influences of past masters and contemporary painters, but also indicates the artist’s nonconformity in the face of prevailing trends.

As an artist with a longstanding interest in figurative representations, Oliveira sees body form as a symbolic medium. His figurative work emphasizes spirituality rather than realism. In Woman and Bicycle, there is no separation between the foreground and background, nor is there any hint of a light source. The concept of time and space thus becomes ambiguous. The spirituality in the abstraction provides viewers with a glimpse of a metaphysical imagination: the obscure form appears to be emerging from the muddy brushstrokes and glowing from within.

Through bodily forms, Oliveira explores the nature of humanity’s position in a larger, historical context, conveying an existential solitude in the wake of WWII. Looking at the image, one may ask: what does the floating hand represent? Where is the “woman” going? The answers remain undetermined. Yet what interests Oliveira is not a specific narrative but the spiritual sensations that figures placed in uncertain spaces radiate.

Oliveira’s understanding of symbolist figures has led to his use of gestural drawing as a fundamental process. He would start painting with a monotype, applying lots of gestural paint until the abstraction suggests a figuration (Cummings 31)—the emphasis on movement was influenced by action painting. Building upon concepts of abstract expressionism, Oliveira’s work takes a slightly different direction, focusing on the spirituality in figures who