Harold Gregor: Painting Landscapes

This article by Christine Proskow first appeared in the October 2006 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

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Illinois Flatscape #94 (acrylic, 29×41) by Harold Gregor

For more than 30 years, Harold Gregor has not only been painting landscapes but has also dynamically explored the implications and impact of pictorial space in terms of his complex and enduring subject.

Captivated by the beauty and energy of the agrarian Midwest, where he lives, Gregor interprets the land in four distinct yet “mutually reinforcing” directions. These series include his realist, panoramic and “window space” Illinois Landscapes; the color-modified, aerial-view Flatscapes; his more intimate, gesture-informed Trail Paintings; and a recent development, Vibrascapes—imagined landscapes that feature sinuous lines and titles descriptive of elemental forces.

With the exception of Vibrascapes, these approaches, Gregor says, “derive from my observations when driving by, flying over or walking on the prairie.” His images thus make accessible new ways of perceiving the land. As Kevin Sharp, Director of Visual Arts at the Mitchell Museum, observes, “Gregor’s paintings are less about farming than they are explorations into the nature of viewing—the way we experience the landscape and understand representations of it.”

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Osage Morning Air (watercolor, 9×12) by Harold Gregor from Vibrascape Series

A Multitude of Influences

Harold Laurence Gregor, an identical twin, was born in Detroit in 1929 to Scottish
immigrants. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood during the Great Depression, he recalls lean times as his father kept the family of five afloat, working as a steamfitter for the Ford Motor Company. One benefit of the times was Children’s House—the Mrs. Henry Ford-sponsored Saturday art program open to artistically promising students. Gregor and his twin brother, Norman, enjoyed practicing art at the lavishly supplied house from 1939 to 1943. “It was like paradise,” he remarks. He found additional inspiration in his godfather, Laurence Andrews, a successful commercial illustrator in the auto industry, and later in his acquaintance with Detroit-based Surrealist Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-2000).

After earning his undergraduate degree in art education at Wayne State University in Detroit, Gregor enrolled in the master of science degree program at Michigan State University in 1952. He studied both ceramics and painting, though painting, his true passion, would prevail.

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Illinois Flatscape #86 (acrylic, 39×53) by Harold Gregor

In classes with Charles Pollock, Jackson Pollock’s older brother, the students listened while portions of the famous Abstract Expressionist’s personal letters were read. “Pollock (1912-1956) had just done his famous Blue Poles painting, which I later saw at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s a powerful piece that affected me greatly,” says Gregor. “In his letters Pollock agonized about ‘where do I go from here?’ We all followed his progress; we all dripped and painted with Duco lacquer. It was exciting being in that kind of inclusive space, feeling connected.”

Trying Everything

For Gregor, staying connected also meant keeping up with the Manhattan gallery scene where, in the ’50s, the Abstract Expressionists were going full-throttle. After surveying the latest exhibits and art, Gregor would go home to paint, “trying everything.” After visiting New York City for the first time in 1949, he returned in 1953, just before leaving for Germany for a two-year U.S. Army tour of duty toward the end of the Korean War. During a subsequent visit to the city, he would stay a stone’s throw away from Willem de Kooning’s studio, and catch glimpses of other art icons, including Franz Kline and Helen Frankenthaler. Upon honorable discharge from the army, Gregor returned to Detroit to work for two years as a clay modeler for the Chrysler Corporation.

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Illinois Landscape #182 (acrylic,60×82) from Trail Painting Series, by Harold Gregor

In 1957 he began his doctoral studies in studio art and art history at Ohio State University. It was in Professor Hoyt L. Sherman’s unusual yet effective “flash lab” at Ohio State that Gregor developed what he calls “art eyes.” Based on Sherman’s discoveries in the psychology of perception, the professor would, Gregor explains, “for one hour, five days a week, for 12 weeks, flash slides for one-tenth of a second on screens in the dark. While still in darkness, we then had to capture that pattern onto the paper in front of us with a piece of chalk.”

Through repeated practice, Sherman’s technique prompted an enhanced perception/motor response in the students. “Over time, our efforts truly became drawings, and our different styles emerged. I learned how to ‘feel’ pictorial space—and that opened up the world of art for me.” Sherman next moved onto teaching the concept of color-formed space, in which space is defined not by line but by color. Gregor’s subsequent in-depth studies of this approach, including the color theories of Hans Hofmann, led him to use its methods in his Flatscapes and Colorscapes (watercolor versions of his Flatscapes) of today.

Sojourn in California

After completing his dissertation in 1960, Gregor accepted a teaching position in Southern California. For the remaining decade, he explored the dominant styles of the 1960s—geometric abstraction, pop art, minimalism and conceptual art—but he “never felt beholden to any of them. I decided to return to the basics,” he says.

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Illinois Landscape #189 (acrylic, 50×66) from Vibrascape Series

He began painting landscapes en plein air in watercolor while in California. That was preparation enough; when he moved to central Illinois in 1970 to teach at Illinois State University—a position he held for 25 years—he says he was “ready to see the landscape in terms of painting. I knew how to do realism; I was just ashamed of it.” Receiving additional encouragement from Photorealist Ralph Goings, Gregor started to paint large-scale (5×5½-foot) photorealistic images, in oil and acrylic, of the Midwest’s white, stalwart corncribs—a form of vernacular architecture now almost obsolete. A $1,000 purchase award from the Evansville Mid-States Exhibition in Indiana enabled him to make contact with Ivan Karp, Director of OK Harris, a prominent New York City gallery. Soon Gregor was exhibiting at a Harris affiliate, Hundred Acres Gallery in New York City, and being nationally lauded as a first-wave American Photorealist. Of that group, he stood out for his rural subject matter.

The precision-rendered, corncrib paintings, based on a neutral palette and straightforward, close-cropped design, were far removed from the artist’s earlier high-color, gesture-derived work. While Gregor had at last found his subject in the rural landscape, he missed the component of color and a more personalized brushwork. In 1973 he was ready to synthesize his various styles, studies and experiences into two new and sustaining directions: his Illinois Landscapes and Flatscapes.

Bringing New Life to the Prairie

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Illinois Landscape #191 (oil and acrylic, 18×90) by Harold Gregor

The flat Midwestern landscape, relieved only by minor surface ripples and occasional stands of oak or maple trees, stretches out for miles in unconcealed measure. Dismissed by earlier artists as uninteresting, the prairie appeared to Gregor as untapped artistic potential. “The day I landed in the Midwest in May of 1970 for my interview, I was very impressed. I looked around and was astounded by the clarity of the land—its big, flat sweep,” he says.

At the time, he was also studying the mid-19th-century American Luminist painters. “As a way of portraying the landscape, the Luminist work is very beautiful, though quite romantic. Artists like Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865) and John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872) were a strong influence.” Unlike the Luminists, Gregor carefully avoids sentimentality in his Landscapes. He focuses instead on depicting the details of the scene, including acres of plentiful crops and portions of the now nearly extinguished prairie under crisp light, “without doing a disservice to the land.” Looking again to the 19th-century and earlier artists, he uses a wet-into-wet glazing technique, often painting in small daubs, to achieve a sense of depth and nuanced color on canvas. Gregor, however, uses Liquitex gloss medium and Liquitex acrylic paints (often applying up to nine layers) to glaze the ground areas; the sky is always rubbed in with oils—either Weber Permalba, Gamblin, Winsor & Newton or Grumbacher oil paints. “When I get to where the oil and acrylic meet, I sand both edges to eliminate the seam,” he says.

Painting Landscapes in Panoramic Formats

Gregor’s large-scale (5×7-foot) Landscapes were initially painted in the traditional 3:5-proportioned, rectangular format—what he terms “window-space” paintings. In the late ’80s he began to experiment with a 1:5-ratio, panoramic format. “Pieter Breughel (c. 1525-1569) first came up with that ‘cavalier perspective.’ Instead of focal points, the spatial emphasis is realized as a series of gatherings,” he says.

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Illinois Landscape #183 (oil and acrylic, 18×90) by Harold Gregor

Indeed, in viewing Gregor’s panoramas , one can easily ‘enter’ the painting from either the left or right side, or at any point in between (see Illinois Landscape #191 (scroll up) and Illinois Landscape #183 (above). This rarely used format meets the artist’s goal to create landscape painting that is “of our time and perhaps even beyond our time,” for the panorama equates to the way most people today see the farmland: sweeping past it in a car.

By maintaining a contemporary relevancy, art, Gregor believes, can be of “insightful consequence”; it can assist with positive ends: in this case, the opportunity to see the Heartland landscape beyond merely its corn-yielding function. “My hope is that in looking at my realist paintings, one gives them an aesthetic legitimacy, which in turn allows the landscape to be seen as aesthetically beautiful. Anything enjoyed aesthetically gains in value. I wish that my efforts might promote an awareness of our place in the larger harmonic natural order.”

Pushing Color and Perspective

In Gregor’s Flatscapes (painted in acrylic) and Colorscapes (watercolor versions of the Flatscapes), harmonic order refers primarily to the placement of color. Without question, the Flatscapes’ stunning color arrangements demonstrate the artist’s excitement in painting with intense, kaleidoscopic hues, of which he is a master.

Yet in 1973, Gregor, who had drained almost all color from his painting to render a faithful Photorealist style, was in search of a means to reintroduce this potent element when painting landscapes. He would find the key he was looking for on a large cornmeal bag: a flat-patterned, four-color, silk-screened image depicting the aerial view of a farm.

Gregor quickly realized that the flattened aerial perspective, with no horizon line, gave the farm buildings just enough descriptive coherence to make them identifiable. Even more important, this perspective helped the colors in the image to emerge. He had discovered his platform onto which he could shape pictorial space by use of abstracted color (color-formed space), while retaining reasonable three-dimensional description. “I reproduced the silk-screened image as a 5½ x5-foot painting. From there, I kept experimenting. By the time I reached painting #16, I brought in shadows, and now I’m up to #99,” he says.

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Illinois Flatscape #94 (acrylic, 29×41) by Harold Gregor

In Illinois Flatscape #94 (above; acrylic, 29×41), furrowed fields, sectioned in blocks, are woven in complex chords of red, orange and yellow. They surround a bright cadmium-yellow farmstead broken up by solid blue, red and orange roofs. Cooling comes in the form of long, violet shadows cast by a late afternoon sun. This chromatic array is dazzling and complete, yet also perfectly orchestrated.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Gregor, who annually hires a pilot and a four-seater Cessna 180 to photograph sky-views of farmsteads, likens developing color-formed space to a game of strategy. “When I paint Flatscapes, I think, If I put this red here, then what happens? It’s like chess; it’s a matter of thinking a few steps ahead because each addition of color alters all the color relationships,” he says. After drawing his composition onto the canvas in pencil, he selects a color to begin with and continues from there. “I try not to push the painting toward a prescribed end but allow it to lead me.”

Visionary Landscapes

Of Gregor’s four approaches to painting landscapes, his Trail Paintings and Vibrascapes are produced as smaller, more intimate pieces. They also originate as watercolor creations and therefore demonstrate a more immediate response to the landscape.

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Illinois Landscape #185 (acrylic, 60×82) from Trail Painting Series

The Trail Paintings (see example, above) are inspired by Gregor’s walks along a local woodland trail. “When I retired in 1995, I wanted to broaden my oeuvre to include some things I didn’t have time to try when I was teaching,” he says. These paintings sparkle with lively, confident brushwork and vibrant color.

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Unusual Morning at the Lake (watercolor, 18×24) from Vibrascape Series

Gregor’s Vibrascapes (see Unusual Morning at the Lake, above; Osage Morning Air, scroll up; and Illinois Landscape #189, scroll up) evolved, less desirably, out of an injury to his right wrist while he was climbing a cliff in Italy in 2004. Denied use of his dominant/painting hand, Gregor started painting landscapes with his left hand. Purely imagined and disclosing magical titles and swirling designs, these pieces portray nature’s elemental forces. “I see them as a synthesis of all my other work. It’s a kind of made-up realism, like having the Trail Paintings and Flatscapes together.”
Since arriving in central Illinois more than 30 years ago, Gregor has embraced the land with a sense of discovery and vision—and a feeling for its profuse energy, expansiveness and joy. Through his positive portrayals of the Midwestern prairie, he has deepened our appreciation of and relationship to this distinctive landscape.

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