Shining a Light on John Meyer, a Key Figure in the Monochromatic Radical Painting Movement

The American Southwest has famously inspired artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Agnes Martin. In the 1990s, Santa Fe played host to a lesser-known group of artists and gallerists from the West Coast, the East Coast, and abroad. Together, they pioneered a movement now known as monochromatic radical painting.

These days, one San Francisco gallerist is particularly invested in showcasing work from that overlooked movement. At his eponymous gallery, George Lawson is currently organizing a group show set to feature works from 13 of the movement’s primary artists, including the late John Meyer.

Lawson met Meyer, a native of Louisville, in 1971, when the latter was a young painter living in California. Years before Meyer refined his signature style and exhibited work in Europe, Lawson saw his friend through the early phases of his artistic trajectory: “a trial with flat cubist figuration, a fixation with Giacometti, a period of sculpture in plaster and bronze,” Lawson has said.

Decades later, when his practice intertwined with those of like-minded painters in New Mexico, Meyer became known in the radical artistic circle for his elegant monochrome panels, often arranged into diptychs. The pieces are elegant and almost aggressively simple—at least on first impression.

In a 2015 article, the San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime (and recently retired) art critic Kenneth Baker conceded that Meyer’s works can be challenging. “Meyer’s paintings frustrate description in any other than technical terms and so tend to polarize opinion,” he wrote. “Many people have little tolerance for artworks that resist viewers’ projections of narrative or emotion onto them, as Meyer’s do.”

But, if you’re patient, there’s much to observe and appreciate, from Meyer’s masterful use of color to the play of natural light on the paintings’ radiant surfaces. The lively hues were often derived from his use of egg tempera or casein paint atop custom-made wood supports, which the artist built by hand for his later works.

Though the radical painting movement has enjoyed broader recognition in Europe, the loose group of artists has not received quite as much attention in the States, particularly on the West Coast. But Lawson—originally a painter himself—is determined to shine a light on radical painting by acquiring and exhibiting monochrome works that, until recently, were either privately held or kept in storage.

As the artist and curator DeWitt Cheng wrote, Meyer’s work calls for “a slow-art ‘appreciation of silence.’ ” Slowing down is indeed an appealing prospect, one soon to be afforded: Lawson’s group show, “Radical,” goes on view this September, giving Meyer and the movement the spotlight they deserve.


—Bridget Gleeson


See more artists from George Lawson Gallery on Artsy.