Elephant's Tusk, Lady's Ice: John Meyer's diptychs

George Lawson
Nov 6, 2015 8:08PM

John Meyer: diptychs  May 5 to June 13, 2015

Untitled Diptych (Blue/White), 1994
George Lawson Gallery
Untitled Diptych (Black/White), 1999
George Lawson Gallery
Diptych (Lil Red), 1996
George Lawson Gallery

Bay Area painter John Meyer tragically died far too young, just as his work was starting to achieve something of an international stature and recognition, but not before garnering an inner circle of loyal collectors and a broader circle of young artists influenced by his uncompromising rigor. This exhibition is a very personal one for me because my early friendship with John was formative to my own development and my lifelong involvement, from both sides of the desk, in the art world. 

We met in 1971 when John came to California after finishing art school in Montreal on the GI Bill. I was 19 and had just started painting. One day I visited him in the one bedroom apartment he lived in with his wife in the woods of Los Altos Hills, down the peninsula from San Francisco. He had this old hutch in the living room that was covered with tubes of paint and he suggested I try my hand at a canvas. I had read this book on how to lay out your palette and was busy squeezing out a semi circle of little dabs, the primaries and the secondaries. When I got to the cadmium red I was very conservative because I knew it was expensive. John swooped in and grabbed the tube of red out of my hand and squeezed the whole thing onto the palette. Then he banged through the screen door out to the front yard and took a handful of dirt and smeared it into the red with the palm of his hand, came back in, and dumped the whole mess onto my lap. “Here,” he shouted, “Paint’s not money.”

A few years later I moved to San Francisco and John used to drive up to the city from Los Altos to visit me in my loft on 5th Street. We’d go over to Charlie Campbell’s and Paule Anglim’s galleries, and then get a hot dog at the Doggie Diner on the border of the financial district and North Beach. Often on these trips we’d make the trek out to the Legion of Honor. One day standing in front of the pair of Georges de La Tour figures, John expressed how much he’d like to have one of his paintings hanging in the museum. The next day we came back with a rolled canvas and stretcher bars tucked into his jacket, bought our tickets, and went down the stairs to the men’s room to stretch it back up. The idea was to hang his piece over the fire extinguisher box next to the case with the Roman figurines, a quick maneuver when the guard wasn’t looking. I kept watch from the lavatory door but the guard never left his post. Eventually John grew impatient and hung the painting on the coat hook in the toilet stall and we left.

Like most artists, John went through many phases with his painting in the time it took him to grow into his own: a trial with flat cubist figuration, a fixation with Giacometti, a period of sculpture in plaster and bronze. And he drew a lot. He got a job as a psychiatric technician working the night shift at a locked ward in Daly City and spent the long hours sketching the florescent-lit patients and orderlies with a fine ballpoint pen on sprocketed printer paper. He would come home in the morning with reams of studies. I had moved up to San Francisco first and started showing and John followed up from Los Altos some time later. After a stint in a loft in the old Sears building on what was then Army Street, he went in with another painter and bought an old roofing company’s garage we had found in a real estate listing, a building out on La Playa at the beach where the N Judah trolley turns around. He moved in, eventually built a spray booth in the back yard, and began experimenting with automotive lacquers. John grew obsessed with getting a perfectly smooth and blemish-free surface, eliminating any of the paint buildup known as orange peel. We went around together looking at the paint jobs on high-end cars but once acclimated to his standards, I saw that even the shiny black Rolls Royces had some imperfections. He eventually found the surface he was looking for on a primo Steinway Grand in the old piano store on Franklin where the San Francisco Jazz Center is now.

Back in his hometown of Louisville, John’s mother was terminally ill and he went back to attend to her care, fight the hospital bureaucracy, and keep his vigil. He took with him a small, un-stretched cotton duck canvas folded over into nine squares and he worked the middle square every day with a kind of circle and cross motif in white lacquer. Every day he would work it up and every day he would sand it down, tucking it away like a wallet afterwards and carrying it with him. When his mother died the painting was finished. He brought it back and showed it to me and it struck me like few paintings I’ve ever seen. That cross motif, usually in white, continued in his painting for a while, followed by a series he did on site, borrowing my old French landscape easel, working in an almost impressionistic style out in the open on the Marin Headlands. He then started to explore different sub-strata, working on stretched Kraft paper, laminated aluminum, linen and various panels, often in lacquer. What began to emerge was an approach, part conviction, part aesthetic, based simply on the work ethic. At this time John was building crates for an art handler and it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between the care and concept he put into his boxes and that he put into his paintings. 

Some time in the mid-eighties I had to temporarily give up my studio and John and I hit on the idea of doing a stint working together, painting collaboratively in his La Playa space. The experiment lasted almost a year. First we completed a commission for the State of California, a 15-foot square painting comprised of four 90-inch monochrome panels bolted together that hung for years in the lobby of the State office building at California and Kearny. When the State sold the building the new owners remodeled and were going to throw the painting away. The sculptor Ruth Azawa got wind of it and rescued the panels, donating them to SOTA (The School of the Arts). Their classrooms were on the San Francisco State University campus back then. The panels were unbolted and squeezed into a hallway where the students mistook them for a long bulletin board and stapled notices all over them. The president was very embarrassed and handed me a brass plaque with our names and the title of the painting by way of apology. 

The next collaboration involved a series of nine paintings, diptychs of 36-inch squares meant to hang an inch apart from one another. I would paint the left hand and John would paint the right panel. At first we limited ourselves to black, white and red, and later introduced green. I was working in traditional oil and dry pigment and John did many of the panels with Varathene, a commercially available polyurethane sealant, stirring in liquid automotive pigments. We exhibited a selection of these at Richard Polsky’s Acme Gallery downtown, concurrent with a two-person show of other work at Michelle Mincher’s Khiva Gallery South of Market. After these shows I reclaimed my studio and went back to my own practice and John retained the diptych motif as a dominant and recuurent one in his painting, deepening his involvement with a studied pursuit of historical processes and materials, including traditional cradle techniques and the use of arcane pigments such as lapis lazuli, arsenic and slate.

John saw no real conceptual distinction between art and craft, and held the conviction that applied effort, work itself, provided aesthetic relevance. He professed to two seemingly polarized views. One was that art could be mass-produced like plastic toys (I believe he would have approved of the phenomenal success of Jeff Koons), and the other that the artist should be directly involved, hands-on, in every aspect of the production of his work. To make a stretcher he would go to the lumberyard and buy raw planks of hardwood and mill them himself. To make his gesso he’d cook up raw ingredients from recipes dating back to the Renaissance. He cared about technique but he had no interest in the idea of talent. He believed the value of a work of art was measured by the care it was given, and hence, the crates he built to hold his paintings are collectors items in themselves

Photo by Jennah Ward

Photo by Jennah Ward

Photo by Jennah Ward

Photo by Jennah Ward

John began to reach beyond his circle in San Francisco, exhibiting in Europe, and fell in with the Radical Painting group, a movement exploring different approaches to one color painting as a solution. Painters Joseph Marioni and Marcia Hafif were quite vocal and active in this circle, extending some of the concepts behind sculptural minimalism and refining them as applicable to the painted image. John never had much interest in the philosophical underpinnings of the movement, although he appreciated the work of the artists who established its precedent, such as Donald Judd and Robert Ryman. He cared less about the effect of color than the fact of it, that a given material, lapis or lead, would hold back part of the spectrum and release part. He understood the function of painting to simply hang on the wall and be looked at. With this in mind, everything he did fell into place as a series of discrete operations undertaken with diligence and respect. He wasn’t going for any of painting’s standard formal tropes such as radiance, or tension, or space. He formed a basic aesthetic out of a sense of right and wrong, hardly artful, and predominately grounded in a sound belief that the harder you worked the more invested you were. 

Stiftung für konkrete Kunst, November 4, 1996

Prof. Serge Lemoine at the podium; front row (l-r) Dr. Gabriele Kübler, Manfred Wandel and John Meyer

(photo: Reutlinger General-Anzeiger) 

Simply put, John was just trying to get it right. What emerges from all his work is a sense of solidity, a concurrence with the humbling constraints of gravity. In a discipline such as aerospace, a series of decisions geared toward take-off lead inevitably to a launch. Conversely, a set of choices designed to anchor, to land, as is the case with concrete painting, trigger for the viewer a sense of grounded connection. This grab, this rooting, occurs in an instant, regardless of how extended over time might be the sequence of things done as they must be done in order to achieve it. Hence John recognized no hierarchy from the selection of a saw blade to cut the hardwood for his panels, to the selection of a brush to apply his colors. It was all painting.

Photo by Jennah Ward

John died in 2002. Many of his works have been unavailable to view until now. Five paintings had been in storage at Gisele Linder’s gallery in Basel, Switzerland since John’s last show there in 2001. Others are in private collections. When I was unpacking the crate from Switzerland, slowly unwrapping one remarkable diptych and then another, I had the sense of taking part in an historical moment, as if I was unpacking Rothkos. 

In the crate for a small black and white diptych that was consigned from Las Vegas collector Patrick Duffy, I found a handwritten note of John’s:

San Francisco  10.5.01

Dear Wallis & Patrick,

            I want you to have this so you will get the mis-impression

that I’m not a complete schlumph! Only a pischer.

The black is burnt elephant tusk I think the blackest black

I’ve found.

The white – blanc fix or sometimes calle[d] alabaster,

gypsum, mineral white, terra alba specular stone, spar, atlas, or

the one I like best Lady’s Ice. Plinys term for the white used

by Apelles. The white visage of a lady in moonlight.

Love ya’ guys — John

This simple dedication casts a blush over the rigor of his blackest black and whitest white. John Meyer had achieved a level of focus and resolution in these, his final works, that has only increased in relevance through the period of their dormancy, through all the changes wrought in a post-911, post-smartphone, and some would still argue post-painting world. In some way he anticipated the antidote to what has become our increasingly virtual interface with each other and with our environment. He recognized our need to stay grounded, amd he prepared the ground.

I want to express my gratitude to Paule Anglim, Gisele Linder and Tessa Wilcox for their help retrieving John’s work and archives; to Collin Lawson for help documenting the extant paintings; to Jennah Ward for her photo essay; to Victoria Belco and William Goodman, Patrick Duffy, Lynne Baer and Jay Pidto, Donna Ames-Heldfond, and Barney Ward, for loaning work to the exhibition; to Lilly Wei, Erich Franz, Gabriele Kübler, Georg Imdahl, Kenneth Baker and the late John Caldwell for the reprinting of their writing, and especially to Dr. Anna Meyer and Soheil  Soliman, the executors of John Meyer’s estate, for their support of the project. 

George Lawson

San Francisco, February 2015

George Lawson