The Color of His Dreams

Master artist Nathan Oliveira contemplates creation, imagination and the big picture.

November/December 2002

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The Color of His Dreams

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

For more than 40 years, Nathan Oliveira has been hiking to the Dish and beyond, on the lookout for kestrels and red-tailed hawks. An emeritus professor of art and a painter of international renown, he finds plenty of inspiration for his canvases in the Stanford Foothills.

Mona, his wife of 51 years, is always at Oliveira’s side, and over the decades they’ve been joined by a tag-along retinue of children, grandsons and rottweilers. Almost anything can happen on the family forays, like the afternoon Oliveira came practically eyeball-to-brown-eyeball with a bird he’d never seen up close—a magnificent golden eagle. “It came up over a rise, not more than four feet off the ground, then flew up and down the side of the hill,” he recalls. “It was just incredible.”

That eagle’s 7-foot wingspan is on luminescent view in the Windhover project, a series Oliveira has been working on since the 1970s. Named for British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord, the artist’s small drawings of birds have morphed over the decades into six monumental oils of wings and curves that measure up to 17 feet across. “Painting actual wings just didn’t do it for me,” Oliveira says about his early efforts. “So I had to go through a period of transition, from wings to abstract images that conveyed the idea of wings without getting all trapped up in feathers. It’s really about the imagination and the inner spirit of flight.”

Some of those wing paintings are included in Nathan Oliveira, a touring retrospective exhibition of almost 70 paintings, monotypes, watercolors and sculptures. The show will be at the Palm Springs (Calif.) Desert Museum through January 5, the Orange County Museum of Art from April 15 through June 15, and the Tacoma (Wash.) Art Museum from July through November 2003.

“Like a great poet who never resorts to storytelling, there is always something intangible yet highly evocative hovering beneath the surface,” critic Julia Chiapella wrote about Oliveira’s work for the website MetroActive when the show opened at the San Jose Museum of Art in February. His human figures, she added, “are solitary creatures that abide resolutely in an uncertain world so vast it is better left to the imagination.”

Peter Selz, professor emeritus of art at UC-Berkeley and curator of the show, says many critics have commented on the mist and mystery in Oliveira’s work and find it difficult to categorize him. “They always want to say, ‘He belongs there or over there,’ but he has never belonged anywhere, which is something I really like.”

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Design, Oliveira, 73, is often grouped with the Bay Area Figurative School—alongside Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, ’44, and David Park—which in the 1950s moved away from abstract expressionism and toward paintings of figures and landscapes. After teaching at Cornell and UCLA, Oliveira accepted a tenured Stanford professorship in 1964 from art department chair Lorenz Eitner and taught painting and printmaking until his retirement in 1995.

Hank Hine, ’71, director of the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., remembers taking a printmaking course one hot summer from Oliveira, who was turning out a series of lithographs titled To Edgar Allen Poe, 1970-71. Oliveira kept his favorite Charbonnel Noir Velours ink in a refrigerator so it wouldn’t soften and ruin the crisp tones of the lithograph in the non-air-conditioned studio. Hine recalls being awakened many mornings by a predawn phone call from Oliveira, urging him to join him in the studio. Hine and his fellow students went to Oliveira’s campus home for dinners and to play with the artist’s three children, Lisa, Gina and Joe. Hine was struck by the hand-painted walls and the special lighting for each objet d’art.

Hine says he continually learned from the perspective Oliveira brought to his own work. “Nate used to describe himself in a way that seems astute as we look back historically at the late 20th century,” Hine wrote in an essay for the Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. “‘I’m not part of the avant-garde,’ he said. ‘I’m part of the garde that comes afterwards, assimilates, consolidates, refines.’”

Oliveira continued to have solo exhibitions in the United States and abroad while he was teaching, and his paintings now hang in major museums worldwide—New York, London, Melbourne, Paris, Stockholm. His oils are often distinguished by somber earth tones of mauve or ochre applied with a heavy impasto, or thick layering, while his watercolors appear to be brushed on quickly and reveal multiple washes of color.

Oliveira’s artistic achievements have won him numerous fellowships and grants—and in 1999 he received an award that was particularly meaningful to him: the degree of Commander in the Order of Infante D. Henrique, bestowed by the president of Portugal to honor those who have helped extend Portuguese culture. Oliveira grew up in the Bay Area as the only child of struggling immigrants from Portugal. In his grandmother’s apartment, where he lived with his divorced mother and his aunt, Oliveira drew typical little-boy pictures—soldiers, airplanes, men on horses. He took his first art lessons in high school, from a painter who churned out seascapes for the San Francisco tourist trade, and a chance visit to the Palace of the Legion of Honor set him on a lifelong course. Standing in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jooris de Caulcerii (1632), he decided that he, too, wanted to paint real people.

“Even today, whenever I go to New York, I go to the Frick and stand in front of the Rembrandt self-portrait there and see a human, living presence and an energy that touches me,” Oliveira says. “It’s that presence that keeps me painting.”

While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Oliveira was taken with the work of Northern European artists like Norway’s Edvard Munch—of The Scream fame—and he studied one summer with the German expressionist Max Beckmann. Critics have used the word “isolated” to describe the singular, stark, existential figures, often faceless and timeless, that Oliveira painted in those early years. But the crinkles in his smile dispel any notions of a dark and brooding artistic persona.

“It sounds pretty grim to be someone capable of painting figures in great angst,” he says, settling into a canvas director’s chair in his home studio. “I was certainly aware of German expressionism, and I had great affection for all of those painters. But I wasn’t trying to do the same thing.”

Oliveira simply wanted to paint. But it wasn’t always easy on $2.50-an-hour teaching jobs at the Richmond Art Center, at San Francisco’s Art Institute, and at his alma mater. “When Mona and I got married and had children, we weren’t making very much money,” he says. “After we’d get the bills paid, I’d say to her, ‘Well, how many tubes of paint can I get this week—one of red, or two of yellow?’”

In the mid-1950s, jazz icons Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz were blowing the lid off musical conventions—finding new sounds and beats in “what happens between the notes,” as Duke Ellington put it. In the waning days of abstract expressionism, says Oliveira, visual artists also were searching for new voices and visions. “It was a period when the act of painting was about physically moving your arm with a great deal of energy, and that act defined what the painting was going to be, and it was mostly [about] color and energy,” he recalls.

Selz, who wrote the catalog for the current exhibition (Nathan Oliveira, UC Press, 2002), has been following the artist’s career since the late 1950s. For his own debut as curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1958, Selz mounted New Images of Man, a show that challenged abstract expressionism’s dominance. In this exhibition of figurative paintings by such notables as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Oliveira, at 31, was the youngest painter included.

“Abstract expressionism was the going style then, but Oliveira’s lonely figures were painted in a new way, using vigorous brush work and finding the figure in the process of painting it,” Selz says. The author of Beyond the Mainstream (1997), a book about hard-to-categorize artists, Selz argues that Oliveira used abstract expressionism as a means and “went ahead to his own style.”

By the late 1960s, artistic journals and the popular press were touting Oliveira as an up-and-coming young artist. It was around this time that art dealer Paula Kirkeby moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast. Shortly after she opened Galerie Smith-Andersen in Palo Alto, Oliveira began dropping by to frame paintings, and one day he casually mentioned that her gallery would be a nice place to have a show. Eager to exhibit his work but assuming he’d be booked far in advance, she suggested, “Maybe a year from now?”

“‘Nothing sooner?’ Nate asked. And I said, ‘Next week?’ And suddenly we had a fabulous exhibition of his monotypes.”

Kirkeby has published catalogs of Oliveira’s works, including his 1973 series of 90 monotypes based on Goya’s 1818 etching of a bullfight gone horribly wrong, La Tauromaquia 21. Monotype, a process left over from the heyday of abstract expressionism, combines drawing, painting and printmaking. The artist paints a design on a sheet of metal or glass and then transfers it to a sheet of paper. Typically, only one print is made, but Oliveira has the kind of fine touch that allows him to produce serial compositions from the ghost of the design that remains on the plate.

“He’s really among the top two or three most brilliant practitioners of the monotype,” says Hilarie Faberman, curator of modern and contemporary art at Stanford’s Cantor Center, which owns about 40 of Oliveira’s drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures. “If anyone can conjure up secret worlds out of paper and ink, it’s Nate.”

Faberman, who joined the Stanford museum staff in 1993, says she met Oliveira in one of the first public functions she hosted on campus. “I remember having to introduce him and being totally intimidated by an artist with such a national reputation,” she recalls. “It was such a surprise to find out that he was also extremely nice.” Collectors of Oliveira’s work, Faberman adds, “feel they know him personally, and you can’t say that about all artists.”

In 1995, Faberman curated The Windhover: Recent Wing Paintings and Related Works at the Stanford Art Gallery. At the heart of the exhibition were five 15- and 17-foot oils of increasingly abstract birds and wings that suggested arcs and curves—and whatever else they evoked for visitors. “I think the curves represent the curvature of our planet, suggesting that we’re all on this great ball together,” Oliveira says. “But a painting is also a vehicle. I set it up to the degree that it gives you something recognizable to interact with, and if you’re creative, you create your own metaphor.”

Oliveira continues to work on large paintings in a 40-by-40-foot studio in the Foothills, overlooking the 18th hole of the Stanford Golf Course. He composes smaller works in his home studio, where Rindi, the family’s latest rottweiler, keeps him company. The ashes of Rindi’s predecessor, the beloved Max, rest in a box on a table overflowing with sketches and paint tubes.

The studio is a recent addition to Oliveira’s meandering California ranch house, where a Japanese front gate leads to a Mexican door opening to a hallway graced with a French provincial clock and a crucifix from Arizona. Cultural objects from China’s Han dynasty, Cambodia and Thailand are spotlighted throughout the Oliveira home, and nearly 100 masks from India, Africa, Mexico, Central America and New Guinea hang on the living room walls.

Oliveira says he plans to complete three more oils for his Windhover project, and then he’d like to see all nine paintings collected in one place, on permanent display. He once considered finding a setting for them in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico, or perhaps somewhere in California’s Napa Valley. “But then I thought, this is an idea that has grown out of the Stanford Foothills, an idea that is dealing with nature [when] this university is growing and becoming huge and more and more impersonal. And I thought, let’s have it here.”

His dreams of a chapel-like retreat on campus, where people could go to view the Windhover paintings and stay for quiet reflection, have attracted considerable alumni support, but plans are currently on hold. Oliveira’s imagination, however, continues to soar, like his favorite kestrels. “I’ve always thought if I had wings, I could fly. Well, I do have wings in my mind . . . and these paintings are like a catalyst that can take you wherever you want your mind to fly.”

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