Eileen Wells of Orient has not moved a thing on artist Mac Wells’ desk since the day he, her husband, died in 2009, at age 84.
It’s crammed with well-worn clean brushes, small plastic paint pots filled with luscious pastel colors, some sandpaper, coins and an old postcard from a Greek monastery. All these things share a space that is so well ordered that one senses the artist would know immediately if someone had moved things about.
Mr. Wells is gone, but his beautiful paintings, drawings and studies are on view in a memorial exhibition at Art Sites in Riverhead. The show, which includes many of his seldom- and never-before-seen works, runs through May 8.
Mr. Wells made abstract color paintings – the kind of art that many find perplexing because they have no figures and tell no stories. But his works are not at all difficult to understand. All you need to do is look through the window above the desk where Mr. Wells gazed at the sea and the sky.
He’d look above the roof tops through the sycamore branches — naked in winter, leafy in summer, but always tickling the sun — to the teal stretch of ocean abutting the palest blue sky. Every season blossomed a new palette, every day a different mood, every hour a shift in light. Nature does not delineate things with the order seen on Mr. Wells’ desk.
Art for Mr. Wells happened when the logic of color and light coalesced with the mercurial moods of nature. But Mr. Wells wanted both these elements to command equal attention, He did not want color to disappear within the landscape, as it does in representational painting where it becomes part of a visual illusion.
The magic of Wells’ abstraction is apparent in “La Mer,” a watercolor sketch quickly jotted down in a spiral notebook. Here bands of luscious brush strokes read as gradations of the color blue at the same time that they suggest the roll of waves toward the shore.
Born in Cleveland in 1925, Mr. Wells was raised in New Jersey by parents who encouraged his interest in art. His father was a journalist, his mother a school principal. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1948, where he studied philosophy, he came to New York and enrolled in an art program at Cooper Union.
“He made a living as did many artists back then, doing odd jobs in book stores and libraries, or finding clerical work. I met him while we were both working at the New York Public Library,” says Eileen Wells, who was at the time studying ballet and modern dance.
They married in 1953 and lived among the avant garde artists, whose digs in “Hell’s Hundred Acres” defined the far-left-of-center world of bars, lofts and galleries that were the breeding grounds for contemporary art, music, poetry and performance. Today the area is called SoHo.
Ms. Wells says her husband was never part of any single group.
“He was a shy man who started with little shows on the Lower East Side, at Aegis Gallery,” she said. He met many contemporary artists — Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Dan Flavin and Jim Rosenquist — when his wife was working as a curatorial secretary at the Museum of Modern Art.
His works are in many fine collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum. He came of age alongside these artists at a time when art was purging the globs and drips of Abstract Expressionism. This new generation of minimal, optical, hard-edge, color field and conceptual artists distilled the visual language down to its basic vocabulary: a single swiped stripe, optical color fields; all-black or all-white canvas to hone one’s sensitivities to total darkness or the serendipitous play of light and shadow on unblemished surfaces.
Paula Cooper’s Park Place Gallery — “a lively place,” according to Ms. Wells — welcomed them. Here Mr. Wells exhibited in group shows and was noticed by Larry Aldrich, founder of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. In 1966 Mr. Aldrich included him among the 37 artists he selected for the “Art in America” new talent feature. In 1967, Mr. Wells became a member of the prestigious organization American Abstract Artists.
“To be around him was like stepping into a quiet pond. He was an extremely spiritual person who made peace with himself and he educated by example,” says Greenport artist Gabriele Evertz, associate professor of art at Hunter College, New York.
Professor Evertz, a noted abstract painter, knew Mr. Wells first as his teaching assistant at Hunter, where he was a full professor, then as a colleague and, until the end of his life, as a close friend.
“He taught me to find my voice,” she said. “He took away the fear of finding your own voice.”
Because Mr. Wells practiced what he preached, he did not develop the kind of instantly recognizable signature style that makes an artist an iconic figure. His works instead slip through all the defining cracks of abstraction.
His more oblique signature engages the conversation between art as visual language and nature as spiritual essence. He understood both to be so pure, yet so complex. Thus could Mr. Wells’ paintings at times be brushy or hard-edged, opaque or transparent, solid or evanescent, mathematical or spiritual.
Two paintings in the current exhibition reveal how comfortably he shifted from the lexicon of color theory to the illusory whims of natural light.
“Sound Spectrum” suggests the spectrum of natural light that the artist most likely recorded at sunset, when the sky appears bright and red. Mr. Wells notes the sun’s descent toward the horizon in thin layers of watercolor that fade from orange to pink, until, finally, the fire of day yields to the blue-green abyss of ocean and bids good night.
A series of broad colored bands, representing the spectrum of artists’ colors, traverse this delicate wash of sea and sky, like measuring sticks gauging the harmony between the artist and Mother Nature as each of them manipulates color and light in their distinctive ways.
“Untitled” works in reverse. Here the artist starts with a red square and a series of hard-edged colored bands ranging from orange to green alongside it. But the square radiates a glowing aura of ever-more vivid red. For Mac Wells, the red square could be a setting sun.
Photographs by Raymon Elozua are featured in a separate installation at Art Sites. Mr. Elozua explores the abandoned campgrounds and bungalows in the Catskill Mountains, where city workers during the 1930s to 1950s went to escape the hot summer heat, relax and play. Mr. Elozua focuses on discarded enamelware he’s found and uses these chipped and broken kitchen relics to create abstract compositions.
Through this abstraction the artist distills the memory of those who enjoyed the simple pleasures of a bygone time.
His work can also be seen through May 8.