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FIRST LIGHT: The Paintings of Joan Watts
Lilly Wei
DURING A CONVERSATION THIS PAST JULY in her immaculate, lightfilled studio with views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Joan Watts remarked, “I’ve been painting for 50 years and have not tired of it yet. That’s the miracle.”
Watts first became interested in painting when she was seventeen years old, but did not think of it as a serious endeavor in the beginning. She enrolled for two years as an art major at Briarcliff College, from 1957 to 1959, then went to Florence for six months, where she received private instruction while immersing herself in the masterpieces of that historic city. After Italy, she went to Florida, where she lived on the beach, enthralled by the flux of the weather, the play of light on water. It was then that she realized she wanted to paint, that painting was not merely a pastime but essential to her life. She enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1960 and earned her BFA in 1963. Going further west, she journeyed to Hawaii the next year to attend the University of Hawaii, receiving her MFA in 1966. She thought she would like to teach as well as make art and did so for more than twelve years before giving it up to concentrate uninterruptedly on her own work. In 1986, she moved to New Mexico and has been there ever since, living in the small town of Galisteo for ten years before moving to Santa Fe.
As she spoke, I thought about the quality of light in all the places she had lived and how that light had gradually seeped into her paintings until it filled them, the radiance welling up, spilling over. Light—created out of increasingly subtle modulations of color and contained within an imagined space, a virtual light trap—had become Watts’ primary subject. It has been a quiet obsession, a gradual process of selection and paring down, culminating in a signature format that consists of variations on a finely calibrated field of oscillating color structured by a linear scaffold that is at times faint, at other times more pronounced. Although Watts’ work is reductive, part of the modernist legacy and often considered minimalist, she insists it is not. Premised as it is on the immaterial and transcendent, in intention it has greater affinities to the paintings and statements of Agnes Martin, the installations of James Turrell and other artists of light and space, as well as to Buddhist teachings and the spiritual. In 1965, while in Honolulu, Watts had her first breakthrough and began to make paintings that truly engaged her. She made them in series—a systematic but not programmatic process—that resembled an ongoing inquiry and suited her so well that she continues to use it. Watts painted circles inscribed in squares for four years, a motif that is not only modernist but also Classical and Renaissance, reflecting, perhaps, her stay in Florence and Italy. Her style was hard-edged, geometric, and boldly colored. Centered in each circle was a symbol that was also hard-edged and geometric—a Maltese cross, a Star of David, a Dharma wheel—that over time changed into more personal, biomorphic emblems. As she neared the end of this sequence, Watts was applying cut-out shapes to the canvases, and her medium changed from oil to a mixture of oil and acrylic. Unfortunately, this first group was destroyed en route from Hawaii to New York, but they had been photographed and the documentation remains. Watts began another circle and square series in 1966 in New Paltz, New York, soon after joining the faculty of the State University of New York. She eliminated oil paint altogether, switching to acrylic and stretching the diameter of her circle larger—to 48 inches. She experimented with pouring, keeping the paint within the confines of the circle and savored the freedom of the process, as the paint made its own patterns, which evoked moonscapes and other cosmic topographies.
The circle was a resonant image for Watts and her response to it was spontaneous and deeply felt. In the end, it engrossed her for a total of seventeen years. While Watts did not adopt it for its symbolism, at least not consciously, she was certainly aware of its wide-ranging metaphoric and iconographical implications. Associated with fullness, harmony, and perfection, the circle simultaneously represents emptiness and nothingness—opposites that constitute a completeness. It is macroscopic—an emblem of the world and the cosmos—and intimate, an age-old symbol of female sexuality and fecundity. It also represents her personal trajectory, which tends to be circular. Her beginning will most likely be her end, but this is not to say the paintings are the same, merely that Watts, like Mondrian, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman, for instance, recognizes that repeating her chosen tropes will always yield new discoveries, new works.
In 1969, Watts eliminated the square, freeing the circle from its frame. She thought of these tondi as monochromatic or tonal colorfield paintings. Then she retired the circle motif, thinking she had exhausted it. It turned out she had not, returning to it five years later, in 1974.
In the interim, she became intrigued by process art. She started pouring polyurethane onto unrolled plastic sheets and dropped powdered pigment onto it. The reaction sealed the pigment into the plastic, resulting in paintings that almost made themselves. Watts found this exhilarating for a while but soon tired of it. Chance as the fabricator was not challenging enough for her temperament. Also, the materials were extremely toxic, though few artists at the time (one thinks of Eva Hesse and Nancy Graves) paid enough attention to the dangers of their métier or safeguarded themselves adequately.
Watts then had the idea to substitute unrolled canvas for unrolled plastic. She covered the canvas with a layer of cheesecloth, using rhoplex as the adhesive because it dried transparently. Over this, she poured earth-colored acrylics and a few other colors. She also stained the crumpled, textured surfaces, which were hung without stretchers, like hanging Asian scrolls. This series she found more satisfying because she had more control over the finished paintings. It also led her back to the circle. She became curious about the shape again, which she still found compelling, armed with these new methods and materials. Using yards of cheesecloth which she layered, Watts walked around the 48-inch and 60-inch circular canvases in a kind of ritual circumambulation, draping them with the gauzy fabric. She then covered the surface unevenly with rhoplex. During the long drying process, she adjusted and readjusted the folds of the cheesecloth until she was satisfied with the arrangement. Afterward, she poured acrylic over the gauze, stained it with sponges, then hung the tondo on the wall and painted sections of the surface with a brush for further definition. The paint and crushed cheesecloth merged into each other and the whole had a rhythmic, often spiraling movement that strongly suggested natural phenomena: water rippled by wind; spindrift; cloud formations and dissolutions.
In 1978, a disastrous fire in her studio destroyed everything in it. She was devastated, but once again slides and photographs of the work, stored elsewhere, were saved. The fire was the catalyst for yet another move, another change. She left her teaching position and moved to New York, to SoHo—then in its heyday—where she rented a loft. It was time to start again. She continued to make her poured and painted tondi, extending their diameter to 72 inches and making the colors more vivid, increasingly luminous, the centers smoothed, without visible brushwork. These appealing works suggested both an indeterminate cosmic space as well as an abstraction of the female sex. The gauze became a framing device, a threshold between the materiality of the fabric and the illusionism of paint, between the phenomenological and the spiritual.
Watts also returned to the unstretched scrolls she had made previously, scaling them to the human body (72 x 24 inches), although it was landscape they conjured up rather than the body. But she became restless, uncomfortable with the worldliness, artifice, and frenetic pace of urban living, stifled by the crowded streets, the noise and tall, illuminated buildings that blocked the sky and dimmed the stars. She decided to change her life once again. Watts moved to New Mexico and has lived there now for more than twenty years. Visiting the area often with her parents in her childhood and returning many times in later years, she was always dazzled by the light, the breathtaking vistas and boundless skies of the Southwest. She was so awed by living in her new surroundings that she did not paint for a year, as she acclimated and built herself a house and studio in Galisteo. Although she had brought an ample supply of circular stretchers with her from New York, she never made another tondo. Instead, when she began to paint again, she painted landscapes. How could she not? she asked. “Never before,” she wrote in a brief overview of her life as a painter, “had I experienced so intimately and so fully the impact of land and sky, dawn and dusk.” In that ancient, uncompromised domain of high deserts, plains, mountains, cacti, juniper, tumbleweed, of stillness, silence, solitude, and the immensities of space, the conditionality and transience of human existence must be keenly felt.
Watts approached the landscape tentatively at first, mimetically, but soon her paintings became more reductive, simplifying forms in paintings such as White Sands (1988) and Dawnwatch (1988). She contrasted the massive, uncanny shapes of the mountains with the emptiness of the sky and the shifting, crystalline light in a dialogue between the absolute and the ephemeral. These paintings were also built up in layers, the first clear acrylic applied directly by hand, to create texture and tooth. A layer of stained acrylic was added, succeeded by multiple layers of transparent oil glaze brushed and rubbed over the surface, the acrylic base still visible. The permeable surface permitted light to penetrate it and escape, reflected and refracted through many thin layers of transparent color for an effect of soft brilliance. In addition, Watts made a series of pastels—also layered—which were more improvisational and captured the tension between the passing moment and the permanence of the land with greater immediacy than the slow, carefully calculated paintings (Fig 8). Throughout the different stages of her development, she has made works on paper because she liked the directness of drawing or painting on surfaces other than canvas and because it permitted experimentation.
Transfixed by the entire region, Watts made three trips to southeastern Utah in the late 80s and early 90s which proved to be revelatory. The towering stone formations pierced by openings—the rock bridges, arches, and slot canyons—with their sharp demarcations of positive and negative space, solids and voids were important for her to see, inspiring the next series of paintings and works on paper. At this juncture, Watts rediscovered oil as a medium more suitable to the subtle tonalities of the light she was trying to depict.
Watts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 and once more altered her life in response. During her convalescence, she began to meditate, a practice that is now an integral part of her daily existence. She also redefined for herself the process of painting as a meditation in which the painting becomes the object of contemplation. She began to equate the exterior—the landscape that was pure light and infinite space—with the interior, which she said also depended upon “luminosity” and “spaciousness.” As a consequence, her landscapes, with a band representing the earth that spanned the bottom edge of the canvas, no longer needed to be anchored. Set free, as a thick impasto line, it could float anywhere within the charged colored space of the canvas, since all phenomena could float in the meditative space, reconstituting the relationship of solid to void, of earth to luminous colored air, not as a division or duality but as a seamless, harmonious whole in constant transition. Watts’ Yantra (visual meditation) series, begun in 1995, restored the square to her repertoire of forms, this time without the circle. These also contained geometric motifs but were blurred and softened, the structure almost imperceptible. Instead, a horizontal or vertical band, or sometimes both, crossed the modulated field of pale color as an aura, an emanation. During this same time Watts painted a series called Zazen (meditation in paint). It evolved into a single, encompassing painting assembled from 26-inch squares installed in a linear sequence that extended 38 feet. Each of these paintings was divided in half, the bottom darker, the top lighter in a graduated scale that met in the middle as a bright, enigmatic band. As a sequence, they formed a long horizon line which represented the infinite vastness of the universe, the oneness of earth and sky. Quartet (Channel I, II, III, IV), 2007, a group of four 24-inch squares, was similarly arranged and also bisected by a soft white line. Hai-Ga (painting haiku), 1999, was formed by a series of ten twelve-inch squares that extended nineteen feet. These small paintings were the palest of greys with a narrow, barely visible white line, as if the horizon were on the verge of vanishing and what remained was a glowing, immeasurable field of light. Watts worked on a series called Beyond in 1988 and then again in 1999. Comprised of squares, the format was chosen for its neutrality, its lack of direction, its balance. When she began to paint landscapes on first arriving in New Mexico, she used a horizontal support, a conventional landscape format, especially for panoramic views. But soon afterward, she began searching for a much less representational solution. She wanted to paint a state of mind, a state of being, something more experiential and less traditional. These paintings were barely colored, the white tinged with the barest intimation of color to evoke clear, fragile light. Like the paintings in the series that preceded it, Beyond is characterized by a narrow median horizontal line, the whitest point of the painting, and the focus of it. Soon after, Watts gave up this division in her ongoing quest for simplification, unity, and clarity.
Watts frequently works with rags rather than brushes to make her delicately nuanced surfaces. Her canvases are first prepared with several layers of gesso. She then stains the surface in a repetitive application of oil paint, rubbing the color into the ground, then taking it away. As Watts builds up the surface, the paint becomes embedded into the canvas and lines begin to emerge. The weave of the canvas is picked up, which gives the surface its incidence and suggests a sensation of space, but without gestures or traces of the hand. In 2000, Watts switched to a vertical format in a series called Open, executed in the same manner as Beyond and Hai-Ga. Nearly white, it is shadowed at the bottom and lighter as it ascends until it turns an almost pure white at the top, as if on an ultrasensitive rheostat, the movement as understated as the gentle inhalations and exhalations of breathing.
That autumn, Watts moved from Galisteo to Santa Fe. There, she designed and started to construct another house with a studio nearby. Intent on the project, she stopped painting for nearly a year for a second time, although she continually imagined the paintings she would make in this new location. Always attuned to her surroundings, she knew the move would precipitate a change in her work. The studio was completed first and she lived there while finishing the house. She wanted to return to color, and was excited by the vertical paintings she had been working on. This time, she used a 44 x 22-inch support, a 2:1 ratio, and began her Zero series, which, two years later, consisted of 40 paintings. Zero, or O, signified both void and completion, the nothing that is and the source of everything, the continuum. It also recalled her earlier tondi; now, though, it was not a shaped canvas but a symbolic title, a letter, number, and metaphor. For this grouping of elegant, splendidly hued, ever more luminous paintings—peach to rose to gold to azure along with warm and cool greys —Watts chose a heavyweight canvas with a pronounced weave which she prepared by applying several coats of gesso brushed horizontally, which left traces of the brushstrokes. To this she applied layer after layer of color in her usual manner, wiping away the paint, which forced the color into the ground. Again, there was a gradual ascension, a surge from bottom to top, from the deepest, most vivid hues to the emptiness (or fullness) of white. What remained was more noumenal than physical as the light, created from the meticulously worked fluctuation of tones, rose upward, as if illuminated from within by a small rising sun.
In the last few years, experimenting some more with formats, Watts pushed the dimensions to 72 x 24 inches, a 3:1 ratio that was the same as the hanging vertical scrolls of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Suite (2005) is a work that is composed of five of these paintings. With a six-inch interval between each panel, it measures an expansive 144 inches in width in a ratio of 1:2. The sequencing is also graded from dark to light so the last painting is the lightest in the series.
Watts now began to scale the colors vertically as well as horizontally, from dark to light, (with black added) to be read from left to right within each painting. Seeing the undulating patterns that appeared as she wiped away the paint, she incorporated them in the new work instead of erasing the marks. These “waves,” created by the movement of her hand, disturbed the surface in a way that seemed “almost radical” to Watts after years spent eradicating the subjectivity of touch. Color was again muted and veiled but had also become more varied. At times, she turned the vertical into the horizontal and hung two panels side by side, lengthwise, as a diptych that extended to the edges of peripheral vision and beyond. These suggest seascapes, skyscapes, earthscapes, with their range of glowing nocturnal blues, oranges, reds, violets, yellows, greens—the entire spectrum—the shades lightening from left to right or from bottom to top. The colors are not quite the same as colors in nature. Watts has, from the beginning, infused the real with the sense of the abstract, the conceptual, or the reverse. They are pitched to sensation and the cessation of sensation, as the viewer is enveloped by their purposeful serenity, by their palpable color and light, ending in a blaze of almost pure white. This series she called X, “for the unknown.”
Some of the newest work from 2006 is not so calm. Lurid, apocalyptic hues—black-red to blood orange to the flash of electrified yellow, the colors of a nuclear dawn or sunset, of a thermonuclear explosion—herald a change in mood once more, one that mirrors the volatile state of today’s conflicted world, as she cycles within the selfimposed but endlessly variable limits of her repertoire. Watts’ elegant serializations—with their honed formal syntax that is surprisingly sensuous—function like a mantra of hypnotic, accumulating potency, each painting an invocation of sorts, a prayer. Watts has long been involved with Buddhism and it is to the condition of attentiveness or Buddhist mindfulness that she offers her practice. For her, painting is a way of life, an uncharted journey in which she relies greatly on intuition, an endeavor that she keeps apart from the more commercial necessities of the art world. Ultimately, in Watts’ approach, painting is more fastidious and disinterested than that. It is matter-of-factly evidential yet connected to the spiritual, to creation myths and both the conscious and unconscious, to darkness that gives way to light and the tumbled forces of the universe. It depicts things seen and unseen and, at its best, is indisputably miraculous.

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