Approaching 90, Roland Petersen is one of Northern California’s most eminent artists. His career stretches back to the 1950s when he showed his work at the Oakland Museum and went on in the 1960s to show at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and M.H. deYoung museums, as well as the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento.
Born in 1926 in Endelave, Denmark, he spent his adolescent years in San Francisco. In 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war he went to Officer’s Candidates School and then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he got his B.A. and M.A. degrees in art in 1949 and 1950 respectively.
In addition to Berkeley, he studied with Hans Hoffman in Provincetown, Mass., and with the printmaker William Stanley Hayter in Paris. From Hoffman, he absorbed the “push/pull” method of abstract painting and from Hayter he learned to make richly colored viscosity etchings. A show of his early works on paper, from 1959 to 1969, at Elliott Fouts Gallery includes examples of both, as well as works that follow his transition into Bay Area Figurative Painting with the development of his famous “Picnic Series.”
The show begins with “Yolo Farm,” 1959, a gouache (opaque watercolor) painting that exemplifies the lessons he learned from Hoffman. This thick, juicy, gestural work is jotted, jabbed and spattered to form furrowed fields and stands of mustard under an animated sky.
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“Fields of Salad,” a gouache from 1962, is calmer and more orderly, the pastel-colored fields resembling a calmer, more civilized version of Wayne Thiebaud’s radical Delta landscapes.
“Yolo Field,” 1959, and “Abstract Landscape,” 1960, are gutsy examples of Abstract Expressionism, the paint laid down in visceral strokes in the former. In the latter, Petersen pits action-packed gestures with transparent passages to form a strong and active abstraction. More delicate and verging on Impressionism is “Landscape, Davis III,” 1959, with its tender, luminous color.
All of his early abstract gouaches, few of which have been seen previously, are a revelation. He painted them with joy and brio, their sheer energy delighting the eye. By 1965, in “Garden Paradise,” he begins moving toward a more orderly stance, which becomes representational in “Figure in a Garden,” 1965. Here the figure, sitting under a palm tree, is in shade and is nearly invisible, the geometry of fields and houses, bushes and trees taking precedence.
His distinctive mixture of figurative and abstract elements comes to fruition in “Spring Picnic Near Hog Island,” from 1969. Here three women stand as solitary sentries at picnic tables, each looking in a different direction at the valley landscape under shadows cast by umbrellas, the scene dissected by a diagonal shaft of shadow.
These women are mysterious guardians of the land, which is domesticated by them, yet oddly empty of human interaction. They seem to be waiting for something, searching the empty fields for signs of life.
They have appeared earlier in color viscosity etchings like “Fall Picnic,” 1963, and “Girl in Morning Light,” 1965, an irradiated image in which the figure again turns her back to the viewer. On the whole I am less fond of the viscosity prints, which seem flatter than Petersen’s gouaches, but they are marvelously well executed.
Outside the show proper, a number of figure drawings in graphite give us a look at Petersen’s handling of the nude figure. For the most part, they are studious if a bit awkward at times. There is, however, an antic humor in “Woman in Mirror,” 1969, and “Reclining Nude,” from 1969, has some of the force of a Diebenkorn figure drawing.
This is a show that any student or fan of Northern California painting should see. Petersen, who taught for 36 years at the University of California, Davis, is a seminal figure in the history of that legendary art department. This is a rare chance to see his early work.
Roland Petersen: Works on Paper, 1959-1969
- Where: Elliott Fouts Gallery, 1831 P St., Sacramento
- When: Through June 4, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
- Cost: Free
- Information: (916) 736-1429; www.efgallery.com