The more one looks, the more mysterious the success of Welliver’s method becomes–and the larger the claims one can make for his extraordinary effort. Once Balthus died, Welliver became for me the greatest living painter. Balthus’s work was characteristically European, looking to the past for its validation. By contrast Welliver’s painting is quintessentially American, truculently present and urgently fresh. In spite of the amusing moment when Fairfield Porter entered Welliver’s studio and, looking at an image in progress from the top down, exclaimed, You can’t do that!, the underlying implied question was: how did he do that? How did he get it right from the first stroke to the last, without revision, in such a way that myriad precise conditions of light are accurately and freshly described? The luminosity in the best Wellivers extends our understanding of the specifics of light, the pleasures of light, the poetry of light, beyond what any other painter has done since the late Monet. He makes even some of the best Monets look cottony, sentimental and inarticulate.
Welliver’s art of course depends upon and extends the achievements of action painting, and looks, if not ahead to the future of art–no one can predict what that will be–at least ahead to the looming primacy of ecological challenges impossible to ignore. If only because of his dogged commitment to his particular motif, Welliver is a painter of both global and historical import.
This global significance is deepened by putting his work in the largest possible context, the evolutionary context. Hundreds of millions of years ago, there was no such thing as the capacity for sight in the universe, or at least in this particular part of our galaxy. The organ we call an eye, which we take so much for granted, did not exist as part of any life-form’s sentience. Over slow-passing eons, the process of evolution evoked a particular creativity in life-forms which resulted in the miraculous phenomenon of sight. This suggests that the role of the artist is an integral part of the ongoing evolution of the universe. In humans, the universe flowers forth in the particular form of conscious self-awareness. By uncovering connections and depths in the universe of which we were unaware, the artist extends the consciousness of the species. People experience colors and lights they never saw before as a result of Welliver’s conquest of new visual territory.
There is also the issue of art itself, highly-wrought design as we find it in the work of Piero or Vermeer or Velasquez or Cezanne.
Precisely because he made the fabrication of a visually compelling synthetic image look easy, people could and did dismiss the depth of Welliver’s achievement. The subtle but clear difference between the small studies done from nature and the larger pieces derived from them is instructive. The freshness is not just preserved from small to large; it is amplified while at the same time it is distilled; in short it moves toward the condition of what the poet Wallace Stevens called a ‘supreme fiction.’
Stevens broke his poetic paradigm into four parts, an aesthetic which applies to painting as well. A work of art or a poem must change, it must give pleasure, it must be abstract, and it must be human. Welliver’s work rises perfectly to this high standard. Moments of change are everywhere in the work. The inexorable movement of light, wind, water, snow, time itself, all are caught and condensed into stillness. And are these abstract paintings? Of course they are, with the subtle divorce from and synthetic completion of reality which marks the greatest art. As for pleasure, no artist has bequeathed it more generously, pleasure in looking at color becoming light, pleasure of rich painterly surfaces in tension with amplitude and depth real enough to dive into.
Finally, Stevens asserted that the greatest poetry must be human. Here we may recall Welliver’s bemused indignation at people who thought that there was something inhuman about his images of unpopulated nature. He assumed we would surely understand that a human was present in all the paintings because a human, a remarkable man, had painted them.