Thelma Appel: Observed/Abstract

October 4, 2019 - February 9, 2020

Observed/Abstract surveys the career of painter Thelma Appel, a founder of the Bennington College Painters Workshop. During the 1960s and 1970s, Appel painted large landscapes imbued with the energy and color of Vermont’s fields and forests. Her thick brushstrokes and lavish colors running edge to edge throughout the picture plane create a shimmering atmospheric quality that captures the way light interacts with form, alternately substantiating and dissolving it.

After 9/11 and a series of natural disasters, Appel’s imagery shifted from pastoral to apocalyptic. Looming cityscapes explode; mountains burn; hordes of people flee on roads winding through a vast rocky landscape. The vantage point has changed, too. Whereas Appel’s earlier landscapes immerse the viewer in their subject, the later ones place the viewer at a distance.

Appel’s tarot cards seamlessly combine contemporary imagery with elements ranging from antiquity to art deco, and they serve as a bridge to her recent paintings of the cosmos—vibrantly colored and patterned canvases, informed by satellite imagery, brimming with the energy of the primordial stew and the wonder of our place in the universe.

— Mara Williams, Chief Curator

After emigrating from England to Bennington, Vermont, in the late 1960s, I became interested in landscape painting, inspired by the Vermont countryside and the vast expanses of the American West. I wanted to create a sense of visual participation, as if the viewer were engulfed in the middle of a landscape experience rather than viewing a carefully framed composition through a window. I was interested in the patterns formed by light cast on organic forms in the landscape, and I tried to convey, through overlapping strokes of color, a sense of physical connection with the contours of nature.

In my later paintings, I no longer observed the landscape so much as felt it emotionally. For example, it became a menacing background for imagined catastrophic events based on reality, or informed by my own experience of the September 11 terrorist attacks, during which I lived in lower Manhattan.

As I was working through these ideas, I began a series of narrative paintings based upon the 22 major arcana of the tarot, with each card representing an important milestone of human experience. In this series I composed the archetypal figures to illustrate an allegorical narrative, with nature abstracted to convey a mood or illustrate an experience—a menacing, hostile presence in some cards but light and harmonious in others. For example, in the ancient tarot, the Hierophant is a generic Pope-like figure with the power to unlock the secrets of the universe. I depict the Hierophant as a specific personage—Albert Einstein, the modern scientist whose theoretical analysis helps unlock the vast secrets of the cosmos.

My tarot images became the beginning of a new series in which I explored my feelings about time and endless space, transcendence and inner joy, while depicting cosmic phenomena. Here, nature is no longer earthbound but is in a constant state of entropy, disintegration, and re-creation.

For me there exists a continuing visual cycle between the past, present, and future. It is poignant and fitting that my work now returns to Vermont, where I first became a serious landscape painter.

— Thelma Appel