WHITE CAPE CODS, OIL, 12 X 16.
Suppose you had a painting on the wall just above the TV, and the painting and the TV screen were roughly the same size. You watch the TV for years, and year after year you see that painting, too. Yet even after a long time, the painting on the wall remains as interesting as anything you see on television. That’s the kind of painting that Santa Fe artist Tom Berg aspires to paint. And you have to give him credit for being ambitious.
Berg has thought deeply about what makes a painting interesting. Early in his career he painted what he describes as “plein-air observational landscapes,” but he stopped doing that for the most part in the late 1970s. “My biggest problem with landscape is that I had no particular interest in it,” he explains. “I wanted to make simple paintings, to isolate and investigate what I find truly interesting. That would be a painting in which you could continuously discover new things.” So what does Berg find sufficiently interesting to paint? Chairs.
Berg did a series of chair paintings early in his career and liked them, though at the time he never imagined chairs would become the visual lodestone for his work. Now he has been painting pictures of chairs for 30 years. Wing-back chairs, plastic lawn chairs, folding chairs, sling-back chairs, chairs with Indian blankets covering them. It’s possible he’s never met a chair he wouldn’t be willing to paint. He sometimes paints other subjects—pears, old telephones, tools, and household objects. But for reasons that say everything about his artistic purpose, chairs are his ideal subject matter. As objects to contemplate, they offer a multitude of shapes, textures, and settings.
Berg likes painting chairs because they are a way of circumventing the whole content problem. “I’m not sure who said this,” says Berg, “but I think it was Renoir: ‘It’s impossible for an artist to make a picture without content.’” Berg paints chair after chair because it is the simplest way to key his viewer to the idea that it’s not the image itself that’s the content; the real content is paint, painting, and seeing. As art critic Tom Collins points out, Berg’s paintings are “correctly but inaccurately” called chair paintings.
Berg’s intellectual influences as a young painter were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, giants who brought American painting out of abstract expressionism and back into representation without returning to the traditional realism that had been dismantled in the early 20th century. Johns famously painted canvases of flags that were “correctly but inaccurately” called flag paintings. But Berg’s sensibility is more communicative by intention; he doesn’t use symbols as his subjects, but instead uses things with which people have daily interaction. People eat pears, talk on telephones, sit in chairs.
Berg’s painting SLING CHAIR PAIR is a particularly good example. At first, the painting appears to be a near-minimalist treatment of two chairs that could appear in a dictionary next to the entry for “sling-back chairs.” Yet the painting also shows how representational and abstract impulses balance themselves in Berg’s work. As a purely abstract work, it is beautifully composed, with the two geometric shapes set against a large dark square area with a slightly smaller rectangular white one next to it. Underneath the chairs, the wavy grouting of the stone patio makes for pleasant curvilinear abstraction that announces a snazzily modern, shallow space. Next to that is a triangle of lawn, cheeky grass painted in fluid impressionistic brushstrokes. The chairs themselves are a cool lavender that makes them seem fresh white.
BIG PHONE, OIL, 30 X 22.
The interesting thing about the painting is just how effectively the chairs work—and that there are so many reasons why this is true. With chairs as the “content” of his paintings, Berg can play out any number of abstract tensions among aspects of color, texture, dimension, and composition, with insight into the patterns and physiology of seeing built in, as well whatever visual comment on painting traditions he wishes to make. And on top of all that he creates a deeper, more human level of emotion, one that chairs, by their very nature, invoke. Chairs exist for people to sit in; their shape echoes the human body. “My original interest was in their geometry and their many textures. But it’s the emotional component that keeps me going back to them,” he says.
Chairs are so closely connected to people that paintings of chairs seem a little like portraits. A big, stuffed armchair or folding kitchen chair each come with a completely different context. Their shapes spark memory and sensory experience. You know that sling-back chairs are the stuff of lazy summer days, hissing sprinklers, and novels without redeeming social value. You know what it feels like to sit in a sling-back chair, and to get out of one. And when you see two sling-back chairs placed side by side the effect is situational: Are they an invitation for you and someone else to sit down? Or are the empty chairs the evidence of two absences?
Berg says he never saw a real painting until he went to college. Raised mostly in Wyoming by parents whose families went back several generations in the Dakotas, he grew up in an atmosphere of “practical, pragmatic Norwegian mentality.” But once he started painting, nothing else seemed as interesting. He met Donna, the girl he would marry, when he was still in college at the University of Wyoming. Together they planned out their future. He would work toward two graduate art degrees and then teach in eastern cities while she earned a degree in library science. At age 30, he would stop teaching and just paint. They figured it would be about 10 years before his painting career matured.
“I knew a lot about art and about painting, but you don’t really know anything until you do a lot of it. You have to do a few hundred bad paintings first. And you have to have a lot of willpower not to get discouraged,” says Berg. “I felt I needed to systematically teach myself to paint, starting with bad paintings and working forward.”
Berg went back to Wyoming to paint his bad paintings. At a point well after he’d started painting good ones, during the period he was doing “observational landscapes,” he grew tired of winter plein-air painting and looked around, wondering, “What can I paint indoors?” He spied “some of those cheesy aluminum lawn chairs” on the porch of the house where he and Donna lived in Laramie. He brought them inside, hung them on a wall, put a spotlight on the wall next to them for dramatic illumination, and did a series of paintings. He liked the paintings and they sold. In 1980, Donna accepted a job that took them to Santa Fe, where he was soon represented by a solid gallery where his paintings sold well, especially his chairs. When Berg turned 40 he found himself just where he’d hoped he would be when he devoted himself to painting. These days, some 20-plus years later, he paints in a studio next to his mountain-style adobe house, just a short distance north of Santa Fe.
Having taught university-level art, and being naturally drawn to the idea side of art, Berg can readily articulate how any given painting works for him. You might think that if he were to choose a painting to talk about for the purpose of exploring what makes a painting great, it would be, if not a Johns, Rauschenberg, or Joseph Beuys (another artist he favors), then perhaps a David Hockney (who painted a mean chair, himself). But Berg chooses a painting by Édouard Manet, and not one of the portraits or interiors that easily comes to mind.
“The painting that has affected me most is Manet’s PIETA,” says Berg. “It takes the entire Renaissance approach to painting and puts it in a totally modern context. The motives of Manet’s painting have nothing to do with the religious subject matter. It’s not informed by religious faith, but rather by psychological doubt and skepticism. And there are parts of the painting—a hand, for instance—that are just a smear. Manet declared that it wasn’t necessary to finish everything. The artist’s primary concern is not the ‘subject,’ but the painting.” Berg is in full agreement and is awed by the sheer courage Manet showed when he painted this masterpiece. Berg himself, though, might just have painted the chair hidden beneath the draping folds of the robe.
He is represented by Victoria Price Art & Design, Santa Fe, NM; Wade Wilson Art, Houston, TX; Hidell Brooks Gallery, Charlotte, NC; www.tombergpaintings.com.
Featured in October 2008