In a career spanning 40 years in Washington DC, Nan Montgomery has established a reputation as a masterful abstract painter and colorist. For the past decade or so, she has been merging representational images with her minimalist and aesthetic. The fusion of abstraction and realism has taken a new direction in her most recent work, which features large images of flowers isolated against color fields. Compositional balance and abstract formal relationships are as important as in her non-objective paintings, but now they are coupled with a subject redolent with meaning. Potent metaphors in art and literature, flowers have symbolic associations with love, death, fidelity, sacrifice, honor, marital status, divinity, devotion and the sacred. While symbolic meanings, as well as "feminine" associations of flowers, are inescapable, Montgomery's depictions of them defy easy, predictable interpretation and instead, offer tantalizing references to personal concerns as well as historical events.
The path to the artist's new subject matter not only follows a logical aesthetic progression from her artistic foundation, but also was guided by her interest in nature and response to a changing world. After studying printmaking at the Boston Museum School, Montgomery enrolled at Yale in the late '50s and began painting under the mentorship of Josef Albers. Feeling, as she put it, unable (or adverse) to competing with the prevailing gestural aggression of Abstract Expressionism, she chose, instead, to draw from her woman's "inner strength." She moved to Washington, DC as a young bride in the 60's and put her art aside, preoccupied with the demands of being a wife and new mother. By her own account, she was unaware at the time of the Washington Color School, which was emerging as a major phenomenon for the city's art. In the early '70s when her son, the youngest of her three children, reached school age, she returned to art by enrolling in a class at the Corcoran. As she recalls, she had an immediate sense of being at home in a studio again. By the late '70s. Montgomery was exhibiting her paintings at museums, galleries and arts centers throughout the Washington/Baltimore area. A show in 1986 at Osuna Gallery featured large horizontal canvases with subtly colored geometric shapes suggestive of intersecting planes with architectural interiors.
In the '90s. Montgomery shifted course, feeling, as she now acknowledges, that her exploration of geometric abstraction was starting to become somewhat stale. In a quest for new inspiration, she turned to nature, enrolling in a course offered by the US Department of Agriculture on natural history that included field trips to study plants up close with a hand lens. Back in the studio, her canvases changed from rectangular to a more self-referential square, and her images to single, centered shapes ranging from crosses and hexagons to circles. Her palette varied from intense molten reds and oranges to earth tones of brown, cream and deep indigo and violet. It was as if she were capturing the intricate forms of plant life newly revealed to her through a magnifying lens. The idea of focus and sight was further elaborated on in the series of paintings of concentric circles, some with alternating colors radiating out from the central iris-like circle, others with super imposed multi-pointed stars for the pupil.
But the eye/sight analogy did not end there, she bisected the central "iris" with a horizon, light above, darker below. The "eye" sees nature while the spectator simultaneously sees the eye and its vision..In Stella Maris (egg tempera on gessoed wood, 1994), the sea and sky are accompanied by the orb of the moon or sun, its light reflecting on the water below.
In 2000, the conceit of an "eye" from which the spectator could glimpse land and sky, gave way to larger vistas of mountains and sky, framed, as in Scoriae (2000, oil on linen), by vertical bands of thick and thin strips. As before, geometry and nature compliment each other but, at the same time, are contrasted. The stripes not only assert the autonomy of the painting surface, but also serve to compliment and anchor the pristine contours of the representational landscape elements.
The tragedy of September 11, 2001, and a dream she had not long after, inspired Montgomery to create one of her first flower paintings, Unity (2002, oil on masonite). A gladiolus with white blossoms bisects a vertical panel painted in intense cadmium red, its form surrounded by an aura of yellow light. Was it merely coincidence that a flower often used for funeral bouquets became her central motif in a work that suggests a tower and fire, fragility and loss? In Alliance (oil on linen, 2006), a gladiolus is placed slightly off center between fields of dark indigo and red balanced by a thin vertical white stripe on the right. The effect is musical, that of a somber, rhythmical cadence. In Twain (2006, oil on linen,) two calla lilies arc gracefully in a kind of pas de deux, their elegant white petals and sturdy green stems set against a Venetian red background which, on close inspection is made of small, meticulous strokes of deep purple over a red under painting. While tantalizingly reminiscent of lilies being presented to Mary by the Angel Gabriel in Renaissance annunciation paintings, the piece also stands alone pictorially with the bold simplicity of its design and the subtle gestural effect of the background.
Although control and pictorial balance are important elements in all of her work, there are flashes of both passion and abandon as well. In Violation (2002, oil on masonite), for example, a cyclamen plant, with a cluster of delicate white blossoms accented by luminous shadows of violet and blue, explodes into jagged lines that are literally cut into the cadmium red background paint conveying intense emotion (pain? anger? sanger?) at odds with the passive flowers. Tellingly, Montgomery painted this piece shortly after her daughter was treated for a brain aneurysm. Although a more obscure Christian symbol than the lily, the cyclamen was associated with the Virgin Mary's sorrow at the crucifixion. Whether the artist was aware of this connection or not, or even consciously responding to her concern for her child, the confluence of meanings is inescapable. In a recent series of paintings of cattails, undercurrents of tension and conflict have given way to a more playful, lighthearted mood, revealed as well in titles such as Scherzo (2008, oil on linen). Sturdier than delicate lilies and gladioli with solid brown cylindrical flowers and thick stems, her cattails are more masculine-looking and call to mind the outdoors, wetlands, and summer days.
In the flower paintings, Montgomery continues to explore composition and equilibrium of parts. While accurate in detail, they are isolated from an environment, simplified and executed with precision and clarity, reflecting the influence of Albers, and the "less is more" Bauhaus aesthetic. Although not active in the Washington art scene during the period of the Color School, Montgomery throughout all of her career has shown an affinity for the movements' preoccupation with color interaction and color's primacy as a structural element. This affinity is no less so in the flower paintings with their intense color field background and the delicate interplay of hues in the smallest of details of a petal or blossom. Embracing nature in these paintings was also a return to the artist's roots.
Born in Boston, but raised in rural Walpole, New Hampshire, Montgomery has, for years, divided her time between Washington and the West Alstead, New Hampshire, north of Keene in the hills of the Connecticut River Valley. The summers in New England, where she feels more in tune with nature and the cycles of life, have enriched the art she makes back home in the Washington suburbs and in her studio in a warehouse district in Mr. Rainier, Maryland. The flower paintings elegantly and provocatively distill the impulses that have guided her oeuvre through the years while also bringing the spectator to a new awareness of the structures and beauty of plant life. In these, her most recent paintings, Montgomery uses an intense, expressive palette, restrained gestural brushwork, bold abstraction; and symbolic undercurrents to reveal to her audience the symbiotic relationships of realism and abstraction and of man and nature.
Elizabeth Tebow, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History, Northern Virginia Community College
Published by Osuna Art, Kensington, Maryland, December, 2008