oil on linen, 60 x 60"
Long Ago and Far Away, 2005
oil on linen, 60 x 60"
oil on linen, 72 x 72"
Intersection II, 2016
oil on linen, 60 x 48"
Intersection IV, 2017
oil on linen, 48 x 48"
Softly Speaking, 2007
oil on linen, 60 x 48"
Dissection II, 2017
oil on wood, 20 x 20"
Previously committed to pure abstraction recently I have introduced realistic imagery into my paintings. Through the study and exploration of Nature, its form, structure and life - giving energy, I strive for a balance between abstraction and realism. Using metaphor as a means to convey loss, reverence or portent, the marriage of abstraction and realism become a means to portray a dichotomy between man and the natural world.
- Nan Montgomery
Nan Montgomery's Flower Paintings: Nature, Metaphor and Life
by Elizabeth Tebow
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.
Stella Maris, 1994
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
by Jean Lawlor Cohen
Strangely enough, Nan Montgomery's paintings of bold geometry come out of a northeast D.C. studio that evokes a Renaissance master's atelier. Lofty and, in many months, chilled, it holds linen canvases brushed with the elegance of centuries-old media—oil, a career-long preference, and egg tempera, concocted by her hand from purified water, raw egg yolk and powdered pigment. Works in progress lie flat or lean at arm's length; finished ones, some at clerestory height, track across walls. Rows of paint tubes, crumpled to random shapes, form lines atop a broad counter. Within apparent disorder, one finds order—evidence of regimen in the pursuit of new directions.
Montgomery recounts an early turning point in her artistic self-discovery. Frustrated as many were by the seductive grip of Abstract Expressionism, she questioned the nature of her own brushwork. An artist/comrade/teacher, who had watched her art evolve, noted a duality in it that has factored and intrigued ever since—simultaneous gentleness and aggression.
Acknowledging this deep-seated opposition may well provide a way into the new paintings. Past works ranged across apparent extremes—systematic, symmetrical matrices for many years, then canvases that alluded to landscape or were embedded with botanical portraits of lilies or gladioli on surreal stems. All seemed to emerge from a shifting, short-term disenchantment with abstraction and a briefer, no less passionate affair with realism.
But now an accommodation prevails, as if the painter has negotiated a temporary truce between impulses. Hard-edge blocks and stripes advance across dark or light grounds, ensuring a stability that holds until the peripheral insertion of a softer, textured vertical. Indigo, for years her darkest, near-black signature color, still appears but, at times now, co-exists with a new velvety black. Early, outright, heraldic encounters seem to have given way to more contemplative engagement.
By calling a new oils series "Intersections," the artist, no doubt unconsciously, leads some viewers to see the works as aerial perspectives. Such an unintended reading also happens with cruciform shapes often laid down at canvas center. Yet Montgomery has always denied religious allusion in the cross, employing it instead for its directional power. Indeed she credits the symbol to indigenous people of North America who also see it as an image of life path choices. She achieves that surface energy as well with the abutting rectangles, each axis propelling a subliminal charge beyond the painting's edge.
Even as Montgomery moves among the forms inherited from her own past, she allows intuition to control her hand. Proof of a self-assured vision comes when, without hesitation, she refers to her thin, attenuated forms as "zips." That syllable, an unavoidable evocation of Barnett Newman, describes the hovering element that suggests itself to her after a painting is fully underway. Within her crucial moment-to-moment process, the "zip" serves as a finish, a surprise that rocks her own (and our) expectation.
"Dialogues," eight new, small egg tempura panels, each a square, features either a triangular form or a circle. For her these represent "eternal shapes." Within each composition, a mirror-image symmetry rules, but surprising colors—pale and acid yellows, dark purple and rust—push and pull the eye across the sequence. She explains her process, "Layering is very important in egg tempera. I mix egg yolk and pigment paste on a palette, then brush the medium on a gessoed wood panel. Various pigments can be mixed to a desired hue, but a luminous surface derives from overlays of pure color."
Color matters, of course, because Montgomery absorbed the thinking of her Yale teacher/mentor Josef Albers. His insistence that color is art's "most relative medium" has always implied its ultimate mystery and volatility, its power of deception. Now, however, the dynamics of color, like that earlier fascination with botanical forms, seems less crucial than geometry. In her fresh commitment to the non-objective, Montgomery can take some reassurance from another Josef Albers notion—"Abstraction is real," he said, "probably more real than nature."
Nan Montgomery lives and works in the Washington DC area. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts and spent her childhood in rural Vermont and New Hampshire. After attending the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts where she majored in printmaking, she transferred to the Yale School of Art where she studied with Josef Albers. She graduated from Yale in 1960 with a BFA in painting. Moving to the Washington area, she attended the Corcoran School of Art and studied with Gene Davis and Leon Berkowitz. Her one person show in 2013 at the American University Museum: Opposite and Alternate was featured as part of a survey of Washington art: Washington Art Matters. Her one person shows include, Art Santa Fe in 2011, Osuna Art 2008 in Bethesda, MD, the Troyer Gallery, Washinton, DC, the Franz Bader Gallery, Washington, DC, the Osuna Gallery, Washington, DC and the C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore Maryland. Her group exhibitions include: Washington Art Matters, 2014, Catalyst - 35 years of the Washington Project for the Arts, The 74th Biennial at the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio, Washington Women in the Arts at Osuna Art, and Recent Aquisitions at the American University Museum. During the fall of 2003, she attended the Julia and David White Artists Colony in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica. In 2005 she was invited to talk about her work at the Kreeger Museum. In the May 2008 issue, she was one of several Washington artists mentioned in Art in America, To a Different Drum by J.W. Mahoney. Her paintings are in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art permanent collection, The Washington Post, Artery Organization, The Washington Convention Center, The Donald S. Levinson Collection at Sheppard Pratt Health System, and the Watkins Collection at the American University Museum as well as private collections. From March 2014 - June 22, 2014, her paintings will be included in Flora: A Celebration of Flowers in Contemporary Art at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, Brattleboro, Vermont. Committed to abstraction and purity of form, her work is unified in the dichotomies of natural and material, hard edge and delicate, all consistent with her personal aesthetic. Her studio is in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. Ramon Osuna, currently a private dealer, continues to represent her work.
born 1934 Boston MAeducation
public collections1960 BA Yale University School of Art1957 Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, MA
American Federation of Teachers, Washington, DCAmerican University Museum, Watkins Collection, Washington, DCArnold and Porter Law Firm, Washington, DCCorcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DCDartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, NHDC Artery Organization, WashingtonDC Student Loan Marketing Association, WashingtonDC IBM Corporation, Washington, DCFederal Board of Governors, Federal Reserve Bank, Washington DCHyatt Regency, Crystal City, VAHyatt Regency, Baltimore, MDDonald S. Levinson Collection, Baltimore, MDOliver Carr Collection, Washington, DCSheppard Pratt Health System, Washington DCWashington Convention Center, DCWashington, DC Columbia Hospital for Women, DCWashington Post, DC
The Washington Post
By Mark Jenkins
Local painter Nan Montgomery has a long history as an abstractionist, and she even studied with Josef Albers, one of the most influential exponents of hard edges, simple colors and elemental forms. The pictures in "Intersection/Dialogues," Montgomery's Addison/Ripley Fine Art show, include some of the basic shapes found in Clara Cornelius's work, but they're painted rather than photographed. Circles, triangles and crosses (or plus signs) abound, in variations that appear systematic and very nearly functional. Thus "Decisions," a lineup of 10 small square oils, evokes a set of semaphore flags.
Montgomery's recent pictures, although built from basic parts, are trickier than Albers's straightforward homages to the square. They're seldom purely symmetrical, and might include overlapping elements. Primary colors contend with more eccentric hues, such as the lime-green of the line that bisects "Dissection." (The artist calls these thin verticals "zips," after Barnett Newman's term for his stripes.) One aqua zip, running down the right side, challenges the black, red and multiple oranges of "Intersection IV." That striking composition demands a closer look, which reveals that it — like the other pictures around it — is more loosely painted than its geometric design might suggest.
All but two of these artworks were made from 2015 to 2017. The exceptions document a detour Montgomery took about a decade ago. "Solitude" is a somber study in black, gray and shades of dark red; it's abstract, except that its thin vertical lines are topped with silhouetted buds, transforming them from zips into stalks. More explicitly floral is "Softly Speaking," which contrasts the other paintings by being pastel, as well as representational. It doesn't fit with the other pictures, but stands quite well on its own.
By Jack Rasmussen
Director and Curator
American University Museum
"I well remember searching out Nan Montgomery's studio in Eric Rudd's 52 O Street complex (originally a meat packing warehouse) located out on the far edge o DC's downtown in the late 1970's.
Inside this interesting neighborhood, I found a recent Yale grad festooned with masking tape and surrounded by extraordinary colorful but minimal abstractions. I immediately showed her work in my gallery, and have been following her artistic trajectory ever since.
Nan has remained true to her initial vision inspired by Josef Albers and the Washington Color School but her color fields have grown long- stemmed flowers in the interim, and their leaf arrangements inspired the title of Nan's current exhibition. These are intelligent and beautifully resonant paintings. I must thank Ramon Osuna for helping to make this exhibition possible. It is my great pleasure to present Nan Montgomery: Opposite and Alternate here in the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center."
The Washington Post
by Michael Welzenbach
Although realism and neo-expressionism have dominated mainstream fine art for the past decade, formal abstraction has continued to attract a large number of practitioners. On the periphery, away from the stylish New York millieu, abstraction has flourished. Some of today's most sought- after artists are abstract painters such as the West Coast's Richard Diebenkorn and Washington Color School alumnus Kenneth Noland.
Washington has a strong modernist tradition of abstraction, rooted in the work of Morris Louis, Gene Davis and Howard Mehring, and continued by their former colleagues, among these Jacob Kainen and Leon Berkowitz. And there is a whole school of younger painters who continue to wrest new, exciting images from the abstract mode. One on the best of these is Nan Montgomery.
Miss Montgomery's newest exhibit at the Osuna Gallery (400 Seventh St. N.W,) is a tour de force. Though there are several failures, the best pieces in the show, such as “Scalene” and “Red Morning” are elegant paradigms of formal abstraction which trace a lineage back to the work of Piet Mondrian.
Though clearly most at home with a limited palette, Miss Montgomery has made some bold experiments, playing a sort of balancing act with scattered squares of brilliant primary colors. Some of these work: some don't. The big painting “Informer” for example, predominantly whites and soft grays, densely painted but with a feathery surface texture recalling Mr. Kainen's brushwork, doesn't quite come off. It's all a question of balance. In an abstract work composition is everything. The picture is held together by striking the right harmony between form, color and placement. Ideally there also will be some precarious dynamic to keep the eye moving. The slightest miscalculation, and the picture falls apart.
The rigidly sectional piece “Dyad”, also seems a bit severe, a bit too formal. But “Scalene” and a smaller study, dealing with essentially the same formal problems of big intersection planes of flat color, are both suburb. In both of these works, the artist has attempted a sort of hat trick; a resolution of three distinct formal elements in a non-objective format: flat color areas, tonal harmony and perspective. And she has achieved a kind of sublime parity with the juxtaposition of tones and linear constructs. Both works withstand long critical examination, and remain highly satisfying to look at. In fact, it's well worth parking yourself in the middle of the floor in front of “Scalene” for half an hour or so, just to give your eyes – and mind – an exercise in harmony.
This excellent show remains on view through July 12.
Opposite and Alternate. essays by J.W. Mahoney and Jean Lawlor Cohen, introduction by Jack Rasmussen. American University, Washington DC, 2013
Nature and Metaphor. essays by Elizabeth Tebow, introduction by Jack Rasmussen. American University, 2008