You need first of all to notice a quality that can only be called High Spirits. Bernard Chaet’s work is filled with that sense of delight at painting’s possibilities that many painters lose early and only if they are lucky, regain by the skin of their teeth. Chaet can’t stop painting. His output is tremendous and his working hours long, not out of the grim professionalism but because for him, there is nothing in the world better to do. Every day is a good day for painting! He told a wind-battered passer-by who was commiserating about the terrible weather, and I can image Chaet turning back to his canvas lashed horizontal onto the rock, his teeth set, spray on his glasses and a glint of sheer fun in his eyes. This is the life, he seems to say every time he picks up a brush.
He looks at everything and in all directions. He paints portraits, some better than others, always with a lively sense of the sitter’s idiosyncrasies. He has painted numberless self-portraits, often in weird hats or half-laughing role-play costumes. He has painted ambitious domestic interiors, and table-tops strewn with berries, as far from still-life conventions as can be imagined. He paints landscapes, cowscapes in which the marking on Holsteins’s flanks set the beat for the jig-saw patterning of grass and trees. For the last decade or so his most important subjects have been found on the rocky seacoast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts and it is here that his lifetime of experiments have come together in a triumphant chorus.
All Chaet’s work is experimental and his experiments go forward in high spirits. He is not interested in making capital out of impossibility. Nothing is more strange in art, Ruskin says, than the way that chance and materials seem to favor you, when once you have thoroughly conquered them. It could be one of the mottos of Chaet’s work. He loves the physical ingredients of painting and drawing and approaches them with inspired curiosity, always on the lookout for new colors, testing new primings, trying things out. Even watercolor, that most treacherous medium, gives back surprise after surprise in versions of his rocky seashore motif.
Of course, his experiments are underwritten by his strength as a draughtsman. When you can draw with (a fine pen) you can draw with a log of wood charred at one end. (It might be interesting to debate this dictum of Ruskin’s at the Studio School and to ask whether the reverse is true.) The story goes that when Joseph Albers invited Chaet to come and teach at Yale it was because he could draw so well with silver point – the old Bauhaus hand reaching out to the young tyro who saw the point of conquering the material. But Chaet’s mastery of the material is never to the end of an effect. It is never exploited or set in a mould. He is the least slick, the least flattering of artists – indeed, there is a kind of rugged left-handedness about some of his improvisations that brings one up short.
Everything comes together in the seacoast paintings and with an explosive energy that seems to borrow from the waves themselves. The light is extreme and calls for extreme responses. He flies free of predictable norms of tonality or graphic continuity. Description can’t do justice to the way rocks are jumbled in chaos or the way their mass is shattered by the sunset’s trumpet notes. Every anticipated connection is put in jeopardy, held only by extraordinary breaks, discords, syncopations of handling and color, anti-tonalities – improvisations that weave their way across the whole canvas and bring one back just in time to the underlying theme, familiar but now transformed. These paintings are triumphant.
A child once handed me a piece of paper upon which he had scribbled with a ball point pen. "What is that?" I asked. He replied, "It a picture of a dance on the tip of a pen." In his own way, the child was expressing the concept of artmaking as the joining together of the fleeting and the permanent. The momentary movement of the artist's hand, wielding, pen on brush, is recorded and preserved on the paper or canvas surface. This concept is embodied in the work of Bernard Chaet and particularly in his still lifes, most of which portray ephemeral objects from nature in a lasting medium.
For Chaet, the creative process is a kind of performance. One could describe his development over the last five decades as the continued perfection of the hand's "choreography" (to use Chaet's own word). Whether working in watercolor, gouache or oil it is evident that Chael has achieved a level of mastery that only comes with experience, like that of a jazz musician who has been improvising on the same instrument for years. His intimate knowledge of materials is paralleled by his familiarity with his subjects. Like so many great artists of the past - for example, Paul Cezanné of Claude Monet - Chaet achieves his goals while working within a narrow range of subject matter. Invention is born of familiarity.
It is possible to view this exhibition of Chaet's still lifes from the 1950s to the present as a representation of the development of his work as a whole. Having studied at the Boston Museum School from 1942-1947, Chaet was part of a generation of artists nurtured by the expressionist teachings of Karl Zerbe. By the 1950s, however, Chaet ws incorporating the psychological intensity and active brushwork of such astists as Max Beckman or Chaim Soutine with the color theories of Josef Albers, whom he came to know when he took a teaching position at ale University in 1951. Both the small Flowers of 1953, and the larger Flowers of 1957 exemplify Chaet's move toward bold, saturated, emotionally heightened colors.
Another influence on Chaet at the time was the tachisme of Nicolas De Staël, which emphasized the importance of the individual brushstroke and asserted the material properties of paint. These early flower paintings are constructed of "sections" of paint, varying in thickness and texture, forming a kind of mosaic that seems to reflect a tachiste approach.
Chaet's large White Bouquet (1968) shows the artist beginning to assimilate these various early influences into a more personal statement. Keenly aware of the delicate balance an artist must maintain between placing oneself in history and breaking new ground. Chaet here pays homage to Beckmann's modeling but radically distorts the scale of the object. His earlier experimentations with brushwork have informed the interplay of foreground and background areas. This interplay remains a key element in Chaet's work to this day.
It would be difficult to say whether Chaet's development up to the present time has been linear or circular. After decades spent mastering technique, absorbing art history and passing it on to others as a gifted teacher Chaet has arrived at a point where the artist by whom he is most influenced is himself. To compare Cheat's gouache Flowers for N (1993) with the early Flowers (1953), for example, is to see how Chaet has derived a concept from his own earlier work while investing it with all that he has learned since then. Like Chaet's other "signature" subjects such as seascapes, cows, or self-portraits, each individual still life may be considered a variation on a theme Chaet has described the process of locating in nature those forms that correlate with the artist's own inner vision. As if there is a kind of idée fixe that has driven Chaet's still life painting from the beginning, these works can all be viewed as manifestations of an image that actually exists in the artist's mind.
Bernard Chaet, a former chair of Yale's Art Department who taught for almost 40 years and saw the transformation of the department into a nationally ranked professional school, passed away Tuesday. He was 88.
Chaet emphasized the importance of art as a discipline for those of all academic backgrounds and taught his students to think critically about art. He is widely credited with helping to chart Yale's path to the forefront of American visual arts education. A renowned artist, Chaet painted throughout his life and exhibited his work nationwide.
"He stimulated an appetite for looking at art and trying to understand it," said William Bailey, a close friend and colleague of Chaet's.
Born in 1924 in Boston, Chaet studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and then at Tufts University from 1947 to 1949. He was appointed to teach painting at Yale in 1951 and soon became "the anchor around which the basic programs were offered in drawing and painting," his colleague Richard Lytle said.
The current Dean of the School of Art, Robert Storr, noted that "[Chaet's] years coincided with the years when Yale became one of the top art schools in the country."
Part of Chaet's success at the art school was his balance between teaching the basics, maintaining a full-time faculty and inviting prominent professional artists to visit and critique, Lytle said.
The Yale Daily News
BY JOSEPHINE MASSEY, STAFF REPORTER
Thursday, October 18, 2012
The loveliest among the nearly 40 representational paintings in this traveling Bernard Chaet retrospective tend to be modest in scale. In Red Cloud, 2007-08 and Late Day Rocks, 2009, both roughly a foot across, Mr. Chaet gives molten, painterly form to the surf, rocks, clouds and beach of the Massachusetts coastline. Light sparkles through porous forms, which wrap and twist together as if earth, ocean and sky were a single organism.
In other pictures (coastlines, self portraits, flower paintings and cluttered tabletop still lifes – many larger in scale), where perhaps the artist is more thoughtful and ambitious, the world separates into interlocking puzzle pieces. An agitation can exist between lines and shapes, form and ground. But discord isn’t the rule. And Mr. Chaet is getting better with age. In Blue Morning, 2007, vibrant rocks, clouds, surf and vegetation erupt out of dark blue beach and sky. And in Late Day Sky, 2009, white ground color burns to the surface as hot sand; bursts of yellow ignite the horizon. Here, fits of emotive color relax into naturalism.