George Harkins. American, born 1934

Harkins is known for his rich watercolors which examine nature and its patterns as if through a close-up lens. His most recent work has become somewhat abstracted but still imbued with the beauty of seasons and relationships of life and water.

Artist Statement

Over the years I have returned to the woods, streams and fields of the Catskills and Vermont to find inspiration for paintings. Implicit in choosing to paint landscape is a love of the land, and a desire to make a significant statement about it. I also attempt to interpret life experiences through symbolism of nature. I have seen changes in the mood and content of my paintings, which later have seemed to be a subconscious reaction to events in my own life. Sometimes I use animals to represent the constant struggle of life for us all. I have been made aware of a particular kind of connection with viewers of my landscapes that is rewarding and perhaps significant. When a person says to me that they have been out in the woods and have seen something that made them think of my painting it is my hope that what I have done is cause them to see a bit differently. I feel that a circle has been completed which begins with my response to a natural setting, interpreting it, then someone seeing the result and looking at nature enhanced by my vision. It is one kind of interaction, and one I hope that leads to a greater appreciation of our precious surroundings. Although a painter’s message is delivered one on one, it is repeated many times through the years in public and private places were the pictures hand.

George Harkins speaking to Art and Environment Magazine, 2004

Wild Delight: George Harkins and the Economy of Nature

For the ultimate sign of our disbelief in our own souls is our inability to believe in the souls of anything else around us Tess Gallagher

You climb out of the automobile and lean back against it. Shaggy oaks in the woodland tower above you, their massive, mottled arms beckoning in sunlight. You watch the towhees at wood's edge pecking among the twigs for insects and acorns; they don't even mind you. You feel something in the shade coming over you. In the enormity of the wood's silence, it feels vague yet familiar, a hint of self-consciousness that delights and heightens your senses.

Coming to the New World, America's first European settlers encountered a vast and formidable primeval forest that had grown up in the retreat of the last ice age. Dense forests grew to fantastic heights. Wild and wonderful rivers coursed the rich earth, and green mountains rose to sunlit heights. In the air, all manner of birds prevailed, and in the forests there were deer, bear, wolves, elks, woodchucks-too many animals to enumerate. America was a strange, rich, marvelous, awesome, and dangerous place. It is easy to imagine how those early explorers felt an amazing reverence for this New Jerusalem even as they projected their worst fears upon it.

In America, the transcendentalists found a place equal to their most fervent dreams and visions. Early American artists-especially those in the Hudson River School-painted this new landscape with religious zeal and purpose. This new world, they told us, was made by the living God, with whom we could consort and commune in the sanctuary and temple of His natural world. In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson published his first edition of Nature, arguably the most important and definitive text of transcendental idealism. In Nature, Emerson outlined his notion of "Universal Being," in which man was understood to possess an "original relation to the universe." The universe was manifest in nature, a wild place where man could "[cast] off his years (in the society of man) and delight in the presence of a higher spiritual element." Contemplation of the self in nature was for Emerson the ultimate moral imperative and was the means by which man could receive "the redemption of [his] soul."

George Harkins, educated at the Philadelphia College of Art and at the University of Arizona, is by any measure an American master. His first solo exhibition was in New York, at the Shelburne Gallery, in 1975. Since then his work has been exhibited in more than 75 solo and group shows, and has been selected into dozens of private and museum collections. Harkins and his work have been written about in many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Arts Magazine, Art/World, and the American Artist. He is renown for his landscapes and for his increasing interest in the relationship between man and nature.

You're following the deer trail winding in half-light through the underbrush. Tiny insects float vaguely in front of you. You can hear the hammering of a woodpecker. Coming up on a bluff, you see for the first time the flat silver of water shelved in streambeds. Whole skyscapes-pillars of clouds in the sky, the undersides of trees-float slowly downstream, then roll over stones to explode in a spillway, where everything comes alive.

George Harkins has been there. He knows this water. Back when he had a bout with cancer, Harkins's work very obviously became autobiographical. Producing images of wintering trees, he evoked the chill and isolation of life under siege: stark, denuded limbs; overlaid, disoriented branches; the detritus of a whole season sinking among the ruin. Now that he has survived, Harkins's work is no less autobiographical, but much more profound.

In Silver Cascade, 2004, Cascade With Gold, 2005, and Streamlight Patterns, 2006, Harkins focuses on those junctures in a stream where flat water breaks over stone and courses into a roiling pool. The images are colorful, rendered from very nearly every color and variance of color in the spectrum. They are layered: stones glow with earthen iridescence below the tension of water pulled over their round surfaces. They are masterfully composed: working at the outermost edge of himself, Harkins's currents, eddies, and torsions are eerily fantastic, as in Silver Cascade, or remarkably comforting, as in Cascade With Gold.

It's the latter of these images in which Harkins is most triumphant. Obviously interested in the particularity of elemental life, in Cascade With Gold, Harkins catches the shape, movement, and color of real water. The viewer lucky enough to find his or her way off the interstate for a respite before this image can't help but to become distracted, can't help but to wonder and stare at the water, thinking how gentle its course must be, how slippery are its time-worn stones, how beautiful is nature's flow and interlocked perfection. This is the water out of which all things have come and into which all this must eventually pass. Looking at this water, one comes to understand the economy of nature, how all things needed to have come together exactly as they have in order to have created this image, this moment, our earth. Move a single pebble, tear a single root, and everything would have been irrevocably altered. Cascade With Gold is a metaphor or, better yet, a kind of hieroglyph for the larger eco-system out of which we have come. Learning to live within that system seems to be our challenge now. Cascade With Gold reminds us that in order for man to live successfully within this beautiful natural world, we are to develop new moral, philosophical, economic, political, and biological imperatives. We are to perform a unification whereby the me and the not me are made divine.

In Nature, Emerson raises the virtue of living life within the "currents of the Universal Being" where "all mean egotism vanishes." In his most recent work, it is Harkins who vanishes-into the miraculous unification of the me and the not me. This newest work speaks of release and acknowledgment-release from all fear and pain, and acknowledgment that death-because it is intrinsic to life-is beautiful.

John A. Haslem, Jr., PhD.


born 1934 Philadelphia, PA

1956 Philadelphia College of Art, PA BFA
1969 University of Arizona, Tucson MFA

permanent collections
Conseco Corp.
Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY
Tucson Museum of Art, AZ
Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, AL
Glenn C. Janss Collection
Chemical Bank, New York, NY
Citicorp, New York, NY
American Express, Minneapolis, MN
American Telephone and Telegraph, New York, NY
Equitable Companies, New York, NY
Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, NY
INA Corporation, Philadelphia, PA
Deloitte, Haskins, and Sells, New York, NY
InterFirst Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX
Banque National de Paris, New York, NY
IBM, New York, NY
The St. Paul Companies, St. Paul, MN
Southeast Banking Corporation, Miami, FL
Home Box Office, Atlanta, GA
Debevoise, Plimpton, Lyons and Gates, New York, NY
E. F. Hutton, New York, NY
The Barnes Group, Hartford, CT
The Reliance Group, New York, NY
Dewey Ballantine Bushby Palmer & Wood, New York, NY
Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, New York, NY
Texaco, NY
FMC Corp., Chicago, IL
Exxon, Dallas, TX

Sunday, October 24, 1993

Three Landscapists and What They See
by Vivien Raynow

...Mr. Harkins is a watercolorist on a grand scale who concentrates on dense woods that may well be in Maine. The results are maps that are methodical enough for Neil Welliver in colors limpid enough for Joseph Raffael.

Regardless of the season, Mr. Harkins’ trees interlock with each other over rocks and streams patterned with fallen leaves. Indeed, the images are mosaics more than the are landscapes - all except for Quiet Light where everything unravels. The sky opens up, the sun shines and a river winds through marshes to a pool.

VOL. 13 No.2
November 20 - December 20, 1988

Harkins at Tatistcheff
by Jonathan Phillips

November is a time of death in northern landscapes. December snows will soon provide the formality of a shroud. George Harkins communicates this and more in his 60 x 200” watercolor epic on five panels in equal size; November and Twilight. This meditative piece is the most abstractly realized of the works included in this exhibit. Its mood is set by the cool, murky, prussian blue washes used for the tree lichen which keys the color for the rest of this “in the woods” vision of denuded branches and the underlying texture of organic detritus.

If there is a difference between dawn and twilight it is that one seems to be getting lighter, the other darker. Communicating one or the other in a static medium without resorting to sequencing or a landmark as a frame of reference, is therefore quite beguiling. Harkins tells us it is getting darker by the mood he sets with the blue tones of his closely matched palette. Despite the profusion of trees and their branches before us, these layers of writhing forms are solemn and, for the most part, leafless.

By executing this densely textured vision on five 60 x 40” panels, Harkins has created a piece that almost serves as an environment. Having this exhibit scheduled for the month of November is good timing on the part of the Tatistcheff Gallery.

Harkins works and thinks in interlocking layers. In recent years he has focused upon tableaus formed of dense entwined woods and foliage. From a lush almost faux-deco quality of richly tinted watercolors verging on the decorative, his work has become no less profuse, but more spiky, variegated and challenging in its forms.

His drawing has seemed to open up with the branches, trunks, and viny forms which dominate his latest landscapes, becoming ever more calligraphic. A texture built of semi-random splattering form a hybrid style torn between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. This is layered over and under the calligraphic explorations of the underdrawing. There is always a sense of the structure being held together by an underlying drawing in Harkins’ paintings, and carefully selected colors used to separate the planes mapped out by his pencil. Neil Welliver’s work is a valid point of reference to define Harkins’ general approach to creating an image. But, lurking under this surface there seems to be an ongoing search for greater chromatic impact or density than watercolor can support.

One of the most recently completed works included in this exhibit, October Flowers, 1988 reinforces this feeling. In this 48 x 50” work, Harkins has worked cray-pas on top of several layers of watercolor. In this exploration he seems to be seeking ways of expanding the technical parameters of the watercolor, which is by definition transparent. The seeds of this October Flowers May well bring us our next series of visions.

Friday, March 6, 1984
by Michael Brenson

George Harkins (Tatistcheff, 50 West 57th Street): George Harkins is a landscape watercolorist, whose images of forests and streams are so dense with curves and details that they suggest Austrian Art Nouveau. The most successful works in this exhibition are of two panels, where the effusion of natural movement and the dizzying decorative pattern succeed in pulling the visitor in.

In the left panel of Currents for example, stones in a stream seem to be directly under our feet. In the right panel, the pebbles now appear 100 feet away, and we seem not to be looking into a stream, but over a cliff. The balance between the freshness of nature and curvilinear decorative pattern, however, is very tricky. If this work does not become more physical in its texture or take a step back in the direction of nature, it could become contrived.

May 1984
George Harkins
by Marjorie Miller

In the large watercolor paintings he recently exhibited, George Harkins is moving toward a more intimate and personal response to nature. When Harkins was first attracted to landscape in Arizona and Colorado in the early 1970s he began to work directly from nature in watercolor. In these early paintings of canyons and desert Harkins often employed a large field bird’s eye-view. He found he was able to create the illusion of depth and space in a series of marks and movements across the paper just through color, with no change in edges. In these early paintings the internal energy characteristic of his work was already evident - dynamic counter moving forms, edges challenging and pushing each other.

There are no houses or people in Harkins’ landscapes. These paintings are about the organism earth and about our relationship to it. Harkins believes that the land calls forth our deepest rooted survival instincts, and that our notions of beauty spring from these instincts. The artist returns again and again to life-sustaining elements to clear water, sun, earth.

Now he is moving in on his subject in an apparent effort to penetrate it on a more intimate level. He has begun to eliminate the peripheral context in order to focus on a few elements or on a patch of nature. He is placing himself literally at the center of his subject. He has been known to set up his easel on a rock in the very middle of a stream.

A deep affinity for the American landscape led artists before him, notably Church, Homer, and Hopper, to accept the challenge that an intrinsically beautiful subject presents. Each in turn found his own authentic artistic response to a compelling necessity.

Like Church, Harkins is fascinated with the particulars of nature - the microcosm within the majestic macrocosm. He has found himself drawn again and again to the movement of water in lakes, streams, and falls. Harkins’ observation is layered. We see floating leaves and surface reflections. We see through the water to the rocks at the stream bottom. Finally we see the movement of the water itself eddying, swirling, rushing. This subtlety is achieved without recourse to a wet-in-wet technique. Harkins paints discrete patches (hundreds of them) with such mastery that an incredible fluidity is achieved, without the familiar blurred edges or built-up of washes of conventional watercolor. The artist has learned how to select and paint the duality of surface and depth as well as the illusion of movement all at the same time.

Harkins likes complicated paintings. He wants people to spend time with them. He believes that objects or passages in a picture that trigger thoughts or feelings will become resting places for the eye. This natural movement as the viewer’s eye wanders through a painting over a period of time - now fast, now slow, now fast - echoes the experience of observing nature itself.

At his best Harkins works on a precarious edge, almost out of control. The frantic internal activity threatens to explode the painting and fragment it into a confusion of light and color. Harkins’ strength lies in his masterful control of that tension eternally pulling between the clarity of

Lombardi, Dominick, "Art and Environmentalism: An Ethic of 24 Artists of the Hudson River Valley", The New York Times, Art Reviews, Sunday, July 4, 2004.

Pyne, Lynne: “Innovations in Watercolor: Southwest Art, April 2000, pp116-117, illustrated.

Re-representing Representation (exhibition catalog), Arnot Art Museum, 1999, Pages 6, 57, illustrated Pages 18 and 57.

Dewey, David: The Watercolor Book, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1995, illustrated.

Long, Robert::"Perspectives. Thematic Exhibition", Southampton Press, May, 1995.

Braun, Roby: Review: "ArtBeat", The East Hampton Independent, May 3, 1995.

Lowe, Charlotte: Review. "Galleries' Pairings Work Well," The Tucson Citizen, May 12, 1994, p.11.

Raynor, Vivien: Review: "Three Landscapists and What They See", The New York Times, Sunday, October 24, 1993, illustrated, p. 16.

Quick, Edward R., Director Sheldon Swope Art Museum: 'Artist Adds Intimacy to Landscape, Realism', Tribune Star, August 16, 1992, Terre Haute, IN

Arthur, John: Realist Watercolors (exhibition catalog), Palmer Museum of Art, Penn State University, 1990, p. 5, illustrated: p. 18.

Arthur, John: Spirit of Place, Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown & Co., 1989, p. 118, illustrated: p.121.

Doherty, M. Stephen: 'George Harkins', American Artist, May, 1989, illustrated.

Martin, Alvin: American Realism: Twentieth-Century Drawings and Watercolors, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1986, p. 143, 145, illustrated: plate 45.

Miller, Marjorie: 'George Harkins', ARTS Magazine, May 1984.

Brenson, Michael: Review, The New York Times, March 16, 1984.

Philips, Jonathan: Review: Art/World, December 20, 1988.

Watercolors by George Harkins and John Stuart Ingle, The University of Arizona Museum of Art, November 1984.

Doherty, M. Stephen: 'Watercolor Today', American Artist, February 1983, illustrated.

Henry, Gerrit: Essay, Realist Watercolors, (exhibition catalog), Florida International University, January 1983, illustrated.

Baker, Kenneth: 'American Watercolor Today', Portfolio, September/October 1982, illustrated.

Meyer, Susan E.: 40 Watercolorists and How They Work, Watson Guptil Publications, 1976, illustrated.

'The Watercolor Page', American Artist, September 1975.

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