Max Decker met me outside the open double doors of his barn studio in West Tisbury. Glancing past him, I couldn’t wait to get inside to look at the far wall, filled with paintings. They were all small — studies for larger paintings or painted to explore a certain set of problems that, once understood, needed to go no further. They sat on narrow shelves that spanned the width of the back wall, and went from about waist height up to the ceiling. It was an impressive display.
That, however, was nothing compared with the number of larger paintings on easels and stacked around the studio. Max has been working on his show that will open this Sunday, August 6, at the Field Gallery. We began to talk about his new work and his show.
I remember Max’s paintings from about a dozen years ago, landscapes of all sizes, familiar
landscapes of places we all knew and frequented, painted in a colorful thick impasto. These were different. The landscapes were still familiar, but painted in thin, almost washes, of color. Many were in a series that began with a small oil sketch, then became a “middle size,” maybe a 16 x 20-inch painting, then were taken to a large format of 3 x 4 or 4 x 5 feet. Every one dealt with new technical problems. “I learn something by changing one thing. It becomes a whole different painting,” Max said, describing the process of painting on a larger scale. “It’s not as simple as using bigger brushes.”
Many of the paintings are of Edgartown, white captain’s houses along streets lined with greenery and streaked with long shadows: “I had always shied away from Edgartown because of that content, but found the structural landscape challenging. I began to be caught up in the details.”
One of the Edgartown paintings, “The Porch,” shows the progression from small to large, from simple to more complex. The light changes as it hits the buildings, hard cold white or a creamy warmer tone. The shrubbery and rather
Italianate tree lighten and darken in varying combinations, highlighting or softening their outlines and round forms. More of the street shows, or more of the porch. Looking between porch posts, one finds abstract shapes in a Diebenkorn-like geometry. The tree trunk in the foreground mimics the porch posts to its left, a strong vertical right up the center of the canvas, but somehow softened enough not to distract from the porch itself, and not to cut the painting in half. The final version has a figure of a woman standing with her back to the viewer. There, too, she doesn’t overwhelm the composition, drawing your eye right to her and never moving. She sits into the painting as she should, a part of a successful whole.
We talked as two artists tend to do, of the yellow ocher ground Max uses to warm the applied colors, of his simple palette made up of a cool and warm each of yellow, red, green,
and blue, with either titanium or lead white. He sometimes uses other colors, finding it stimulating, and often saves some of the mixes he develops. He uses the warm colors almost exclusively, the cool ones only when he needs to mix something he can’t get otherwise. He calls them “chemical colors,” rarely used because of their intensity. Mostly, he keeps it simple.
His focus is on shapes and edges, the abstract qualities of making a painting: “I’m not so interested in content, subject. It’s the surface that’s important, how the paint feels when the touch is right. Edges are hugely important. The design, the touch of the surface, the edges, where shapes meet, how hard the line is, if it’s slightly blurred. I’d like to think that any artist would say the same thing.”
I asked if there were any artists whose work he particularly liked, whose work gave him insight and information into the painting process. He said, “Just a minute. I have been reading something. I’ll go into the house and get it.”
“It” turned out to be a book about my favorite artist in the whole world, Fairfield Porter. No
wonder Max’s work appealed to me. We began looking at the book, talking about our favorite areas of our favorite paintings. Max said, “I didn’t appreciate Porter fully until now. When you’re a young painter, his awkwardness can come off as being technically inept, but he’s a master of doing that surface just right.” Max believes, as Porter did, in painting what you see every day.
Another series that fascinated me was of a house and barn, “On Middle Road.” Again, the composition was basically set in the first small sketch. As the matrix grew larger, the changes were more subtle, a slight change in perspective, moving the barn higher and farther in the distance. The lawn became paler, washed in sunlight. The painting of it, the movement of hand and brush in paint, was truly the subject, as important and inextricable as the buildings or woods.
Max’s show will be noteworthy. He is a painter come into his own, and I am sure he will continue to stretch his talent into yet unimagined ways. It will be a privilege to see his work arranged on the gallery walls with space around them, and space for the viewer to step back and forward, to carefully observe these paintings that have absorbed his interest and energy these past months.
An artist’s reception is planned for Sunday, August 6, from 5 to 7 pm at the Field Gallery, State Road, West Tisbury. Visit fieldgallery.com.