Russian River, 3 p.m.

May 10, 2017 § 2 Comments


Mary Robertson | Three Canoes

THIS IS, OF COURSE, the Russian River the casual tourist never sees. He’s in the middle of the damn painting, for one thing. For another, he’s got his eyes closed, soaking up the pure, unreflected heat. He’s too preoccupied, meditating, suspended weightless between water and sky. If he wasn’t on his day off, he’d probably notice the atmosphere is positively luminescent. Pass the Stroh’s, willya?

This is the world as seen by Mary Robertson. “For me, it’s always three in the afternoon, summer,” says Robertson. “No evenings, no mornings.”

Working from photographs, she paints the vacationers and their accoutrements as they float past her vantage point. “It seems to me as though the same swimmers, the same summer people, are always there,” says Robertson, who works with oil on linen and Masonite, not trying to capture the glow of the smogless afternoons but capturing it just the same. This is no small achievement; her work has been compared to Winslow Homer’s, Edward Hopper’s and especially, in its understanding of light, water and timeless human presence, to the Charles River paintings of Thomas Eakins.

“After my first show, somebody pointed that out to me, so I studied him,” says the artist. “It was a little embarrassing, really, for I hadn’t made the connection. To tell you the truth, I just paint what I see.”

The river itself is changing. “Last year,” she says, “They started releasing water upstream. The water is getting clearer. It’s also getting harder to paint. You can see the bottom — it’s like painting gin instead of pea soup. I’m afraid that what Gordon Cook [the painter] said about me is true — that I have a marvelous feel for algae.”



February 11, 1997 § 2 Comments


Mary Robertson | Umbrella


Being married to a painter means you’re often around, whether you like it or not, to witness the sometimes sordid behind-the-scenes details. You’re there to gasp at the astronomically high paint brush charges on the Visa bill. You worry about the house full of turpentine fumes. You wonder the Airedale terrier who eats tubes of paint and decorates the yard with bright red and yellow turds.

Living with a painter makes you see things. Paintings, for openers. And sometimes the neighborhood, in a new way. Often, when I look at a Russian River beach in the summer, I see a Mary Robertson painting. Sometimes, I literally see Mary Robertson herself, working, photographing people, studying groups, canoes, boats, floats, forest, shade, beach umbrellas.

At Johnson’s Beach, where my wife often goes to look at people and places to paint, there is a concession stand that opens each summer to sell hamburgers and beer and rent canoes and umbrellas. One year I became aware of a problem with the umbrellas. There was a new batch of rental umbrellas and they were wrong and boring and despicable.

My wife and I have since talked about beach umbrellas. We have opinions about beach umbrellas. We are worried about the generally sorry state of modern beach umbrella colors. I recently asked my wife what had happened with those early umbrellas at Johnson’s Beach. “Every few years they get new umbrellas,” she said. “For a long time they were yellow and white. I painted them the way they were. I was trying really hard to reproduce the place.” The yellow-and-white umbrellas were okay. But not really. And there were other problems. “They had scalloped edges, the little flaps that hang down? Wavy-edged,” she said. “I didn’t like them. I got sick of painting the wavy edges. And then I thought, ‘Why do I have to paint that?’ I started painting them with straight edges. And then I started changing the colors.”

She does not change the color of the Russian River. In the summer, and in her paintings, the Russian River stays more or less green. The shades that may vary depending on the degree and pollution inflicted by civilization. Gordon Cook, the consummate Bay Area painter who was my wife’s mentor when she decided to become a painter, once told her that in her river paintings she showed a “marvelous feel for algae.”

I am learning, when looking at my wife’s paintings, to remind myself not to see the breakthrough as heresy, the departure as a disruption of order, the visit to new territory as a trespass. “Oh, she’s never painted that before,” worries the creature of habit, perhaps fearing the consequences of a gallery full of new paintings different than anything anyone may have anticipated. Never painted that before. Never seen that before. And then you have. New light. Isn’t that the whole point?

Severity, Serenity, Sunshine

April 1, 1986 § Leave a comment


Mary Robertson | Marker Under Bridge

San Francisco Chronicle

Reflected sunlight seems to radiate from Mary Robertson’s small paintings at the Charles Campbell Gallery.

Robertson paints shore views, bathers and the paraphernalia of water sports. Some of her pictures describe the Russian River near her Guerneville home, others are seaside vistas.

Though her images are sunlit, and her colors sweet, Robertson’s vision is not falsely cheerful. People in her pictures often are depicted alone against stretches of water and shore, leading us to wonder whether they are as isolated as they appear. Her work brings to mind the severities of Thomas Eakins’s paintings as often as the serenity of John Kensett’s, or the flickering palette of Maurice Prendergast.

When she paints a wooden diving platform offshore in the river, she finds a wonderful pretext for deploying color in the play of sunlight ad shadow on its struts and crossbeams Yet here too the platform’s vacancy hints at a solitude tinged with loneliness.

To my eye, the finest pictures in the show are the tiny views of a distant island under changing lights and weathers. All but one are on squares of Masonite. At a distance, the images appear to be behind mats, as though they were prints. Up close, you can see that Robertson has centered each image on its panel and painted the periphery a cold white. The surrounding area that appears to be mat actually courses with the energy of measured brush strokes.

The images themselves are so simple that you easily can choose to view them as abstract. But seen as seascapes, they are wonderfully economical and precise uses of color to suggest time of day and conditions of light and air.

Part of their fascination lies in the way they appear to bring vast spaces within tight confines. For all their lyricism, they also suggest the experience of an isolated observer, the island insinuating itself as the artist’s counterpart. In fact, the island views are so intimate and yet so expansive that they become metaphors for the mind’s eye in the tradition of American Lumnist art and of what Robert Rosenblum calls the Northern Romantic Tradition.

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