The first major museum presentation devoted to the achievements of Warren Rohrer (1927-1995), one of the premier painters to emerge from Pennsylvania in the 20th century, will be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from June 22-August 17, 2003. Assembling 32 exemplary paintings, many of them large in scale and rich in color, the exhibition traces the evolution of the artist’s vision beginning with works he made just after returning from a 1972 trip to Europe, where his encounters with the art of modern masters Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko caused him to break from the traditions of representational landscape painting, through 1993, as he created an authentic artistic language of his own by exploring his unique heritage.
"It is an tremendous pleasure to mount this exhibition at the PMA, which provides a vivid context through which to understand and admire Warren Rohrer’s most important preoccupations—the landscape of his youth in Lancaster County and the major movements in later 20th century art," said Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "The apparent quiet of his paintings belies their compelling power and their lasting hold on the imagination. Their complexity continues to grow more beguiling as time goes on, and the particularity of their vision all the more remarkable."
A ninth generation American, Warren Rohrer was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1927. Raised within the Mennonite community, where 'working the land' was revered, he discovered painting to be his calling and flouted familial expectation that he would be a farmer and minister. His rural upbringing would impact his technique as an artist, which he often described as similar to the tasks performed by farmers to prepare a field and produce a crop.
Installed chronologically, the exhibition begins in the 1970s when Rohrer first adopted an approach based on the simplicity and understatement that he recognized as essential ingredients of the craftsmanship indigenous to Lancaster County. The earliest works in the show, Barley, 1972, and Corn: Stubble, 1973, reflect the grid format that Rohrer adopted as the formal and poetic equivalent for his lived experience of rural Pennsylvania, providing neither a literal portrait of a field after harvest nor a romantic impression of it.
His response to nature continued to grow more abstract during the 1970s. Four paintings in the exhibition from the Atmosphere and Pond series, completed in 1974 and 1975, respectively, reflect Rohrer’s exploration of the physical character of the canvas as a fabric. In both series, he began by painting the surface and then wiping off the first coat--with the result that a nearly translucent layer of pigment nestles in the folds and textures of the surface.
In 1984 the artist left the countryside and moved to the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, to the former studio of the artist Violet Oakley (1874-1961). With greater distance from his origins, Rohrer became even more directly concerned with his agrarian roots. On a weekly basis he drove from his home to a field in Caernarvon, later affectionately named by friends and family "Warren’s Field." This holly field at a bend in the Conestoga River informs more than ten paintings in the exhibition, including the diptych Caernarvon 2, 1986-87, and two paintings from the Field: Language series. These late paintings treat the landscape as one to be read – like a book of primitive script – and link the humanly marked, divided, and transformed landscape of Rohrer’s beginnings to his lifelong search for his own unique artistic language.
"By making the grid a basis for his work, Rohrer developed a systematic way of painting that responded to the order and spirit of the Pennsylvania landscape,” said Susan Rosenberg, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and organizer of the exhibition. “He developed a distinct personal handwriting as an artist, and his paintings reveal that he achieved not only satisfaction, but powerful clarity regarding his roots."
Warren Rohrer: Paintings 1972-93 is organized by Susan Rosenberg, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The exhibition is supported by the Dietrich Foundation, the Kathleen C. and John J. F. Sherrerd Endowment for Exhibitions, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, the Robert Montgomery Scott Endowment for Exhibitions, the Locks Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Berton E. Korman, Mr. and Mrs. B. Herbert Lee, Francey and Bayard Storey, and other generous individuals. A fully illustrated catalogue including an essay as well as a chronology and an in-depth exhibition history will accompany the exhibition.