It took awhile for international art to catch on in America. But if you were born in the 1920s and found yourself getting an M.F.A. in the mid-1940s, when world culture was suddenly introduced to America after the Second World War, the farm had lost its charm. I’ve often felt talking to people who knew that war intimately that being in it was like instant psychoanalysis: if you got out alive, you knew who you were.
Ray Parker was twenty-six years old in 1948, played jazz trumpet, and had a brand new M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He had been a radio officer in the Merchant Marine when his ship was drafted into the war for the invasion of Normandy. Radio officers are a special bred: they’ll make a radio out of a fishhook and some tinfoil just to listen to what’s going on in the world. Parker taught in the Midwest for a few years before coming to New York in 1952, where he quickly got to know the first generation of "action painters," including Still, Kline, de Kooning, and Rothko, as well as a few of the "tough guys" from the thirties, like Stuart Davis. They were friendly, available, and encouraging—Still gave Parker and his wife his Cooper Square loft when he left for San Francisco.
Within a surprisingly brief time Parker discovered the monolithic, hovering masses of pure color for which he is best known. I asked his daughter if there was a story attached to that singular moment. She said he had been working "with loaded brushes of colors in one hand," and applying strokes of color in what was called "all-over painting" with the other. His friend Roland Crampton came by to see these works and held up his thumb and forefinger to just one of the small blocks of color and said, "wouldn’t this be a beautiful painting?" Parker called these the "simple paintings." They were immediately successful, and his career took off. He recalled the time as one when artists were supposed to participate in "the myth that a painter must be innocent of the artifice of art." If you were painting, it was by the seat-of-your-pants with rags and sticks—perfect territory for a guy who could make a tinfoil radio.
After a few years at the height of the work’s popularity, Parker quit that myth, and started looking at Arp and Matisse with a new, fresh eye. He started making what he called his "free paintings," examples of which are currently on view at Washburn. In the usual order of artistic development, one might have expected to see these come before the simple paintings. They have a lyricism usually associated with Matisse’s cutouts of the forties, or Stuart Davis’s high-keyed color abstractions. But there is something definitely free and very sixties in Parker’s work of the period. It has scale, size, and shapes one would encounter floating down the Hudson. And it has humor: you can see what Parker was looking at and what he was listening to. He knew from his music that there didn’t have to be anything half-assed or rough about improvisation. You don’t "put" feeling into the work; it’s there or it isn’t. Along with artists like Jack Youngerman and George Sugarman, Parker got what was great in Matisse and Davis, and like any good player, he took the idea into the studio and didn’t come out until he made something new and personal.
The ideas echoed into the seventies and eighties in the work of the pattern and decoration painters, and Parker’s ideas about composition and fit still resonate. Not long after 1975 he would squeeze a line of paint straight from the tube across one of the paintings, and take off on a series of works for which he is as well known as the "simple paintings." The work at Washburn from the sixties and seventies makes the transition. As Parker said in 1975, "Now I could make a screwy shape, even a line! Color, yes! Field, yes! …Changing speeds, multiple rhythms …Yes! Anything, yes! And withal, these new paintings are simple and direct."