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Small figures in a vast expanse 

See the Armstrong collection, a gift to Cal Poly, at Paso's Pierce Modern Gallery

Artist Duane Armstrong is talking rapidly about sales. He’s briefing me on appraisal, marketing, framing, shipping, and retail. Impressive figures are whizzing by like rockets.

“When you get to this level, you’re not dealing in pictures anymore,” he says, a mixture of pride and rue in his voice.

- PLANNED SPONTANEITY:  Pictured is an untitled piece by artist Duane Armstrong, who cites the work of Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Mark Tobey as an inspiration for his many series, which vary from abstract expressionism to realistic portraits of the natural world. -  - ARTWORK BY DUANE ARMSTRONG; IMAGE COURTESY OF PIERCE MODERN GALLERY
  • ARTWORK BY DUANE ARMSTRONG; IMAGE COURTESY OF PIERCE MODERN GALLERY
  • PLANNED SPONTANEITY: Pictured is an untitled piece by artist Duane Armstrong, who cites the work of Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Mark Tobey as an inspiration for his many series, which vary from abstract expressionism to realistic portraits of the natural world.

Armstrong should know. The painter, raised near San Luis Obispo and the Santa Clara Valley, became a sensation in the ’70s. His “Fields of Grass” series, tranquil depictions of vast fields of green or gold—in whose stalks he often hid a tiny ladybug, a detail that became a de facto trademark—enjoyed international popularity. Sales of his prints were up there with Norman Rockwell’s. Today, Armstrong’s signed prints (16-by-16-inch bits of paper, mind you) sell for $2,500 to $3,000 each. Today, they are an investment. They stopped being art long ago.

But despite the high price tag on his work—which ranges in style from abstract expressionism to melancholically expansive, near-photographic visions of rurality—Armstrong still maintains that “art should be for the public, and for free.” He and his wife, fellow artist Annie Armstrong, regularly donate art to hospitals and universities, where the work can be appreciated by thousands, rather than stay tucked away in a private home where it will only be enjoyed by a few.

“It doesn’t wear it out to look at it!” he repeats emphatically.

The couple recently donated a collection of 59 oil paintings, valued at nearly $2 million, to Cal Poly’s Graphic Communications program. This move, while wonderful, is not out of the ordinary for the Armstrongs, who have given generously to such institutions of higher learning as Stanford and Duke. But this artistic windfall is intended to be sold, with profits benefiting the university. Paso Robles fine art purveyor Pierce Modern Gallery was chosen to display and market the collection, which will hang throughout December.

- FLOWER FACES :  Annie Armstrong, Duane’s wife and fellow painter, favors nature studies, specifically the intriguing curves of seashells and flowers, seen up close. -  - ARTWORK BY ANNIE ARMSTRONG; IMAGE COURTESY OF PIERCE MODERN GALLERY
  • ARTWORK BY ANNIE ARMSTRONG; IMAGE COURTESY OF PIERCE MODERN GALLERY
  • FLOWER FACES : Annie Armstrong, Duane’s wife and fellow painter, favors nature studies, specifically the intriguing curves of seashells and flowers, seen up close.

When I contacted Armstrong to talk about the donation, he gave me the business angle first: quantities, logistics, prices. I found this strange—wouldn’t an artist much prefer to discuss his creative process? Yes, it turns out. An artist of Armstrong’s age and success level must have become quite proficient in handling the numbers side, at describing what he does in a purely technical, objective sense. Perhaps experience had informed him that’s what reporters wanted to hear; I’m not sure. But when queried about his technique and inspiration, Armstrong certainly brightened.

“Oh, the only excitement is in making the things,” he readily admitted.

The artists of the New York School, most noticeably Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, are a marked influence on him. He cites Kline in particular, whose method of enlarging a small, hasty sketch using a Bell-Opticon projector, then carefully reproducing its carefree strokes in far bigger dimensions, inspired Armstrong to create works like the one pictured: exercises in planned spontaneity.

He references Mark Tobey as an influence as well, and such works as Armstrong’s Climbers or Star Cluster contain traces of Tobey’s intricate abstractions. But Armstrong, by contrast, is more wont to place these abstract forms in the context of the natural, making them cliffs or skies.

- CLARITY AND ABSTRACTION:  The Duane Armstrong collection is on display at Pierce Modern Gallery at 917 12th St. in downtown Paso Robles, through December. Visit piercemodern.com or call the gallery at 975-4860. -
  • CLARITY AND ABSTRACTION: The Duane Armstrong collection is on display at Pierce Modern Gallery at 917 12th St. in downtown Paso Robles, through December. Visit piercemodern.com or call the gallery at 975-4860.

Annie Armstrong began her artistic pursuits, by comparison to her husband, recently, meaning she’s been painting for the last 25 years. Several of her nature studies, with special emphasis on shells and the intriguing depths of flowers’ faces, are included in the collection.

But where she zooms in, he often pans out: Armstrong’s landscapes are so sweeping in scope as to seem tragic. When there are people in them, they are miniscule and distant. Their efforts—kite-flying, rock-climbing—appear cutely insignificant, like ladybugs hiking up blades of grass. And when the pictures are empty of people altogether, you feel as if you’d somehow wandered away and gotten lost, and—senses sharpened, perhaps, by this sinking realization—had discovered, as if for the first time, all that is lovely and lonely about the natural
world.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner embodies all that is lovely and lonely about the journalism world. Send ink-dipped typewriters to aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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