By Teresa Annas
The Barry Art Museum at Old Dominion University is unveiling its first temporary exhibition, a nearly five-decade retrospective of New York abstract painter Joan Thorne.
"Joan Thorne: Light, Layers, Insight" opens to the public on Feb. 1. Thorne will deliver a free, public lecture at the museum at 4 p.m. that day.
Installed in an upstairs gallery, 28 large-scale oil paintings and two multi-media works on paper will showcase the artist's works. She is a colorist whose work is informed by her study and friendship with major figures in the history of modern art, and moreover is driven by her frequent travels, dreams and other intuitive sources. The display spans the early 1970s through 2018 and reveals the evolution of her work.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog with essays by Vittorio Colaizzi, associate professor of art at ODU, and Richard Vine, managing editor of Art in America magazine. The catalog is published by the museum, with a foreword by Jutta-Annette Page, executive director. It will be sold at the museum for $20.
It was important to leadership at the museum, which opened in the fall of 2018, to debut its changing exhibition program with a show focusing on a woman or minority artist, Page wrote in the foreword, "whose body of work demonstrated a committed creative arc with a strong and unique artistic voice, and whose work resonated with the permanent collection." Thorne's work relates especially to the 20thcentury American modernist paintings collected by museum founders Carolyn and Richard Barry. Such art also is a core subject in the university's art history curriculum.
Thorne's approach links her to key directions in midcentury modernist art. She began painting seriously in the 1960s as a plethora of styles emerged, including pop art and minimalism. Thorne, born in 1943, kept to her own path, primarily a continuation of explorations of energy and metaphor begun in the 1940s by the abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock.
"Her instinctive approach to painting is always energized by a strong sense of place experienced during extensive travel and artist residencies, including a Prix de Rome in Visual Arts awarded by the American Academy," Page wrote. "Complex, independent layers of shapes and patterns in luminous colors characterize her intuitive brushwork.
"Her paintings' strong visual effects both come to greater focus and dissolve when seen up close. A challenge to be captured digitally and in print, they invite contemplation and demand to be seen in person."
Artist Faith Ringgold has said that Thorne's paintings "are other-worldly. They have a beauty about them that's very compelling because of her highly developed technique, absolutely gorgeous colors, and musical metaphors.
"It's as if music is playing color."
The artist is often subject to synesthesia - "the experiencing of color as sound, and sound as color," and this impacts her work, Vine wrote in his essay.
Raised in New York City, Thorne attended a progressive school where teachers exhibited her work and effusively praised her, Vine wrote. She began painting seriously while an undergraduate at New York University.
As an MFA student at the City University of New York's Hunter College, she connected with sculptor Tony Smith, her advisor, who also encouraged her.
She later found a mentor in New York School painter Jack Tworkov.
In 1972, while still in her twenties, she was in an important group show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. At that time, the Manhattan museum's invitational show was an annual affair that drew international attention; thereafter it became the still-career-changing "Biennial."
The national exposure led to a 1973 solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. In 1979 top critic Barbara Rose included Thorne in a significant show at NYU's Grey Art Gallery -"American Painting: The Eighties," which Rose asserted was "dedicated to the preservation of painting as a transcendental high art."
Since then Thorne has exhibited worldwide at museums in France, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This year she will be included in the prestigious "Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts" at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, where she lives.
She has painted continuously since the 1970s, and her work has moved through several phases, which are represented in the survey show.
Page and Colaizzi co-organized the exhibition. Colaizzi is an abstract painter as well as a scholar in contemporary and modern art and wrote about Thorne in 2016 for the Woman's Art Journal. His classes this year will emphasize Thorne's significance as an artist who has expanded painterly language and as a precursor to the recent revitalization of abstract painting among younger artists.
The earliest painting in the show is noteworthy. Thorne told Colaizzi that "Amphra," painted in 1972, contains the visual language seen in all of her subsequent work. The mixed-media canvas features "eccentric, overlapping planes, waving tendrils, and dappled marks," he wrote in his essay.
"I think of my paintings as mystical," Thorne told Colaizzi and Page. "They look like they come from the subconscious.
"I think all my life I've been painting ecstasy."
Vine wrote in his essay that "Amphra" "resulted directly from a dream she had while visiting Mayan ruins." He added that her art is "a direct transcription of her sense of the world as pure energy, a view that combines traditional Eastern aesthetics with contemporary Western science."
Her art models the way painting can be, Colaizzi wrote, "open to the wider world and dependent for their full resonance on the viewer's acceptance of her invitation to travel through their layers."
"Joan Thorne: Light, Layers, Insight" continues through May 10. The museum, located at 1075 W. 43rd St., Norfolk on ODU's campus, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, call (757) 683-6200 or visit this link.