Carter Ratcliff – An Aqueous Cosmology: The Art of Fredericka Foster

Rhythms fill Fredericka Foster’s paintings of water. Or that is what I am tempted to say after a glance around a roomful of her paintings. Then, when I focus on a single canvas and look for its defining pattern, I see none—no equivalent to the strict regularities of a Minimalist grid or an Op Art design. In short, no rigidity. These are pictures of flow, of current and cross-current. Their rhythms are liquid, which is to say: the moment a rhythm begins, it reaches beyond itself. To see Foster’s art in full is to see just how far her images reach beyond the immediacies of their subject matter. Readily labeled a realist, a recorder of visible facts, she turns out to be a visionary.

Baywater, the title of several recent works, refers to Elliott Bay, in Seattle, the city where Foster was born. When she was still young, she moved with her family to Toledo, Ohio. Near her home was the Toledo Museum of Art, where she had her first immersion in painting. After a few years, the family returned to Seattle and she got to know the collection of the city’s art museum, which includes canvases by such West Coast modernists as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. Though Foster praises them now as “mystic painters,” she did not at first respond to their quasi-abstract intimations of Northwestern skies and the Pacific Ocean. She was, however, keenly alive to her surroundings, an environment she describes as “an iridescent world of humidity, rain, lakes . . .”

The bays and inlets of Puget Sound reach into Seattle, shaping its ground plan, making the city a place of mists and showers and prismatic light. Yet Seattle is home to thoroughly metropolitan ways of life and the environment often fades from the screen of everyday attentiveness. The rain is hardly noticed. Fog becomes an inconvenience—but not for Foster, who never collaborates with urbanity’s indifference to its surroundings. One of her studios is in a Seattle neighborhood overlooking Elliott Bay, a site she seems to have endowed with talismanic significance.

Foster finds her images in photographs of water, pictures taken with an eye for the rippling choppiness of particular surfaces illuminated by particular qualities of light. Travelling widely with her husband, Ben Shapiro, she has photographed and subsequently painted the waters of Lake Geneva and the River Seine. Baybird, 2009, originated in a photograph of the Delaware River as it flows past Foster’s Pennsylvania studio. She has a studio in Manhattan, as well. Like every American artist, Foster acknowledges New York as the center of the art world. Nonetheless, the center of her art is in the Northwestern landscape—or waterscape—where she grew up.

Foster takes hundreds of pictures, hoping to find one with a future as a painting. This can be a difficult search. We like to say that a photograph captures a moment. We could just say as well that it freezes the moment, imprisoning it in an image that drifts further into the past with every succeeding moment. So it is not obvious how Foster turns the frozen stillness of a photograph into the moving stillness of a painting. Nor, I suppose, is it clear what I mean by moving stillness. My attempt to make sense of this phrase begins with an account of the artist’s process.

Foster mixes picture-taking with a great deal of looking, a kind of meditation on the body of water she has chosen to photograph. She attends to its colors, its degree of agitation, and the local, always shifting zones where colors change. Memories of these details guide her as she makes a drawing after the photograph, not trying to reproduce the camera-image but to feel her way into its rhythms. As forms emerge, the artist feels a certain demand—a “morphologic imperative,” as she calls it. She moves from drawing to painting to meet that demand, to reply to the subject’s need to be fully perceived.

Before Foster picks up a brush, she draws on canvas with charcoal. At this point, she is still bringing the “morphologic imperative” into focus, clarifying her understanding of the complexities she is about to paint. The next step is not predetermined. If the image is extremely complex, Foster may make a value study, to establish the range of light and dark tones. Or she may begin by giving the canvas an overall wash of a single color—burnt sienna, possibly, or ultramarine blue. Preliminaries completed, she begins grappling with her subject, conveniently called water. It is more accurate to say that Foster paints watery phenomena: fluid surges and luminous streaks that vanish even as they are seen.

The history of Western painting is a story of small steps, as painters learned to make convincing images of three-dimensional things on two-dimensional surfaces. Of course, the pictorial effect of volume can never entirely overcome the palpable fact of flatness. To see a painter’s image of a globe as rounded and immersed in space, we must collaborate with the artist’s intention, as indicated by certain devices—tonal modeling, chiefly, though there are others. A self-evident point: however we see the image, as flat or as volumetric, it is static. Over the millennia, this stasis has given paintings a portion of their authority: from the flux of experience, artists snatches something permanent, even eternal.

Foster has mastered the ancient and still lively challenge of depicting volume on a flat surface, so we can, if we like, see her restless images of water as if they were motionless landscapes. Some—Baywater Diptych, 2009, for instance—look like hilly deserts, in form if not in color. This reading is a bit forced, I admit, yet it has the virtue of indicating the first step along a path that will bring us to a full view of Foster’s wide-reaching art. This first step is one a formalist critic might make: to describe the relations between flat canvas and volumetric image melodramatically, as an irreconcilable conflict.

As it happens, there is no conflict. Canvas and image belong to different orders of experience—one physical, the other imaginative—and they are easily reconciled. Yet formalist melodrama began to creep into the avant-garde idea of painting about a century and a half ago, offering the painter a drastic choice: the certainties of flatness or uncertainties of the image—one or the other, you can’t have both. Because this choice is not only drastic but false, no painter can make it. Nonetheless, certain predilections are detectable. In the paintings of Edouard Manet, for example, we see a flattening of the image. His pictorial devices seem to be merging with the plane of the canvas. It’s as if the pictorial want to be physical. Images want to be objects.

Both wishes were eventually granted by Minimalism, which evolved not from sculpture but from the line of increasingly non-illusionist painting launched by Manet. As this line split and ramified and became entangled in itself, it generated endless innovations, one of which gave painters a new prominence in their work. Growing flatter, images knowingly compromised their powers of depiction. Traditionally, one looked through an image to its subject. In the art of Manet’s heirs, images encouraged viewers to see them first as displays of pictorial devices. The focus was on the devices themselves, as emblems of the painter’s will. The artist had become the primary subject of art. This was a momentous development, and it now seems thoroughly exhausted. Foster was never touched by it.

She is, of course, acutely present in her work. She has a distinctive touch, an immediately recognizable style, and yet she is not her primary subject. Her art is about water, the elusive truth of its appearance or it is about that elusiveness. Covering the canvas with gleaming undulations, she draws one into a kind of seeing remembered from early childhood—a fascination with the world’s motion, whether in clouds or foliage or water. Later in life, we look with a definable purpose. We see what we need to see in order to get something done. Earlier, our looking is freer. It drifts into a synchronicity with its object, especially if it is amorphous and unbounded—an ocean of water, for example. Because this gaze is not focused on a goal, we say that it is unfocused. Just the opposite is the case, as Foster proves with her paintings. This is proof not by argument but by seductiveness.

There is no end to the pleasure of seeing, of minutely noticing, the way her lines flow into one another, the way a line becomes a sinuous form and a form becomes a quiet surge of color. Color becomes light, and even the darker passages of her paintings are luminous. Drawn to their shimmering, sinuous life, we are moved—and so a play on words brings me back to the moving stillness I mentioned earlier. I don’t want lean too heavily on a pun, yet puns have something to teach us here, for they depend on shifts in meaning. Similarly, our readings of Foster’s images undergo constant change.

An elongated highlight may look like a quiet pool of keyed-up color until one looks away, then back, and sees it now as the burst of energy that animates its immediate surroundings. As readings give way to rereadings, we realize that it is impossible to memorize Foster’s paintings. With each look, we start anew, making fresh sense of what we are seeing. These images are forever coalescing into new configurations, not literally, but in our experience, and so we arrive at another sense in which they are moving—in contrast to photographs of water, which are frozen into a superficial exactitude.

The surfaces of Foster’s painted ripples and waves imply immeasurable depths, though I don’t deny that we can, in practical fact, measure the depths of oceans and lakes. Whatever the facts, Foster’s art persuades us to imagine infinities. Absorbed by her endlessly expansive present, we have reason to wonder if she finds in water a symbol of everything. This is a sympathetic idea. After all, Earth is called the “water planet” and our embryonic development shows that we evolved from aquatic creatures. Terrestrial now, we still feel an affinity for the aqueous medium, though not always consciously. Taking it for an indispensible feature of reality, an equivalent to space or time or gravity, we have an unarticulated faith in water as an omnipresent essence.

Alive with that faith, Foster’s paintings articulate it visually. They are, so to speak, portraits of an essence, an absolute, a universal. I call them portraits even though universals are general and her paintings of water are not. Each is vividly specific. And each is a variant on all the others. Flowing from a single source, they all flow back to that place of origin. Hinting at the scale of the intuitions that drive her, Foster has noted that, “In Tibetan cosmology, water represents life’s veins.”

An observation like this confronts the art critic with danger, a trap set not by the artist but by criticism’s routines. Having found a clue in the artist’s talk, the critic follows it, like a detective, to a defensible conclusion—defensible but not always plausible. For instance, I might work up Foster’s comment about “life’s veins” into an account of her art as an illustration of Tibetan cosmology. My first step would be to investigate Tibet’s visionary traditions. My findings in hand, I would fit them to Foster’s images—a simple task. Writers quickly learn that they can link an image to just about any theme, though the results of this procedure are rarely convincing. In this instance, whatever I might say about Tibetan cosmology would be trivial, a bit of erudition patched together for the occasion. Moreover, it would be wrong-headed to argue that Foster’s paintings illustrate this theme or any other.

Still, she begins with photographs that do indeed count as illustrations: images grappled tightly to their subjects by links of representational accuracy. Those links dissolve as Foster launches a canvas, though I am not saying that her paintings are inaccurate representations of water. What I am saying is that they are more than merely accurate. And more than representations, though it is not a simple matter to say how. The artist helps her audience when she mentions water and the veins of life. That is, she would like to help us, and it is up to us to take her comment the right way—not reducing it to a clue to a delimited meaning but letting it sail free, into the zone of speculative thought and feeling where meanings are as expansive as we can make them. Foster’s quotation from Tibetan cosmology, of which I know nothing, reminds me of the ancient Greek cosmologists, whose fragmentary pronouncements I have been reading for years.

Everything is made of water, said Thales of Miletus, in the sixth century B.C. More precisely, everything originates as water and will at some time return to a watery state. According to Heraclitus, the animating principle is fire, and it seems odd at first that Thales would agree more with Tibetan tradition than with another Greek. On second thought, no question of truth or falsehood arises here—or not for me, though historians of Western thought sift through the writings of Thales, Heraclitus, and other Pre-Socratic thinkers for statements that might somehow count as true. These historians are looking for the origins of modern science, and they find them, thereby rendering the Pre-Socratics obsolete—but, again, not for me, because I read their writings not as premature physics but as works of the imagination and thus renewed in the moment of rereading.

Understood as poetry, Thales’s claim about water is neither true nor false but a speculation about the unity of all being. Moreover, Heraclitus’s fire does not contradict Thales’s water so much as cast it into a different mode. Presumably, his temperament was different from Thales’s. What the two have in common is an inclination to think at the scale of the cosmos and to use language as the medium of their thoughts. Thinking, feeling, and imagining at the same scale, Foster’s medium is of course not the poetry of the cosmologists but paint on canvas. She renders visible her intuitions of being, and that is why we can never see her paintings once for all. Being is inexhaustible and further looking is always in order.

Hers is a serenely ecstatic vision, and I have emphasized all that is encouraging, all that is reassuring about her art. Yet her vision would not be complete if it were entirely happy. Some of the colors in the gorgeous surfaces of her paintings are caused by pollution. We know of this problem. No doubt we fret about it on occasion. Mostly, though, we carry on as if water were a magically self-renewing substance. To warn us against this complacency, Foster allows hints of danger to tinge her paintings. And with the unbounded beauty of these canvases, she reminds us of all that we have put at risk.