Art Nerd New York | Los Angeles


John Havens Thornton: A Survey of Paintings Spanning 50 years, 1964-2014
Curated by Gregory De la Haba and Laetitia Lina

Fifth Avenue north of the Flatiron building may not seem like a neighborhood for enjoying fine art, but as the art world grows, it has started to permeate unlikely addresses in the city. With seasonal art installations in Madison Square Park and the addition of fine art to the risqué Museum of Sex nearby, Amstel Gallery at The Yard has a few fitting neighbors as a pioneer of art amongst the less-glamorous part of Fifth Avenue. The multi-floor space is nestled alongside creative coworkers, meshing contemplative visual art with small companies and freelancers who rent space at the creative hive as a place to make ideas happen. Appropriately, the walls are activated not with printed canvases of stones or leaves from IKEA, but instead inspiring exhibitions that rotate like any other gallery.

JHT Together

The latest installation at Amstel Gallery is like an art history lesson itself, telling the tale of The Painter Who Left New York- long before moving out of the city was a common headline in artsy journals. John Havens Thornton studied at Princeton with classmate Frank Stella, exploring the Abstract Expressionist and original bohemian art scene of New York during the late 1950s, before decided to retreat to Boston, Massachusetts in 1963. Thornton continued his oeuvre for the next five decades, allowing himself to immerse into his paintings, rather than the politics of the New York art world. His last exhibition in New York was in 1967 at the Whitney Museum of Art, until now.

Divided between four floors of the building, John Havens Thornton : A Survey of Paintings Spanning 50 Years, 1964-2014, is like a narrative into the essence of Thornton’s life, a progression of work that coincides with the passing of the years.

JHT 1966 Double Tree
Like his classmate Frank Stella, Thornton has focused on color, line, space and surface throughout his works. Yet Stella focused on precision, while Thornton’s style has dimensionality, a hint that something is beneath the surface. His early works impressed a feeling of calmness on me. Minimalist lines are given life and movement with imperfections and subtle color variations. One exemplar piece is Double Tree, which at first appears as a simple line painting, but with further gaze seemed like a tiny vignette into a scene I could not make out, as if catching a glimpse of a colorful world through lines drawn with a finger on a fogged up window. The not-knowing, something I am not used to in minimalist works, intrigues me, gets my imagination going, and made me think about this pieces long after it was before me.

JHT 1987-88 Vinny's ball series 3 - boxes under staircase

As the years passed, Thornton expanded his what I’ll call “dimensional lines,” in pieces that seem to have taken influence from Aztec design, paper collage, and in the late 1980s, Di Chirico. Whether or not these essences were intentional, the pieces left my mind swirling with ideas and inferences, leaving me with the presumption that Thornton was trying to tell me something somewhere beneath each line.

JHT 1970s yellow ties 20 x 24 in

If you breeze by Thornton’s pieces, say from your rented desk to the water cooler, you could completely miss their magic. These pieces are meant to defy the time-allowance of modernity (coming from someone who schedules Instagram posts while water boils, or answering emails from my mother while on the subway), they are meant to be looked at, taken in, and thought about. Yes, that means detaching from technology for a moment to truly understand their weight and serenity. No, they won’t look good on Instagram, they just do not translate. Even here in JPEG form, Thornton’s obscured meaning in texture is lost, you will have to trust me on this.

If you have a chance to see the exhibition and have limited time, do the work a favor, and do not try to see it all. Start at the early works and give them time. You’ll see how Thornton has lived up to his contemporaries he showed alongside at The Whitney’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1967, albeit quietly.


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