In the gallery stands a column eight feet tall, ribbons of opaque plastic spiraling down to an almost classical base. The swirls of pastel and white, the subtle interplay of shadow and light, make the tower appear luminous and unearthly. There's no political statement at work here, no indictment of column-ness or pastel luminescence, no ironic commentary on the cultural context of pink. There's only a column, and some color.
"The content of my art is expressed through the dramatic interplay of form alone," says Seattle artist Francis Celentano. "There is no reference to any subject beyond the art object itself."
Celentano's first one-man show in Eastern Washington opens next week at the EWU Gallery of Art, and the 74-year-old artist will attend the opening reception on Thursday afternoon. A professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Celentano works in the genre of Op Art, using acrylic on canvas and plastic to create geometric abstractions in both two and three dimensions. The show at EWU features mostly recent works completed since 1995, but a few earlier pieces dating back to 1980 demonstrate how Celentano's work has evolved over the years.
"His work is about visual phenomena," says Nancy Hathaway, director of the EWU Gallery of Art. "The artist is manipulating the viewer's visual response. A lot of it really plays with your vision."
As an art student in the 1950s, Celentano came of age at a time when Abstract Expressionism ruled the contemporary art world. Painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning celebrated the process of creation and the glorification of the self as expressed in the process. The resulting abstract images held little or no figurative representation but instead expressed the relationship between the artist and the artwork.
"Abstract Expressionism had the idea of immediacy, of revealing the process of painting," says Celentano. "Like representational painting, Abstract Expressionist paintings showed tactile brushwork, so there was a kind of shifting back and forth. It was not representational, but it was not fully abstract, either. And there was a kind of formal preoccupation of the self with creative expression, in which the medium of painting expresses the self."
While still living in New York, Celentano began working in a style that became known as Hard Edge, a more monumental and static style with no visible brushstrokes. He and other artists were reacting to what they saw as the excesses of self-expressive immediacy in painting, he says. He sought a more timeless expression through a slower-paced representation of form.
"Hard Edge painting was a reversal of all the principles of Abstract Expressionism," Celentano explains. "
From Hard Edge, Celentano shifted into the burgeoning Op Art movement with his creations in black and white. The Op Art painters wanted not only to explore color and contrast but also to aggressively control the viewer's response to their images. Many early Op Art paintings were striking and almost dizzying; they rattled the visual senses. Unlike the expression of self inherent in someone like Pollock, Op Artists tried to transcend the self and create an image that could speak directly to the viewer. In his statement for the current exhibition, Celentano writes: "The expressive appeal of my art is to the viewer's visual sensibility. It is my hope that in this way one can experience visual drama unencumbered by external references."
Many would argue that it's impossible for anyone to climb out of his or her cultural skin long enough to view artwork without external references, and Celentano agrees that this is the challenge of his art. Still, direct and unfettered communication remains the goal. "The viewer will always bring to the work some kind of external references, but you try the best you can," he says with a smile.
Op Art soared to public awareness in 1965 with the exhibition, "The Responsive Eye," at the Musuem of Modern Art in New York, and Celentano's Lavendar Creed was part of that seminal project. Many Op Art images became subsumed in the pop psychedelia of the 1960s, and the movement faded from the main stage almost as quickly as it arrived. But Celentano and a handful of others continued to explore color and light and visual response. Moving to Seattle in the late '60s, he began his long career at the University of Washington, while still advancing his artistic investigations. During the 1980s, he added the third dimension to his work with his first series of columns.
"I was curious about how I could transfer the tension I had gotten in color - whether contrast or harmony - to three dimensions while also working with the vertical format," he says. "I got the idea for a column that twisted in space. I was fascinated by achieving that spiraling movement."
Some of his columns are freestanding, while others appear to float in space. He continued his two-dimensional work as well, playing with orientation and angles. Aspects of collage are apparent in his latest work, he says, as he explores the dynamics of patterning by cutting and recombining strips of color. Now retired from teaching, Celentano focuses entirely on working in his Seattle studio and gallery, trying out new techniques and processes, and never knowing for sure if it will work.
"Work should be exciting," he says. "It should be a challenge."