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by Mario Naves

The American artist Lee Krasner once told a story about a 1942 meeting between Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock, then not yet her husband and with his drip paintings some half decade in the future.

Hofmann, a German emigre and influential teacher, had hobnobbed with Picasso and Matisse, and he commanded some­thing close to awe amongst New York painters -- most New York painters, anyway. Standing in Pollock's studio, Hofmann noticed there were no still life set-ups or modeling stands -- that is to say, none of the traditional accoutrement of an artist. Hofmann asked: "Do you work from nature?" To which Pollock famously replied: "I am nature."

This story came to mind when looking at the paintings and collages of the contemporary Swiss painter, H.A. Sigg. Not that Sigg's work confuses art and nature, nor is it predicated on Pollock's specific example, though its grand scale and heady ambitions share deep-seated commonalities with The New York School.

Rather, it is the notion of a painter channeling the rhythms, majesty and independence of the natural world for his own aesthetic purposes. For an artist to do so with any credibility, he must approach the world around him with no little humility. Nature, after all, is hugely unforgiving. It's not a subject to be bested (as the Pollock anecdote suggests), but a phenomenon to be absorbed, transformed and made revelatory.

Sigg is an abstract painter for whom blunt compositions, evanescent runs of pigment and monumental forms serve as experiential transcriptions of nature. He captures the world not as a multiplicity of things, but as an overriding presence and a conduit for reverie.

True, Sigg's titles sometimes offer clues for the sources of the imagery -- rivers are referred to, as are branches. That his brush­ work alternately flows, winds and darts can bring to mind rushing water, a drift of clouds or a sharp break of light. But these markers are far from literal. What counts -- and connects -- is how they embody nature's grandeur.

It comes as little surprise to learn that Sigg's pictorial structures originated or, at least, gained in emphasis after his tenure as Swissair's "artist-in-residence in the sky" in 1968. Occupying a privileged seat in the plane's cockpit, he made sketches of the land that would lead to canvases comprised of immovable tracts of color, shape and space. Sigg is in fine company here: the American painter Richard Diebenkorn also took inspi­ration from aerial views of the land. Not for nothing do both men parcel their compositions into broad planes of roughhewn geometry.

More than 40 years later, Sigg continues to evoke a distinct sense of distance and scope, if through more dis­tilled means. Even at the most simplified -- as in the totemic Small Sign I, say, or Encounter I (both 2007) --­ Sigg's images retain a certain topographical character, as forms of equal weight and density abut and define each other. This is equally true of the intimately scaled collages, wherein a modest format doesn't disallow the panoramic.

The artist's affinities with the Abstract Expressionists are self-evident, self-admitted and instructive. Sigg's admiration for Robert Motherwell's heroic slabs of incident and Mark Rothko's moody blurs of color have been remarked upon. Muscularity and, especially, mysticism are shared artistic constants: For Sigg, the act of put­ting brush to canvas is a means of making the ineffable concrete.

That this pursuit is paradoxical, particularly for an artist who prizes the physicality of his materials, is an irony not lost on Sigg. Seeking "tranquility and [a] meditative state," he applies acrylics both with gritty insistence and airy nuance. Translucent and sometimes brusque variations of blue, purple, copper and, in Small Sign I (2007), an unexpected jolt of orange flutter and accumulate, making for pictures that are simultaneously imposing and ethereal, undeniable and almost not there. Sigg puts this conundrum into motion with fluid and searching persistence.

But other precedents inform the work. Sigg's early devotion to Pierre Bonnard and his deceivingly placid domestic vignettes is evident in feathered brushwork and a sonorous palette, in how layers of color evoke emo­tive and sometimes fleeting states of being.

Paul Klee's impeccable geometries are in the mix, as are the late landscapes of Ferdinand Hodler, wherein the distinction between land and water is rendered all but negligible. It's not too much of a stretch to liken Sigg's Course of the Rivers III (2010) to Hodler's Caux Landscape With Rising Clouds (1917) -- there's the same dramatic rush of movement, the same stoic delicacy and awe.

<p> If comparisons to his fellow countrymen seem pat, then it should be noted that Sigg's travels have led him to locales outside the West -- to India and Cambodia, Thailand and China. Surely, the qualities Sigg gleaned from Asian art are its brevity and momentum, its sensuality, elegance and burnished tonalities. The viewer can readily intuit the pivotal role calligraphy plays in Sigg's oeuvre, wherein a balletic line serves as a point of focus and animation. This is particularly true in the collages, where in Sigg's brush can skitter like an animal (Collage XV, 2007)or take on a majesty that belies its size (Collage VI, 2007). Certainly, the artist uses paper with a respect and sensitivity that is con­gruent with the art of, say, Japan and India.

Ultimately, art transcends the local to divulge and confirm longings and ambitions common to cultures the world over. That's why we value art: It brings clarity and order to an otherwise bewildering existence. In that regard, Sigg's is a remarkably humane art, providing, as it does, a necessary respite from life's complications. Standing in front of one of his sweeping decla­rations of color and space, we take in its slow and steady gravity, its insistence that there is more here than meets the eye. And it's that "more" that transfixes the viewer, reminding us that art is nothing if it doesn't provide solace and meaning. That is Sigg's daunting objective and his significant accomplishment.

Mario Naves' writing has been published in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, Smithsonian, ARTS Magazine, New Art Examiner, Tema Celeste and The New York Observer, where his column, “Currently Hanging”, appeared on a weekly basis from 1999-2009. He writes reviews of contemporary art for The New Criterion. He has taught and lectured at Cooper Union, The New York Studio School, The National Academy of Design, The Henry Street Settlement, Montclair State University, The New York Public Library, The Art Directors Club, The Ringling College of Art and Design, Rutgers University and the University of Utah, where he was named a distinguished alumni in 2010. He teaches at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College and Hofstra University. He is an artist, critic and teacher. His art is a form of painting disguised as collage. His criticism abjures the marketplace for what meets the eye and his teaching encourages burgeoning artists to question just what it is exactly they’re getting into and how to do it well. His work is represented by Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea. It has been written about in The New York Times, Art in America, The New York Sun, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, ArtCritical.com, Abstract Art Online and other venues. He has been the recipient of awards from The National Endowment for the Arts, The E.D. Foundation, the George Sugarman Foundation, The National Academy of Design and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.

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