• U.S.

Art: Mood & Wonder

3 minute read

Painter Karl Knaths never uses models, for the elementary reason that a model would only hamper him. “Before I start a painting,” he explains, “I have an idea—or a motif—in mind. It could be a piece of a landscape or maybe a still life. From the motif you break into planes to create spaces.” In the spaces he paints the objects and figures central to the motif, at the same time building up an architectural structure usually made of heavy black lines. As the painting progresses, he keeps forms and colors in key with each other, changing them if he has to but never violating the structure. The process is just the reverse of painting from the model: Knaths never knows what the result will be. “You work from the surface of the canvas to a subject,” says he, “rather than from subject to canvas.”

A gentle, big-boned man who was born in Wisconsin. Painter Knaths, 71. has never been a part of any major U.S. art movement. He acknowledges his debt to Cezanne, as well as to Villon and Delaunay for color and Juan Gris for his sense of plane structure. But Knaths (pronounced with the K sounded) paints only like Knaths. for he has always viewed the world through his own private prism.

He is often so abstract that no object can be discerned in his work; but when one is present, it is likely to be derived from around his house in Provincetown. Mass. In the show of Knaths’s work that was on display last week at Manhattan’s Paul Rosenberg & Co., the sailboats and fishermen, wharves and beaches of Cape Cod were all there, transformed into a subtle geometry that partially conceals their identity but thereby achieves what Knaths is after—”mood and wonder.” Knaths never goes in for dramatics. His colors are muted, do not dazzle. He can catch the orange glory of dawn, but he is not interested in the glare of high noon. He suggests the movement inherent in even the still life, but shuns swift outward action. Rather than a storm at sea, he prefers to paint the glistening emptiness of the time when the tide has run out. There is activity in a Knaths painting, but it is contained in a marvelous calm: mood and movement flow, one from the other, as in a slow-motion ballet.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com