Natkin, Robert

Robert Natkin discovered his calling at age 17, in Chicago, when he opened a book and stumbled on the intense abstract art of Paul Klee. He was stunned by the beauty, the color harmonies, and the “music” in Klee’s work.

Natkin is a colorist by instinct and inclination, though he didn’t know it until he encountered Klee. Born in Chicago to dysfunctional parents, he struggled against their resistance in order to become a painter. His father, a failed tap dancer, regularly took his son to the theatre. Like many artists, Natkin has strong visual memories left from childhood. He still recalls the brilliant – even magical – colors of the stage curtain, which transported him to a new dimension as it lifted. When he came across Klee, and later Bonnard and Matisse – three of modernism’s greatest colorists – he was instantly charmed. They taught him that color carries psychological heat. The viewer, drawn in by patterns and textures, celebrated a kind of intimacy with the artist and the work.

For Natkin, such intimacy is vitally important. It presents the possibility of escape from the daily pain of existence, and in a larger sense, from the worldly cycles of creation and destruction. Natkin believes that decorative art, which is concerned foremost with pleasure, embodies the human desire for compassion toward other beings and release from dark and destructive realities.

Pulled toward New York in the 1950s by the growing force of Abstract Expressionism. Natkin looked up fellow Chicago expatriate Robert Indiana, who took him to the local artists’ bars (including the famous Cedar Tavern). Surrounded by such powerful painters a Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, Natkin adopted many of their intuitive working methods. A ferocious fan of jazz, he paints with the same mix of conscious planning and improvisation. “I feel like I’m a scat artist – like a jazz singer,” he says.

In Natkin’s buoyant and energetic manner is something of the eternally awestruck child. His art, in parallel with his personality, uses formal devices of shape and color – the “plot” – to chart the open canvas of primal feeling. Despite his preference for gorgeous colors, he believes there are passages of intense pathos and even fear embedded in the atmosphere of his paintings. The dark moods are redeemed by the eye’s journey back into beauty.