Roland Petersen goes on an artistic picnic every day. His basket of influence includes the push-pull of Hans Hofmann, symbolism of Miró, character of Cézanne and harmony of Seurat. Under this umbrella of art history, Petersen fills up on abstract feasts of color, texture and form. Light and shadow play never-ending games on canvases blanketed in paint. A rhythm of contradiction connects figure, landscape and still life in a seamless swirl of romantic brushstrokes.
As the Bay Area artist explains, “Everything is in opposition to everything else. I push here. I pull there. Up. Down. In. Out. It’s all in a state of flux.” In addition to the formal component of Hofmann’s technique, Petersen pits a chorus of concepts against each other in his paintings. Somehow everything just works. Amorphous forms compliment linear shapes, paint’s transparency cuddles with its opacity and Pollock-like immediacy bonds with Mondrian-esque order. In addition, the settings are festive but the figures are stiff – a juxtaposition that suggests something is about to happen. That tension vibrates off the work, suspending time and place indefinitely. “As I’m working I’m striving to achieve this kind of lonely, nostalgic quality,” he says.
There’s a formulaic depth to the Picnic Series that is similar to Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings in that both combine abstract, realistic and specifically Californian approaches to art. However, Petersen’s comprehensive vision has evolved over six decades of working with the same subject matter. His conceptual-based canvases are steeped in ideology and include compositional techniques from the ancient Egyptians, Symbolists, Cubists, Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists and Bay Area Figurativists. Petersen’s signature style borrows from tradition to strike a modern balance between math and music.
Petersen plays with hues the way songwriters arrange notes. From Beethoven’s emotionally stormy compositions in C minor to the Beatles experimental instrumentation on Sgt. Pepper’s, architectural fingerprints are left behind that link sound to musician. The same is true when dissecting the crescendo of color on a Petersen canvas. Warm reds, yellows and oranges dance with cool blues, greens and purples in a uniquely satisfying order. Finding that original chemistry between style and structure is the key to artist recognition.
Underneath the luminous layers of paint that Petersen splashes on, is a complex checkerboard of geometry. “I’ll usually start with a vertical line,” he explains. “I break the canvas up into all these sections that I could play with. After working in a certain area, I’ll shift my focus to the horizontal. Then, I come in with diagonals and start to work with curves. Everything has to fall in proportion and relate to that first line.” The underpainting gives his work realistic qualities, but its true character lies in the ambiguity of the puzzle pieces he manipulates. “The realism that I’m using is abstraction. I try to look at everything with this sense of geometric order, whether it’s an atmospheric form or a solid form, but then to distill that in some fashion is my challenge. It’s a fascinating experience for me to take very abstract shapes and then to reorganize them inside out, upside down, as many variations as I can think of.”
Before Petersen pushes paint, he’s creating works on paper – black ink outline with beautiful watercolor or gouache detail. His large canvases are often conglomerations of five or six sketches mixed and matched until the right mood is achieved. If a figure isn’t working on the bottom right of a canvas, he’ll move it to the middle. Sometimes he’ll scale back a full body to just a head or an arm. Using highly saturated, thickly applied color, each canvas has up to 30 paintings stacked on top of one another. Trees, clouds and objects shift multiple times constantly abstracting the work and adding thickness until he’s satisfied that the equation has been solved. “My work is always changing,” Petersen says. “Each day is a different painting; it’s never a continuation.” If the lighting, the subjects or even Petersen’s attitude shifts, he simply goes with the flow, knowing that the art often has more interesting things to say than the original intention. “I remember I had this one-person show, and a young man came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Petersen, can you explain what you’re doing here? This shadow is going one way, and this shadow is going the other. What’s going on here?’ I said, ‘The sun moved.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah.’”
Roland Petersen lives and works in the California coastal town of Pacifica, along scenic Highway 1. He and his wife, photographer Caryl Ritter, enjoy the Yosemite-like backdrop from the towering cliffs outside their home. They also have an apartment on Nob Hill in San Francisco, where they spend time on their balcony counting American flags flapping atop buildings below. Petersen wears a neatly trimmed, grey beard and a smile gracefully. His words come from a deeply educated mind but are spoken softly. He turned 82 this year, but his eyes are far from weary. A visionary gleam bounces off them as he discusses his favorite subject. “I live art. I breathe art. I’m always thinking of art,” Petersen exclaims. He admits he sees art in absolutely everything – he can’t ride a train without compositions popping in and out of his head, and says colors swirl in his dreams. By six o’clock each morning, he’s got a paintbrush in his hand. He works until nine, has some breakfast and then heads back to the studio to paint until lunch. After a peaceful walk, he’s eager to get back to the easel where he camps out until five. This routine is what makes his world turn.
Roland’s parents were married in San Francisco. His mom gave birth to him during an extended honeymoon in Denmark in 1926. A couple of years later they moved back to the City by the Bay in time for the Great Depression. Like most families back then, times were extremely tough. Mr. Petersen was a seaman and quite handy. He found resourceful ways to make money. Despite the hard work, Bank of America foreclosed on their home, which ironically was on Bush Street (Interesting how history repeats itself). The family was knocked down, but not out.
They moved into a building Roland’s uncle owned on 14th Street before saving up enough cash to buy a place in the Twin Peaks area. San Francisco was quite different in the 1930’s. The Embarcadero had trains running through it, the streetcars on Market had cowcatchers and there were no one-way streets. A young Roland loved going to the zoo with his mother and had already developed an affinity to art. “From when I was a child I was always drawing. I liked to copy all sorts of things out of magazines and comic books. I just liked the idea of making something from nothing – giving a blank piece of paper life.”
In junior high and high school, Roland’s curious mind tuned in to racing pigeons. He had a loft atop his roof, 30 birds at a time and a need for speed. Each morning as the sun rose and each afternoon until the sunset, Roland climbed to the loft where he trained the pigeons by waving a large flagpole to keep them flying. After building up their endurance, he was ready to challenge other fanciers – many from Europe where the sport is popular. Young birds would race 25 miles; the older ones would go 200 miles or more. The fanciers attached special bands to each pigeon that was set to a clock. The timer started once the flock was liberated. Once each bird came through the opening in the loft, the band was removed, inserted into the clock and the times were recorded. The owner of the fastest bird won $25.
Watching the birds fly set Roland’s spirits free, but the events of the world at the time did the opposite. He had just turned 16 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and there was fear that their next attack could come through the Port of San Francisco. Like all Americans, the Petersens made sacrifices for the good of the country. They saved tin foil and string, dealt with gas rationing and even grew their own food. Dad became a block warrant checking the neighborhoods each night to make sure all the lights were out. Roland used his art skills to help the Army Medical Depot by lettering medical supply kits bound for Europe and the South Seas. He enlisted in the military the day before his 18th birthday.
“It made sense that I’d go into the navy since my dad worked at sea,” Petersen says. “I was able to use all those fancy knots that he taught me.” In early 1945, Petersen and his shipmates boarded the USS Rooks 804 destroyer and headed for Iwo Jima. They arrived on D-Day and spent nine days in hell in the South Pacific. Petersen was a gunner, operating the cannon on the massive ship that silenced many enemy batteries. The destroyer also provided anti-submarine protection and radar warning for the Marines who eventually took the island during a bloody battle with Japan. “It was a very frightening experience for me as a young man,” Petersen says fighting back tears. The most important thing he took away from WWII is “that this is a great country. There’s no place in the world like the United States. This is really a wonderful land.”
The Rooks 804 made it to Okinawa and Petersen was transferred back to the states where he was accepted to Officer Candidate School at Princeton. In addition to the 18 hours of required cadet coursework, he took art classes on the side. After a summer session at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, he was transferred to U.C. Berkeley, where he completed his Navy training. After being discharged, he decided to continue his art education on the G.I. bill. Petersen made great use out of every government penny, soaking up knowledge and wringing out wisdom onto his own canvases.
At Berkeley, he learned style and technique from John Haley and Glenn Wessels. Chiura Obata taught him about the fundamentals of Sumi painting and the emotional value of quick brush strokes. Geometry fascinated Petersen, so much so that he even majored in math for a while. Naturally, it gave his art a Cubist slant, and when he graduated Cal with an M.A., he felt his diploma could have read Roland “Poor Picasso” Petersen. Determined to develop his own style, he hit the road in 1950, studying with Hans Hofmann and Stanley William Hayter – two of the most significant European mentors in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. During two summers at Hofmann’s art school in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Petersen learned how to achieve pictorial structure and spatial illusion through a technique called “push/pull.” The training was invaluable – perhaps the most important revelation in Petersen’s young career. “Hofmann’s approach dealt with the formal element of painting,” Petersen explains. “I liked the idea of contradictions and thought, ‘Let’s see what I can do with it from a conceptual standpoint.’” His solution was to extend Hofmann’s juxtaposition of opposing forces to include texture, atmosphere, form and color.
Regarding color, Petersen credits Hayter as his greatest influence (Picasso, Giacometti, Chagall and many others have felt the same way). While studying at his world-famous etching workshop, Atelier 17 in Paris, Petersen also became intrigued with the concept of symbolism. He paid close attention to the brilliance of one of Hayter’s students, Joan Miró. “I thought it was incredible how he would come up with these various symbols,” Petersen reflects. “He sat in front of his etching plate and literally wouldn’t move at all. Then finally, something would come to his mind and he’d work furiously; it was magic. These symbols sort of started popping up – circles would become eyes and shapes would take on anthropomorphic forms. These shapes were all connected, yet they floated in space. I thought I could incorporate something like what (Miró) was doing into my own work. I could take light and play with shadows that would bring to mind other things than what they were.”
Petersen returned to San Francisco and enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where he took photography courses from Minor White. White, who developed the Zone System along with Ansel Adams, reinforced the idea of symbolism, teaching Petersen about “equivalents” – going beyond the literal in finding meaning in an object. White was a master at finding expressive shapes in elements of nature like frost, moss and driftwood. “He would say, ‘Look at this Weston photograph. Look at the pepper,’” Petersen recounts. “I’d say, ‘It’s a pepper all right.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t you think there’s more to it than just the pepper?’ And sure enough, I could start to see a sort of figure-like form developing. So Ed Weston must have seen something beyond the pepper in this form that he was photographing. I could see that symbolism could be achieved in other ways than just abstract, non-objective forms; it could be done in realistic forms, as well. For example, a telephone could take on the meaning of an African mask and the curvaceous outline of a vase or guitar could become a female figure. I thought transforming these recognizable images into other things than what they literally represent was intriguing.”
Petersen’s style had evolved into a mix of formal, conceptual and symbolic contradiction. Then, in the middle of his artistic development, he made an interesting move, becoming a professor of art history at Washington State in Pullman. He spent four years teaching classes about ancient, Renaissance and modern art. “I was keeping two pages ahead of the students so to speak,” Petersen jokes. “But teaching gave me a much stronger foundation. I was fascinated with the Egyptians, Sumerians and Assyrians and began using some of their elements in my own work.” He was specifically interested in the stiff figuration and earthy tones common in early African and Mesopotamian art. “I felt it added the magical element of timelessness to the work I was doing. I felt it gained a stronger sense of being.” Petersen also kept his eye on the revolutionary work being done in San Francisco by his contemporaries David Park and Elmer Bischoff. “They certainly influenced my development with the figure, but I felt I could introduce my own flavor to it. Instead of the Clyfford Still approach, I thought maybe I could bring in the push/pull idea to the figurative movement. So I never felt I was part of the Bay Area Figurative group, because my concept was more into a Cézanne kind of thinking out of Hofmann.”
With creativity blowing across California campuses, Petersen made his way back to the Golden State in 1956, accepting a position at U.C. Davis. “That opened up everything,” he says. Richard Nelson, a former classmate at Berkeley, had become the chair of the art department at Davis. Nelson’s first hire was his friend and colleague Roland Petersen, who he brought aboard as a painting instructor. The university, located 70 miles northeast of San Francisco, quickly became one of the best art schools in the country under Nelson’s tutelage. He added artists like Manuel Neri to the faculty who began re-shaping the figure. Roy De Forest delved into new experiments with compositions and color, Wayne Thiebaud sweetened things up with pies, cakes and lollipops, and William Wiley’s funk-like elements added a playfulness to the teaching in the art department. One of the school’s most distinguished alums, Bruce Nauman, also contributed to the atmosphere with his Duchampian approach towards finding substantive importance in ordinary objects. “Ideas were popping off the walls,” Petersen reminisces. In the midst of all this artistic energy, Petersen’s breakthrough came at a faculty picnic.
“Picnic Day” was an annual tradition at Davis. The setting always included large, sun-shading umbrellas and a bountiful assortment of food, along with artists, scholars and their families milling about against the flat backdrop of the Sacramento Valley. There, on that day in the late 1950’s, it all clicked. “It made sense to me that the tabletop of the world was right there in front of me,” Petersen says. “I could take the tabletop, throw it into the landscape, and then I’d set my figures around it. The picnic seemed to be the best excuse to bring the still life, the figure, and the landscape together all in one. It seemed to be a natural kind of path for me to follow.”
It’s a journey he’s been on ever since. Petersen produced hundreds of prolific oil paintings in the 1960’s (his most critically acclaimed decade). Those first installments of the Picnic Series flew out of galleries in New York and Los Angeles. By 1970, severe respiratory problems forced him to switch to acrylics – a medium less conducive to vivid light and thick texture. The move may have cost him monetarily but not at all philosophically. He spent 37 years sharing his wealth of knowledge with students at U.C. Davis, and still attends as many museum shows and gallery exhibitions as he can in search of new tricks. Petersen’s investment to the formal and emotional concerns in his work has, and always will be, an evolutionary process.
The French Impressionists used the picnic motif in the late 19th century, bucking the Biblical mandate that had previously pervaded European art. While Monet and Renoir were interested in the subject matter as a leisure activity, it should come as no surprise that Petersen sees it differently. In his renditions of the picnic, wonderment and spirituality sprout abundantly from nature’s majesty. And in his final, and perhaps most important, set of conceptual contradictions, the art serves as a metaphor for the human condition – one that celebrates life, while respecting the power of its fragility. With conviction he concludes, “I’ll have a dead tree, but then adjacent to it will be one with lots of foliage. I’ll have a bouquet of flowers with lots of color, and then I’ll think of my parents and make one of the blossoms black in memory of my deceased mother, father or brother. My wife and my four children often appear as figures in my paintings, but in and amongst the living colors of my family, I’ve scattered the thoughts of good friends that have gone before us.” Petersen drops his head, respectfully pauses for a moment, then looks up and says, “Painting is the love of my life.”
Written by: Ben Bamsey
Artworks Magazine: Winter 2008