By Jake Maynard
Kathleen Holder meanders through The Art Institute of Chicago. The halls are clean and still and plainly-colored; whispers and footsteps echo from the galleries. She is young and wide-eyed, and stops to consider everything that catches her interest. It is sometime in the late 1960s and Holder is a freshman in college, studying art. She has been sketching fruit, drawing household objects. She is here with a class from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Abstract art is new to her. It is new to almost everyone, actually. The postwar abstract expressionists have only recently become famous. As Kathleen walks through the Institute, rounding a corner perhaps, she enters the aura of something that will change her unequivocally. It is a painting from Mark Rothko, a luminary figure in postwar art. An abstract field of color so vivid it appears to her as luminescent.
“In hindsight,” Holder tells me over the phone from her home in Texas, “I call it my first epiphany as an artist.” She recalls first viewing the Rothko painting forty-some years ago as a transformative experience. Rothko’s work spoke to her. She found in his paintings a use of color and shape that she would build upon and reimagine for the next four decades. “I was mesmerized by the work,” she said. “As I stood in front of that first Rothko, I was so mesmerized that I wanted to stay forever in the grace of that painting. What I felt as I stood there was the power and presence of the work expanding beyond the limits of the canvas, projecting into and enveloping the space in front of it.”
Her own work has been similarly affecting its viewers for decades. Since receiving her MFA in art and developing her innovative use of pastels, Holder has received significant critical and popular success. Part of the wide value of her art is its inclusiveness. Her pastels suggest more mood than content, featuring few (if any) discernible images. Much of her work incorporates blurred edges and vaguely geometric shapes. Some are evocative of architecture—windows, doors, arches. Some become landscapes; others suggest birth or creation. But regardless, their beauty lies in their subtle obscurity. The viewer disambiguates the form. You decide what it means. You gaze at Holder’s pastels and the images become things you know—things from your past, your present, your ideas or beliefs. They become more than what they were at first glance. It is in this way that you become part of Holder’s artistic process. Holder likes to say that she lets “the viewer close the work. They actually participate in it, rather than the work trying to dictate what the work is about.”
But before images emerge, the color takes hold of you. It shakes you. Her colors are beyond bold—shocking, at times—and every piece of art contains within itself a tremendous living energy. Some glow. Others buzz. Many of the landscapes become brighter as you look at them. But unlike the color-field painters before her, Holder develops her art by drawing with pastels. After studying with acrylics and other media, Kathleen Holder devoted herself to pastels as a graduate student. A professor and mentor told her that she must paint first; pastels, he concluded, could only be used by already-renowned artists. Kathleen shed his advice and remained steadfast in her medium, even though pastels are notoriously hard to work with. When I asked her why she chose pastel drawing, Kathleen put it like this: “I like the energy that goes into drawing. You’re touching the paper with your hands. It’s sensuous. There’s a different connection with the work.” Since finding that connection, Holder hasn’t wavered. She has been drawing with pastels exclusively for thirty-five years.
While many artists seek to completely shun critical comparisons, Kathleen Holder has developed a more nuanced view of the relationship between her art and Rothko’s. She sees herself as heir to a line of artists concerned more with color than form, a line beginning with Rembrandt, connecting to Albert Pinkham Ryder and on to Rothko and herself. “I feel a part of that historical lineage,” she said. To look through that lineage, she added, is to see the use of light and color supplant literal representation of images. With Rothko, “details are boiled away until only the essence remains.”
“I learned about the psychological and spiritual power of color from Rothko,” she says. “But it was the manner in which Rembrandt, Ryder, and Rothko used light as an emotionally powerful and compelling element in their work that (collectively) had the most profound effect on the direction my work would take.”
Holder was Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s obvious choice as an artist to feature in conjunction with their production of RED from May 15th to the 31st, when they will be exhibiting Holder’s Archival Pigment Ink Prints. The two-person play follows Mark Rothko at the height of his career, as he begins work on a series of large murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko’s relationship with his work and his philosophy of art are revealed through the artist’s conversations with his new, subversive assistant. A winner of the Tony for Best Play in 2010, RED has been produced in theatres across the world. When Cathey Crowell Sawyer, artistic director of GVT, decided to show an artist’s work during the production, she already had someone in mind—her old friend Kathleen Holder.
Sawyer and Holder have known each other for years. Their relationship began when the two women collaborated on a multi-media project. A playwright scripted a monologue based on Holder’s statements about her art work. Sawyer was asked to read the script as slides of Holder’s pastels played loop-like on a screen behind her and a troop of modern dancers sequenced movements mimicking the shapes and patterns found in each pastel. During rehearsal, Sawyer turned to view the images scrolling behind her. “I was overwhelmed with emotion and with a way of seeing abstract art that changed the way I would look at art forever,” she said. “I always hope that our work can touch people like her work touched and changed me.”
Sawyer, who now owns several of Holder’s pastels, added this about first encounter with the artist’s work: “That moment was an epiphany for me.”