Spring 2016, Degree Critical

Friday 05/13/2016

Rosemarie Beck. Ariel (1978).

Nostalgia for Order

by Eric Sutphin (Class of 2014)

The Tempest is about all of the things I love: a maker and his magic, his little figurations, his sense of betrayal, being remote out on an island and the fantasy world that he creates there, not being in the mainstream…”[1]

What first bound me to Rosemarie Beck (1923–2003) were her words, the rhetorical letters that she wrote throughout her life in the manner of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It was my first year as a painting student, and my professor read us these letters at the end of our class sessions as we cleaned our brushes and seasoned our palettes. Beck’s words were like incantations, conjuring forth images of mythic figures, classical bodies, and Shakespearean dramas. These critico-poetic reflections on making a life in art seemed then, as they do now, so full of meaning. Sipping a cup of coffee, as described by Beck, was a charged aesthetic experience. I recall listening to one passage in which she described how the crockery and various dishes were set out on a lunch table at Yaddo, the well-appointed table was a metaphor for good form and the pleasures of artmaking. I didn’t connect it then, but what Beck was doing in those letters is precisely what she sought in her paintings: to embody sensuous and affective experience within concrete forms, and cast them into narrative tableaux. The inevitability of my taking Rosemarie Beck as a subject occurred, as The Tempest had for her, a priori to logic.

In 1950, just as she was beginning her career as a painter, Beck worked as an assistant to the Surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann. Beck and her husband, the writer and literary critic Robert Phelps, had recently moved to Woodstock, and their neighbor, the abstract expressionist painter Bradley Walker Tomlin, had introduced Beck to Robert Motherwell who shared a studio with Seligmann. Beck had not studied painting formally, so Seligmann and Motherwell gave her something like a year-long crash course on Modern art. Motherwell critiqued her early canvases, and introduced her to the major figures of the New York School; Seligmann taught her the technical aspects painting. Two years prior, in 1948, Seligmannn had published The Mirror of Magic[2], an illustrated encyclopedia of esoteric, hermetic and gnostic traditions. The seeds of Beck’s own interest in esoteric imagery were planted during this time, as evinced in her collages and paintings from that period. Although in later years Beck admitted that she didn’t like Seligmann’s work,[3] one can see his influence in her mature, complex multiple figure compositions. By 1952, she was represented by Peridot Gallery alongside Louise Bourgeois and Philip Guston. In 1954, Beck first read W.H Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, a book-length poem that is also a critical commentary on The Tempest. Auden’s work prompted her to write in her journal on several occasions “don’t forget The Tempest…!” Through verse and prose, Auden reflects upon the characters in the play and their relationships to one another—he also uses the occasion to write about the nature of artmaking. A line such as “the relationship between the magician and the familiar, whose duty it is to sustain your infinite conceptual appetite with your concrete experiences” would have appealed to Beck’s burgeoning interest in bringing “the familiar” (ie: objects, people) into her work in order to sate her “conceptual appetite.” At this time, she had become interested in astrology, and began to incorporate astrological and zodiac references into her work. Beck’s figurative turn was marked by the House of Venus series (1954–57) for which she painted large, invented still lifes. Her husband observed that astrology had become “more than an obsession,” and in a journal entry from April 1956, Phelps described his wife as sitting at the table “pouring over her books like a medieval witch.”[4] In Self Portrait (1958) Beck emerges from an abstract field as a stoic, sorceress-like figure, befitting of a woman who signed letters to her friend, the novelist Bernard Malamud (whom she had recently met at Yaddo) as “La Strega.”[5] In this canvas, Beck deploys a compositional fluidity in which the elements are free to move in and out of focus, a feature that, like the lozenge-shaped strokes of paint that had evolved out of Guston’s influence, became her hallmark. The artist depicted herself wearing a white tunic-like dress that looks as if it’s carved out of the crystalline field behind her. The ambiguity between figure and space in this work amplifies her presence: the solidity with which Beck builds the form gives this three-quarter length portrait an almost mythic dimension, like an Etruscan totem-figure.

Beck Rosemarie 1966
Rosemarie Beck in her studio, 1966.

In 1975, after working from various religious and literary themes throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Beck finally turned to The Tempest as a subject. In an interview from 1978, she said: “literature is important analogically—I’m moved by beautiful making and by structure. For me, [The Tempest] is about power and the misuse of power…”[6] In essence, The Tempest is a play about artifice and the manipulations of representation, as evidenced through Prosepro’s numinous enchantments, his power. Beck saw Prospero’s power as a metaphor for Art and, I speculate, abstraction in particular; she felt that his renunciation of this power in order to come out of exile was analogous to her own trajectory as an artist: she turned to narrative because non-objective painting had become increasingly constrictive. As she described in the same interview, “I’m living this sort of metaphor.” Fiercely dedicated yet aware of her own limitations as a painter, Beck yearned for the same “valedictory and autobiographical”[7] qualities that Shakespeare had invested in Prosepero. Together, the main actors in Shakespeare’s play, Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel, embody the “irreconcilables” that were central to Beck’s own art. In relation to Beck’s autobiography, Caliban represents the stuff of painting, its “clotted materiality,” while Ariel represents balance and classicism, an aesthetic ideal to which Beck aspired. As Arthur Kirsch notes that in his introduction to Auden’s work: “Caliban is in constant counterpoint with Ariel—they cannot exist without one another.”[8] Within the complex social climate of the play, Prospero is the artist who mediates material and concept. Throughout the play, he shifts from benevolent to tyrannical—he is both a loving father to Miranda, and the manipulative captor of Caliban and Ariel. The social relations in tandem with the opposing forces of magic and realism made the play a particularly enticing subject for Beck as she sought to bring seemingly contradictory elements—irreconcilables—together. Beck addressed the situation head on when she wrote: “painting must have space in it as well as remain flat—the space of real things—else there’s no magic.”[9] In this light, the conflicted yet intertwined relationship between Caliban and Ariel can be seen as a parallel to Beck’s desire to marry the abstract, rhythmic surfaces found in the work she was producing in the early 1950s together with representation. Despite her interest in narrative, Beck always considered herself to be an abstract painter and representation was simply the means by which her “abstract rhythms” could be set in motion.

Now all things are so fraught with meaning. I use subject because I cannot get “into the act” without it. I wish I could be happy painting still lifes but I’m not. If there isn’t something in the landscape, that is, something that could be in the landscape, that is, if the ship could be wrecked on that shore, or Ariel appear on that rock, I would be a little troubled by that empty landscape. I have trouble if it isn’t inhabited by something we call Subject.[10]

Beck sought to bring the “molten and anarchic”[11] energies of abstract expressionism into relation with the order and structure of Renaissance and Baroque masterworks.

Along with magic, music figures in the play, as characters spontaneously break into song, an aspect of the play that appealed to Beck’s sensibility. “It’s the beat of the language that excites me,” she wrote, “The liberties [Shakespeare] takes. These songs are sung for no reason except that they fit the mood.”[12] The lyrical interludes that punctuate the action of the play are like the frivolous aspects of painting that so excited Beck: decorations, flourishes and patterns, and visual crescendos. So long as they “fit the mood,” as Shakespeare’s songs did, they could be incorporated into representation to enliven it. The Tempest, wrote Beck, “has its own logic and beauty and structure, it’s very cinematic too.”[13] The Tempest, Safely in Harbor, Act I, Scene II (1979) is an example of the ways in which Beck brought the rhythmic surface of her abstract canvases into relation with the “cinematic” action in The Tempest. In this painting, a single androgynous figure looks young but weary as it steps over a large rock in the foreground. The scene is set against the backdrop of a rocky coastline and in the background, the sail of a schooner billows, lifted to the right by the wind. The sky and the landscape are chopped into a swirling mosaic of pastille-like daubs of ochre, royal blue, sap green and orange. The figure itself is composed from the same colors as the sea and landscape, though articulated by bright patches of light on the arm, leg and torso. The figure holds a staff and leans in to the wind as he/she trudges forth along the shore.

Rosemarie Beck. Study (1977).

Rosemarie Beck crafted a hermetic[14] world through her art, and her deployment of The Tempest is, like Auden’s The Sea and Mirror, a commentary on the Bard’s last work. Like the opposition between Ariel and Caliban—man and spirit, nature and civilization, material and concept—these polarities amounted to what Beck described as the “anguish of paradox.” In Caliban and Miranda (1978), Beck brings these tensions to the fore. The painting’s source is the scene in which Caliban intrudes upon Miranda, Prospero’s virginal daughter. Here, Beck created a kind of open-air stage or pavilion, a setting that is neither interior nor exterior. To the left is the rapacious Caliban who lunges his nude, yellow-tinted body forward as the young Miranda, wrapped in a white tunic, recoils. In the negative space created by their two bodies, we see Prospero in a red cloak with his hands in the air. Through his magic, Prospero controls Caliban, and prevents his assault on Miranda. Prospero is bathed in the clear, bright light of the landscape. Flesh, architecture, sky and cloth are treated equally: Beck’s staccato marks build the image so that all of the forms appear to move in and through one another. Beck’s touch and the rhythm of her mark making is analogous to both the tempo of Shakespeare’s lines as well as the reverberations felt throughout the landscape as Prospero’s enchantments pulsate through it. Later in the play, as Prospero finally renounces his “art” and its illusion, he is brought back down to the realm of humanity, and finally concedes that the elaborate scenes and tableaux which he had created were made from a “baseless fabric” and have “melted in to thin air.”[15]

Rosemarie Beck is an “old-fashioned painter”[16] whose ethics were formed out of the isolated, maddening ferment of the New York School, but as the movement dissolved she reached back into the panoply of Western painting and literature to shore herself up as she moved into unfamiliar territory. The challenge of her work is that in order to get to Rosemarie, one first has to get through Titian, Rubens, Corot, Cezanne and Bonnard…and then Sophocles, Shakespeare, Woolf, Auden and Colette. The demands that Beck places upon her viewer serve as an invitation to experience, in a very direct way, the fullness and gravity she herself experienced through her encounters with great painting and literature. At its best, Beck’s work is thorny, sensual and arresting—you are grabbed first by the scene playing out before you. Once you think you have a grasp of the subject, the imagery dissolves into a field of discrete spots of paint that are built up and move across the canvas; bodies break apart into patches of clear color that reintegrate and fall back into pictorial logic. Beck wanted her painting to be instructive; her paintings prompt one to pick up Shakespeare and read The Tempest or to visit a museum to reconsider Titian or Guston. “The Tempest” series is perhaps Beck’s most autobiographical body of work: it reveals as much about the figure of Beck as it does about the vocation of painting.



1.  Rosemarie Beck, interview with Kim Levin, audio recording, October 1978.

2.  Kurt Seligmann, The Mirror of Magic: A History of Magic in the Western World, (New York: Pantheon, 1948.)

3.  Rosemarie Beck, unpublished journal, November 25, 1954, p. 90.

4.   Robert Phelps, unpublished journal, April 18, 1956, p. 261.

5.   La Strega translates to “the witch” or “the sorceress,” in Italian.

6.   Rosemarie Beck, “A Conversation With Rosemarie Beck,” interview with Kim Levin, ed. Richard Martin, Arts, Vol.53, No.6 (February 1979):105-107.

7.  Stephen Orgel, The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tempest, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 10.

8.  W.H Auden, ed. Arthur Kirsch, The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003), xiii.

9.   Rosemarie Beck, unpublished journal, June 23, 1957, p. 19.

10. Rosemarie Beck, interview with Kim Levin, audio recording, October 1978

11. Joel Salzberg, “The Rhythms of Friendship in the Life of Art: The Correspondence of Bernard Malamud and Rosemarie Beck,” Salmagundi, no. 116/17 (Fall/Winter 1997): 61-124. In this entry, Beck wrote; “I adhere in my art to feelings that are still molten, anarchic, unformalized.”

12. Rosemarie Beck, interview with Kim Levin, audio recording, October 1978

13. ibid.

14. Rosemarie Beck, “Text of an Informal Talk,” (Lecture, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, May 1960). Beck wrote: “Remember: a studio is, after all, a self-styled, lonely, hermetic place separated from the real world, from real people, and often, from real objects as well—there exists a species of sadness or nostalgia which is as pervasive as it is un-get-at-able.”

15. Doria A. P. Hughes, “Rosemarie Beck,” catalogue essay for Rosemarie Beck: Thirty Years of Embroideries at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York, NY, September 21-October 30, 2004, 9.

16. Rosemarie Beck, interview with Kim Levin, audio recording, October 1978. Beck said: “I used to apologize that I was the last anachroniste, but I don’t anymore. I’m still an old-fashioned painter; my reality is paint.”