Students in “History of Twentieth Century Art” last fall had the option to research objects in the OSUMA collection, and I’ve been featuring highlights from their papers this spring. This week’s post is adapted from research and writing by Paxton Maddox, who chose to work on Eugene Bavinger’s 1965 painting, Spring.
Eugene Bavinger’s Spring is a mixed media painting created in 1965. The painting was a gift to the museum from Dr. and Mrs. Howard Puckett.
Bavinger created Spring using unusual materials: paint and plastic cement on canvas, in two complementary colors. The blue-green and rich alizarin crimson are not flat washes of color; they are used in a variety of values. The colors are divided with a horizon line, which runs across the middle of the painting. This line is curvilinear, and there are hints of the crimson in the green section and vice versa. There are circle of different sizes and varying heights, dashes of varying depths, and wavy lines following the horizon line. This, along with the circles and dashes creates continuity between the two sections. The piece uses a combination of a build-up of materials and relief carving to create visual interest within the painting.
Within the exhibition, “Sharing a Journey: Building the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art Collection,” the painting is displayed on its own wall in the Postal Plaza Gallery. The wall is divided vertically, with a smooth, stark white surface on one side, and a warmer white painted brick surface on the other. The division line falls just left of the middle of Bavinger’s painting. This is an unusual way to display a piece, but it seems to work well with Spring. The different textures of the wall start to become part of the actual painting.
As the viewer gets closer to the painting, some of the details of the relief carving become clearer. The painting’s composition is balanced by color and composition. Both of the colors are the same intensity and the “heavy” parts of the composition flow nicely from the lower left corner of the painting to the top right corner. Stylistically, Spring is a combination of geometric abstraction and expressionism. This painting can only be experienced fully when viewed in person. Because it is three-dimensional, it is important for the viewer to experience the shadows and the textures first hand—a photograph does not do Bavinger’s painting justice.
Eugene Bavinger was born in Sapulpa, Oklahoma in 1919. With a few exceptions (including some time in Mexico while he pursued his master’s degree), he spent the majority of his life in Oklahoma. He lived in Norman, Oklahoma for most of his adult life, and spent more than 30 years teaching painting at the University of Oklahoma. Bavinger was the department chair for five years, and the director of the university’s art museum for two. An award-winning artist, Bavinger had shows from California to New York. In 1996, Bavinger received the Citation of Commendation from Oklahoma. Bavinger died of double pneumonia in 1997 at the age of 77.
During his life, Bavinger created more than 1400 paintings. Our painting, Spring, is a great example of his need to experiment with different materials. In an article published in 1986, John Brandenburg describes the artist: “Eugene Bavinger has always stressed process over product … restlessly seeking new media and materials to express a vision of nature that transcends cultural categories.” Bavinger’s more sculptural paintings were inspired by his year long stay in Mexico. The article summarizes Brandenburg’s response to Bavinger’s work, saying that, “Words often seem inadequate to describe the highly abstract yet nature-rooted power of Bavinger’s work, but one has little doubt when viewing it of being in the presence of one of the state’s and nation’s finest artists.”
The texture and dimensionality of Spring can be compared to that in a contemporaneous painting by Louis Siegriest, of California. Siegriest was an open-air painter whose style resembled Fauvism. His paintings are mainly landscapes. To create Range Cliffs, which, like Spring, was completed in 1965, Siegriest used collage, tar, sand, and glue (read more about Siegriest’s work at SFGate). Although the color schemes are quite different, his texture and abstract natural forms relate to Spring. Both paintings are made up of two colors with varying values. On closer comparison, however, there are also striking differences between the two artists’ work. While Bavinger uses rich, deep colors to represent nature, Siegriest uses earth tones. Bavinger uses geometric shapes and lines while Siegriest uses jagged lines and edges. While Bavinger’s painting is inspired by nature, Siegriest’s painting is almost a direct representation of terrain. It is not clear whether or not Bavinger and Siegriest were aware of each other’s artwork, but it is possible—Bavinger was represented in a variety of shows around the country, including in California.
Bavinger pushed the limits with texture and the materials he used. In Spring, he used a form of geometric abstraction, but made it feel highly organic and natural. Throughout his life, Bavinger experimented with different techniques and textures. He never settled for just one process, and he made the process an integral part of his finished product. The abstraction of nature is a theme that can be found throughout Bavinger’s artwork. Spring is characteristic of this thematic interest, and also shows Bavinger’s willingness to experiment with line, texture, and abstraction.