Cornelia Foss: A Glimpse, an Idea, and ‘Suddenly a Painting’

“Painting is what makes life worthwhile,”
Cornelia Foss was on hand to help install her retrospective at Guild Hall on Oct. 22. Jennifer Landes

When Cornelia Foss is asked whether the recent activity tied to her artwork, both in publications and exhibitions, is the result of a late career surge in output, she is dismissive.

“No sweetie,” she admonishes with a smile, “I’ve been showing every two years ever since I was 19, I think. You just weren’t aware of it. You probably weren’t even born yet.”

Fair enough. But even if she isn’t producing more paintings, she has received a great deal of attention for her work in the past few years, including a new retrospective monograph published by Skira Rizzoli this month, a 2013 book, and several recent exhibitions at Peter Marcelle Gallery and Gerald Peters Gallery.

Guild Hall is currently mounting a retrospective exhibition tied to the book. With some 30 works, it is a brief but edifying glimpse into a long career. At a point where many artists begin to slow down, paint smaller canvases, and make fewer of them, Ms. Foss is still tackling works that are six feet and more in length and/or width, and she teaches a class five days a week at the Art Students League of New York that spans almost four hours.

“Painting is what makes life worthwhile,” she said. “I have more fun doing that than practically anything else.”

A recent series has evolved from her rides home from class, which she takes through Central Park. She uses her iPhone to snap pictures as the taxicab moves through the wooded landscape. “The faster it goes, the better I like it.”

She loves the strange blurriness that results and uses the photographs as immediate and potential inspiration. While touring the Guild Hall show, she paused at a painting titled “Central Park Trees” from this year. “Here, I’m whizzing along and the sun is setting. Those are the last rays of the sun. The trees were just so luscious with fantastic foliage. I can see it rustling in the wind.”

The sketchiness or blurriness might be considered abstraction, but she said the goal has always been “to capture a certain reality. I pay attention to my imaginative mind, but mainly I’m trying to capture something.” If the blurriness didn’t exist in the photographs, it probably would not end up in the painting.

At the same time, the landscapes that she paints from settings on the South Fork seem to have a personal interpretation. But, she said, they too are her attempts to paint what she sees. “The main thing I’m trying to do is capture the beauty of the world that I’m a part of.”

She takes hundreds of photographs of places such as Wainscott Pond, but also sketches and paints on site. “Someone once said that water in a landscape should be the same color as the sky. That’s such nonsense, because what’s so wonderful about the pond is that it can be a very light gray and the sky will be a deep blue. It changes every 10 minutes.”

She came of age during the height of Abstract Expressionism. In that period and the years that followed, realist painters were often sidelined or considered outsiders. “In one way, the art world has opened up enormously in that we no longer have an idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to paint.”

She said abstraction was relevant to the early and mid-20th century. “There needed to be a tabula rasa. Some of those painters were heroic, like Jackson Pollock. Certainly, all of us were influenced by it.” While she never strayed far from naturalism, she said there were ideas from it she applied in her own practice, even if she didn’t paint that way. But now, “abstraction is irrelevant,” she said. “There has to be a reason for something. It can’t be because you think it’s pretty.”

In her own work, she might capture the dreariness of a stormy day, such as in her still life of an oyster set in an interior. The gray atmosphere can be seen in the view from the window, contrasted with the artificial light of the studio hitting the white plate and oyster. In “Garden Flowers,” there is a certain dullness to the colors that seems distilled from Fairfield Porter, a friend from her early days on the South Fork. She explained that the painting was exploring color relationships. “In small paintings, I’m often working out a problem that might be part of a larger composition.” In fact, the nearby “Summer Garden,” owned by Guild Hall, has a similar passage in it.

She had placed some flowers in a vase to paint them, but over time they wilted and she picked some more to add to the vase, mixing old and new. “I’m just painting what I see.” She said she was captivated by the deep red of some of the blooms. “If you take that out, it becomes very run-of-the-mill, but with it there, it takes on a meaning of life and death, something tragic happening.”

J.D. McClatchy, who wrote an essay for the catalog, noted a somberness that crept into her work after the death of her husband, Lukas Foss, in 2009. A rather intense portrait of him from 2006, titled “Lukas,” is also somber, perhaps due to his affliction with Parkinson’s disease. She didn’t say. Instead she pointed out several portraits of her granddaughters and of James Watson, one of the scientists who first proposed that the structure of DNA was a double helix. He invited her to paint the view from his laboratory and then his portrait. In the portraits of people she knows intimately as well as others, she captures a certain essence that she said comes from observation. “It takes focus, the ability to concentrate. It’s part of knowing how to paint.”

Even on a bright day at the beach, there is something of the vanitas tradition. Of “Foss on the Beach,” which features a blue so deep it’s almost shrill, she said, “It’s an insane intense blue, beautiful, but scary. It’s also the infinite nothing of the ocean and sky that is equivalent to pondering death.” These are not the words you expect from someone describing a summer day.

Maybe it is because much of her inspiration still comes from within. “Paintings are not just beautiful or soulful things we produce, but also problems that we solve. Sometimes the very first inkling I have for a painting might be the colors, and what I’m going to do with those colors.” A dark blue might be joined by an intense red, then with a pink or a yellow. “And I have no idea what I’m going to do with that. Is it going to be an interior? Is it going to be a portrait? But it’s in my head and won’t leave me alone.” Eventually there is a composition “where those colors coalesce, and suddenly, it’s a painting.”


Cornelia Foss’s “In the Studio,” from 1982, is the earliest painting in the show at Guild Hall. Barbara Jo Howard
Cornelia Foss’s “Oyster Shell” was painted in her studio three years before her husband died in 2009, but has the same somber tone of her recent works. Barbara Jo Howard Photos
A portrait of her husband, Lukas Foss, was painted the same year.