Arlene Slavin: Color, Light, and Shadows

These new works, most of which were produced over the past two years, refer consciously to paintings Ms. Slavin was making during the early 1970s
The colors and shadows of Arlene Slavin’s sculptures at Guild Hall change throughout the day. Here, the artist and her work are bathed in early-morning sunlight. Mark Segal

Arlene Slavin’s “Intersections” series, on view at Guild Hall through Oct. 13, consists of outdoor sculptures made up of interwoven, translucent, colored vinyl strips, and paintings whose bands of color make similar use of the grid and the diagonal. These new works, most of which were produced over the past two years, refer consciously to paintings Ms. Slavin was making during the early 1970s.

Her career has in some ways come full circle, and it is a full circle indeed, including public projects, murals, functional objects, laser-cut steel sculptures, prints, and paintings, and traveling a circuit from abstraction to various degrees of figuration before returning to the abstract works of the “Intersections” series. As varied as her output has been, the exploration of color and light has remained constant.

Ms. Slavin grew up in New York City and earned a B.F.A. from Cooper Union and an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute. After spending a year in Lisbon, where she taught art to American expatriates, she returned to the city and, in 1973, exhibited her gridded, high-color saturated stain paintings at the Fischbach Gallery.

“The early grid work, which was well received, came out of the geometry of Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland in those years, but I’ve always used thin paint and overlays and issues of transparency,” Ms. Slavin said during a recent conversation in Guild Hall’s Wasserstein Family Gallery. “That work was very engaging to me, very obsessive. The first grid was very big, and I kept making it smaller and smaller and more complex. Later in the 1970s, I saw the little triangles in the paintings as little flying things, like birds.”

While she continued to exhibit, teach, and lecture throughout that decade, a dramatic change in her work appeared in a 1979 show at the Alexander F. Milliken Gallery in SoHo. She covered the walls with a 10-by-90-foot mural depicting silhouetted cranes, pelicans, and flamingos in ravishing tropical colors.

Two years before that exhibition, Ms. Slavin was a visiting critic at the University of Pennsylvania. Once, when her train home was delayed, she bought a sketchbook and a book about birds and began drawing them while waiting in Philadelphia’s 30th Street station.

“Drawing birds was how I backed into figuration,” she said. “I started painting fish, too, because, like birds, they weren’t on the picture plane, they were weird, they had colors, and they interacted.” At first the birds were somewhat abstract, their silhouetted forms faintly echoing the rhomboids that had begun to float off her canvases of the late 1970s. By the middle of the following decade, the birds and fish were no longer silhouettes but recognizable creatures with detailed physical characteristics.

As the animal paintings developed, cows, snakes, turtles, and horses appeared and the landscape entered the mix, in some cases as a separate rectangle of trees and sky superimposed on an underwater scene. “By the late 1980s, I was thinking of simultaneous realities, above and below the water,” the artist explained. “I’ve mostly been interested in non-Western art — the flatness, color, and the sense that even when it’s realistic it’s an abstraction. The early geometric paintings had Persian names because I was looking at Persian miniatures. The way they used an array of colors across a piece of paper helped me place colors across the canvas.”

In 1981 Ms. Slavin painted several large murals, including one 115 feet long at the University of Colorado’s aquarium. After some were later painted over, she thought of folding screens as a way to get the mural off the wall and into the viewer’s space. She painted them on Japanese paper and on wood, and subsequently began to cut shapes out of the plywood.

“Seeing how the light came through the screens was the beginning of getting into public art,” she said. “As public art became a big thing I decided to move in that direction.” She created a number of public works from laser-cut steel, among them gates, fences, furniture, and freestanding sculptures, many of which featured animals and other forms in silhouette. She also made a series of carved glass-block mural windscreens for New Jersey Transit’s Hoboken Terminal Station, depicting scenes from that city’s past.

While earning many commissions in the metropolitan area and elsewhere, there came a point when she reached the final stage of no fewer than 10 competitions without being selected for any of them. “It was really demoralizing,” she said. “I realized I really love painting, which had been somewhat neglected, so I stopped doing those proposals and concentrated on paintings.”

Ms. Slavin began coming to the South Fork in the 1970s with her husband, Eric Bregman, an attorney. They built their house in Wainscott in 1989. She maintains a studio in the city, in part to keep abreast of the gallery scene, but Mr. Bregman, a former East Hampton Town attorney, practices in Water Mill. Their son, Ethan, is an electrical engineer who is currently building a racecar for the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans in France.

Travel abroad has been an important part of Ms. Slavin’s life. A 2001 trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia infected her, she said, with the “must see more Asia syndrome.” A year later she traveled through northern India, where “the palette was amazing.” Other trips took her to Egypt, southern India, China, Argentina, Russia, Morocco, and, several times, to Japan. “I’ve always been influenced by Japanese screens and artwork, and since we’ve been on the East End I’ve started gardening, so going to the gardens in Japan was exciting.”

She was working on the paintings in the “Intersections” series when she began thinking about outdoor sculpture. “I wanted color and light out in the garden, and not many people were making sculpture with transparency.” Figuring out how to translate her interest in color, light, and transparency into three dimensions was a complicated process. The material she settled on was industrial vinyl. “The available palette was six colors plus clear, so the first piece, which is in my garden, is just those colors. I started thinking that I’m the color lady, so this doesn’t work for me.”

She went to Guerra Paint and Pigment in Manhattan, which specializes in pigment dispersion and binders. Through experimentation, she discovered that the paint adhered better to vinyl that had first been sanded. She then had to choose paints with a high transparency. “So then I started this production line in my studio in the city, taking the clear, sanded vinyl and rolling different pigments. I keep my paints on a wall in clear jars, so it’s like looking at a palette.”

The artist’s return in 2010 to the grid was a deliberate decision. “I thought, well, 40 years later let’s see how I use that grid. The earlier ones were more segmented. The new ones have more continuous linear crossing over and trying to be spontaneous and asymmetrical. The space is vertical, but it also looks like aerial space. The newer paintings are much looser and more transparent than the ones from the 1970s.”

A third component of “Intersections” consists of three lunettes above the entry doors of Guild Hall. Colored polymer strips are held in place between sheets of clear acrylic. As with the outdoor pieces, the movement of the sun causes changes in the lunettes throughout the day, especially when viewed from inside. At night, when the foyer is illuminated, they look from outside like stained glass.

“Doing the sculptures has been an exciting adventure,” said Ms. Slavin. “It’s all about the light and how the sun’s moving and how it changes. Color, light, and shadows are the key thing, whatever the medium.”