Randal Davis     The Early Years      October 2011

"For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago."

So ends John Ashbery's "Soonest Mended," and where it ends this exhibition begins. For Bonnie Bronson (1940-1990), the "mooring of starting out" was the idiom of later Abstract Expressionism, in which she demonstrated an undeniably precocious fluency. In the earliest work of this selection, Untitled [blue, green, orange] (1961), completed as she was finishing her studies at the Museum School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art), her accomplishment in the notably Hans Hoffman-like composition is manifest, though its gentle luminosity begins to suggest a more personal approach. A series of paintings on paper from that same year (not in the exhibition) see her exploring a dramatically fluid calligraphy plainly indebted to Franz Kline.

However, just a year or so later, she was developing a pictorial language rather more aligned with some of the exemplars of the second-generation New York School. An extensive series of paintings and collages on paper, such as Untitled [turquoise] (1963) show lyrical bursts of light and shade similar to Joan Mitchell's paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as Vert Galant (1960) and Degel (1962). This is seen too in Untitled [green & cream] (1963) although, as in Untitled [cream, pink & black] (1963), Bronson also asserts what became her favored compositional device, a quadrated field in which the NW, NE, SE and SW quadrants evidence discrete structures, inviting comparison with Alfred Leslie's Four Panel Green (1957) and Quartet #1 (1958).

It is not hard to imagine an artist remaining within an idiom in which one could work with such assurance. Indeed, careers have been made on less. But that was not the case with Bronson who, as throughout her abbreviated career, was nothing if not mercurial. Following her first solo exhibition in the early months of 1964 at the now-defunct Mt. Angel College, she changed directions drastically. Her husband, Lee Kelly, had already attracted considerable attention throughout the region as an outstanding young sculptor and painter. However, he had grown disenchanted with painting qua painting and was increasingly exploring, as Bruce Guenther recently noted, "the intellectual space between painting, drawing and direct-weld sculpture." Bronson, too, found herself at something of an artistic impasse, and Guenther's characterization of Kelly could as well apply to her.

Yet, despite living and working closely together, they took directions so different as to be almost opposing. Kelly's polychrome sculptures of the time instantiated the turbulent brushwork of his painting into three dimensions; for her part, Bronson remained oriented, however loosely, to an essentially pictorial space, as she would throughout her career. Surviving works from this period, augmented by studio photographs, taken as she was preparing for her second solo exhibition in early 1966, also at Mt. Angel College, reveal a panoply of approaches - the two works in this exhibition, Untitled [blue arc construction] and Untitled [large white construction] (both 1965) are among the most overtly painterly. Beneath their gestural looseness, though, both show tight structures - the division into vertical thirds of Untitled [blue arc construction] and its internal mirroring, and the odd mirroring around the horizontal axis of Untitled [large white construction] and its creation of a quadrature poised between symmetry and asymmetry.

Where this exhibition ends, Bonnie Bronson was still a few years away from realizing her signature style in the generative potential of what she called "modulars." But it's all here, the nascent geometric rigor, a decided preference for low-key color effects and, above all, perhaps the hardest to see because it is so pervasive, a sensibility and virtuosic hand that would touch a problem only to resolve it, and move on. And this is where it began. Long before, though, another poet saw "the waves taking form as crystal / notes as facets of air / and the mind there, before them, moving." Make it new. That is starting out. A day long ago. Today.