Fred Spratt: Color and Space at the San Jose Museum of Art
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

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Fred Spratt came to the West Coast and brought a big vision with him. He taught his students to think and dream big, and impacted his teaching colleagues and San Jose State University, as well. He inspired me as a student and I later had the opportunity to exhibit some of his paintings from the seventies, when I was the Director of the Euphrat Gallery at De Anza College. He loved hanging around with artists and celebrating the arts.

With a major commitment to his own work and an ambitious professionalism, Spratt moved for a while in the seventies to Los Angeles and commuted to his teaching life in San Jose. There, he cultivated the art world of Los Angeles, and executed some major works in his studio in an old Vic Tanney gym. After retirement, he opened Frederick Spratt Contemporary Art on South First Street in San Jose, and contributed another dynamic to the struggling visual arts scene in San Jose. He gave exhibition opportunities to artists in a community where there were little or no other places for solo shows. He sold art. He brought major arts stars like Ed Moses, Milton Resnick and Robert Graham to the San Jose scene.

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San Jose art patrons and long-time friends, Rose and Norman greet Frederick Spratt at the opening of Fred Spratt; Color and Space

Even through the many years where he devoted himself to serving the art community, in his heart Fred Spratt never ceased being an artist himself. Spratt’s work from that recent tumultious period of art history, when we passed from one major epoch to another, now on display at the San Jose Museum of Art, is both a significant document of art history and an homage to a major figure of the Silicon Valley art community.

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Tony May and Holly Lane join other former colleagues and students in feteing Fred Spratt at the San Jose Museum of Art

We are nearly a decade into the 21st Century, so it seems timely to revisit the aesthetics that reigned at the end of Modernism — the fifties and sixties — and into Postmodernism, with its inclusive doctrine that continues to define the operative system of today. Modernism was on a reductivist track in the only two forms it legitimized — painting and sculpture — and then, in an about-face, Postmodernism began to embrace just about everything: new media, new styles, all media, all styles, including those that had been marginalized in the modern period and aspects of those styles that prevailed over the arts-on-the-out. So despite periodic proclamations that “painting is dead”, painting did not die, nor did the reductive approach that carried forward from Modernism.

Minimalism, as an extension of the drive to get to the essential nut of painting (and sculpture), began to capture a large part of the art scene by the seventies. It was about an austere minimum of visual elements: a delicate balance of color, light, materials (often new and industrial) and geometry. The dynamic surfaces of abstract expressionism, rich painterly gestures, impasto application of paint and traces of the artist’s hand were now excised. Like conceptual art, which was emerging in the same period, the minimalists proposed an intellectual art form where neither an emotional impetus nor response was a significant part of the artist’s intention.

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Art patron, Lynn New and Curator, Susan Hillhouse of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History share a moment at the Frederick Spratt reception.

The seeds of minimalism can be seen in Fred Spratt’s abstracted landscapes of the sixties, which are included in the San Jose Museum exhibition. Spratt arrived from Iowa to teach at San Jose State University in 1956. Curator JoAnne Northrup notes that he brought an affinity for Iowa’s broad sweeping agricultural landscapes and “cornflower blue skies”.

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TR-4, California July x, by Fred Spratt, Oil on Canvas, 1964

TR-4, California July x, painted in 1964, looks as if Spratt could have also have found inspiration in California’s Central Valley. If you drive Interstate 5 to Los Angeles, you will see the same broad flat terrain and the same sections of tilled earth, distant horizons, irrigation canals and occasional hints of snow on the distant hills. The paintings in this time frame somehow mix the sensual curves of the earth with industrial matierials and the designed contours of the automobile.

TR-4, California July x presents an earthy horizon line as an impasto application of dark brown oil paint. Above the horizon is a touch of snow on a rolling hill and dark blue that must be the night sky. In the foreground, the brown field may be the fertile California earth. And what is the shield-like shape that is imposed over these horizontal bands? What is the vertical line that dissects the center of the painting? There is a sly transition within the image from irregularities found in nature, to the precision of line and symmetry of form found in industry. Suddenly, I believe that I am looking down onto the trunk or through the windshield of a sports car.

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Spratt’s Big Red #1, 1973, commands space and dominates the gallery at the San Jose Museum of Art

In the seventies and eighties Fred Spratt’s painting became completely non-representational. Or, if we consider color to be material, it could be said that it became completely material, of and about his materials. Spratt repeatedly affirms that his work became, more than anything, “paintings about paint, painting and experience”. The works are most certainly formal. Spratt traded the artist’s canvas for panels of brushed aluminum and the bristle brush for the paint sprayer. The pristine metal panels, perfectly fabricated, were the ground on which his color gymnastics were staged. He focused on the interplay between the airbrushed color fields – sometimes intensely colored and sometimes very subtle – and the aluminum surface. For the exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, Spratt repainted entire fields where small scratches or flaws would have drawn the eye. Every color field was required to be perfect in its surface, perfect in its relationship to the color field to which it corresponded.

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Christmas Passage, by Frederick Spratt , 1973

Of the brightly colored fields, Christmas Passage, is stunning. Instead of standard Christmas red and green, Spratt juxtaposes a “red” field with lot of pink against a green field with a lot of yellow. Both fields have color gradients in them, with the lighter values appearing on the interior vertical edge, and with the outer edges containing more blue. The glossy lacquer surface and the lighter edges butting up against a central stripe of bare aluminum create the effect of an interior glow. Big Red #1 is a reddish pink field played off a bluish pink field in the same format. Both works command a large space around them.

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Spratt’s Ground Hog Day, 1976, at the San Jose Museum of Art

Ground Hog Day is a five-panel painting of grays and browns, again with color variation in each field. Blues enter the grays, gray enters the brown, gray and brown mix. Values shift to slightly lighter in one corner or slightly darker in the opposite. The intervals run cool, warm, neutral, warm, cool. In this work the impersonal surface of lacquer on metal seems to ultimately tip the scale in favor of cool, although none of the raw aluminum surface is seen.

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Andy Goldberg takes a second look at Fred Spratt’s Winter Companions, 1984

The three horizontal rectangles of Winter Companions are aluminum, black, aluminum – very chilly! On closer inspection, the viewer discovers another dynamic, as well. The central black field has four irregularly sized, vertical blacks within it. They are again alternating between warm and cool and loaded with color variants from one edge to another. More subtle and surprising, even, than Barnett Newman!

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Fred Spratt and artist, Kathryn Dunlevie enjoy a bit of gossip at the opening of Fred Spratt: Color and Space

 

Information, San Jose Museumof Art, <info@sjmusart.org>

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