John Walker: The Intelligent Hand
By Suzette McAvoy, curator and writer
The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness. —Paul Cézanne
The road to John Walker’s studio in Maine runs along the Pemaquid River, emptying into Muscongus Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Pemaquid in native Abenaki means “situated far out,” and it is one of the oldest English settlements on the Maine coast. For centuries, eels have been fished here from late winter to early summer as they return to the river from the ocean to spawn. This annual ritual is the source of several of Walker’s new works. “Everything you see in the paintings, I’ve seen,” he says. “I’m trying to tell the truth as I see it.”
Central to the compositions of Eel Running, Pemaquid, Pemaquid V, and Pemaquid VI are dramatic, swooping arcs of lines suggestive of the large mesh nets used in capturing the eels. Anchored by bold, patterned buoy shapes, the lines gather energy as they thrust upward, pushing out to the high horizon and the sea beyond. With their geometric crosshatched scaffolding, Resurrection I and Resurrection II intimate the fish ladders that aid the eels on their passage upstream. A favorite Tiepolo painting, The Descent from the Cross, 1772 (Museo del Prado), inspired the titles and compositions. Black Pond and Ripple are concerned with the patterns and movement of water as the tide comes in. Asked about the predominant use of cobalt blue, the artist simply replied, “Joy.”
“I forgot about impressionism, cubism, 20th-century art history, modernism, postmodernism – and saw only the story of his love affair, his liaison, with the visible,” wrote art critic John Berger on seeing the Cézanne exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in 2011. My visit to Walker’s studio elicited a similar response. His latest paintings lined the walls, all large-scale, heavily textured canvases awash in lush, vibrant blue. Surrounded by water on the peninsula of land where he lives and works, Walker’s paintings are a testament to his sustained engagement with the visible world, not in the literal sense, but something more primal and poetic.
In this sense, he carries forward the influence of Winslow Homer, who painted his late, consequential seascapes at his home and studio in Prouts Neck, Maine, between 1890 and his death in 1910. Like Walker, Homer spent years studying the seasonal effects of time and tides on his circumscribed patch of coast. In works such as Weatherbeaten, 1894 (Portland Museum of Art), Homer distills nature to its most elemental, pitting the solid form of rocks against the ephemeral motion of the sea. His Prouts Neck seascapes, “balanced on the knife-edge between realism and abstraction,” struck new notes in American painting.
John Marin followed Homer to Maine in the early decades of the 20th century and shared a similar commitment to place. Although he had been painting in various locales along the coast since 1914, Marin spent the last two decades of his life, from 1933 to 1953, at his home in Cape Split. The place, he said, “that lay closer to my heart than any place in the world.” Grounded in observation, Marin’s oil paintings from this period pulse with the energy of his vision in concert with the physicality of his medium. “A copied sea is not real—The artist having seen the sea—gives us his own seas which are real,” he stated. Marin’s assertion of the artist’s reality mirrors Walker’s, “I am not trying to abstract the landscape; I’m trying to make, if anything, realism.”
In the early 1980s, Walker became friendly with artist Richard Diebenkorn. They were both showing at Knoedler Gallery, and they’d go “gallery hopping” when the older artist was in town from California. Diebenkorn was working on his Ocean Park series, which he began in 1967 and continued for over twenty years. Walker had started to paint outdoors, and Diebenkorn was the first to encourage him to show his landscapes. The commonality between the artists is revealed in Walker’s account of his visit to Diebenkorn’s studio in Ocean Park. “I walked down his street and it was like walking through a Richard Diebenkorn painting. When I got to the door and rang the bell, I said to him, ‘You’re just like Courbet, you’re a realist.’ He thought that was wonderful.”
Diebenkorn painted and repainted his canvases, scraping away, reworking areas he thought too precious, leaving evidence of changes until the whole was just right. Walker works and reworks his paintings similarly, although to an even greater physical effect. His surfaces are palimpsests of earlier iterations. Textures range from sheer veils of color to thick accretions of paint and collaged canvas elements. His love affair with his medium, “colored mud,” as he expressively calls it, is palpable. “Touch is very important,” he says, “You have to listen to it. The sound of the brush on the canvas, and a lot of that sound comes through the hand, and the eye sees it, and the heart feels it—at its best.”
The subject of touch comes up often in conversations with Walker. He speaks of looking at a Cézanne, “that tap, tap, tap, of the brush, a multitude of times he touches a painting.”
Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, he says, “is the best painting in the world to me, the sublime moment and expression of tenderness, her hand touches his hand.” The communal language among the artists he admires—a widely diverse group including Cézanne, Rembrandt, Constable, Soutine, Goya, Mondrian, Malevich, and the Aboriginal painters he met while teaching in Australia, and others—“It’s not about appearance. It’s certainly about touch. It’s certainly about presentation. It’s certainly about a vision.”
Haptic communication between hand and eye is keenly present in Walker’s drawings, as evidenced in the selection in the current exhibition. “I’ve always felt the most important part of me was my hands, that’s where the intelligence was.” He has drawn continuously since childhood. His classroom teacher’s praise for his drawing of Robin Hood and his Merry Men at age seven—“I had articulated their limbs”—determined him to be an artist. Often he draws obsessively, making hundreds of drawings over days. “Drawing allows you to be extremely personal with yourself; one of its strengths is that,” he shares.
The drawings serve as “idea sheets” and help him solve problems in the paintings he is working on. “Rather than just sitting, looking at a painting, I have to try and draw it as truthfully as I see it.” His favored medium is ink on Japanese rice paper, applied with various soft and stiff brushes. The absorbency of the paper enables the ink to soak through in areas, adding a ghostly richness to the image. Viewing a stack of drawings in the studio, he remarks, “the sound of the paper, it charms me…It’s like I can hear myself breathing.”
Among Walker’s new seascapes, the still-life painting Clock and Shell is an outlier and a compendium of his concerns. It takes inspiration from Cézanne’s The Black Marble Clock, 1869-70 (Private collection), with its florid sensuous seashell and heavy marble clock, its face without hands, arranged on a linen-draped table. In contrast to the solid form in the Cézanne, Walker treats the clock as an outline transparent against the blue ground. It suggests a line from Pablo Neruda’s poem, Ode to Broken Things, “…that clock whose sound was the voice of our lives, the secret thread of our weeks.” Notable is what Walker leaves unsaid, the open edges and spaces between things, allowing for air and light to get in, for anticipation of things yet to come.
Suzette McAvoy is the former chief curator and executive director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine, where she organized the exhibition John Walker: From Seal Point in 2017.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by the artist are from a conversation with the author at his studio in Maine on February 21, 2023.
 John Berger, “Cézanne: paint it black,” The Guardian, December 12, 2011.
 Bruce Robertson, Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence, published by The Cleveland Museum of Art in cooperation with Indiana University Press, 1990, Chapter Two, p. 25.
 John Sacret Young, John Marin: The Edge of Abstraction, catalog essay, Meredith Ward Fine Art, New York, NY, 2006, p. 8.
 John Walker in conversation with Jennifer Samet, The Sheldon Art Museum, University of Nebraska, video interview, March 6, 2019.
 John Walker in conversation with Erika b Hess, I Like Your Work, podcast, October 1, 2021.
 The Brooklyn Rail, 64th Weekend Journal, Studio visit with John Walker by Bill Jensen and Margrit Lewczuk, video by Margrit Lewczuk, published November 22, 2020.