essay from new york

an impending presence

by william zimmer

On the wall of Ron Clark’s studio is, among other pictures of artists, a photograph of Mark Rothko. Clark has never limited himself to one mentor; he has a wide range of them, some surprising. But Rothko speaks strongly to Clark’s current concerns.

If they must be categorized, Clark is now painting works that fall somewhere between Color Field Painting and Abstract Expressionism. He got to this point by recapitulating the history of Modernism. His immediately preceding paintings evince that he was motivated by Cubism and Futurism, even Malevich’s Suprematism. Mondrian’s embrace of so-called primitive cultures affected him as well.

Historically, these manifestations were bound up with dynamism, with the influence of speed and technology. Consequently, Clark’s ‘early Modernism’ paintings have forms with sharp edges, conveying the decisiveness and confidence that the machine and technological progress embody.

Yet Clark has always imbued his paintings with mystery and vitality. Typically his forms and trajectories seem to advance from a dark field, as if they are inevitable and inexorable. Now, the mystery seems to be natural; dark areas suggest shadows, twilight and infinity. But his most notable development has all the characteristics of a quantum leap in the visual approach. He has given up form, edge and boundary. There is now nothing to grab on to; the viewer is left to experience an unbounded field.

Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko, Newman and others long ago conditioned us to the idea of a painting as a field which could stand for infinite space and thus the cosmos or other nameless aspects of the sublime. Clark is here now, with incredibly rich and moody paintings of remarkable texture and luminosity. Whereas other of his works sharply prodded the viewer to take their measure, these new paintings seduce and envelop. They work through nuance.

Clark, however, does not attempt to evoke the 50’s or 60’s. Attitudes like spontaneity and accident are foreign to him. After his compositions are conceived, they are then refined on a computer. The final image, characterized by the rich and rare sense of color that is Clark’s most constant and durable painterly asset, is reproduced with near absolute fidelity on canvas.

One of Clark’s favorite words seems to be ‘sensuous.’ He has remarked that the best new architecture responds to the needs of human beings, and that a building can be thought of as analogous to the human body. His newest paintings are sensuous through and through; they might be thought of as the Romantic Sublime which was missing from his preceding work. Further, Clark has entered into the area of ‘beauty,’ a difficult concept for modern viewers. The fact of their ‘drop dead beauty’ lends to these paintings a bracing tension.

Ron Clark is omnivorous. Another photograph on his wall is of a friend and fellow Oklahoman Harold Stevenson, a Surrealist painter in Europe’s avant garde who became an iconoclast of the glamorous and hedonistic 60’s New York art scene after showing in Sidney Janis’ legendary group exhibition, The New Realists. Clark was a child when he first encountered Stevenson making a painting the size of a wall. He thus learned straight off about ambitiousness; it fits his definition of an artist and, along with an inquiring mind and natural gifts, forms the core of the art he makes and the life he leads today.


WILLIAM ZIMMER (1946-2007) was a regular contributing art critic and reviewer for The New York Times, Art News magazine and The Soho News. A respected lecturer, art journalist, and former professor of art at Parsons School of Design in New York, he achieved international fame through his catalog essays, which have been published by prominent art museums and galleries around the world featuring noted artists such as Donald Sultan, Brice Marden and Catherine Lee among many others. Mr. Zimmer was the first critic to review the works of several renowned artists such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Keith Haring, and his recognition, promotion and generosity displayed toward many of the art world’s most deserving and talented emerging artists was legendary. The William Zimmer Prize in Art Criticism has been established in New York in his honor and will be awarded annually to promote art, artists and art criticism, as well as to memorialize his life and achievements.