New York Times
December 2, 2016
Ever since he made his brave, experimental paintings exalting both natural truth and pigment as pigment, J.M.W. Turner has been a hero to art lovers. A technical dynamo, he captured the atmosphere surrounding the Earth, as well as land and sea, and he stretched the experience of seeing in unprecedented ways.
Some 45 years ago, the renowned Bauhaus-trained color theorist Josef Albers told me he deemed Turner a master of hue and light intensity. When I took my job running the foundation Josef and Anni Albers created, I knew my task was to foster pioneering and imaginative vision akin to Turner’s. Connoisseurs with sharp opinions deify him. At a wedding reception at Tate Britain, the sparky television journalist Morley Safer, known for his passionate opinions about art, came up to me gleefully returning from the men’s room and said, “I mean, who ever heard of asking the way to the loo at a party and being instructed, ‘Just go through the Turner gallery.’ Incredible! There is no greater handler of paint, Nick.” I am not reporting this to name-drop. Turner is not famous like Rembrandt and Picasso, but he is the aficionado’s god.
We want to know what drove the man, how he acquired such courage and breadth. Mike Leigh’s popular 2014 biopic offered no answers. Its Turner is all bombast in historical clothing, the heavy-handed film devoid of insights into Turner’s creative spark. Could this wonderfully subtle, sensitive painter really have been such a blunderbuss?