Orbs are the building blocks of Barbara Takenaga’s art

  • Barbara Takenaga has said that repetition is a deliberate part of her process in creating images. She has suggested that many of her paintings are “similar to a heartbeat, rocking back and forth, the repeated mantra …” This piece is titled “Cepheld.” Courtesy Gregory Lind Gallery

  • Barbara Takenaga had been an English major in college, however, in her senior year decided to become an artist. Her work is now in permanent collections in such places as the Federal Reserve Board and the Library of Congress. Courtesy Bradley Wakoff

  • Takenaga adopted dot patterns in around 2000 and added horizon lines some 10 years later to “Two Waves.” Private collection

For The Recorder
Thursday, November 09, 2017

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands…thatyou be a true poet.” — Wassily Kandinsky, painter (1866 – 1944)

When reviewers describe Barbara Takenaga’s abstract art, the words “hypnotic,” “dazzling,” and “psychedelic” often appear. The paintings, created by the Williams College art professor, and now on view at the free campus art museum, are triumphs of imagination, as well as a disciplined obsessive-compulsiveness. Many colorfully depict, depending on your point of view, a dynamic cosmos, or perhaps a microscopic landscape created of intertwined dots. Lots of dots. These orbs, in turn, can be the building blocks of larger spheres, suggesting the limitless.

“I think that Barbara has really broken new ground in terms of the abstract features of her work,” Debra Balken said during the exhibit’s jam- packed opening night. The Rhode Island School of Design instructor curated the show of some 60 paintings highlighting the past 20 years of Takenaga’s career. Balken has also contributed text to the exhibit’s companion catalogue “Barbara Takenaga” (Prestel; 128 pgs. $35).

The artist, a native of Nebraska, is herself a charming, self-effacing woman with a ready sense of humor. Intricate and compelling as the canvases may be, she has fun with the works.

“I have a ghastly amount of images,” she quipped during a slide lecture at the 25th Annual Berlind Symposium in Virginia. She told the audience that there were several ways to speak about her work. She suggested that one of them could be biographical.

“That’s where you start off ‘When I was five …’” she said. “But now I’m old and that just takes too long.”


Railroad buffs are magnetically drawn to North Platte, Neb. — Takenaga’s birthplace — because it features, at 2,850 acres, the largest train yard in the world. There’s also a museum in the former home of western legend Buffalo Bill Cody, who chose the small city as a restful retreat from touring with his “Wild West Show.”

If you’ve never traveled through that area of the mid-west, it provides a new definition for flatness. Wags refer to it as, “the land of the constant horizon.”

“I actually had a great childhood there,” the artist said during an opening-night interview. “I loved growing up there and I thought I always wanted to stay and become a teacher.”

Much of the Japanese population in Nebraska consisted of immigrants drawn to work on the railroads in the early 1900s. During World War II, when both immigrants and native-born Japanese were interned for years at camps in California, Nebraskan Asians were treated more benignly. Nevertheless, according to a 2015 article in the “Scottsbluff Star Herald,” the radios, guns and cameras of Japanese residents were confiscated and they could travel no more than 50 miles from their homes.

Takenaga, whose father was a doctor, was born in the late 1940s, and both she and her sister apparently experienced no remaining vestiges of racism.

“It was kind of a weird time. It was after World War II,” the artist said. “So, theoretically it could have been really strange.”

She grew up in a supportive household, however, and made friends easily. Drawn to literature and poetry, she entered the University of Colorado as an English major.

In her fourth year, she undertook a sea change. She called her father and informed him that she wanted to pursue art as a major, requiring another 18 months of scholarship.

“Our art education was fairly traditional,” Takenaga said. “We worked from observation, human figures, all of that …”

She wasn’t grounded in representational art and was more intrigued with abstraction. First, as a printmaker and as a lifelong knitter, she was drawn to repetition, color and patterning.

It’s impossible to find brush strokes in her work since the canvasses are horizontal when painted, allowing the quick-drying acrylics to pool.

Some artists have said that the difference in painting with oils and working with acrylic paints was the difference between rowing and sailing. Takenaga noted that although the water-based coloring was first created for industrial and commercial uses, artists quickly discovered its efficiencies. She mentioned what a colleague, the painter Carrie Moyer had said last year. In an interview with the online journal “HYPERALLERGIC,” the Hunter College professor noted that “acrylic is part of furniture, phones, make-up, everything … (I)t’s populist and commercial.”

“It’s the paint of the 20th century,” Takenaga said.

“The violent hour”

In the companion catalogue, Balken notes that Takenaga had a frequent nightmare as a child. She dreamed of a “gigantic, immeasurable” globe that thundered through the universe on a wire, overtaking and consuming everything in its path.

Despite this haunting image of a malevolent sphere amuck in the cosmos, Balken continues, “none of this dread or anxiety finds its way into her painting.”

Earlier in her career, Takenaga would create images on hollow doors that could run 20 feet in width. Through Jan. 1, her 100-foot wide work, “Nebraska,” graces Hunter Hall at North Adams’ MASSMoCA. A complex blue/gray printed image of light orbs receding to a vanishing point is repeated 12 times across an expanse of 100 feet. The intricacy of the image could suggest a hallucinatory snowfall, a fever dream or a universe newly discovered. The artist said that she wanted to capture “the violent hour of in-between time, when the land and sky start to blur.”

In earlier works, on display here, the artist created complex mandalas, spirals and shapes reminiscent of milkweed seeds in flight. The orbs, or dots, she introduced to her paintings around the time of the millennium evolved from her noting of the concentric swirls of her dog’s fur.

In her art, Takenaga has referred to these constellations of orbs as “headscapes,” and explains that they are derived from introspection and musings.

You can muse upon these images, as well, and as Balken writes, some paintings may remind you of the intricacy of patterns in nature as in the mysteries of Fibonacci sequences. In those patterns, every proceeding number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. The sequences can be found often in the spirals of flowers.

Several years back, Takenaga also introduced the use of a horizon line within these oceans of orbs and spheres. It references her wildly un-mountainous home state.

The paintings are often sizeable. “Two Waves” measures 3 by 6 feet and suggests overwhelming labor. As to the time required, Takenaga said that “it depends on how well it goes.”

Some canvases can be completed in two months.

“Or I can sit in the studio for a year before I figure out what to do next,” she said. “There is a lot of working and waiting.”

Takenaga counts among her influences the design harmonies of early Japanese woodblock paintings and the minimalism of Hindu Tantric Art that dates to the 17th century. Within this mix, she adds Op Art and the representational and eerie landscapes of the late Charles Burchfield. He was a colleague of Edward Hopper and his work many believe prefigured Psychedelic Art. She is as impressed with the geometrical images of the late Sol LeWitt. (The latter’s intricate geometrical images can be found a few paces away from the exhibit.)

Psychedelia, that short-lived late 1960s movement, which did not gain eternal traction, was explosive in its use of color and dynamic images. Visually, it was rarely quiet and — as Balken writes, its often fiery, balloon-like shapes are not related to Takenaga’s much more disciplined and intense art.

The curator, who writes glowingly of Takenaga’s work, encouraged viewers to experience the retrospective.

“I hope their first sensation will be to see the esthetic pleasure that’s offered by these paintings,” she said. “Then, I hope, they’ll ponder them a little more deeply and look at this contention between abstraction and illusion that exists within these canvases.”

A cornucopia of art

Other new exhibits range from a collection of Medieval Art and artifacts to an assembly of “Active Ingredients: Prompts, Props, Performance” which considers the use of art objects and their use by performers.

A co-curator of the exhibit, the artist David Levine, said that he was “fascinated by how performance art settles over time into its documentation, and how the documentation ascends into iconic status.”

As a starting point, among the objects presented is a wing chair requiring an anonymous human sitter to merge with it in order to keep it upright.

Newcomers to the museum will also be intrigued by its permanent collection, ranging from paintings by Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper and Maurice Prendergast, to examples of early American portraiture and 17th century Spanish Art.

There is remarkable depth to its more than 15,000 works of art, which travel back to a few centuries B.C. in its collection of Roman and Greek artifacts.

The Barbara Takenaga exhibit continues through Jan. 28, 2018.

“Active Ingredients …” remains through Jan. 7, 2018. The Williams College Art Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed Wednesdays. Admission is free.

Parking is free on Spring Street, as well as on campus.