One of the enduring qualities of American art history is its roster of eccentric individualists, the ones with a penchant for concocting odd theories, pursuing unfashionable themes and using peculiar materials.
Augustus Vincent Tack, an obscure East Coast painter active in the early 20th Century, was part of this odd fellowship, and it is rewarding to make his acquaintance in a generous sampler of his work at the Laguna Art Museum (through May 8), circulated by the Phillips Collection in Washington
Although his art veers at times toward sentimentality or preciousness, Tack was as much an American original as William Rimmer, Louis Eilshemius or Albert Pinkham Ryder.
The compelling aspect of Tack's paintings comes from their unusual combination of ornament, spiritual yearning, references to the natural world, and abstraction. Nurtured by the pre-World War I flowering of the decorative arts, Tack's art was also suffused with a lush, nostalgia-drenched aestheticism and a heightened sensitivity to the life of the spirit, the legacy of the European Symbolists.
Born in 1870 into a gracious, cultured New York family, Tack was educated in Jesuit schools and was attracted from childhood to art and music.
At 20, after studying at the Art Students League, he sojourned in France, where he absorbed the lessons of Impressionism as well as academic techniques that would serve him in mural-making. Through John LaFarge, a multifaceted painter who was his principal mentor, Tack became intrigued by the flat patterning of Asian art.
Although New York was the place to be to keep up one's contacts in the art world, Tack preferred to spend as much time as possible in the placid world of Deerfield, Mass.
Inspired by the countryside--and enraptured by a young painter named Violet Fuller, whom he married in 1900--Tack painted ethereal canvases indebted to Tonalism, the moody American style that favored misty hues and transitional times of day.
With delicate nuances of color barely distinguishable in an atmospheric haze, such paintings as "Winter Landscape" and "Deerfield, Spring Landscape," conjure the most sensitive imaginable response to nature.
But in "Windswept (Snow Picture, Leyden)," a painting of a snowcapped mountain from about 1900-1902, Tack introduced another key element that presaged his late work: an irregular pattern of random slivers of unpainted canvas.
During the next two decades, clouded by Violet's poor health, Tack turned to society portraiture to help pay the bills. Meanwhile, he tried to cultivate a more otherworldly, symbolic style in line with the work of such contemporaries as Arthur B. Davies and Maurice Predergast.
The results included Renaissance-influenced decorative allegorical landscapes and biblical scenes built from daubs of pure pigment, as well as various mural commissions.
In the 1920s, Tack's approach became increasingly abstract, although always based on forms in landscape. As he wrote in a 1921 essay, his sources included "white foam lying on black water . . . the rhythmic serrations of sand, or snowdrifts blown by the wind, or wind-blown clouds, or the reflections of leaves in water . . . or rain-stained walls or the foliage of thick growing crops."
A key influence in Tack's new style was his first view of the Rocky Mountains, in the summer of 1920. Later that decade, he would photograph patterns of light and shadow in Death Valley. Enlarged and transferred to canvas, the shapes made by light became his abstract, visionary tools.
In "Gethsemane" and other biblical paintings of the early '20s, Tack created massed landscape and figure groupings splintered into restless patterns of texture and color.
Using rollers and cloths, he purposely "distressed" these works to achieve the abraded surfaces of old frescoes. Operating on several levels at once--as "instant" antiques, religious icons and abstractions--these works had little in common with either academic painting of the day or the work of the avant-garde.
Tack's chief booster was Duncan Phillips, the art patron whose collection became a public gallery bearing his name in 1921. He exhibited Tack in 1926 alongside such modernists as Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe and Max Weber. A couple of years later, Phillips commissioned the artist to decorate a library, now known as the Music Room, in the gallery.
The 12 lunettes (arched canvases) decorated with gilded borders are filled with Tack's idiosyncratic synthesis of Catholic mysticism and ornamental devices. With gold, rich color and textural complexity, the artist translated the resplendent glory of the Renaissance cathedral altarpiece--and the persuasive appeal of Counter-Reformation religious imagery--into the domestic realm of the 20th Century.
The best of these works are the most abstract.