A Painter’s Revelation In the Woods

"There was beauty, there was abstraction, there was representational, all wrapped up in one."

By Mark Segal | August 9, 2018 - 11:36am

On a winter’s night 20 years ago in Northwest Woods, Charles Yoder discovered everything he was looking for as a painter.

On a winter’s night 20 years ago in Northwest Woods, Charles Yoder discovered everything he was looking for as a painter.

In 1970, while an undergraduate at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Charles Yoder took a summer job at Castelli Graphics, which had been founded the year before by Antoinette Castelli, the wife of the influential art dealer Leo Castelli.

“I was doing prints myself, and I was the only one who knew the difference between a silkscreen and an etching,” Mr. Yoder said recently. He started at Castelli as a gofer and left, five years later, as director.

That job was the start of almost 20 years at the epicenter of the art world. While there he met such Castelli artists as Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, and, most significantly, Robert Rauschenberg.

“After I left Castelli, I went on unemployment. Then Rauschenberg called me up and said his curator was leaving and he needed somebody to replace her.” Mr. Yoder worked for the artist on and off for almost 15 years.

“All those years I was painting, but not really focused. I was having shows, but it was so much fun and it was so interesting working with Bob and just meeting these people all the time, and we traveled constantly.”

But the most important incident in his career did not take place in Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Beijing, Lhasa, Havana, or Kuala Lumpur, just a few of the stops on his travels with Rauschenberg. Instead it happened in 1997, in his backyard in East Hampton’s Northwest Woods.

“It was a winter’s night, there was a full moon, I’m out in the backyard, standing in the snow, I’ve got a glass of wine in my hand, and the shadows are dancing over the snow. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to an epiphany. Everything I was looking for was there. There was beauty, there was abstraction, there was representational, all wrapped up in one. All I had to do was paint it.”

Not that it was easy. The next day he tried to paint what he had seen, but it didn’t work. He took some nighttime photographs, but that didn’t work either. It took three months for him to come up with “Dark Woods,” the first in a series of works that has engaged him for more than 20 years.

While he started with nocturnes, he soon realized he could represent any time of day, any time of year, and any weather. Mr. Yoder works from his own photographs. He begins by lightly sketching in charcoal. He generally starts with an acrylic background because it dries quickly.

“I make it really thin, like an ink, then I switch to oil, which has a warmth to it. I’ll break the canvas into quadrants, but I don’t do fine grids. I tried that, but it turns into photorealism.” In reproduction, the paintings can be mistaken for photorealism, but up close “gestural marks create the illusion of movement through light and shade,” the painter John Bowman wrote in a review of Mr. Yoder’s works.

“A lot of the paintings have this kind of vertical rhythm that’s going on,” Mr. Yoder said. “Then there’s the change in light. Some of the paintings are pretty flat with two or three layers, but others have four or five dropping back to the background. It’s like music, there’s a pace to it, different tones, different values. I work at it a lot to get the quality of the light.”

It is that quality, which varies from almost eerily mysterious, even foreboding in a work like “Rhythm in Blues” to the bright foreground of the daytime diptych “Borderline,” which darkens and deepens in the background, that transcends realism without abandoning it.

Mr. Yoder was born in 1948 in Frankfurt, Germany, to parents who were both sergeants in the Army and whose work subsequently took the family to Nuremburg, Maryland, Italy, and various bases in the southern United States. When his father retired in 1963, the family settled in Maine, where his mother’s family lived.

He spent three years at the University of Maine at Orono. When he first arrived there he was painting representationally, inspired by Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and cartoons. He wanted to be a commercial artist. As he studied art history, his inspirations shifted to Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and then Picasso. He transferred to Pratt after three years in Orono.

“At Pratt I lasted in illustration one semester, then it was fine art illustration, and then I started printmaking and doing silkscreens and learning how to paint. It was 1969, and I was surrounded by Pop Art. Warhol was wild, and Rauschenberg grabbed me. I just loved his stuff from the very beginning.”

A series of paintings from the 1970s, influenced in part by Warhol’s serial images, featured multiple, but different, faces arrayed across the canvas. One, “Eight People Close to the Edge,” was a hazy, 6-by-10-foot Hawaiian landscape with eight faces lined up along the bottom edge.

In another series, he laid large canvases on sawhorses, mixed up paint, donned large rubber gloves, and began to push the paint around, creating abstract swirls. “I was having a hard time, because I kept wondering how I could explain those paintings, and all I could come up with was, ‘Aren’t they pretty?’ That’s enough now, but it wasn’t then. I was still in search of a style.”

Mr. Yoder first came to the East End in 1978 and rented for several summers on Three Mile Harbor. In 1984 he met Charlene Keogh, an interior designer. They were married in 1988, and three years later bought the house in the woods off Swamp Road where they live today.

They also have a loft in Tribeca, and Mr. Yoder teaches lithography and silkscreen at the School of Visual Arts. In addition, since last year he has been president of Artists’ Fellowship, a nonprofit that financially assists fine artists and their families in times of sickness, distress, or bereavement.

Mr. Yoder is receptive to the breadth of art history, with riffs on Burchfield, Matisse’s late cutouts, Duchamp, and Japanese printmakers peppering his conversation. “To this day I love the Japanese, especially Hiroshige. You can see the influence in my work — the diagonals, the lights and the darks.”

But one of the most important influences was Rauschenberg. “He was a great example for me of the mindset you need to be a working artist. You just work, work, work, and the other stuff, exhibitions and attention, you can’t really control that. You can control how much work you do.”

Charles Yoder’s “Mystified” captures the stillness and muted light of a forest on a gray day.

Charles Yoder’s “Mystified” captures the stillness and muted light of a forest on a gray day.

"Rhythm and Blues" by Charles Yoder

"Rhythm and Blues" by Charles Yoder