Essay by Mason Riddle
WRITTEN IN 1988
THE WEST BANK APARTMENTS 1985
With the advent of such modern painters as Manet, Picasso, Gorky, Pollock and others,small-scale
easel painting seemed on the verge of extinction.In his influential 1948 essay,"The Crisis of the
Easel Picture," the formalist art critic Clement Greenberg all but declared the death of easel work,
Traditional easel painting,which according to Greenberg"cuts the illusion of a box-like cavity into the
wall behind it, and within this,as a unity, it organizes three dimensional semblances,"seemed
irrelevant. At the time of the essay's writing, the art world was dominated by monumentally-scaled,
non-representational paintings covered by an "all-over" application of paint Qualities of the surface
and edge were held paramount while notions of representation,realism and narrative were spurned.
The idea of a painting functioning as a realistic view-a window onto the world- was all but dead. By
the1960s, it seemed it would be this way for ever .
As time and taste would have it, however, a new generation of artists appeared in the late 1970s
who were concerned with ideas of representation, the rejuvenation of art historical styles, and the
intimacy of easel painting. While many have been interested in the irony inherent in appropriating
past modes for the creation of presenting meanings, others have been exploring traditional styles,for
their narrative potential and the challenge of painting the world around them. With his small scale
landscapes that capture not only the look but the spirit of the Upper Midwest region, Minneapolis
artist Don Holzschuh is an active participant in the latter category and living proof that easel painting
is not dead.
There is found in Don Holzschuh's paintings and mono types of urban scenes an immediacy and
freshness that all but equals that of his person. Lively,full of bald humor and a raucous sense of
play,Holzschuh injects a forthright sense of people and places into his animated,richly-hued scenes.
His views of northern Minnesota hayfield or a Wisconsin beaver dam are no less bracing than his
colorful almost claustrophobic visions of Minneapolis' skyline. Functioning as a visual extension of
his speech, Holzschuh's work is direct yet anecdotal,truthful yet often punctuated with wry jokes. It is
this gregarious but sensitive response to his surroundings that distinguishes his paintings from the
pack, making them much more than worn out recapitulations of the centuries-old landscape genre.
Holzschuh's paintings, whether they are of skyscrapers, ice skaters or grazing sheep, also
demonstrate his ability as a colorist vibrant reds and greens are juxtaposed with blues and yellows to
marvelous effect in to 1985 paintings,"West Bank Apartments" and "First Snow." In his more recent
1988 work, the palette is more subdued and naturalistic as evidenced in the lyrical "Springtime,Irvine
Park," "Landmark Center,St. Paul,"or even in the bustling"Construction." In these there is a
heightened use of purple,magenta,mauve and grey tones which infuse the works with a more
realistic atmospheric quality.
Holzschuh's works also function as historical documents of the Twin Cities urbanscape. The radical
changes in Minneapolis' skyline are recorded in several paintings, while others scenes are of
buildings no longer standing. In the same way his urban works capture the constantly shifting energy
of the city, his rural landscapes convey the quiet timeless quality of the country. In "Pumpkin Field"
and "Hayfield," both from 1987,there is not only a sense of the here-and-now,but also a sense of
nature's sublime eternity.
In spite of Holzschuh's facility for capturing a sense of time and place, his paintings are never filled
with sentimental flourishes or tedious detail so often the downfall of work by artists who paint their
immediate environment. If some contemporary landscapes appear to be little more than a
compilation of visual data spewed out by computer buffs more captivated by the process than the
vision, then Holzschuh's paintings seem to be the passionate result of remarkable hand-eye
coordination,the visual synapse of one who keenly sees-and feels-his environment.
For all their immediacy,Holzschuh's paintings are not the product of a formal art education. Born in
Saint Paul,Minnesota and raised in the rural townships encircling the Twin Cities, Holzschuh has
been a Minneapolis resident since 1980. In 1974 he began to "dabble" with watercolors, working
"en plein aire" as did the French Impressionists. In the same year he briefly enrolled at the
Minneapolis College of Art and Design(MCAD) to study film and video while nurturing an interest in
cartooning. After three more years of "dabbling" and working odd jobs like"driving truck," and
"running tape" at 3M, he once again enrolled at MCAD in film and design. With little encouragement
forthcoming for his ideas, Holzschuh dropped out a second time and began to study watercolors and
oils at the Minnetonka Art Center under David Swanson and Jerry Lefevre, respectively. In 1985 he
committed to a full-time career as an artist-or as much as his finances would permit.
Holzschuh's is a simple,uncomplicated response to painting. His intuitive,gestural style reflects his
desire to paint what he feels and sees before him, not what is fashionable or what others have said
constitute an acceptable landscape. He works outdoors whenever possible, convinced that the
natural light encountered imparts a rich,three-dimensional quality to his work.
Although a self-described traditionalist, Holzschuh has no personal philosophy about
painting,originality,or art history. Largely uninfluenced by any one artist, he admires a range including
Manet, Gauguin,the Impressionists, the Hudson River School, Braque, Hans Hofman and a number
of 1930s Realist painters.
Ironically, Holzschuh never mentions the 20th century artists to which his work can be most closely
compared: the Ash Can School painters, Charles Burchfield,and Edward Hopper, or even the writer
Sinclair Lewis. He also mentions Twin Cities artist Mike Lynch and Rod Massey as important
landscape painters, and Leon Hushcha as a fine colorist. "It's hard to put something I enjoy into
philosophy," Holzschuh explains."It's something that I feel in response to what I see. I can't say I'm
going to paint like Cezanne with a little Warhol thrown in-and do it." Nor is Holzschuh concerned
about his work being judged or sanctified by any stylistic or philosophical movement, historical or
contemporary. Instead, the artist believes the work should"stand up by itself-without the crutch of
history behind it."
To come face to face with a Holzschuh landscape is to breath in the cultural tenor of a place-its
topography, architecture and people. These are not factual records but intuitive interpretations of a
region in which a quality of experience is captured, not a set of details. In the 20th century scheme of
things,Holzschuh's paintings are relatively small-easel paintings in the truest sense-yet they are
compelling,almost monumental, in their openness and density of experience.
MASON RIDDLE xx