A tropical storm blew into Hawaii during Thanksgiving week in 1982. Raging across the tropical paradise, it reached hurricane strength, leveling thousands of buildings.
Artist Barbara Rogers was visiting the islands, planning to soak up inspiration for her magical realist paintings. But Hawaii's Hurricane Iwa not only tossed houses by the hundreds into the sea, and took some human lives; it also swept away Rogers' longtime painterly preoccupations.
For years, she had been making hyperrealist paintings of fantasy gardens. Bursting with exotic flowers, greenery and erotically charged nudes, the paintings had won her a fair amount of renown in San Francisco in the 1970s. But after seeing the devastation, Rogers could no longer conceive of nature as pristine and benign, a place of refuge.
She began to paint nature as a thing both mercurial and dangerous. Abandoning her controlled, photorealist painting technique, she embraced wild brushwork and abstracted shapes.
That dramatic change is documented in Barbara Rogers: The Imperative of Beauty, a Fifty-Year Retrospective, a sprawling show at the Tucson Museum of Art.
"Three Nudes and a Samurai Bowsman," 1972, is a typical painting from before the storm. Three handsome young nudes—one man and two women—stand in a green bower under a canopy of tropical leaves. (Rogers wittily tweaks the art historical tradition of male painters turning their gaze on nude women—the only one of her three nudes whose body is fully exposed is the man.) Seated to the right of the figures, Buddha-like, is a samurai in traditional garments.
For all its erotic charge, the picture is cool and disciplined, tightly composed. As she did with most of her paintings in those years, Rogers used an airbrush—the tool of a commercial artist—to spray her paint on the canvas. Untouched by the human hand, its surface is smooth, flat, almost mechanical.
The storm freed her. Once she experienced Hurricane Iwa, her slick airbrush work gave way to brushy expressionism; tidy compositions ceded to rebellious colors and messy shapes.
In "After the Storm," 1985, her orderly paradise has been replaced by a turbulent sea. Abstracted fragments of debris tumble through the waves, their triangular shape suggesting a tempest-tossed boat and a roof gone rogue. Even the colors break out. The cool and controlled greens of her earlier gardens metamorphose into hot yellows and tropical turquoise. Like Adam and Eve after the Fall, the humans have been expelled, never to return to Rogers' work.
Thoughtfully organized by Julie Sasse, the museum's chief curator, the retrospective travels through a half-century of changing painting styles. The shifts are surprising to anyone who knows only Rogers' serene work of the last 20 years—elegant paintings of floating seed pods and decorative spirals.
Rogers, now 75, is retired from teaching at the UA, where she was a beloved prof for almost two decades. Originally a country girl from Ohio, she trained at Ohio State, specializing in life-drawing, and picked up a bachelor's degree in art in 1959. Heading west to immerse herself in the heady art scene in San Francisco, she studied with renowned artists like Richard Diebenkorn, master of California light.
Bay Area artists were ricocheting between abstraction and figuration, and in a couple of small drawings that Rogers produced in 1962 at Berkeley, where she got her master's degree, you can feel the young artist trying to marry the abstraction of her professors with her penchant for figuration. A rudimentary human figure in an untitled ink drawing is made up of a couple of black slashes. A second ink work is pure abstraction, a nice patchy composition of black, white and gray shapes that presages the space and elements in her mature paintings.
Rogers soon turned to the figure in earnest, turning out hyperrealist works that captured the '70s zeitgeist. Painted with a pop-art, almost-hallucinogenic sensibility, these flat paintings featured glistening glass, red-painted fingernails or a foot in a pair of red stiletto heels ("Claude's Arm and Donna's Leg," 1978).
She wasn't the only young artist trying out hyperrealism in the 1970s. But many photorealists (most of them men) delighted in painting the world's shiny machines, its metal cars on slick streets, its telephone wires strung against the sky.
Rogers instead made what you might call hyperfantasy. Every leaf and flower in her imaginary gardens was meticulously rendered, but these were not places she'd run into on Telegraph Avenue. In fact, she has written that she began painting her fantasy gardens during Berkeley's tumultuous years, as an escape from the craziness of the streets. They were the idyllic gardens of her imagination, the Garden of Eden come to life in airbrushed paint.
Hurricane Iwa can't take all the credit for Rogers' mid-'80s switch to freer work. If you look at the slick "Delphic Tripod," 1984, you see a style coming to its logical conclusion. This collection of geometries—cones, spheres, triangles, cylinders—in silvery teal is the last of the airbrush works in the show. It's brilliantly composed, sharp, elegant—and cold. You can almost sense Rogers straining to set herself free.
Ever since the sea change wrought by the storm, the artist has been making a different kind of nature art. She loves to paint and draw the complicated creations of nature—odd seed pods, cactus skeletons, plant tendrils—and assemble these elements into compositions divided into densely colored background panels. She moved to Tucson in 1990, and the desert's warm golds and yellows have mostly supplanted the crisp cool greens of her coastal years.
A set of small California earth-toned works (the "Tropical Debris" series) is particularly lovely. Made in the late '80s, these mixed-media abstractions still carry a little menace, a hint of the storm in their swaths of brown and gold.
Rogers nowadays works in a host of media. She uses oil instead of acrylics, giving her paintings more time to dry, and she sometimes works in waxy encaustics, adding waxy textures to the oils. She travels the world, especially India of late, checking out plants and humans.
She's still making gardens, but they're simplified and sanctified. Meditative spaces divided into bands of color, they no longer have plants growing from the soil. Instead, they're afloat or airborne. In paintings like the beautiful "Hothouse Hybrids #2," 2001, leaves and flowers and cells and spirals drift across passages of yellow orange and light earth-green. Rogers found a way to get herself back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell advised, and this one is stardust and golden.