Some of the best museum shows appear in galleries. Exploring Late Turner at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries (until June 5) focuses upon one of the most extraordinary moments in the culture of the nineteenth century – that period in the late 1830s and 1840s when the English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) began to concentrate almost exclusively upon the atmospheric effects of light. Although Turner himself had no ideological interest in “abstraction,” these nearly abstract works are one of the presiding inspirations of modernism. Their fleeting effects of form and color are astonishingly free. They depend upon neither storytelling nor the conventions of realism that dominated the period. They do not depict light: They are light.
The late Turners were created well before the Impressionists – who knew the English painter’s work – began their own explorations of light. But the modern character of these pictures is not just a matter of historical priority. Although Turner was studying the actual effects of light, he was also a modern visionary who, like a Malevich, Kandinsky, Rothko, or Pollock, appeared impatient with the boundaries of ordinary seeing. In the late oils and watercolors, he seemed to seek out the inner pulse of existence. The pictures are as “all-over” and encompassing – as full of aboves, withins, and beyonds – as anything in the twentieth century. And they are wonderfully made. They do not suffer from the sort of easy, spilled-around dreaminess that is characteristic of much visionary landscape painting. Often, for example, Turner sets off the play of light with bits of impasto that grittily hold the eye. His forms are sturdy, even as they melt away.