Visions of Past and Present

By Jaroslaw Leshko

Professor Emeritus of Art, Smith College, Northampton, MA

Natalia Pohrebinska’s exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Zorya Art Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut, presents an artist whose work is rooted in expressionism. Her imagery is defined by a rhythmic energy of color, shape and gestural stroke resulting in work of sumptuous vitality. The content of her work reveals itself through the suggestiveness of her forms and in their interaction. The confluence of her aesthetic clarity and the poetic evocation of her markings, at once personal and universal, defines the artist.

Pohrebinska came of age as an artist during the heroic years of Abstract Expressionism. As a student at Pratt Institute (1958-1962) from which she received her B.A. and M.F.A., she came in contact with some of the movement’s major artists. George McNeil, a prominent faculty member, was a strong supporter of her work. Pohrebinska recalls especially fondly her close relationship with Philip Guston who was an important influence on her both as a mentor and friend. He was attentive to her talent and her creative growth. Already as an undergraduate, she taught classes at Pratt. Richard Lindner, an artist outside the Abstract Expressionist orbit who taught painting at Pratt and who was an accomplished violinist, referred to her “virtuoso brushstroke.” Within the larger Abstract Expressionist community, she benefited greatly from her acquaintanceship with Willem de Kooning.

In 1963, Pohrebinska declined an offer from McNeill to teach his graduate painting class, so that she could participate in a traveling cultural exchange graphic art exhibit to the Soviet Union sponsored by the U.S. State Department Information Agency. She was the first abstract expressionist artist allowed into the Soviet Union where she lectured and took part in open studio painting workshops. During the trip she met Norman Rockwell who was also part of the cultural exchange and who became an admirer of her work.

Soon after her return, Pohrebinska moved to the Catskill region of New York in 1964, where she resides to the present. In leaving the vibrant, frenetic art milieu of New York City for an area with its own strong roots in the history of American art, she had made a critical choice.

As she moved away from the art’s epicenter, she now viewed Abstract Expressionism as a liberating rather than a defining, even confining, experience:  “Abstract Expressionism is to painting what jazz is to music. Both are about the improvisation and meditation through which I better understand space, time and the relationship of things.” The movement charged her imagination and catapulted her unto a personal journey. It provided her a visual language with which to explore and communicate her innermost self:  “My mind observes as I search for my subconscious.” She now had time to probe expressionism’s many possibilities. As she looked to influences that expanded her vision and art, she evolved her own brand of expressionism. She became a more complete if less “connected” artist. She asserted in her work more strongly than ever her life-long love of nature for which she found a ringing affirmation in the undulating beauty of the Catskills. The space in her paintings became more expansive and her palette more vibrant. Landscape is the subject of a number of her small works in the exhibition. Elements of nature, while clearly recognizable impact the viewer not so much by what they represent as by their poetic transformation of nature. The artist asks us to see nature as an instrument of inspiration in the process of creating a work of art.

“Everything is subject.” These all embracing words of Eugene Delacroix, France’s greatest romantic painter, define the creative act itself. They seem especially apt in assessing Pohrebrinska’s paintings. All aspects of her work, from its theme to its execution, color choices and compositional resolution, play a role in informing the work’s vitality and meaning.

Pohrebinska transforms the images of her rich imagination into works of art with an expansive range of subjects. One of her key paintings is Popeye and Momeye, a 6’ x 6’ canvas begun in 1962 and worked on over two decades. In it, the artist playfully juxtaposes a blue-grey silhouette of Popeye contemplating what may best be described as a Hollywood siren ─ a Mae West or Marilyn ─ red lips and all. She thus references here two major tropes: the confrontation of the sexes and American popular culture.

She also uses cartoon-like imagery in Heart of 1962, a painting in the exhibition and in Train and Bombs, also done in 1962, but in these works she portrays a much darker subject as she evokes her memories of war-torn Europe in the 1940s.

For Pohrebinska, who was born in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, her heritage plays an important role in her art. The rich tradition of Ukraine’s vivid, colorful folk art has impacted many aspects of her art. Her earliest teacher was Ludmila Morozova, a Ukrainian artist who introduced the young student to color’s potential.

Pohrebinska’s heritage is central to the meaning of her seminal work, Awakening, begun in 1988 and concluded in 2004-05, the time of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The vast work, 16 feet long and made of two parts is presently in the Ukrainian Museum in New York on an extended loan. It is an ode to the land of her birth, to its past and to its future. In a poem accompanying the painting, she speaks of the “Ribbon of the past/Future of a Memory.” Indeed, the dominant form of the work is a rich ribbon of colorful, sweeping abstract shapes dominated by blue, yellow and orange that runs horizontally across the two canvases. It evokes the majestic Dnipro River that divides Kyiv and runs into the Black Sea. In another passage of the poem, she writes of the “Two shores a braid/gold and blue.” Rarely in her work has the power of her expressionism soared to such symbolic heights.

The uniqueness of Pohrebinska’s art lies in the artist’s ability to address varied realities in which she moves seamlessly between the conscious and subconscious. Her deeply charged symbols articulated with consummate expressive skills define her special vision of the world.