How women and the Sound of Sleat were the inspirations for Jon Schueler's life and work

Abstract Expressionism in the Hebrides


As an American Abstract Expressionist and early protégé of Castelli, Jon Schueler (1916-92) lived and worked among America’s best: Rothko, Frankenthaler, Pollock, De Kooning, Still and Johns. Yet it was not America that fired his soul. Scottish Hebridean skies were central to his inspiration.

Schueler’s first-hand accounts of New York’s 1960s Bohemian art scene—the gossip, prices, rivalries, divorces and affairs; its jazz and literature—are fascinating, but the book’s unique aspect is the honest self-portrait of a man “slugging only at the devils in myself”, as he sets about “rending veil after veil of self-deception”. For this compelling autobiography tackles the eternal artistic conflict: how to balance creative solitude with the equally powerful need for human intimacy.

Part memoir (wartime experiences with bomber command scarred him), part philosophical discourse, part self-indulgent confessional self-portrait (“I am a bad father, a bad stepfather, bad husband, indifferent friend and disloyal lover. Only one thing: I am a good painter”), the book can also be viewed as along love letter.

For thirty years he struggled to commit to paper his inner obsessions, in all their self-conscious, ruminative, darkly humorous and poignant detail, with women and art. Happily he came to painting after studying literature, so the book is beautifully written: pacy, racy, sexy too.

Schueler adored women and married so many times I lost track. Coupled with his mistresses and one-night stands, it comes to a lot of loving. “I love women; to look at them, feel them, touch them. Girls I’ve taken to bed. Girls in my studio. Always new, exciting, I like to see old bodies, young bodies. Tiny breasts, huge breasts. Everything. It’s like the sea and sky.” And sea and sky are at the heart of Schueler’s work.

He discovered Mallaig in 1937, returning to live there from 1970-75 and every summer afterwards. For Schueler, the view across the Sound of Sleat to Skye was his dream place. “I chose northern Scotland as my cathedral. Mallaig was the story of my life.”

He began as a navigator. “There in combat the sky held all things; life, death, fear and joy and love. It was storm, enemy, friend. It was the memory of a beautiful woman.”

Later the Woman in the Sky became an indispensable, underlying presence in his paintings, but initially Schueler was just “looking for a northern look; a rugged landscape—a peninsula or island in the distance to watch the sky move across.” He explains, “The abstraction of sea, sky and Sleat—I was possessed by it, wanted to walk into it, to disappear into it. I kept marvelling at the light and colour. Something struck me personally. Soon I realised I was seeing in the clouds all the violets and ultramarine reds I’d been putting into my paintings! Then I wanted to push through figuration into abstraction. My ‘avant-garde’ was to paint not nature, but about nature. I had to live inside my paintings.”

Back in his New York loft, abstracted skies remained key. His book is a paean to their fierce beauty, “forever changing, unpredictable, passionate, destructive, opaque, rain shafts or mist obliterating horizons. Lands forming seas disappearing, world fragmenting, colours giving birth to burning shapes, mountain snows showing emerald green when gales clear.”

Schueler also illuminates the reality of an artist’s daily grind of finding a studio, a dealer, enough to pay the bills. Letters from Castelli expose the dealer’s wiles. “My secretary put down $600 instead of $750. I didn’t notice the mistake.” As Pop Art superseded abstraction Schueler’s career dipped. Returning to New York he was out of fashion.

Now with two 1999 New York shows, an ongoing American exhibition tour and a British tour soon, his reputation as a lyrical painter is steadily growing. The book’s dozen colour illustrations give useful glimpses of his work.

This vivid autobiography could well be on of the best things ever written on the innermost workings of a painter’s mind and eye.

Jon Schueler with Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau (eds), The Sound of Sleat (St Martin’s Press, New York, 1999), 359 pp, £20 (hb) ISBN 0312200153

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Abstract Expressionism in the Hebrides'