John Opper described the 1930s as a “great gestation period” for his art. “I thought the Thirties was a very vital time for American art.… With the WPA, you got together whether it was the [Artists’] Union or the [American Artists’] Congress or whether it was a bar… and you talked about art, and you heard about important artists, and you began to live art.”(1) But Opper also remembered the thirties as a period of breakdown in the vitality of American art; “we became aware that a great deal was missing.”(2)
Academically trained like many of his contemporaries, Opper came to New York in 1934, two years after his graduation from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. As a youth, he had taken Saturday art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and later studied at the Cleveland School of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When he arrived in New York he was a well-trained painter, adept at rendering still lifes and particularly landscapes depicting the American scene. A reviewer of his 1937 exhibition at the Artists’ Gallery in New York, for example, wrote about Opper’s “colloquial flavor spontaneity and an imaginative use of color which conveys just the feeling” that the subjects—East River tugboats, old garages, and scenes around Manhattan suggested.(3)
By 1937 Opper had become familiar with modernism, though he was not yet converted to the cause. Indeed, his 1937 show was made up of the still popular regionalist paintings. Earlier, in 1935 and 1936, he studied with Hans Hofmann and began to think in terms of forces and tensions within the picture plane. He met Wilfrid Zogbaum, Giorgio Cavallon, Byron Browne, Rosalind Bengelsdorf, and George McNeil, with whom he shared a studio. He paid frequent visits to Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art. He joined the WPA easel project in 1936 and began to paint in “a kind of transformed cubist style.”(4)
For Opper, though, abstraction conflicted philosophically with a strong commitment to social reform. He belonged to the American Artists’ Congress and, when it was first formed, served as business manager of Art Front, the Artists’Union publication. He also exhibited with the American Abstract Artists, but eventually dropped out of the group. Opper said he preferred to combine creative work with social comment and was as yet unwilling to do completely abstract art. During the early 1940s, he noted, he was torn “between the needs of the society and the needs of war on one hand, and on… what I felt were the aesthetic needs of painting.”(5) Only when he resolved to separate these two did he begin systematically to pursueabstract work. Eventually, he came to believe that the only thing important to art “is that which changes the language and the substance of it.”
When war came, Opper worked for three years with a marine architectural firm making drawings for the pipe systems of PT boats. After the war, he taught at the University of Wyoming and the University of Alabama, and between 1952 and 1957, he was on the faculty at the University of North Carolina. In 1957, he began teaching at New York University, where he remained until his retirement in 1974.
Opper had two solo exhibitions during the late 1930s, but it was not until the 1940s that he began to show frequently in large museum exhibitions and receive widespread attention. For Opper, this was a time of maturity. In paintings such as Farmyard (1937), his abstraction was based on nature; Wyoming, however, represents a major conceptual step. By 1947, when it was painted, Opper was committed to the idea that “painting is concerned with painting,” an end in itself rather than a means to communicate other concerns. Early on he was allied with the “intuitive” (rather than the rationally inclined) faction within the American Abstract Artists. But Opper moved far afield stylistically from the densely painted, expressionistic works of the 1930s and 1940s. In time, he became known as an Abstract Expressionist, a painter of large canvases in which vertical bands of varying widths pulsed with color. His gesture was controlled, yet dynamic; his overlays of color luminous and tactile. In these works, and in field paintings in which clouds of color seem to float against soft grounds, he strengthened his commitment to “painting as painting” that he first developed as a Hofmann student.
1. John Opper, interview with Irving Sandler, 9 September 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
2. John Opper, interview with Irving Sandler, 9 September 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
3. J.L., “John Opper Interprets the Familiar Aspects of American Life,” Art News 36, no. 2 (9 October 1937): 17.
4. John Opper, interview with Irving Sandler, 9 September 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
5. John Opper, interview with Irving Sandler, 9 September 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,Washington, D.C.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)