From Robert Natkin, A Retrospective: 1952-1996. Exhibition catalogue, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 1997

In 1963, the geography of Natkin’s paintings began to take on a different look. The tangent vertical structures of the Apollo series, with their semi-fixed framework, freed the artist from earlier compositional constraints. Within this simplified structure, Natkin could now concentrate further on paint application and surface rather than on broader structural concerns. Named for the Greek god of the sun and of poetry, the paintings of the Apollo series reflect Natkin’s preoccupation with light and with the interplay between light and color.

Paul Cezanne feared that his fellow artist Gauguin would steal what he referred to as his “little sensations”, the vibrations resulting from contrasting colors. It is precisely this glowing and resonance, described by Natkin as a kind of “visual Vibrato” that began to increasingly preoccupy Natkin in the mid-1960s. The vertical planes of his Apollo canvases served as pre-defined spatial strips, a set of separate yet interacting counterparts, in which the artist could safely play with hue modulation and counterpoint.

The spatial aesthetic of the Apollo paintings with their richly resonating vertical planes brings to mind the interior-exterior scenes of both Bonnard and Matisse. In these works, doorways and window-panes frame distant landscapes and intimate still life arrangements. In such works as Bonnard’s “Fenêtre Ouverte” (1943), this vivid meshing of foreground and background creates a tension that Natkin compares to optical illusion. In the canvases of his Apollo series, Natkin relies on a similar technique evoking, despite the non-representational format of his work, a bold spatial tension similar to the interior-exterior contrasts of Bonnard and Matisse.

The walls of Natkin’s studio, in the 1960s as now, were papered with a seemingly haphazard patchwork of reproductions: Matisse, Bonnard, and Vuillard postcards, details of Velazquez sleeves, Goya murals, and Vermeer canvases. Indeed, Vermeer’s mastery of the technique of paint modulation–often most visible in the depiction of a banal wall in the painting’s background, with the light’s reflection against it–have long inspired Natkin. He even recalls licking the surface of a Vermeer painting during a visit to New York’s Frick Museum in 1959. Natkin’s literal attempt to “ingest” or “imbibe” Vermeer’s Technique was futile. Deeply disappointed by the unremarkably dry taste of the canvas, Natkin realized that it was through the metaphorical “tongue of the eye” alone that he would be able to absorb Vermeer’s aesthetic mastery.

- Leda Natkin Nelis