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

Natkin’s Field Mouse series, which first emerged in 1968, marked a sharp departure from the highly architectural Apollo canvases. His less formal, more improvisational Field Mouse works teem with what Natkin has called a “scatter balance” of interacting textures, patterns, and shapes. Densely enmeshed yet fluid, these spot, crosshatches, snakes, and scumblings bring to mind the whispering sounds and colors–metaphors for the words of the poet–described by Baudelaire in the nineteenth-century sonnet “Correspondances”. In the world of Natkin’s Field Mouse canvases, as in the mystical world of the artist described by Baudelaire, colors, light, and inexplicably ambiguous forms commingle and whisper among themselves:

Like long echoes which mingle far away in a dark
and unfathomable unity, vast as the night and as
the light, perfumes, colors, sounds answer one another.

The Field Mouse paintings, unlike Natkin’s serenely cool, more static straight edge and step paintings, overflow with life and movement. The artist has often cited Paul Klee as perhaps the greatest inspiration for his early Field Mouse paintings. Of particular note is Klee’s Vocal Fabric of the Singer Rosa Silberg (1922), part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. In this work, Klee juxtaposes flatter shapes and letters against textured fields of muted tones and patches of almost carelessly applied dots.

Nearly all of Natkin’s Field Mouse paintings contain some sort of dot formation. These dots are sometimes carefully crafted and boldly colored, so that, like Klee’s letters, they seem to perch defiantly at the surface of the canvas. In some works, clusters of dots overflow, like trapped bubbles, between other squiggles of fields of pigment. Most often, these dots are irregularly painted flecks and dashes, elusively scattered, muted, seemingly evaporating into the depths of the painting.

The Field Mouse series title refers to an Ezra Pound translation of a Chinese poem. Pound writes:

And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough,
And life goes by
Like a field mouse,
Running through the grass not touching.

Natkin has always been deeply moved by this poem, which he refers to as “a sweeping landscape of emotion.” His Field Mouse paintings are indeed emotional landscapes in which the trees, sky and rolling hills of traditional landscapes are replaced by interacting pattern and shapes cradled against or boldly emerging from veils of texture. And yet, whereas the Pound poem celebrates finiteness and mortality, Natkin’s canvases strive for that which is infinite. “I want” asserts Natkin, “the eye of the viewer never to tire, never to cease.” Natkin’s desire to paint “emotional landscapes” in the late 1960s stems from his growing detachment from his urban surroundings and from the distracting machinations of the New York art world. Through the “illusionary space” of the Field Mouse canvases, Natkin succeeds not only in creating a world apart but, as he puts it, by “becoming, myself, a place.” In 1970, Natkin and his wife, the painter Judith Dolnick, left New York City, moving to rural Connecticut.

- Leda Natkin Nelis