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

In 1974, a Natkin exhibit at the Holburne of Menstrie Museum in Bath, England was to be accompanied by a catalogue consisting entirely of black and white plates. The decision to reproduce only in black and white, although initially the result of financial constraints, had an enormous effect on Natkin’s aesthetic growth. The artist, determined not to compromise on the quality of his catalogue reproductions, resolved to paint black and white canvases for his show.

The rich but hushed palette of the Bath paintings was not simply a result of the artist’s attempt to financial compromise. The muted, grainy surfaces of theses canvases evoke visions of the worn stone walls, archways, and facades of the buildings of Bath, whose beauty had struck the painter during several trips to the city prior to that of the museum exhibition.

Natkin, despite a lifelong love affair with color, has always been a strong proponent of the notion “black and white as color” even referring reverentially to the painter Franz Kline, known for his bold monochromatic canvases, as a “colorist.” As Natkin points out, Kline’s black and white works, despite their lack of obviously defined chroma, resonate with a full spectrum of tones and sensuous undertones of color. The seemingly limited palette of Natkin’s Bath paintings liberated the artist, allowing him to concentrate more than ever on the skin of the canvas. His Bath paintings, like Natkin’s earlier Intimate Lighting series, are spare and highly atmospheric. No longer visible are the fecund shapes, the swells and clusters of forms of the Field Mouse paintings. Unfettered by what Natkin calls “object traffic”, texture and illumination dominate the works of the Bath series.

Natkin is able to achieve this softly-textured surface through the use of sponges and rags to which he applies paint and then gently pats and presses against the canvas. The result is what Natkin has referred to as an “all-over vibrato of light”. His own highly-personal version of Seurat’s pointillism and Paul Klee’s dense positioning of modulated painted dots, visible in such works as Klee’s “Equals Infinity” (1932).

Natkin was soon to learn that, despite his earnest attempts to economize on the cost of a catalogue through the “banishing” of obvious color, these black and white canvases were, in fact, the most difficult of his work to reproduce faithfully. Although seemingly restricted to black, white, and grey, the Bath paintings are based on an expansive palette of warm as well as cool tints of these three basic colors. In addition, the artist often applied his muted tones upon “color ghosts”, canvases already covered with colored bases, subtle green, soft blues, or pale yellows.

Natkin subsequently began introducing more obvious hue into the Bath canvases; hence the emergence of the Color Bath paintings. The series continued to evolve as Natkin began to organize the diaphanous, textural surfaces of the Bath and Color Bath paintings into subtly interwoven, vertically-organized bands. The resulting canvases, with their curtain-like folds and gauzy ripples, belong to the Bath Apollo series.

- Leda Natkin Nelis