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

Natkin took the architectural format of his vertically-organized Apollo paintings one step further in the 1960s with the execution of his uncharacteristically formal and highly-structural straight edge and step paintings. Like the earlier Apollo canvases, these works are based upon a fixed structure of vertical strips of interwoven color and pattern. In the straight edge and step paintings, however, these tangent planes are clearly and rather rigidly delineated, with no overlap or subtle fusing among the various sections of the canvas.

The artist achieved this starker, architectonic effect through the attachment of masking tape to the works in progress prior to applying paint, this tape enabling him to carefully separate areas. The process, as Natkin has often pointed out, was slow, arduous, and far from enjoyable. Indeed, it is only in recent years that the artist has begun to appreciate the resonant beauty of the straight edge and step paintings, his prior resistance attributable not only to the sterility of the process employed, but also a result of the memories these works bring back, memories of a painful period of life with both aesthetic and financial struggles.

Natkin cites the color theories of Josef Albers as a key inspiration to these richly colorful, polymorphic works. It was in the mid-1960s that an anxious and inquisitive Natkin, about to teach a course on color at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, first read Albers’ dense and scholarly tome, The Interaction of Color. Although he rejected much of Albers’ rigid, highly pedagogical approach (including his recommendation that students explore color not through paint and brushes but with the aid of colored paper), many of the exercises recommended by the color theorist inspired Natkin. Ultimately, however, as Natkin himself asserts, he learned more from the experimentation of his students in response to Albers’ exercises than from the color theorist himself.

The straight edge and step paintings reflect Natkin’s passion for such disparate traditions as Persian miniatures, Irish illuminated manuscripts, and Japanese Noh and Kabuki costumes, with their bold color and dense overlap of form. Another important influence on Natkin was a number of Chicago architects–Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Sullivan–to whom several of his paintings are dedicated. Natkin admired these architects’ ability to transform the purest forms of essential structure–even that of a solid steel girder–into decorative elements. It is, in part, this fusion between structure and decoration that Natkin strives to attain in the straight edge and step paintings.

- Leda Natkin Nelis