Harold Garde, a native New Yorker, attended the University of Wyoming following his service in the Army Air Force during World War II. Although Wyoming was off the beaten path for an aspiring young artist, the university’s faculty included three significant modern American painters, Llya Bolotowsky, George McNeil and Leon Kelly. Bolotowsky was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists who produced hardedge geometric paintings that reflected his association in New York with mentor Piet Mondrian. McNeil was an expressionist painter who exhibited with and was active among the circle of New York School artists. Kelly was a Surrealist and involved with the European Surrealists who had established a strong presence in New York during and after the War. Garde credits this extraordinary group of teachers with introducing him to three key artistic movements of the post-war period and that inspired him to become involved in the most avant-garde artistic issues of his time.
After completing his degree at the University of Wyoming, Garde returned to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia University and begin his career. New York in the 1950s was an extraordinary place to be for a young artist. With Europe in post-war recovery and a new generation of American artists capturing international attention, New York was emerging as the new center of the contemporary art world.
During this period, Abstract Expressionism was a movement that included a wide variety of artists working in New York. Although their styles and practice varied widely, many artists shared fundamental beliefs about art making. Among them was the concept that the work of art was an open-ended process of creative discovery. In painting the artist did not simply execute a preconceive composition, but would rather begin with certain gestures and actions to apply paint. This allowed both intentional and intuitive thinking to guide the work while also responding to unexpected or accidental occurrences along the way. Paintings were not finished in the conventional sense because each gesture of the artist could open possibilities for the next one. The painting was the result of an ongoing creative exploration.
Garde’s paintings of the 1950s and 60s reflect the spirit of this time. Paintings such Untitled (Non-Figurative work), 1958; Urban Autumn/Jeu, 1959; and B Secret, 1965, are made with layers upon layers of paint vigorously applied with brushes loaded with pigment. Working with a pallet of muted greys and accents of vibrant color, Garde built up rich surfaces of modulated tones. Surfaces were animated by brushwork, by pigment troweled on and scraped off with a pallet knife, and scratched through with ends of brushes. In all three paintings, a sense of the energy of the artist at work as he developed his ideas and responded to their ongoing results remains preserved on the canvas. Spontaneity and intuition play important roles in Garde’s work. Accessing on some level expressive ideas before mindfully rationalizing them was one way the artist engaged in his creative exploration and discovery. Garde was also aware of the need to balance the intuitive side of his work with a concern for the painting’s formal elements. These elements of composition and order allow his paintings to be understood by the viewer as coherent visual statements. Among the compositional motifs that Garde has used throughout his career are sweeping gestural lines that establish structural organization and lead the eye through the work. He often he uses broad black brushstrokes that act as visual scaffold to connect and support sections of the painting. This can be seen clearly in Untitled (Non-Figurative Work), 1959, Standing, 1973 and Jazz II, 2012, among others. In his early works these brushstrokes are often freely applied and embedded within layers of the painting’s surface, while in later works they can be sharper and more calligraphic, as seen in Trekk, 2011. In all of these works, the arc of the paint strokes echoes the particular reach and gestures of the artist.
Landscape is another significant theme that runs through Garde’s paintings. Dark Landscape, 1965, hints at the subject with pale yellows in the upper left that cast an evening glow above a shadowy expanse of somber colors. Ski Run, 2013 similarly offers abstract references to landscape. In these works, thin washes of purples, browns, and blues swirl across the canvas in a technique that almost has the effect of watercolor. While nothing in these painting is explicitly depicted, there is a discernable sense of sunlight and foliage. City at 8pm, 2004 includes powerful architectural forms, depicted in stark black and white as if lit by streetlights.
Garde has produced a significant body of works on paper throughout his career. In early work from the 1970s, Garde fully exploits the visual qualities of paper by freely laying down thin washes of color that remain transparent and vibrant. Other later works include his innovative “Strappos”. These are produced with a technique Garde developed to transfer thin layers of opaque acrylic paint from one surface to another. In several series of works employing the Strappo application, Garde produced small gestural compositions which were cut apart and rearranged. The result is a new composition in which the movements of the brushstrokes abruptly stop and jump across the painting, creating lively visual rhythm.
While his work has changed over time and developed in many ways, his practice remains rooted in a set of ideas that value experimentation and discovery. With an open mind and lifetime of experiences to draw from, Garde continues to approach each new canvas as an opportunity to see what will happen next.