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United States of America 1916 – 1992

The first day

1956 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Dimensions: 121.9 h x 228.6 w cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Andrew Salvesen 2010
Accession No: NGA 2010.1170
Image rights: © Jon Schueler Estate

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Jon Schueler attempts perhaps the most ambitious subject possible in The first day 1956. The title refers to the creation of the Earth as narrated in the opening words of the Bible (King James Version), Genesis 1:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth … 4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Instead of conventional Romantic depictions of the subject, which use deep black and blazing white, Schueler renders the dazzling beauty of light as it is divided into colour. The immaterial becomes material. Blues and yellows are contrasted with hues of orange, red and purple, all made with myriad small strokes from a palette knife. The technique imbues the paint with a rhythmic, nervous quality so that the colours flicker before our eyes. The first day is rich in impasto and the large canvas imparts a joyous effect.

Schueler (1916–1992) is part of the second generation of Abstract Expressionist artists. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he served in the Air Force from 1941 to 1945. Schueler then started painting, studying at the California School of Fine Arts under Clyfford Still and Richard Diebenkorn from 1947 to 1951. He encountered Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko when they were visiting professors there. Moving to New York in 1951, he met many prominent artists of the New York School at gatherings in Rothko’s studio: Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston were among them. Schueler was the first artist to have a solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1957, the year it opened. The exhibition included The first day.

Christine Dixon
Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture

in artonview, issue 66, winter 2011