Longtime Point Reyes artist Charles Eckart will celebrate his 85th birthday with a one-man exhibition at the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, running from Feb. 1 to March 1. The title of the show, “For the Love of Paint,” speaks to Eckart’s devotion to the expressive powers of pure pigment.
Nature is central to his work. In 1946, at the end of the World War II, his mother married the general manager of Yosemite Park and Curry Company, the park’s primary concessionaire, and the 11-year-old moved to Yosemite Valley. In the next 15 years, he inhabited a visual setting known for its breathtaking vistas. He began to carry a small watercolor kit to catch the scenery, preferring hands-on skill to a camera to record what he saw and felt.
By 1951, Eckart had become seriously interested in painting “There were no programs in art offered in my grammar school or high school at the time,” he said, “so I sought close-up instruction from paintings hanging in the small Yosemite Museum, which then contained treasures by Thomas Hill, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt and Chris Jorgensen. These were my first teachers.”
Eckart studied at the University of the Pacific and the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, then worked for a stint as an award-winning art director at the prestigious advertising firm McCann Erickson. His early works—commuter drawings of his observations in the city and precise renderings of his San Francisco environment—showcased his exceptional skills, but he became bored.
Already lured by the power of the pigment itself, he surrendered to a more interactive process, resulting in a series of winged figures rising out of amorphous backgrounds of color. These figures exhibited the structure and depth created by the layering of paint in variations of colors that became the signature characteristic of his work.
Eckart became friendly with Charles Campbell, often visiting him in his North Beach Gallery, where he showed such greats as Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Nathan Oliveira, Hassell Smith, Elmer Bischoff, Christopher Brown and James Weeks. After prestigious art dealer Allan Stone included him in a New York exhibition called “New Talent,” Campbell offered him a place in the gallery, beginning a satisfying 22-year relationship.
In 1985, Eckart moved with his wife, Alice, to West Marin, where the natural surroundings echoed the visual sensations that had always inspired him. He remembers clearly looking down at an area of ground covered with grass, dirt and leaves with their drying edges curling upward.
“It was a visual epiphany,” he recalls. “An ‘aha’ moment.”
He began his series of “ground cover” paintings: works built rather than drawn with layers of paint patiently and deliberately applied. In a review at the Patricia Sweetow Gallery, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker wrote, “For all their honest materialism, Eckart’s paintings feel suffused with soul. They read as true reports of the entanglement of decisions, acts and recognitions that composes any one of us… Eckart locates, or brings into being, a focal plane where we can dwell on the pleasure of seeing paint regain the materiality it sacrifices to subject matter in most figuration.”
Eckart’s virtuosity as a painter stems from an intimate understanding and love of his material. He knows how paint behaves and is continually finding ways to push the boundaries of what he can do with it. At 85, he is still at the height of his powers, engaging viewers’ senses with rich, pure and generous applications of color—clean, dense and vibrant.
“For the Love of Paint” shows from Feb. 1 to March 1 at the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, where Donna Seager is a partner along with Suzanne Gray. Ms. Seager lives with her husband, journalist Paul Liberatore, in Novato.